Wine Bloggers’ 5-Year Reunion: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Redux

Carlton Oregon WineryThoughts of attending a high school reunion lead to a barrage of emotional responses. From “I Can’t Wait!” to “Not just no; but Hell, No!” and plenty in-between, a reunion is different things to different people.

For one whom high school was the pinnacle of his existence, it is a chance to relive the memories and for a brief time forget that he is no longer the star quarterback, the debate team ace or she the head cheerleader or prom queen. For others, it is a chance to see old friends, and make new connections. Making the most of networking or after parties, it is a chance to move forward…or back to relive the past.

And I don’t want you and I don’t need you
Don’t bother to resist, or I’ll beat you
It’s not your fault that you’re always wrong
The weak ones are there to justify the strong

The beautiful people, the beautiful people
It’s all relative to the size of your steeple
You can’t see the forest for the trees
You can’t smell your own sh*t on your knees…

…The beautiful people, the beautiful people…
“The Beautiful People” – Marilyn Manson

The 2012 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, the fifth since it began in 2008, often resembles such a reunion. We have attended it every year; first in Santa Rosa, California in 2008 and again in 2009; with visits to Sonoma, and Sonoma and Napa wineries, respectively. We traveled to Walla Walla, Washington in 2010, beginning in Seattle and visiting wineries along the way, as part of the WBC-or-Bust winning wine writers tour. Last year, we braved the heat and humidity in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we tasted lots of Viognier and a few good, albeit iced-down bottles of Cabernet Franc.

For us this year, it was a chance to visit Portland, Oregon and to get to know the city we watch parodied in the IFC comedy Portlandia. It was opportunity to hang out with our wine blogger friends, and to tour Portland’s hottest eateries on a Double Decker Bus with Wines of Chile. To chat face-to-face again with Craig Camp of Cornerstone Cellars (a five-time WBC veteran himself), and to meet Cornerstone Oregon’s Winemaker Tony Rynders. To hang out with the fabulous PR representatives from Brand Action Team, Constance Chamberlain and Steve Raye; and the folks from Lush Life Productions, who hosted our Wines of France dinners in Houston in July, on their summer tour from Chicago to New Orleans.

Wines of Chile took us on a Tour of Portland which included some fabulous food trucks!

We also dined at BEAST, one of Portland’s hottest experiential restaurants. The six-course Prix Fixe meal and wine pairing was well worth sitting near the oven (it’s in the dining room) on an uncharacteristically scorching hot summer night in Portland.

We tasted a series of verticals from Italy, Spain and France, some exclusive Riesling from Alsace, and some wonderful new releases from Two Shepherds’ Rhone Ranger William Allen aka @SonomaWilliam in a private tasting.

But as I review our photographs from the visit, very few are from the actual conference. Most of the conference format is geared toward new bloggers…the underlying meme still not much different from the very first conference: “if you ever get to be published in print, you might just be a ‘real’ wine writer.”

To borrow a sports term, our OOC (Outside of Conference) experiences were over-the-top. We learned Portland’s reputation for incredible food was definitely well-deserved. The aforementioned BEAST, and Wines of Chile bus tour, along with lunch with the folks at Nomacorc at Pok Pok – left us sated and wishing we had faster metabolisms. Dinner at Ned Ludd with Alison Sokol Blosser has Joe describing the pork noodles to every foodie he meets.

Our post-WBC Blogger Weekend to Carlton, Oregon was filled with great food, gracious hosts, good wine and terrific lodging in a Winery Loft. Finally, our self-guided tour of Portland after the Carlton weekend gave us a taste of Portland craft beers, and a longing to move to a  city that loves its pedestrians. Over the next several months, we will be writing about each of these extracurricular excursions.

But since this post is more of an overview, let me concentrate on some observations about this WBC, itself.

The Lows

The Wine Bloggers’ Conference began when a lady at the door of the Welcome Reception who, fancying herself a bouncer, asked a would-be entrant if she “was a winery person or ‘just a blogger.’ She then attempted to keep one of the organizers from entering the room five minutes early.

