Saturday, February 09, 2008

Richard Leahy Speaks About Wineries Unlimited 2008 March 4-7

Wineries Unlimited 2008
Location: Valley Forge Convention Center, King of Prussia, PA
Conference Dates: March 4-7, 2008
Trade Show Dates: March 5-6, 2008

Every year at this time Dominique and I make preparations for our annual trip to Valley Forge. Not for historical reasons mind you. We go for the wine show. We are not old timers. In fact we are relative novices. This will be our fourth show. Many people of more stature have been coming much longer.

To quote the website, “What is Wineries Unlimited? It's the largest trade show and conference of its type east of the Rocky Mountains. This unique event brings together members of the eastern market to meet, network, educate, shop, and join in a good time with old friends and new acquaintances…” in the wine business.

The first time I went, I went as a spectator. The second time Dominique and I went as hopeful winery owners. And now here we are, fresh from our rookie season, a cup of coffee (to borrow a baseball metaphor), as winery owners, and visiting once again. Simply put, it was the single most important event I ever attended during the course of setting up my winery with my wife. Not only have we found the trade show an incredible source of tools and product, but the seminars are invaluable. From website management to winemaking, from book keeping to winery planning. We look forward each year to renewing our friendships and sharing information with colleagues.

It was at this show that we met our label maker, ribbon maker, bottle supplier, stainless steel fermenters, pumps, hoses, etc. I also met for the first time many of the winery owners and winemakers I had reviewed or been introduced to. Now, here we were, certainly not equals (they were far ahead of me), but certainly on the same stage. Wineries Unlimited as to the east coast wineries as the winter meetings are to Major League Baseball (sorry for all the sports analogies).

I was lucky enough to come into contact with Richard Leahy, the organizer of Wineries Unlimited. I have written about him previously. He is a tireless promoter of east coast wine. He was incredibly gracious enough to grant the answering of a good many questions. I could have asked him ten times more.

“Wineries Unlimited first started in 1976; this is the 32nd year. I've been coordinating the seminar program at WU since 1997; this is my twelfth year,” Richard said. “I first attended WU in 1994 when it was in Philadelphia. The most memorable thing about it was this blizzard that struck; I couldn't get into the hotel and had to stay elsewhere, and had to shovel 3 feet of snow off my car. There weren't very many attendees as a result.”

But things have progressed remarkably since then Leahy explains. “The show has really grown, both in attendance and exhibitors. In 1997 we had sixty exhibitors. Last year we had 231, with 330 booths; this year we're at 228 but more are still coming in so we expect to sell out at 231, so that's 3.85 times as many as we had in 1997. Aside from growth, we've really built up the seminar program, both in numbers and types of seminars, and in the variety of content. We try to have different levels of seminars that appeal to all levels of experience. Hence, the newcomer sessions on the first day are for people just starting out or in the planning stages, while the two days of the regular program are for established businesses, and the Friday workshop focuses on a specific topic, usually of a technical nature.

“We've also made an effort to feature more of the professional enology and viticulture extension and research staff from around the East. We're now working with the American Society of Enology and Viticulture, Eastern Section, who provides four star focus speakers to speak on timely research topics, and also they provide session moderators for the main program. We feel this raises the level of professionalism of the show.”

“If you want to learn about the Eastern/Midwestern production wine industry, especially if you want to learn how to be financially successful in some aspect of it, there's no better place than Wineries Unlimited. Aside from it being the largest trade show for the industry east of the Rockies, the seminar program is specifically focused on Eastern/Midwestern issues, from viticulture to winemaking to marketing.

I asked him in what ways have WU grown over the years that he didn't expect? “Especially after 2000, there was this wave of growth driven by retirees or wine lovers who had made enough money in their regular careers to invest in a vineyard or winery as a retirement hobby or second career. Also, now we have a lot of attendees from the South and the Midwest, whereas previously they'd almost all been from adjacent states and a few from Virginia,” he said.

When asked what the most noticeable change in Wineries Unlimited in the last 5-7 years was, he replied, “The first one is the growth rate. We've been looking since 2001 or so to find a more suitable venue for the show, since the old one in Lancaster was bursting at the seams and the trade show was split in two locations. It took a long time to find a venue with everything a show of our size requires but we're very pleased with the Valley Forge Convention Center. Also, while we still have a core of attendees who have been loyally attending for decades, most of the attendees have been at the show five years or less.”

Many of the events are well attended. I asked which was the most popular. “First, it would be the lunch with wine in the exhibit hall on Thursday. It's a great icebreaker for exhibitors to have a bottle of wine at their booth, and attendees can browse the exhibits while casually grazing. Aside from that, for the social events, I'd say our Best of the East tasting, followed by a plated dinner, live auction, and dancing, is a real hit.”

Attendees come from everywhere. “That has changed over the years. It used to be one of the Eastern industry original founders, who started a winery in the mid-'70s, and from an adjacent state. Now, it's someone who has been planning a vineyard or winery for some time but has recently come into the industry, in the last few years, and they may come from some distance, though most are still from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland or Virginia,” Leahy said. “…We have people coming as far as the upper Midwest (South Dakota), Colorado and even Florida, as well as Ontario and New England. I think we have attendees from at least half of the 50 states now attending.”

While Leahy is the director no one does it on his own. He went out of his way to thank a great many people. “I'd like to thank our Advisory Board, and ASEV, for their contribution to the seminar program, as well as to ASEV and regional wine associations for getting the word out about our show to their respective communities, and to exhibitors who are donating items to be auctioned for the benefit fundraiser for the ASEV Eastern Section scholarship fund.”

Neither Dominique nor I can recommend highly enough a visit to Wineries Unlimited. It is, for anyone who truly wants to know more about wine and the wine industry, a fascinating experience.

For anyone who wants more information on the program, schedule and exhibitors, they can visit and register online.