2011 Wine Bloggers Conference: Sponsor Programming Heavy, Relevant Content Light
I’m just back from the 2011 North American Wine Bloggers Conference, held in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was very much looking forward to this event—my first time at one of these things. I went primarily because I take my wine blogging activities seriously and was hoping to share ideas, learn from and interact with fellow bloggers. I know a number of wine bloggers in my area who have never been to this conference, and I wanted to see if it might be useful for more of us to make the effort to get to this sort of thing. I was also attracted by the presence on the program of two wine writers whose work I very much admire, Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov. I return, however, with very mixed feelings, including a host of negative reactions. I also have a number of what I think are constructive suggestions for making this a more useful and professional event for wine bloggers. So this will be a rare RJonWine post without a single tasting note, and that’s not because Eric Asimov enjoined us toward the end of his keynote address to “refrain from publishing any tasting notes for a year”—a suggestion intended to be provocative, of course, but also one of his more pointless, if not obnoxious. This post will instead list upfront what I think was positive and negative about this year’s “conference,” report at length on what I heard and experienced, and conclude with my recommendations for future such events.
• The seriousness and dedication of the Virginia wine producers we met
• Thoughtful prepared comments from keynote speakers Jancis Robinson and Eric Asimov
• A too brief 60-minute discussion nearly at the end, early Sunday morning, amongst 40 or so of us that just started to grope toward a conversation about the future of wine blogging
• Wi-fi access that worked and stayed on for virtually the entire event
• Keeping on schedule, for the most part
• All-too-brief conversations with several fellow bloggers
• An unprogrammed tasting in someone’s hotel room of several very good Croatian wines that Clifford Rames, of Wines of Croatia, brought down from NYC with him to share with interested attendees
• An unprogrammed, post-conference visit to two Virginia producers whose offerings impressed us during the conference, on Sunday afternoon with Fred Swan (NorCalWine.com) and his wife Eva
• Extreme heat and humidity
• Lack of an opening reception, or some kind of initial gathering of people from the same region or the like to bring first-time attendees into the fold
• Hearing about a lot of interesting sounding side gatherings amongst prior WBC attendees after the fact, because the organizers of such gatherings only invited people they already knew from prior conferences
• The lengthy industry-sponsored “infomercial” for Virginia wines that was the event’s centerpiece, the Saturday dinner
• “Live wine blogging” about largely mediocre sponsors’ wines
• Tiny “wine glasses” that permitted no swirling
• A very ill-timed, pre-dinner cognac tasting
• Lack of lunch/any mention that lunch wasn’t being provided the first day, after a morning of tasting, followed immediately by the keynote and afternoon seminars
• Holding a major tasting event focusing on the wines of Virginia in 100 degree heat and high humidity (at Monticello), despite plenty of advance warning of weather conditions
• Devotion of nearly 90% of the program to paid-sponsor presentations and activities
• A large proportion of tasting events of limited interest to most bloggers, featuring a predominance of uninteresting and mediocre wines (and a significant number that were downright bad)
Background: Event Organizers
This was the fourth year of this self-described “conference,” and its first on the East Coast. It’s an event created and organized by Zephyr Adventures and Joel Vincent Productions. Zephyr bills itself as an adventure travel company that runs food, wine and beer tours in various parts of the world. It also organizes a Fitness and Health Bloggers Conference and an International Food Bloggers Conference, among other things. Joel Vincent, whom I’d never heard of before, started something called the OpenWine Consortium, which seems to have been intended as a wine business techno consulting platform of some kind, and which is now owned by FohBoh, a foodservice industry technology consulting company. Bottom line: the organizers of the conference are not wine bloggers, and they organize this conference (and others Zephyr organizes) on a for-profit basis. The result is some professional organization by an experienced team, but a dearth of programming planned by wine bloggers for the benefit of wine bloggers. The programming is for the benefit of the paying sponsors, and the assembled bloggers are the captive audience for this paid-for programming.
I note, though, from even Zephyr’s conferences for other types of bloggers that their profit model doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be very little programming aimed at the needs of the bloggers. For example, on the program for their first Fitness & Health Bloggers Conference held this past June were the following seven general session topics of interest to most bloggers:
1-hour session on Monetizing Your Blog
50-minutes on Working With Companies and PR Firms
2-hour session on WRITING: Blog to Book
1-hour session: Hot Topics in Fitness & Health Blogging
1-hour session: Become an A-Lister on Social Media
1-hour session: WRITING: Use Almost Anything to Inspire Your Next Blog Post
50-minute session: Search Engine Optimization – To Do or Not?
