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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Guest blogger: Lessons from the Wine Blogger's Conference

Dispatch from the North American Wine Blogger's Conference

By Hardy Wallace (aka Dirty South Wine)

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Last weekend, more than 170 people attended the 1st North American Wine Bloggers Conference (www.winebloggersconference.org) in Sonoma County, CA. It was an opportunity for wine bloggers, industry participants, and academics to get together and crush hundreds of great wines while exploring and celebrating the exploding frontier of wine blogging. I know you’re now glued to your computer- because nothing texts party (in all caps) like a 170 people drinking tons of alcohol while updating their blogs and tweeting on Twitter.

The 100-plus blogger attendees knew why we were there. We had to be. This was the Monterey Pop Festival of the wine blogosphere. But what really interested me were the non-bloggers in attendance. The wineries, media, and sponsors. What did they expect? What did they get out of it?

For years, the wine industry has relied exclusively on traditional media, and has been driven by the voices of a few prominent critics. Many of the non-bloggers, must have felt like they were stepping into the DragonCon of the wine world without a good costume.

Friday's keynote speaker was Gary Vaynerchuk of Wine Library TV. In wine's new media, he's part Steve Jobs, part Timothy Leary, and 100% positive energy. Gary's unique video tastings, his love for Web 2.0, and his wide use of the Twitter platform have brought in millions of hits and propelled him and his store into stardom. Beyond wine, Gary is a hyper-advocate of new technology and a paid speaker on social media. Gary stressed to the bloggers to stop trying to get the wine industry to "Get it." They either will or they won't.

One opportunity for the wine industry to “get it” in terms of bloggers’ impact was the conference's live blogging wine tasting event. This event was done speed-dating style, and wineries had five minutes at each table to pour and talk about their wines. At the same time, bloggers had five minutes to taste and blog about the wines. Though some participants were updating directly into their blogs, many others were using Twitter. During the tasting, the Wine Bloggers Conference was the second most searched / followed topic on Twitter. Obama was first.

David Cole, from James David Cellars (www.jamesdavidcellars.com), participated, pouring his inaugural wine, a 2007 Muscat Blanc. "Being a new boutique label we really wanted to touch the most people we could at one time to launch our first wine." During the live blogging event, David went from a complete unknown to having his wine immediately noticed by tens of thousands of readers (The Twitter chatter was showing his wine as widely loved by the participants). I wonder if he still has any wine?

Kanzler Vineyards (www.kanzlervineyards.com) was another winery pouring at the Live Blogging session. Kanzler is one of the best known growers of Pinot Noir in California. Along with their own wines, they grow grapes for some of the most sought after producers, such as Kutch and Kosta Browne. They are small production, and in mega-high demand. The 2005 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir Kanzler Vineyard ranked #19 in the 2007 Wine Spectator's Top 100 wines of the year. (Want a bottle? Look it up on Snooth.com, and then go pawn your bike.) These are premium grapes.

When asked for impressions about the event, Stephen Kanzler replied that bloggers "report, sometimes accurately, sometimes erroneously, the latest and greatest happenings. The difference is reach and timeliness....I'm sure that there were wine fans in Europe that were reading about an event in California while it was still taking place. That's pretty amazing."

As far as the live blogging session itself, Stephen said “it was intense and very rushed, in contrast to how most wine tastings are conducted. With only five minutes to listen and taste, and then on to the next wine, I wondered if the tasters were suffering from palate fatigue. And to be honest, some of the bloggers weren't paying much attention, and others didn't appear to know much about wine. But, this is a function of the internet. Anyone with a laptop can be a writer and publisher, so you have to be a discerning reader."

Though fairly critical, Stephen made some important points. Not all wine bloggers are experts, and some are far from it. But the speed and reach of their information can be huge.

The conference also included traditional tastings, vineyard tours, sessions on ethics, credibility, and driving traffic - and plenty of real interaction (not just via Twitter). The industry was heavily involved and listening to all of it. Some were well prepared and fired up, others completely shell shocked as they nervously scrambled to understand and create social media strategies.

Perhaps most interesting to me was Dick Keenan's experience with the event. Dick is the owner of Kick Ranch Vineyards (www.kickranch.com) and he grows grapes for a dozen wineries, such as Pax, Rosenbum, Lynmar, Shane, Sanglier, and his own Carica label (His Carica Sauvignon Blanc is some great juice).

"Four months ago I am not sure I had met a wine blogger," he said. Then, a few months back, Dick had an "aha" moment when he went to a program that talked about social media and wine.

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  • Dick Keenan's Kick Ranch event

Dick then read "that there was going to be the first ever wine blogger conference— Only 3.6 miles from my vineyard." He jumped on it, invited everyone to the vineyard and sponsored the conference's opening event. He got all of his producers on board to pour their wines, and probably crossed his fingers...

One other small issue - if he was going to host 100 or more bloggers, he needed a website. With help from his nephew, and a web developer in San Francisco, Kickranch.com was up and running just two days before the event.

Dick's event had a story, it had connection (also a hay ride!), it brought attendees to a fruit source, and highlighted not only the site but what all their producers were doing with their fruit.

"One thing is clear to me – wine bloggers understand that one of the most important things about enjoying wine is making a connection with people,” Dick says. “About two months ago, an Atlanta wine distributor, Grapefields, contacted me after enjoying our wine at Gary Danko's. Then, the night before our party for the bloggers, I had dinner with a good friend from Atlanta, and we talked about a Carica wine dinner next Spring there. Then I met you [Dirty South Wine] at Kick Ranch..."

Dick gets it. For the non-bloggers in the group, these connections are what the North American Wine Bloggers Conference was all about.

(Photos by Dirty South Wine)

Hardy Wallace is a wine blogger better known as Dirty South Wine. Read his blog here. If you'd like to be a guest blogger for Omnivore, send me your ideas at besha.rodell@creativeloafing.com.

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