Over three days of glorious sunshine in south-east London, Excel played host to this year's LIWSF. Chris Brook-Carter, Olly Wehring and the rest of the just-drinks' team attended, rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of the wine industry, while sampling the odd wine or two. Or three.

The "Old" Pro
The first thing to say about this year's London International Wine & Spirit Fair is thank goodness it wasn't at Olympia. Even the monstrous halls of Excel and their relatively new air conditioning struggled at times with the May heat that seems to descend on London whenever the show is in town.

The tortuous journey from my West London base each day aside, I cannot agree with the diminishing number of folk who still hanker after the days in Kensington. Excel's facilities are excellent and the trade fair has taken on a new lease of life since it moved three years ago.

That said, you certainly got atmosphere at Olympia and the 2004 LIWSF's first morning felt a little flat. The size of the venue makes footfall and "buzz" hard to measure as you are walking the floor - although early rumours were that visitor numbers were actually up on last year. But if the best measure is to ask exhibitors (and this is by no means an exact science) then the feeling was that this year's show was a slow starter. However, using the same gauge, by Tuesday evening and certainly into the next two days, the event should be judged a tremendous success.

Brintex, the show organiser, who should be applauded for not sitting back on its laurels, has worked hard to keep improving the LIWSF. And last year's big success, the on-trade tasting section, was extended this year, once again proving a very popular feature. The idea that buyers can sample 200 wines or so, unpestered and at their own pace, is a surprisingly simple one, but nonetheless effective.

The side events also added to the three days. The usually great social scene that surrounds this show is one of the great pleasures of working in the drinks trade. But, on a more official level, the seminars and forums that were held upstairs in the Waterfront rooms added further colour and were a well-taken opportunity to debate some interesting issues, from cross-border shopping to challenges facing the on- and off- trades.

One thought about these seminars though. Need they be so long? With so many people to see and so much else to do, it is difficult, to say the least, to take up around two hours of your day for each one. The talks weren't always fully attended, which is a shame given their quality, but you are effectively giving up a morning or afternoon, which is becoming harder to justify as the show itself gets bigger and bigger.

And while we are on the subject of attendance, something really ought to be done about how visitors are circulating the floor. With few exceptions, the bigger stands are all centrally located - from Southcorp to PLB (who without doubt had the best looking stand this year). Unfortunately they act as a kind of magnet meaning that those stands located on the periphery are being marginalised.

As you made your way from the hub of the show towards the press centre - located at the far end of the conference hall - visitors notably thinned out. Indeed, one or two of the areas out there had decidedly ghost town-like qualities.

Would it help to rotate where the larger stands were placed each year? The likes of Constellation, Bibendum and PLB will always attract visitors - indeed, Gallo and Concha Y Toro were both further out and never looked quiet - and these could be used as bait to get people circulating a little more evenly across the show.

These, though, are technical points and all in all it was another great three days. Many thanks to all those who took the time to see us and our apologies if we missed you. There'll be plenty of editorial over the next few weeks generated by the last three days so keep your eyes peeled.

The First-timer
As a LIWSF virgin - which is hard to say at the best of times - it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I got off the DLR at Customs House on Tuesday morning. Though I had heard this was THE big show for the wine industry, I was still a little over-awed by the scale of Excel as it towered over me. Here goes, I thought.

When someone points a gun at me, I feel nervous. It's never actually happened, obviously, but I'm pretty sure I'd feel nervous under the circumstances. So imagine my concern when, within two minutes of stepping into the building, a stun gun was pointed my way for no apparent reason. Beep-beep, "Thank you sir. You can go in now." Don't do that to me, please.

Into the show itself, and the first thing that struck me was how many familiar faces I saw when walking round. The past six months with just-drinks has seen me out and about at drinks launches, dinners and even a sauna. It seemed that everyone I've met during my time as news editor was under one roof for three days. I half-expected my mother to come round a corner.

There seemed to be a predominantly positive aura around the show for most of the three days. Australians were confident about the 12 months ahead, where the balance between retailer and producer should swing back a little in their favour; Californians are still enjoying the exchange rates and even the French feel they are beginning to address some of the questions that have hung over their industry for the last few years. In short, the majority of people I spoke to said they felt the show had been a tremendous success.

It was refreshing to see so many different companies (and, indeed, countries) represented throughout the hall during the three days. The Greek contingent, although unhappy that they aren't allowed to plaster the Olympic logo over the stands (I know more Greek swear words than I did pre-Fair, having asked for their opinion of the International Olympic Committee), was strongly represented, up from 22 last year to 33 this time around. And to see wine makers from as far afield as Armenia, Moldova and Lebanon, the fair felt like a truly global event.

One point that I picked up was that the hordes tendered to peter out the further down the hall one walked. This was backed up by someone manning a stand down near the end: "Why don't they swap the stands round every year?" he asked. "With the DLR stopping at Customs House, everyone enters from the one entrance, meaning that the stands at that end get first pickings."

This gripe aside, the impression overall was upbeat. Credit was widely given to the organisers of the event, and the footfall was applauded.

As for me, I loved it, even if my feet didn't. The London International Wine and Spirits Fair runs next year from 17 May to 19 May. I, for one, am looking forward to it already. Next time, I'm sure I'll be able to meet it at eye level.