All of the above types of topics would have been of interest to me as a blogger, and presumably many others at WBC11, but none of these topics were on our agenda. Prior WBC attendees told me that the three earlier conferences included more of these kinds of sessions, and that they were somewhat surprised there was relatively little such programming this year. It’s clear from the above list that Zephyr knows how to include topics like these in the program for a conference aimed at bloggers, so why were all of these topics missing from our conference?
Apparently the difference is that WBC11 was the fourth year of the wine bloggers conference, with 325 attendees enrolled, whereas the program above was for the inaugural year of the fitness bloggers, a conference that only attracted 70 attendees, and so is still trying to get off the ground. Presumably in the case of WBC11, the organizers felt it already had a sufficient following so the programming no longer needed to be for the attendees’ benefit—they could instead maximize sponsorship revenue by selling virtually all the available programming time to sponsors: a host of state and regional wine producer associations, as well as individual wine producers and industry related products.
At least that’s what this event felt like. The amount of program time devoted to “conferring” among blogger attendees at WBC11 was glaringly minimal. It mainly amounted to an hour-long slot on the morning of the third and last day for three blogger-led discussions (you had to pick one), and a little bit of discussion in the second half of one of the seminars (the Online Technologies breakout). That was really it in terms of program time devoted to wine bloggers hearing from each other. Maybe the organizers felt entirely justified in taking the opportunity, this year, to fully extract all their potential profits from an event they’ve put in four years of hard work to build to this point. Pardon me, though, if, as a first-time attendee, I don’t feel well served by their choice to put profit over valuable content for WBC number 4. By the end of the Saturday night program, I felt so overwhelmed with industry pitches and sponsored programming, and so starved for the kind of interactions that I had taken time off work and paid airfare, lodging and the conference fee to be part of that I was, quite honestly, resentful and angry. I would be just as angry if the only available TV channel in a place where all I could reasonably do, given the circumstances, was watch TV, devoted 90% of its air time to commercials.
Weekend Blow by Blow
I already mentioned the lack of any kind of welcoming reception. The first night, Thursday, beginning at 7:30 pm, was instead devoted to a rather motley group of “international” producers and distributors who were arrayed along the walls of the large hotel ballroom at the Omni where most of the weekend’s events were held. I won’t bore you with the wine details, but they included some of the most singularly dreadful and unbalanced Bordeaux superieurs I’ve ever sampled. I couldn’t really believe I’d awakened at 3 am that morning to catch a 6 am flight from San Francisco so as to be able to get there in time for such a lackluster assemblage of wines, and virtually no interaction with fellow bloggers.
The next morning, Friday, was more of the same–a morning long tasting, dubbed “Meet the Sponsors”–that ran from 10 am to 1 pm. I got through all the wines being poured in that amount of time, but the only ones I was really delighted to sample (again) were those of the engaging Giampaolo Taborrini, whose delicious Montefalco Sagrantinos I’d previously enjoyed at the Tre Bicchieri tasting in San Francisco this year. We then assembled for Jancis Robinson’s keynote. She was, as ever, cogent, respectful of her audience, and very current in her references, as one expects from the wine world’s leading author and reference book editor. I appreciated her perspective as someone who has successfully communicated to the world about wine through virtually every modern medium–wine newsletter, television, books, newspaper–and via her charming and impressive website and online forum.
Contrary to my expectations, there was no lunch provided in the large ballroom–set up with round tables, of the type on which meals are usually served–during or following Jancis’s talk, and the first set of seminars began immediately thereafter. I am not physically capable of tasting all morning, listening to an hour-long speech and then continuing on with two more hour-long seminars back to back without some sustenance, so I went to the hotel restaurant to place a to-go order. I’d hoped to take it into the 2 pm break out session on Online Technologies and Wine, but when I entered the room for that panel, it was already standing room only, so I went outside to consume my sandwich. I got back into the panel for the last 25 minutes or so, which seemed to mainly consist of a debate as to whether Google+ or Facebook was going to be the winning social networking platform. And that was the one breakout session I’d really been interested in attending. The other two scheduled for the same slot were Aromas of Wine with Winebow Wines (sponsor) and Millenials and Wine (a topic that apparently turned off and bored the few twenty- and thirty-somethings I checked in with afterwards).
