Wine Bloggers Conference (#WBC11) Reflections

Wine Bloggers Conference logo

Monday night, I returned from the Wine Bloggers Conference, this year held in Charlottesville, Virginia.  This was my second time attending this event, now in its fourth year.

As a cost for benefit proposition, the Wine Bloggers Conference provides great information and value for its registration fee.  For $95.00, participants receive two dinners (one a buffet, the other a five course sit-down), a visit to two vineyards (transportation provided), the opportunity to hear two speakers with worldwide followings for their wine knowledge and at least half a dozen tasting events (and those are just the official ones).

Oh, and you can also meet in person over three hundred of the most enthused, knowledgeable, but non-snobby (most of them) writers on any given topic.  And their collective work can be revisited 24/7 online.

That’s probably my favorite aspect; the hugs, the trading of business cards, the placing of names with faces, especially those I have only known by names such as @willdrinkforwine.

Participants and readers of this blog should remember that many of the expenses of this weekend-long conference are paid for by sponsors.  That’s not inherently evil; but hopefully just declaring that fact will keep me from writing in too starstruck a tone when describing some of my favorite events.

Multi-day events such as WBC are only successful with the help of professional organizers and volunteers working together.  The company that created and oversees WBC is Zephyr Adventures, which has planned outdoor tours and conferences since 1997.  Maybe they have minions of elves working in the background, but I only counted three of their employees on site during the weekend.  It reminds me how much pre-planning must take place behind the scenes, from negotiating with a host hotel, (in our case, the reliably chilly and oddly shaped Omni) ensuring the Wi-Fi was working, reaching out to wineries and Chamber of Commerce types around the country, to ensuring comfortable sixty-eight degree weather in Charlottesville the entire weekend (OK, no one is perfect).  Just navigating the featured wines through the Commonwealth of Virginia’s legal thickets in one piece gives Zephyr additional brownie points, along with maintaining a website since last winter with updated WBC news and gossip.

Someone had to stuff all these bags!

And plenty of past conference attendees stepped up to help during the event, and to offer financial aid to bloggers in need of extra funds.  I am very grateful to have won a scholarship which paid for my Omni stay.  Thank you Thea Dwelle and the rest of the Scholarship Committee!  I promise to pay it forward in future years.

Here are some of my favorite memories of the past weekend:

SPEED TASTING:

Twelve wines, sixty minutes.  Five minutes maximum on each.

I tried to approach this from the perspective of a sommelier or wine buyer for my favorite store.  They have to make quick judgements on wine every day!  The next time I read a tweet from a wine director along the lines of “Tasting forty Burgundys back to back; only have room to add five to the list!”, I may feel a little sorry for her!  I tired to use my WSET Tasting Grid as a template (didn’t have one in front of me though), and focused on each wine’s main aspects (body, alcohol, ageability, main fruit characteristics, finish), and fit as much as I could into 140 Twitter letters.

And oh yes, I spit.  Up until now, I am a little ashamed to admit, my motto at wine events might have been “If I’m not driving, I’m drinking!”  But spitting actually helped keep my palate focused, and I learned that it helped me observe the finish even more clearly than if I swallowed.  My tasting notes will hopefully become more descriptive and accurate.

Here’s a suggestion for WBC if Speed Tasting returns next year.  Let’s try tasting the wines blind next time.  (And no talking to your tablemates while you’re tasting!)  Reveal all the wines at the end, and then give participants an hour to meet the winemakers and learn more specifics about what was poured.

MEET VIRGINIA (AND SEVERAL OTHER STATES NOT NAMED CALIFORNIA, OREGON OR WASHINGTON)

This event was the first time I have tasted wines from “unfamiliar” wine areas such as Indiana (the white Traminette grape; very light-colored and light-bodied, is prominent there), Texas and Maryland.  From our host state, I enjoyed their representation of Cabernet Franc the most; the examples I tried on my tour from Jefferson Vineyards and Keswick Vineyards featured high acid and less of the green pepper and other vegatal notes I notice when I taste the same grape from the Loire Valley.  It reminded me that I should learn more about Illinois wines even if I couldn’t honestly champion my home state every time I try one.

BREAKOUT SESSIONS

Our Aroma Collection

On Friday, we chose two hour long sessions out of five offered.  My first choice was “Drinking Local”; a thorough look at the challenges, many of them legal, logistical, and philosophical, to encourage more consumers to support local wineries.  Next up was “Aromas of Wine”, hosted by Master of Wine Sheri Sauter Morano.  She gave us a fun exercise involving a tray of various items to smell, and a flight a wines to blind taste.  As you can see from my score sheet; I need a little more practice matching aromas to specific wines!

