Many of my friends, and much of what I know about wine started with the first Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Rosa, California in 2008. Sure I had taken a few seminars through University of Toledo’s own wine expert, Professor John A. Barrett, and we had traveled once to Sonoma on our own as a post American Bar Association Annual Meeting. But then it was mainly about drinking the wine, rather than immersion in the industry.
There are a couple different stories we tell about how I got involved in writing about wine. I’ve wanted to be a writer since my second grade teacher had me read something I wrote in front of the entire school assembly. There is something about being center stage that gives a terribly shy, introverted little nerd a bit of confidence. Then Joe and I started a football fan site that got the attention of Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the Heisman Selection Committee and the local Fox Sports Ohio affiliate.
But the truth is I always thought wine was for other people. Snooty people. Ladies who lunch. Well-heeled Oil Men. Folks like that.
Then came twitter.
What you may not know, is that Joe and I met on-line, on a football forum. You wouldn’t believe it now, but I was a shy introvert, and he was a shy introvert. But on-line where no one was making fun of us for being smart, or short, or we could hold our own talking with a diverse group. The Harvard-educated lawyer. A guy who was there at Kent State in 1970, when students were massacred by the National Guard for protesting Nixon’s escalation into Cambodia during the Vietnam War. DJs from one of the last real rock ‘n’ roll radio stations in the country. The Jetta-driving Latin scholar. Or an Alex P. Keaton type whose mom sold candles.
We had already developed personalities on social media (before it was called social media) talking about sports, so we just morphed these to twitter. A former culinary school student, Joe started taking classes through International Sommelier Guild. Then he started the blog. He asked me to take pictures and proof-read his stuff for typos before he posted it. I kind of poo-poo’d his efforts. But people started reading it. Then MORE people started reading it.
He started amassing twitter followers. It was a bit like our football forums. Joe is witty and charming and sometimes acerbic. He’s great at taking down his verbal adversaries. As a woman who had met her significant other “on-line” I was paying attention to whom he was chatting up on twitter. It was easy then, because there weren’t too many of us early adopters. It was 2008.
There were a couple of women who flirted and Joe would flirt back. Then he told me he was thinking about attending this thing called a Wine Bloggers Conference in California. The flirty women were going to be there. Wine? Flirty Women? Two time zones away? Okay, let me take some pictures. And what the heck, I can write about wine!
Wine Bloggers Conference 2008 – Santa Rosa California
We drove up to the Flamingo Resort in a rented Blue Mustang convertible. The first person we met was Denise Mendrano aka The Wine Sleuth. We were in line registering and picking up swag. She jumped in our car and we got lost going to the first wine tasting. At a dinner line I saw this guy with tattoos, an earring and a huge mohawk. He kinda scared me. That was Ward Kadel aka drXeno. But still being a bit shy, even with all that wine tasting, we did not meet the gregarious folks sitting over at the LOUD table at a Sebastiani Winery dinner. Megan aka Sonadora at Wannabe Wino, Thea the Winebratsf — wait Winebrat? She is one of the flirty girls! We did not get to meet the tall girl with pink hair and black high-heeled Goth Boot — Lisa de Bruin aka WineDiverGirl (another flirty girl). We mainly stuck to ourselves, went to the events and did not really mingle, except with one very nice married couple, Dennis & Julie Grimes who also ran a Guest Cottage and Winery (Eagles Nest Winery).
When we got back to Houston we got more serious about wine. And twitter. We started talking to all the other WBC attendees. We went to Russian River Valley for Wine Road the following March, and got better acquainted with Winebratsf, Shararay, sonomawineguy, mmwine, BrixChick_Liza, WineDog and a few other bloggers. We visited Twisted Oak Winery in Calaveras County (again in a Mustang). We got excited when they announced the next conference slated for Sonoma AND Napa.
WBC Scholarship Established
In 2009, a group of bloggers started a scholarship program to help others attend the conference. We had learned so much about wine in 2008, and met so many new friends, we jumped in to donate. The conference is really good for bloggers just starting out — the more we can bring in to the fold, the better to help educate the consumer about wine!