I picked the least uninteresting, to me, topic for the second session, ending up in a pleasant enough repeat of the presentation on Aromas of Wine, perkily delivered by Sheri Sauter Morano MW, with some nicely packaged food items to sniff for reminders about common wine descriptors. It was a nicely delivered version of this kind of experience in a one-hour period, but I came away with virtually no new info from it. The other topics in that slot were Drinking Local (the benefits thereof seem so obvious on their face that I didn’t think I’d get much out of listening to an hour on the topic) and The Legalities of Wine (pretty much a boring lecture, from the feedback I received from several attendees). Then it was time for the reconvening of the entire conference for a “live wine blogging” speed tasting–an hour devoted to the ballroom table at which one was sitting being pitched on a dozen wines in five-minute increments by more event sponsors. We were exhorted to blog or tweet about what we were tasting, which put me in an immediate dilemma. I only tweet about wines or topics I think are at least somewhat newsworthy. The wines being presented were not newsworthy. Some of them, on the contrary, were quite mediocre, and I didn’t see the point of wasting my time or anyone else’s by tweeting that fact. (A tetra-packed, smoke-tainted but heavily processed Cabernet from California’s ill-fated ’08 vintage? Seriously? I’m supposed to tweet about that?) But the pressure was on to tweet–the conference organizers told us from the podium and in the written program instructions that we should, and the participants’ tweets were projected on the ballroom’s large screens as they issued forth into the twittersphere. So the paid sponsors got to see their wines being hash tagged for denizens of Twitter, and the participants got to taste a dozen largely forgettable wines for an hour. Score another one for the sponsors.
After that experience, we were herded out to buses set to take us up to Monticello, the home that our wine-loving third President designed and built, where 34 Virginia wine producers were assembled under a gigantic white tent on the front lawn to taste us on a pair of their wines, and where a buffet dinner was to be served. Did I mention that it was still about 100 degrees outside, with 50% or more humidity? Who in the wine business thinks it’s a good idea to serve wine in 90-100 degree heat? Apparently the Virginia Wine Marketing Office (funded by the Virginia Wine Board), which organized the historically significant but highly wine unfriendly location, and our conference’s organizers. These were the worst conditions under which I’ve ever tried to taste and evaluate wine. Some serious tasters simply gave up, judging rightly that it would be unfair to the wines to try tasting them under these conditions. I perversely persevered, however, aiming to taste all of the wines being offered in the two hours allotted, by speed tasting and trying to imagine what the wines would be like under more normal conditions. As I baked and drenched my clothes with sweat in the heat, I wondered if I could really manage to finish, but I honestly didn’t want to just sit stranded up there for two hours, contemplating the miserable climatic conditions. And, after all, there was my idol Jancis, looking remarkably fresh under the circumstances and thoughtfully quizzing producers on their wines while tasting alongside me. I ultimately did manage to get through everything except the inexplicable pair of fruit ciders being offered, which left me just 10 minutes to wolf down a few buffet items before the buses were set to take us back to the Omni. What did I learn from this extreme, and very arguably pointless, physical endurance test? It did seem like there were a number of varietally true and fairly balanced Viogniers, along with some promising Bordeaux varietals–Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. I was also impressed with the discipline and cordiality of the producers pouring under such oppressive conditions. A couple of them shared that they’d been given an alternative plan in case weather conditions were “adverse,” and they weren’t exactly sure why 100 degree temperatures and high humidity hadn’t been considered “adverse.”
