LAST FRIDAY I was among the large contingent of oenophiles that trooped to the Marriott Grand Ballroom in Newport City amidst the usual insane pay-day weekend traffic mayhem, to take part in the Philippines’ only annual large-scale wine gathering, also popularly known as the Grand Wine Experience. It is by far the country’s most prestigious annual wine event, and already ranks as one of Asia’s most important wine spectacles as well.
The Grand Wine Experience is a very unique wine event. It does not have your typical wine exhibit format like that of the Hong Kong VinExpo, the Shanghai Prowein, or the Singapore Food & Hotel Expo. There is really no selling, no long presentations, no tasting notes, no seminars, and is extremely time-flexible, as food and wines are served from 5:30 p.m. till past midnight. Rather, the Grand Wine Experience resembles a humongous wine dinner or wine party — but instead of a single importer, single winery, single region, or single featured brand theme which is normally the case with regular wine dinners, Grand Wine Experience combines everything: different wineries, regions, brands from different importers in one huge epicurean festival.
On a personal note, and as a hardcore wine fanatic, the first few years of the Grand Wine Experience was all about discovering new wines or tasting Grand Cru Bordeaux when I attended. But now it has evolved, and so have I. I realized that the best part of the Grand Wine Experience has always been (and rightfully so…) the casual, almost “party-like” ambience that allows wines to be the focal point of conversations, camaraderie, and hedonism. It offers opportunities to see old friends, catch up with wine industry people, and also meet and see new faces.
The food for this year also seemed better and more abundant — and kudos to the Joseph siblings for increasing the food cost, when it was not really called for. Though, as in the past, a lot of the high valued and expensive wines were again in short supply. But with over 500 choices, there was always something else to drink and taste. This year the Grand Wine Experience ticket shot up to P6,000 — but given our country’s rising inflation and also the growing charges on wine dinners from the likes of Wine Story to the Okada La Piazza wine dinner series, I did not really hear major protests.
Following this 18th celebration, I want to honor the history of this event and its humble beginning. I had the chance to be part of the Grand Wine Experience only in 2007, and I witnessed how the event evolved over time. With insights from my friendship and relationship with the Joseph brothers, I offer the backstory behind the Philippines’ most successful annual wine event.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
The Grand Wine Experience was the combined brainchild of the Joseph brothers, namely Bobby, Ralph, Ronnie, and Raymond of Philippine Wine Merchants. It was in the year 2001 that this idea came to fruition and this annual festivity has never looked back. The Grand Wine Experience just concluded its 18th edition last week to a huge crowd estimated at around 2,000 people — its biggest to date. The concept initially came to Ralph, easily the most vocal of the Joseph brothers, when he thought that the Philippines, and Metro Manila in particular, had no big international-standard wine event at the start of the millennium. There were always wine dinners and wine gatherings from the likes of the International Food & Wine Society, Bacchus, Anthony’s, and from other importers at that time, but all in smaller capacities. Ralph wanted something with much more grand, and Philippine Wine Merchants does have the cloud and network to make something big happen. As youngest sibling Raymond Joseph recalled about the early tinkering stage: “As our wine business keeps growing, we were being flooded with wine samples for tasting from wineries all over the world. Being one of the biggest wine importers, we receive e-mails from wine suppliers wanting us to import and distribute their wines all the time, and we would require samples for us to taste ourselves before choosing which wines to carry. Eventually there was just too much to taste and that made us decide to invite friends who appreciate wine and who would give us objective feedback. This concept, applied in a larger scale, is exactly what Grand Wine Experience is basically about, and Ralph spearheaded this project into reality.”
November was also the chosen month because it is cooler, but also not as busy as December. Ralph said that the original forecast for participants was a modest 300 people with a hotel venue being the ideal choice. The ballroom of the now demolished Mandarin Oriental was the first venue. Ralph remembered that the Rustan’s and Starbucks group of the Tantoco-Lopez families were Grand Wine Experience’s first major sponsors and supporters. He remembered vividly: “Rustan’s and Starbucks committed to 200 tickets for the initial Grand Wine Experience and that gave us a great cushion to meet and exceed our 300 people target.”
The Joseph siblings also went out of their way to invite fellow wine importers to this event. This was unheard of in the past for a large wine importer like Philippine Wine Merchants to ask competing importers to join their event. Ralph was adamant about getting other wine importers involved to ensure more brands were featured for the wine-savvy Grand Wine Experience attendees. “This was an event conceived to be the biggest wine gathering in the country, and we actually encouraged all wine importers to feature their best wines at the Grand Wine Experience,” Ralph would insist.
The Joseph siblings also unanimously agreed on a ticket price of P3,000 per head. At that time, this was very stiff considering that buffets even at the most expensive five-star hotels cost only P2,000 per head maximum. Ralph believed that the high price allowed the Grand Wine Experience to get the best buffet menu money can buy, and there was even free-flowing wine to boot. The gamble to stick with a high ticket price worked and now the Grand Wine Experience is already a tradition even at a record price of P6,000 per ticket this year.
Due to the modest expectation in its first foray, the first Grand Wine Experience was a big success for the Joseph brothers. It was therefore decided that the event would be staged annually henceforth. The venue moved from the Mandarin Oriental to the Peninsula Manila the next year in 2002, and then to the Makati Shangri-la, the year after that. The New World Hotel would host the Grand Wine Experience five times in between another round at Mandarin Oriental, the Peninsula, and Makati Shangri-La. Then, in 2011, the then-new Marriott Hotel in Newport City, Pasay hosted the Grand Wine Experience, and this hotel has been the home of the event ever since, including last week’s 18th celebration at the Marriott Grand Ballroom.
The vision to be the biggest “wine dinner” in Asia has been achieved, and Philippine Wine Merchants deserves all the credit for pulling this ambitious project off, from its modest beginning to its size and stature now. Another round of congratulatory cheers to Bobby, Ralph, Ronnie and Raymond!
The author is now a proud new member of UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.