WBC 2009 – Sonoma and Napa Valley, California
Funny the difference a year makes. We knew the folks from twitter. So when time came to board a bus to take us to events, we hopped on “Bus #4” with flirty Thea, scary Ward, Megan, The Beer Wench, ElJefe, Sharayray, WineDog, NorCalWine, the guys from Mutineer Magazine, Mike Wangbickler, Rob Bralow, Walla Walla Wine Woman and all the other party people. And the bus got lost.
While we were lost, Thea led us in songs about beer.
We visited a winery where no wine was served. We blended wines that Joe ended up wearing. We crashed a tasting at the brand new Cornerstone Cellars tasting room in Yountville (on an invitation from flirty WineDiverGirl), and I ate steak tartar and oysters for the first time at Bistro Jeanty. We drank fabulous wines, made even more new friends, and toured Kathryn Hall wineries with a small group of bloggers after the conference, staying at Hall’s La Residence boutique hotel in Napa.
WBC 2010 – Walla Walla Washington
Of course we signed up! Washington wineries sent samples. I entered a contest for a pre-conference excursion from Seattle to Walla Walla — and won! So, after spending a lovely evening with former Texas residents and Wine Peeps John and LaGayle Sosnowy, we boarded a bus and headed across Washington, getting to know more new bloggers, including a scholarship recipient we had helped send to the conference.We stayed at a charming Bed and Breakfast called Vine & Roses as part of the WBC-or-Bust winners’ group.
Once in Walla Walla, we jumped on a bus with Thea and some other rowdy bloggers to tour local wineries and vineyards. And the bus got lost.
But we ended up at the vineyard, toured wineries and tasted some fabulous Washington Syrah and Merlot. We attended a Charles Smith party with a great Rockabilly Band complete with burlesque dancers. And we finally got to hang out a bit with the Dallas Wine Chick. She lives just three hours away, but we see her more often at conferences in other states.
WBC 2011 – Charlottsville, Virginia
Donors again for the scholarship, this time we sat on the selection committee. I love encouraging new bloggers and was so happy to meet recipient Chandra Savage. The tour of Monticello was fascinating, albeit sweltering in the humid Virginia summer.
But we tasted some really good Viognier and Cabernet Franc and met first time attendee Amy Gross, who turns out also lived in the Houston area. That year we were Wine Blog Award finalists for “Best Writing on a Wine Blog,” and we were happy to be recognized.
We tasted some incredible library Rioja, and had a great time hanging out with PR girl extraordinaire Constance Chamberlain and her then boss, Brand Action Team‘s own Steve Raye. And meeting Vindulge’s Mary Cressler’s little twins and her hubby the PBR fan!
WBC 2012 – Portland, Oregon
Big fans of the show Portlandia, we couldn’t wait for WBC Portland. Food trucks, great eats, diverse population, books, coffee, cult donuts — what more could you ask for? We upped our donation to the WBC Scholarship — I was working tons of hours, so we had a little extra cash. There is so much incredible food and wine in the Pacific Northwest. We had dinner with Alison Sokol Blossor tasting through some refreshing crisp whites and elegantly balanced reds paired with the delicious food of Ned Ludd. Dined at the experiential BEAST. We visited food trucks parks pairing a kaleidoscope of great Wines of Chile. We tasted Craig Camp’s amazing Cornerstone Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
We got pulled over in Carlton during the conference, and then went BACK for a post-conference stay at a cozy Winery Loft. Lynette from Republic of Jam helped coordinate visits to wineries, tasting rooms and vineyards like Cliff Creek, Noble Pig, Monks Gate Vineyard, Lemelson Vineyards, Luminous Hills, Seven of Hearts, Ken Wright Cellars and SPOfFORD Station. We headed back to Portland for a couple of days of beer and just the two of us.
We Hit a Little Bump in the Road
As soon as we got back to Houston, we were invited on a media trip to Italy. We sold our Austin City Limits Festival tickets, canceled the trip to Austin and headed to Rome, then Puglia, then Sicily, then Tuscany. We returned home with loads of notes, and pictures ready to write about Portland, Carlton and all the wines of Italy. But the following Monday, my mom went to her cardiologist appointment, collapsed in the doctor’s hallway and never woke up.