I need more practice, I guess!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DINNER AND AWARDS NIGHT

Here’s the menu from our Saturday evening meal. 

After an afternoon of tasting, it felt a little overwhelming to face another table filled with wines to try.  A little palate fatigue had set in by five p.m. (I felt bad for the presenters of the Cognac tasting in the lobby).  I did enjoy how each of the winemakers who had a wine included in our meal was given a chance to introduce his or her contribution.

The authors of the best wine blog writing this past year were honored after dinner, hosted by a local sommelier.  I’m still stuck in neutral regarding my feelings about award ceremonies, but if we’re going to celebrate the best at our craft, let’s put on a real show!  Over three hundred wine bloggers in the house and not one Billy Crystal amongst us?  Please.  I have seen many of you late at night.  I can think of several bloggers who would make a great host for next year’s awards.  Maybe we can have newbie WBC attendees introduce each of the nominees.  How about less of a rush job next year?   

Here’s a link to this year’s winners, all well deserved!

http://wineblogawards.org/

THOUGHTS ON MY SCHOLARSHIP ESSAY

To compete for one of the scholarship awards, I submitted a short essay with my reasons for wanting to attend.  In my composition, I expressed curiosity about Virginia wines, due to the bottles I have enjoyed when my sister from Alexandria visits during the holidays.  I was hopeful I could bring good tidings of all these local wines back to my sommelier and distributor friends.  I’ll still mention my favorites to them, but won’t get too disappointed if these wines don’t suddenly become available in Chicago wine stores.

I learned during the Drink Local discussion that Virginia wines are often a hard sell even in the greater Washington area (just two hours away).

Also, Virginia has only a finite land mass appropriate for grape growing (and of course, much smaller than California!)  Fine wine is not the same as great music or literature; you can’t just turn on a faucet or a printer and make more product.

I would love to see a statistic explaining what percentage of all wine bottles produced throughout the world is consumed less than one hundred miles from the wine’s source.  And how that percentage has changed over time.  Thanks to improved trading channels, I’m sure that number has declined but by how much?

If you’re curious about what grapes hold the most promise in Virginia, I hope you check out these sites:

www.virginiawine.org

www.virginiawinetv.com

and my upcoming blog post on the topic.  And encourage your state to enact more consumer-friendly policies on interstate wine shipping.

And consider at least a weekend retreat in Charlottesville, to drink some of their best wines right at the source.

CONCLUSIONS:

The organizers of WBC did one of their jobs (keep things moving) almost too well.  Meaning, I wish they built some down time into the schedule.  There are several ways to accomplish this.

My first suggestion is admittedly a lightening rod.  But seriously consider dropping the keynote addresses.  WBC is enough of a brand name now that the absence of a celebrity speaker shouldn’t affect its box office too much.

Second, consider adding a fourth day to the conference.  I know there was an unofficial “pre-tasting” Thursday night, but I wouldn’t have minded some light discussion forum that afternoon/evening.  For those who don’t want to commit to an additional day of vacation, price each day separately (maybe offer Thursday and Sunday at half the price of Friday and Saturday, with the option of buying the whole weekend at a discount).

Have multiple events occurring at the same time.  As a blogger, it wouldn’t bother me that I couldn’t attend everything.  If WBC featured a themed tasting, a brainiac discussion about viticulture, and a look at some industry issue (“What the Wine Industry Can Learn From High School Juniors”) simultaneously, I could decide what interested me the most and (more importantly) socialize later on with attendees of the events I missed.

Maybe this is the wine nerd side of me coming out, but I would prefer more content created by bloggers, for bloggers.  And schedule them at multiple times.  Shorter, smaller, faster discussions on ideas the WBC Community suggest are a good way to break up the tastings.  Consider offering a small registration discount for the first twenty signups who submit an outline for a thirty minute presentation.

WILL I RETURN IN 2012?

I’m excited about the location of next year’s conference (Portland, Oregon), but not sure yet if I’ll attend.  With my Advanced WSET level knocked off (finally!) I’m now more interested in the economic/scientific/sociological aspects of my favorite beverage (ironically, when I first heard about WBC in 2008, I was concerned the conference would be too academic for me!)  My next “fact-finding” wine vacation will probably have more focused a theme than the scattershot approach of WBC.  But if you’re a wine blogger who has never attended before, or are involved in the trade as a winemaker, importer or sommelier, you should definitely make your reservations for Portland from August 17-19, 2012.

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