I had a good conversation on the bus with a British-born blogger now living in Florida. On arriving back at the hotel, the next scheduled event, from 9 pm to 11 pm, was billed as a tasting of wines from the “Other 46.” One might expect that this would include wines from all, or most of, the winemaking states of the continental U.S., excluding, I suppose, New York and California. Instead, they only apparently meant wines of several such states whose grape councils, distributors or individual producers happened to be sponsors. It was another real endurance effort to taste through these wines, especially since most of them were not good at all, after having tasted for three hours in the morning, a good part of the afternoon and then two solid hours at Monticello. I noticed, though, that there was only a very light crowd present for this tasting in the largely empty hotel ballroom, and I felt bad for the producers pouring these wines that they’d lugged a long distance for such a relatively small crowd. I later learned that this was when a lot of other gatherings were happening among prior conference attendees, events to which they’d invited fellow attendees of prior events that they knew, but not those of us they hadn’t had a chance to meet. Since this was the official program event, and the only event I was privy to, however, and these poor representatives from the wines of Maryland, Texas, Indiana and Ohio had so few people to pour for, I soldiered on through this darned tasting as well. And I do have a peculiar interest in some of these wines which are, in their own way, wine exotica to someone based in California–Ohio’s Nortons and Pink Catawba, and Indiana’s State variety, Traminette. I retain a vivid sense memory of tasting and comparing all eight of the Indiana Traminettes being poured from different producers, with their increasing levels of residual sugar. I’m working to suppress, however, the memory of those barely drinkable Nortons and Catawbas from Ohio. Oh well.
After that was over, I walked the 20 minutes back in the still smoldering evening heat to my hotel (one of two spillover hotels suggested by the conference organizers, due to the limited number of available rooms at the Omni).
The next morning started with a six-hour time slot, from 10 am to 4 pm, devoted to bus excursions to two of Northern Virginia’s wineries. Attendees were supposed to get on these buses without knowing which wineries they’d be visiting. I didn’t care much for that concept, and I also really didn’t like the idea of repeating our Monticello experience of tasting these wines in the continuing 100 degree heat and high humidity (or subjecting my body to more of those conditions throughout the bus trip, even if the tasting room was actually air conditioned). I was also beat from the brutal onslaught of tastings and miserable weather the day before, and local news was reporting a strong chance of a thundershower. I therefore stayed in my hotel through that activity, getting a bunch of tasting notes loaded into CellarTracker, and having a square meal at the Indian/Afghanistani restaurant across the street from my hotel. Those who did go on the winery visits were served lunch at one of the wineries, and that reportedly turned out well for some and not too well for others. I rejoined the Saturday group activities that began at 4 pm with Eric Asimov’s talk.
I’m a fan of Eric’s very well written wine columns in the New York Times, but he also has what I can only describe at this point as a “shtick”–questioning basic wine world assumptions and clichés (e.g., “Why do we call it ‘wine appreciation’”?), but often not offering very helpful alternatives. I must admit I found this pattern increasingly tiresome well before his 50-minute time was up. Nonetheless, he did have a number of very quotable lines, which I saw many fellow attendees were busy tweeting and retweeting as the speech wore on. In response to one of three questions asked at the end of his remarks, Eric enjoined the assembled wine bloggers to “not publish any tasting notes” for the next year. Yeah, right. Eric’s proposal that we do away with all wine descriptors except for “sweet” and “savory,” in his column several months ago, was, for me, the single most useless and badly argued thing he’s written, but he continues to make it clear that he finds the wine world’s ubiquitous descriptors and tasting notes useless. As someone who generally finds them quite useful, however, I appreciated the chance to tell him an hour or so after his talk that I greatly enjoy his writing, but find his haranguing about tasting notes to be pointless and wrong headed. He seemed to take my input well.
After Eric’s talk, we were again subjected to another round of “live wine blogging,” and 12 more sponsors’ wines. The scheduled event that followed that, at 6 pm, was one that virtually everyone in attendance seemed to think was strangely timed–a pre-dinner reception tasting of cognacs and cognac cocktails; another sponsor-paid stretch of time. Since I rarely indulge in cognac—only very late on a special, or celebratory evening, when I don’t have far to go to sleep afterwards–I passed on the cognacs and cocktails, and spent the time trying to meet a few more bloggers. I felt bad, though, for the cognac producer representative who was given a virtually inaudible PA system in the hotel’s atrium. That was followed by what was billed as the Wine Blogger Awards Dinner, but which turned out to be an entire evening built around a five-course meal and five flights of wines devoted to the wines of Virginia, emceed by a local sommelier who apparently fancies himself a comedian and entertainer.
