Vinexpo, the legendary wine event of Bordeaux, returned to the US for a second time but attendance was down and results mixed. Anne Brockhoff reports from Chicago.

Vinexpo Americas returned to the US on June 20-22, drawing 440 exhibitors from 22 countries to Chicago's McCormick Place. Some 6,000 visitors strolled the spacious aisles over three days, pausing to swish and spit, chat with winemakers and negociants and greet old friends.

Crowds seemed to gather only for Robert Parker, "invitation only" tastings, the Starbucks counter and Champagne stands. Indeed, the almost 54,000 square feet of exhibition space at times seemed empty as visitor numbers fell thousands short of expectations and of Vinexpo Americas 2002. Yet organisers declared the event a "great success."

Vinexpo Americas chief executive, Robert Beynat, said it was a triumph of quality over quantity, and many exhibitors agreed. "It's been beyond our expectations," said Laurent Delaunay, president and CEO of Badet, Clement & Cie of l'Etang-Vergy, France, while Gary Griggs of Badet's importer Cellar Door Selections concurred. "We've made dozens of connections with the right people," he said.

About 90% of attendees were from the US, with more than two-thirds of those from the Midwest, though Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean were also represented. Among them were distributors, state liquor board officials, restaurateurs, supermarket and duty-free buyers, sommeliers, importers and wine writers. Some 30,000 bottles of wine were consumed in the two days.

Attendees participated in Champagne, Pinot Noir and other tastings, sampled the 2001 vintage of Bordeaux Grands Crus and took in seminars on foreign exchange trading, wine list structure and whether France was still the reference point for wine in the US. The answer was yes by the way.

But still numbers were lower than the organisers' estimates. "Over one year a lot of things have happened," Beynat said. "The Iraq war disrupted the US market. The economy was not that good." There was also the dollar and US "boycotts" of French products earlier in the year, he said. Others blamed the low turnout on Vinexpo coinciding with the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Colorado, and with Father's Day.

France was still well represented, with 123 exhibitors, followed by Spain with 73 and Portugal with 38. Only 31 were American, with most of the biggest wineries absent.

But numbers are hardly the point, said Mick McDonough, executive vice president of sales for Remy Amerique. Vinexpo Americas is an important industry showcase and networking event, he said, and its value can't be judged on how many people walk through the door. "It's appropriate for the US to have an event like this," McDonough said. "You can't look at the short term. You have to invest in the long term for the industry."

Martin Johnson, executive vice president of marketing for Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, agreed. "The onus is on us to be one of the leaders in the wine industry," and participating in Vinexpo Americas is part of that, he said.

Next up for the organisers is Vinexpo 2005 in Bordeaux next June. But whether Vinexpo will again return to the Americas remains unclear, Beynat said. "We'll see," he said. "We'll decide in September, or at least before the end of the year, if we'll come back to the US or continue to do something in Asia."