One of our favorite events, “Live Blogging,” ended with an over-zealous WBC staffer demanding bloggers and wine makers “take it outside,” as they talked afterwards about the wines just poured, or as bloggers attempted to pack up laptops and distributed materials, so that the room could be flipped for dinner.

The Grand Finale began with said staffer turning off the lights to a New Wines of Greece reception, telling participants to move to across the hall to the ballroom where dinner was being served. Dinner was, in fact, not scheduled for another 30 minutes. It was the presentation of the Wine Bloggers Awards that were to be unveiled prior to dinner in said ballroom. If one did not choose to attend the awards, or had alternate dinner plans, she was certainly not allowed to continue talking to folks who had traveled from Greece to pour their wines.

The Wine Blogger Awards

We lament the awards every year. Following four years of annual critique, we were asked to be secret judges.

WBC12 was top trend on TwitterJoe politely declined. I agreed, thinking I could finally find out what went on behind the curtain. But I didn’t learn much at all, since judging was in a bubble. Unknown to me was the number of judges per category, the identity of the other judges, and the weight of an individual judge’s scores. Despite the judge’s score counting for 50% of the total, as advertised, practically none of my favorites were finalists.

In full disclosure, we were also finalists for the 2011 Awards for Best Writing. Last year judges names were secret, and a judge did not vote in the category in which she was nominated. In fact a judge did not vote on all the other categories — but was selected to judge a particular category or two.

This year, I was on a committee appointed to re-vamp the awards to make them more transparent, more democratic, and more willing to recognize a wider group of talent than the same four or five blogs or bloggers selected as winners year after year. I also thought it was important to take away all the secrecy in the judging process. Saner minds prevailed, and judges’ identities were revealed prior to voting, and each was profiled.

A caveat: Our annual complaint is not “sour grapes,” or a whine that we have not won these particular awards. We have been recognized in more prestigious awards, as have others who have not made the WBA cut. Our chief complaint it is that by their design and outcomes the awards appear to be flawed, tainted and suspect. The result is that some very, very good blogs (often authored by women) are never finalists or winners. It taints the awards for those who do win.

For some reason judges always tend to be among the finalists. The reason always given is that there simply are not enough people (in the entire wine world it seems) who are willing or competent enough to be judges, and not have their blogs among the nominees.

Despite the number of ever-increasing wine blogs from under 100 to over 1000; judges’ blogs again were among the top 5 finalists in a number of categories, often the same bloggers appearing as finalists in several categories. Despite what I thought was the committee’s agreement that after three wins a blog was retired to a “Hall of Fame,” it was the same basic group among the winners again. When Joe, in his own acerbic way, noted many of this year’s finalists were judges and constant repeats, he was reminded by one of the committee, “Remember, Amy was IN that cabal.”

Joe said, and I felt that I had been a bit “co-opted.” That perhaps I was included in an attempt to tell us to STFU! stop our critique. In the court system, a judge should recuse himself if there is even a hint of impropriety — or he has even a hint of interest in the outcome.  I say “should” because Supreme Court judges of late tend to rule on cases in which they or their wives have a pecuniary interest (See Clarence Thomas and Citizens United.) So, perhaps the courts are no longer the best models.  But still, to many it simply looks bad to have a judge’s blog among the finalists or the winner. And that alone, should be enough to quash the practice.

Several winners are never in attendance. And some of the winners would not deign to call themselves “bloggers.” They are wine writers who write for major print publications, are authors of books, but just happen to publish their column on-line. Some were forced to turn to blogging because their newspaper stopped publishing a wine section.  Liken it to the High School Class who votes one of their most successful former classmates (who made good years earlier, never to return to his hometown) as Outstanding Alumni every year in hopes his celebrity might rub off on the reunion, the town, and the award presenters themselves. Or viewed another way, if local sports writers voted Drew Brees best quarterback in an awards program for the local college football league, hoping the Saints’ player would lend his stardom to their cause célèbre.