The blogger awards portion amounted to only about 10 minutes of the nearly three-hour program, where the awards were hyper efficiently handled through a quick video display of the logo/mastheads of each of the blog nominees, and then a display of the winner’s name. Only a few of the winners were on hand, and only two of those had a chance to make brief remarks; one of the winners was passed over entirely when he wasn’t recognized in the audience or didn’t get up to the stage fast enough. I’d hoped to learn a little more about the nominated blogs, and to hear something from the winners. The program was clearly arranged, however, to make sure the awards consumed the absolute minimum amount of time, as they were certainly not the program’s focus, so we could get back to the three-hour Virginia wine infomercial.
I actually did enjoy a couple of the wines we were poured for the five-course dinner, and we were fortunate that representatives of one of those producers (Pollak Winery), whose Viognier we admired, happened to be seated at our table, so we got to learn more from them about their wines (and invited ourselves over the next day to taste some barrel samples of wine from the same vintage and vineyard site, fermented with different yeasts). Too many of the wines poured at this event, however, were not good at all, which made it hard to understand why they were getting so much air time at what was the conference’s centerpiece event.
It was nearly 10 pm when this dinner concluded, and the representative from Vibrant Rioja, the Rioja producers’ promotion arm, announced the details of the progressive tasting, at five of the area’s eateries, that was supposed to follow. I’d already been to the major Vibrant Rioja trade tasting in San Francisco a few months back, at which I tasted virtually all the current releases from the participating producers, so I figured this was the kind of event I could easily pass on, in the interests of getting some sleep before the one event I was now very much looking forward to–the Sunday morning one-hour discussion amongst bloggers. I did see a Twitter invite, however, for a Croatian wine tasting happening upstairs in someone’s room, from Cliff Rames, who has retweeted my few blog posts about Croatian wines (attracting large numbers of viewers to those posts), so I decided to check that out before heading back to my hotel. I’m glad I did. I got to meet Cliff, as well as Richard Leahy (tapped to be the author of a book on Virginia wines due out in a year or so), and tasted there several of the most interesting wines I tried all weekend. As that gathering started to take on more of the tone of an after party, however, I headed out. I really didn’t want to be either hungover or overly tired for the one session on the program that promised a little “conferring” among attendees that I hungered for.
Unfortunately, I had a lot of trouble sleeping that night. I woke up around 3:30 am stewing over the feeling that I’d just been subjected to a lot of “payola” all weekend–events devoted to sponsors’ products, regardless of their interest and value to participants. I was angry, resentful, and ultimately had to write out the thoughts I was struggling with, in order to get them off my mind so I could return to sleep. After writing out a few very harsh paragraphs (yup, much more raw and harsh than what you’re reading here), I did get another hour or two of sleep. I then packed up, got a quick breakfast at my hotel and headed over to the Omni.
The precious single hour of programmed discussion amongst bloggers, starting at 9:30 am, went by way too fast for me. The topic of the three offered that I picked was The Present and Future of Blogging. The discussion was led by Ward Kadel (www.winelog.net/blogs/drXeno). Most of the assembled group, 40 or so of us, seemed, like me, much worse for wear at that hour of a Sunday morning. Presumably there were no sponsors naive enough to pay for an early Sunday morning slot. Our main topics as the informal discussion evolved were the relative advantages of WordPress over other blogging platforms; relative merits of the short vs. long form; the difficulty of assessing and quantifying Facebook post sharings or mentions versus those on other kinds of social networking sites; and wine bloggers’ lack of clout, except when we put our efforts together collectively. Jason Mancebo (www.20dollarwineblog.com) offered to assemble a listserv of those of us interested in continuing discussion on the latter topic if we gave him our cards. So it was a very limited kind of discussion in the face of the topic–the present and future of blogging–but more than I’d gotten out of the rest of the conference on the issues most relevant to me as a blogger.
The three separate discussion groups were then reassembled into one meeting of the whole to listen to what was billed as “Ignite Wine!” This turned out to be five-minute speeches from 12 presenters, including a few more sponsors, each limited to 20 or so PowerPoint slides. We were told that this was a format that had originated in the tech world in Seattle, and that the organizers had introduced a successful version of it at their recent Health and Fitness Conference. I found this an uninformative and complete waste of time—wondering if the organizers really thought that what wine bloggers were most interested in was Toastmasters type training and experience. The final presenter of these five-minute, canned, PowerPoint presentations, though, was a propagandist for the cork industry. His over-the-top, ridiculously one-sided condemnation of what screwcaps were supposedly doing to the environment I found downright insulting to the intelligence. Given the non-engaging format, there was no way for any of us who felt differently to respond. Since that was the last of these presentations, I was back in anger mode at the end of this frustrating conference. The organizers spent the final moments of the conference announcing to the few of us still on hand the location of the 2012 WBC, and the tentative selection of the site for 2013’s WBC (Penticton, British Columbia).
