For weeks now, all over Europe excited wine buyers have been crossing off the days on their calendar and wine producers from China to Chile have been approving stand designs and fretting about just how they'll play it if "that"' supermarket buyer should drop by. A fair proportion of Europe's drinks industry will have put a big red line through the dates May 16-18. Things get a little crazy when the Trade Fair comes to town. It wasn't always thus. The London Wine Trade Fair used to be a cosy drinking club for old buffers in bow ties to get together with their mates and a few of those funny foreign chaps to drink enough good wine to render them insensible. Nowadays, though, so sensible and professional has the LIWTF (don't forget the newly-added 'international') become that it is rare to see anyone curled up asleep in a corner after a hard day of assiduously forgetting to use the spit bucket.

In this new era of professionalism, there are one or two things worth bearing in mind.

TASTING
To make any sense of the LIWTF you must first disabuse yourself of the notion that the fair is all about tasting. It isn't. It's about business. If you go hoping to taste 400 different Cabernets, you'll come out disappointed. Not because the wines aren't there - they are. But because Olympia is simply too cramped, too hot and too busy for you to have a prayer of getting round it in anything like a meaningful manner with a wide-ranging brief.

At 10 in the morning the hall is full of eager young Oddbins buyers with a mammoth list of wines to taste. By 4.00 most of them are weeping into a beer muttering about how they "could have done it if it hadn't been for the Australian section".

Watch the top buyers and they'll have maybe half a dozen appointments in a day. All pre-arranged, and all to discuss something specific: this range, these prices, that promotion, problems with the packaging. What they are not doing is standing at the counter along with all the flotsam and jetsam asking to be "taken through all your wines starting with the whites".

HEAT
Earls Court has a pretty glass ceiling. This makes it very nice to look at, and a very bad venue for a wine fair held in May. Even allowing for the British weather, thanks to a lack of air conditioning, it can get pretty hot inside, and this plays havoc with the condition of the wines.

Those who want to taste big reds would be advised either to do it first thing in the morning before things heat up too much, or on a cool day. If the forecast is for a heatwave, you'd probably be best staying at home, unless you plan to ignore the tasting side of things altogether.

FOOD
This year, there will apparently be more restaurants on site than ever before. This is a good thing, since the food at Olympia, as with trade fairs the world over, is historically awful - and expensive. If you can afford the time, the best bet is to try one of the pubs on Kensington High Rd. A bit of time spent exploring could repay your efforts several times over.

A FEW DO'S AND DON'TS

DO

  • Select your visits carefully and don't get sidetracked.
  • Make appointments where possible.
  • Check out the peripheral lectures, debates and tutored tastings - well worth it.
  • Find a stand that serves beer.

DON'T

  • Wander aimlessly, or set yourself too ambitious an itinerary.
  • Visit stands whose wares you can sample at other tastings through the year.
  • Visit the Sherry stands at lunchtime or Port stands at 5.00 - they're packed with socialisers.
  • Eat in Olympia if you can avoid it.