Honey, I Shrunk the Value

Portland is a city known for its craft beer, restaurants and plethora of food trucks. If you did not do so on your own you did not experience much of Portland’s gastro-utopia.
Each year, the WBC’s bang-for-the-buck gets smaller: Nearly all seminars and break-out sessions are now led by fellow bloggers, who receive no compensation for their time (not even a rebate on attendance fees). Meals have been reduced to a few dinners and brunch with most meals limited to hotel catering. Lunch on Saturday was “on your own.” Wineries and PR agencies took advantage by hosting a number of lunches away from the hotel — which necessitated bloggers missing the afternoon breakout sessions, waiting for cabs to return to the hotel.

When I say “bang-for-the-buck” I am not talking about the modest entry fee of $95 per citizen (non-industry, non-paid) blogger. Cost to attend does not stop there. Round-trip flights to the venue are $300 – $500 per person. Hotel is usually around $175 per day after taxes are added to the negotiated room rate. Add in the cost to get to the hotel from the airport, and non-covered meals and we average about $2,000 for two of us to attend the three-day conference. If we have to rent a car to drive to a remote location, add $300. And we live in a major city where we have plenty of flight options. Imagine the cost for those who do not. Perhaps this is why less than 15 bloggers have attended all five conferences. It is a big chunk of change for those who write “for free” or those whose blogs are not sponsored by advertising, magazines or newspapers.

In addition, there is less appeal for bloggers who do not limit their blogs to just wine. Portland is a city known for its craft beer, restaurants and plethora of food trucks. But unless you went out on your own — you did not experience Portland’s gastro-utopia. Perhaps the organizers want to reserve food and beer experiences for other separate conferences in the making to increase their market share. It seems a shame that there is little WBC appeal to foodies who also enjoy wine. And perhaps tying the venue to a single hotel tends to limit what food can be offered. Thank goodness for the winery dinners, where other chefs can wow bloggers with their pairings. We think there should be more of those.

The Anti-Conference, a previously renegade event where some rowdy bloggers brought wine to share (usually by the pool) has been co-opted into a Night of Many Bottles — where bloggers’ wines are collected and placed in a Conference-sponsored room for en masse self-pour. This poses as a recipe for en masse over-indulgence, perhaps evidenced by late night video of break-dancing bloggers.

As in the past, there is little time for actual blogging unless you skip events or meals (never a good idea when you’re tasting wine) due to the jam-packed schedule. Sure there is plenty of time to tweet and post to Facebook, but wineries are looking for posts on blogs from a Wine Blogger Conference. Some built-in time for blogging, a media room with dedicated wifi and winery tech and specification sheets, as well as opportunities to interview wine makers, would be a great addition.

Pay to Play

Local wineries report that they are charged a steep price to participate in Live Blogging, or to host one of the Wine Blogger bus visits or dinner. Much like the ever-winnowing number of national distributors who often determine wine popularity based on distributor profit margin, smaller, family owned wineries can be left out. Often only large conglomerates, associations, or big name wineries have access to bloggers. Some wineries or associations get around this by securing suites to host “unofficial” events. Others are left to pour in private tastings set in a double-double room, the hotel bar, or off premises.

Access to the invite-only non-WBC events is often only granted to veteran bloggers — and rookie bloggers have little opportunity to attend. Many bloggers are not even aware of the special events. Which means a cadre of bloggers are invited to the same events, having to turn down late invitations. As a result wineries often ask, “Where are our blog posts?” during and immediately after the event; not realizing that the 20 or so popular, sought-after bloggers — whose time is often limited due to full-time jobs outside of blogging — just do not have time to write about every single experience during the conference, whether official or unofficial.

Problems with Getting Wine Home

Prior to this conference, organizers told bloggers an arrangement with the conference venue ensured they could ship wine home. All that was needed was for bloggers to pre-print shipping labels. Rumblings closer to the conference indicated that Oregon laws prohibited an individual shipping wine to himself. For us, we simply packed a case of wine as one of our checked bags — but some, we heard, were not so lucky. Familiarity with shipping laws in the host state is a must for future conferences. At the very least, the conference should provide shipping boxes to participants so that they can “check” wine safely on their flight home.

