The venue has an interesting history behind it. In the current Westerpark, along the railways of Amsterdam, there used to be gasworks in the area, as far back as the 1880s. The factory there would extra gas from coal and supply the city of Amsterdam with gas for its streetlights. This would go on till well into the 60s when natural gas reserves were discovered in the north of the Netherlands, after which the factory was shut down and the buildings were used only as workshops or storage facilities. In the 90s, the district council responsible for Westerpark took it upon themselves to redevelop the factory grounds as there was much pollution. In 2003 it was reopened as a cultural centre; since then many events such as IT conferences, photography exhibitions, Mercedes fashion week took place.
The buildings of Westergasfabriek are built in a Dutch Neo Renaissance style, popular during 1870s and 1910s, and were designed by the Jewish architect Isaac Gosschalk. While he mostly designed factories, such as a Heineken brewery, the man was also responsible for planning the train station in Groningen. Perhaps that is why upon arrival the architecture seemed so familiar.
The festival itself was held in 2 buildings: the “Gashouder” which was built in 1902, the largest gas storage building in Europe at the time; and the “Transformatorhuis”, which was originally a water gas factory in 1904, and later a transformer workshop for the Amsterdam energy company.
Most of the stands and wines were found in the former, while the French wines were in the latter building. In the plaza between these buildings, a couple of food courts were strategically placed for hungry wine lovers to satisfy their hunger after a long tasting session.
Entering the main venue (Gashouder) is an experience in it of itself. With no less than 2,538 square meters, the astonishing amount of people, the buzzing atmosphere, one could try to define it as an overwhelming experience. Hundreds of people are all around, walking from stand to stand, sitting at the tables, or getting another glass.
Experiencing multiple wine festivals in Europe can make one complacent. It is easy to forget that each event is unique and has its own charm. There’s a personal bias here, wherein all the wine events this reporter has been to have all been about producers themselves, or their representatives, showing their wines. Amsterdam Wijnfestival was a unique experience because it did not do this. Instead, it hired distributors and sales personnel directly, and grouped wines by countries. However, this means it is more difficult to have discussions about wine, winemakers and wineries with sales people that are not exactly involved with the winemaking process, or have seen how it is done. But this is complemented by the fact that the festival can bring in people who are inexperienced with wine. There were many men and women who looked like they were in their late 20s or early 30s. This reporter was accompanied by a former classmate from university who had a low opinion of wine drinkers, thinking many were snobs. They changed their mind after experiencing this festival, seeing it for the social hobby that wine can be.
There are exceptions to the type of stands that were mentioned. The Kendall-Jackson stand was attended by a sommelier who was very talkative. The topics of discussion were New World wines and whiskey. The other exceptions were the Eastern European stand with a friendly Moldavian representative, and the Dutch wine stand and their enthusiastic description of Dutch wines.
An unfortunate setback in that day was planned and unplanned work on the railroads, which led to a 4 hour total delay. That meant there was significantly less time to spend at the festival. There was no time to visit the French stands which is regretful, but c’est la vie!
All in all, it was worth it. All the wines that were tasted were of high quality, and the prices reflected it as well. Amsterdam Wijnfestival is a unique event that is wholeheartedly recommended to anyone: those wine amateurs with lots of experience, or those who seek to get into the hobby of wine tasting, or just those who want to drink something with their friends. A word of advice however: read the menu or ask for the price of a wine glass, unless you got the money to spend on a 20 euro glass of champagne. It was one of the best, but it was an expensive celebration nonetheless.