Food & Drink

Wine Symposium brings crowds, expense accounts to downtown mix

Hoards of visitors crowd the exhibit hall during the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium at the Sacramento Convention Center in Sacramento on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.
Hoards of visitors crowd the exhibit hall during the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium at the Sacramento Convention Center in Sacramento on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. rbenton@sacbee.com

If you ambled into your favorite downtown restaurant Wednesday for lunch, you probably walked away moments later with your tail tucked between your legs, suddenly aware that 14,000-plus wine industry folks were all at lunch simultaneously.

Restaurants large and small were packed on P Street, jammed on J and crowded on K like no other day on the calendar.

All because of the 22nd annual Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, an event that attracts delegates with lanyards on their necks and expense accounts at the ready.

At upscale and elegant Ella Dining Room and Bar on K Street, every sommelier in the Selland Family Restaurants group was on the floor, and every employee they could find was serving, pouring, cooking, cleaning, greeting and grinning from open to close.

“This is the busiest lunch of the year for us at Ella,” said Josh Nelson, partner and chief financial officer at Selland Family Restaurants, which also owns the $175-per-person The Kitchen and the casual Selland’s Market-Cafe in East Sacramento and El Dorado Hills.

“It’s like you bring every single person into the building who works for you and you can barely keep up.”

Joseph Vaccaro, the restaurant group’s wine director, was one of those staffers, an executive back to his roots in service.

“This is what we wait for. This is great stuff,” he said between the lunch and dinner rushes. “These are our people. They love food and wine. The energy in the room was great. Everybody is looking deep into the (wine) list. Rhone varietals are historically very tough for us to sell in this town, and they fly off the shelves during this convention.”

Yes, it’s an exciting, bustling and, at meal times, overwhelming ordeal to have this major wine industry event in town. It’s also lucrative well beyond fine dining restaurants.

The Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates Unified has an economic impact of at least $3.2 million for the three days of the symposium, most of which is held at the Sacramento Convention Center and includes a host of seminars and breakout sessions on winemaking, water management, marketing and related topics, along with a main hall featuring hundreds of wine industry vendors.

That adds up to millions more in indirect sales for local wine industry-related businesses.

“When I attended for the first time two years ago, I was really shocked at everything that was involved,” said Sacramento independent wine broker Jonathan Klonecke, who once worked as wine director at the now-defunct L Wine Lounge in midtown. “I’ve known a lot of wineries that have attended and placed orders immediately after the event, whether it’s for bottling lines, labels, corks, barrels or packaging equipment.”

In his current role as broker, Klonecke says, “I’ve had ‘somms’ calling me and making sure their lists were up to date and that they had some interesting bottles.”

At Grange, the fine dining restaurant at The Citizen Hotel on J Street, it was nonstop all day. And wine industry folks, it goes without saying, are not shy about drinking wine – and plenty of it – at lunch hour.

“We see a lot of esoteric varietals move vs. the typical pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet (sauvignon),” said Grange general manager Nick Duren. “It’s definitely a bit more on the higher end.”

“We’ve got a lot of people who are quite wealthy and some people are on expense accounts,” said executive chef Oliver Ridgeway. “They’re here to dine and they’re here to talk about the industry. They are definitely indulging.”

All of which puts more pressure on Mike Testa, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, to bring thousands more people – and fill 3,200-plus hotel rooms – on a regular basis.

“You do look to replicate it and you look across the country at what other possibilities are out there,” Testa said.

He noted that the inaugural California Craft Beer Summit in September “could become what this event is but with beer.” The Summit recently announced it would return for a second year and began selling tickets last week.

After two decades, that kind of thing is practically automatic with Unified.

“We get a lot of repeat guests,” said Ridgeway moments after the lunch rush subsided. “We get people who leave one day and make their reservation for next year on the same day.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

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