The Highs

As always, we love getting together with some of our favorite wine bloggers and meeting new ones. We enjoy seeing folks from wineries and other aficionados we have met over the past five years at previous Wine Blogger Conferences.

Officer Good BodyIt was great to see those who had to skip last year’s Charlottesville, Virginia meeting or the previous’ year’s Walla Walla, Washington event due to timing, location and expense to travel to rather remote locations. We were sad to miss some wineries and other folks who helped build the momentum of the WBC, only to be left at the altar in subsequent years.

A number of stateside wineries have expressed concern about next year’s event in Canada: “once we cross the border, we may be unable to pour,” say a few. We hope they will still attend, or that we can visit with them on a separate trip. But the choice for 2012 Portland was a fabulous venue — replete with good wines in the areas, a major airport hub, easy public transportation to the convention venue, with walking distance to food and shopping.

As always, we loved Live Blogging, visiting with Craig Camp of Cornerstone Cellars and George Athanas of New Wines of Greece. We’ve known Craig since WBC 2009 and we met George on a Wines of Santorini 2010 Media Tour on a grant from the European Union.

Outlaws and Renegades

Every year the WBC keynote speakers get better. Rather than the cadre of print-writers-now-on-the-internet, or markerters imploring us to monetize, we were entertained and encouraged by two renegades: Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, and Rex Pickett, author of Sideways. These two, in my opinion, personify the blogger — those who approach wine with an irreverent passion, eschew what is “proper” and ordinary, and who challenge the status quo. Who mock the gatekeepers and king makers by creating their own way, and bring wine closer to the consumer who drinks it.

The Friday trip to the small town of Carlton, Oregon on the Bus 8 Winery visit was a foreshadowing of the over-the-top post-WBC Carton, Oregon stay that hosted us among a few of our blogger friends. We shall tell you all about that later as well.

The Verdict – It’s All in What you Make of It

While you cannot rely on the Wine Bloggers’ Conference to meet all your expectations, overall we had a fabulous trip to Portland. We probably would not have enjoyed such a wide variety of wineries and other varietals on a self-planned trip. Because Oregon is primarily known for Pinot Noir, we perhaps would not have been able to justify the time and expense of a week on our own to immerse ourselves in only one grape. This trip we tasted everything from Assyrtiko to Zinfandel, from all over the world.

The organizers quite often do a good job of giving bloggers access to a variety of wines, and wineries access to a number of great bloggers. As long as the venue is easy to get to, and there are a great number of restaurants and wineries in the area, the event can be a success. Choose a remote venue with few wineries, or one that requires traveling an hour or more from a major city or airport, it tends to be a much less valuable conference. Being unaware of shipping laws, or not providing attendees with the means to ship wine home is short-sighted. Choosing a hot, humid venue in the middle of summer keeps many from enjoying or even being able to discern much from the reds.

Having attended all five, I can tell you that the Wine Bloggers Conference is much more what you make of it. If you use it as an opportunity to see old friends and plan one-on-ones and smaller trips with wineries prior-to and after-the event, you will find that you have more than enough memories to take home with you, a good working knowledge of the region, and notebooks and notebooks full of information to fill your blog for weeks to come.

The WineWonkette

Posted in Beer, Blogging, Education, Featured, Posts, Rant, Travel

Amy Corron Power View posts by Amy Corron Power

A licensed attorney, Amy is a wine-lover, foodie, photographer, political junkie and award-winning author who writes about Wine, Food, Beer & Spirits. As Managing Editor & Tasting Director for Another Wine Blog, she travels all over the world's wine regions to share her experiences with her readers and legions of twitter, Instagram and Facebook friends and fans. Amy holds certifications through the International Sommelier Guild, and is also certified, with honors, as a California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). She is a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events. Amy is also a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books, and was most recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude.
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