12 Suggestions for Improvement
So how could the next conference, which they announced at this event’s conclusion would be held in Portland next August, be structured so as to make it not such a waste of time, from my perspective?
1. Start with some kind of welcoming reception or activity that allows first-time attendees to interact with other attendees, especially prior attendees. (I was told by a few regulars that there had been a huge drop off on the part of first-time attendees in the past. Shouldn’t someone have gotten a clue?) Some group introductions would be nice, as would a brief caucus by region or blog type.
2. Plan a program with input from bloggers that is devoted to only 50% sponsored events. (Okay, if profit really is the sole driving force for the organizers, even 70% would be a big improvement over the nearly 90% load at this year’s WBC.)
3. Plan some seminars or breakouts that are more of a discussion than just presentations and lecture.
4. Assess weather conditions in planning venues so as to maximize the appreciation of wines being offered and sampled.
5. Announce in advance when meals are being provided and not, so attendees can arrange for other ways of assuring they get that all-important “base” for further tasting.
6. Find a hotel that can accommodate all, or most attendees, so that many of us aren’t located so far away that it makes it hard to participate in some of the more spontaneous happenings.
7. Be more selective about sponsors, to ensure that they are likely to be of interest to at least some attendees.
8. Solicit topics of interest to attendees in advance, to ensure that there’s real interest in the topics being offered.
9. If you continue to include “live wine blogging,” make it a breakout event for those who might be interested in that kind of exercise.
10. If you retain “Ignite Wine,” make it also an optional breakout.
11. For god’s sake, figure out what, if any, role the wine blog awards is supposed to play at the conference. Either make them a real part of the program, or cut them out entirely. Don’t make them seem like something we have to rush through and get out of the way so as to focus on more mediocre sponsored wines.
12. My bottom line recommendation: less damn tasting and more opportunity for talking and interaction.
I may not be welcomed back to one of these things in the future after registering here my honest impression of this event. Realistically, though, I wouldn’t want to return if there’s not a major change in the way it’s structured, especially the total domination of the program by activities devoted to the event’s sponsors. But if one or more of us don’t speak up when the organizers go way overboard in selling off the vast majority of the program time to sponsors, what does that say about journalistic values in wine blogging? Life is too short for me not to be honest and true to my own deeply considered reactions, and, I hope, constructive in offering suggestions about an event devoted to a subject–wine–that I am passionate about, and involving a community–bloggers–that I’d like to know better, and to interact with more meaningfully.
I do applaud the event organizers for their punctuation honesty, at least, in not including a possessive apostrophe in the event’s title. It is not currently a Wine Bloggers’ Conference, with a program organized by and aimed at the needs of us bloggers. It is, instead, a Wine Bloggers “Conference,” aimed at bloggers as a commoditizable captive audience for sponsors.
At the end, what if anything really worked about this particular event, for me? I did learn a little about the wine industry in Virginia, the grape varieties they are excelling with (Viognier in particular, as well as red Bordeaux varietals), and gathered that a number of the producers are quite serious and rightfully beginning to generate some respect for their efforts after enormous amounts of hard work and expensive investment. I wouldn’t have experienced that if the event hadn’t been held in Virginia, and there was no other particular reason why a wine lover in California might be drawn to visit producers there, whose wines don’t exist on California wine store shelves. It also seems clear the state’s wine industry is bidding to become the East Coast’s wine tourism destination, and I think they’re well on the way to fulfilling that ambition.
I also got to meet a few of the bloggers whose work I’ve admired—e.g., Tom Wark, Hardy Wallace, and David White–and got to know a little better a few I already knew from my own area. And I enjoyed spending time, post conference, with Fred and Eva Swan, and visiting with them two of the producers—Pollak and Veritas—whose wines we’d admired at the conference. And, of course, I learned a lot about what not to do if I ever want to go into the blogger conference organizing business.