Heretofore I managed to balance life, and home and wine and work pretty well. It was not always easy, and hitting 50 didn’t make it easier. But suddenly I had to focus on one thing or the other, and one thing paid the school loans, and the other did not. One thing had me away from my house which is across the street from my mother’s and the other had me staring out a window at her driveway that was now missing her car.
So I threw myself into work, hitting 60, 65 sometimes 70 hours a week. Along with taking courses through the International Sommelier Guild every Monday night. That left not too much time for blogging.
WBC 2013 – Penticton, British Columbia
The Wine Bloggers Conference is never the same time from year to year. It has only once been the same place two years in a row. It’s not like the American Bar Association that rotates between 3 or 4 cities and is roughly the same time every year. So far we’ve done Sonoma in October, Napa/Sonoma at the end of July, Walla Walla in June, Charlottesville in July, Portland in August. It makes it very tough to plan vacations. Sure they announce it nearly a year in advance, but it isn’t always to most convenient time or place.
With the exception of Portland, it’s usually at least an hour from a major airport — sometimes more. Penticton is around 300 miles from Vancouver and 350 miles from Seattle. Of course, there are always regional airports, but they aren’t cheap. But it’s always worth it to me, to learn about new wine regions, see old friends and make new ones. And to connect with other folks in the wine industry.
The Organizers are younger and don’t think of things like high school graduations. The 2013 event was in early June; the same weekend as high school graduation in Texas. We had a graduating senior, with family coming in from out-of-town. “Sorry Jake, we’re going to a wine conference we will have to miss your graduation” just wasn’t going to fly. So for the first year since its inception, we did not go.
WBC 2014 – Buellton, California
This year’s Wine Bloggers’ Conference is in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley, and the small town of Buellton, just north of Santa Barbara, California. Happy to be getting back to a state we love, I booked a room in the host hotel early. Joe has never seen Big Sur, or driven down the Pacific Coast Highway. We planned to fly into San Francisco, rent a car and take a leisurely trip down the coast, stopping to stay in a fabulous tree house along the way.
But as luck would have it, my 50 – 70 hour a week placement hit a hiccup at the end of 2013. I worked a week in January, took another gig in February for another firm, worked a day or so in March. I still have an office with my name on it — there is just no work. And when there is work, what promises to be two weeks ends up being a day. Or the agency tells you they have work, so you turn down another gig, and then you get “sorry” it’s on hold.
So my fancy Downtown office sits empty, while I occasionally drive through horrible traffic an hour away to an office sitting right smack in the middle of construction. It’s not always fun for me. But such is the nature of the work I chose so I could help raise two boys I gained through marriage. It was a choice. But the choice means my work is feast or famine unless I start all over doing something else, somewhere else. And that’s where the wine writing comes in.
So the fun trip down the California Coast will have to wait. I thought for sure we would have to miss another conference. I told my good friend Thea I was probably going to have to stay home. Between a family income halved, college expenses, two car payments and $700 a month summer electric bills, I just couldn’t see my way to spending $2,500+ on a few days in the valley. Because while the conference itself is pretty inexpensive, the plane tickets, the hotel, meals-not-covered and transportation to get from LAX to Buellton is not. Double that for two people, and you’re dropping a lot of Benjamins.
“Why don’t you apply for a scholarship,” Thea says.
“Wait, take money? We always give money!” I say. And Thea says, “People get laid off. People get hours cut. That’s the whole reason why we started the scholarship in the first place!” It makes me terribly uncomfortable to ask for help, I would much rather give it. But she talked me into it, so with hat in hand, so to speak, I applied for half our expenses — for just me.
A few weeks ago I learned I was awarded a scholarship!
So we both get to visit Santa Barbara, taste wine from a new region, see old friends, and meet new ones. I would like to thank the WBC scholarship committee, and all the generous donors for making it possible for me, and all the recipients this year, to attend.
Whatever Happened with the Flirty Girls?
And those flirty girls? One has become my WBCBFF (Wine Blogger Conference Best Friend Forever), and in fact, one of my closest friends. Even though she lives miles and miles away. Thea is the one who organized my surprise 50th Birthday party hosted by BrixChix_Liza, and the one who invited me to stay at her house when I just had to escape Houston after my mom’s passing.
The other is busy with her wine industry life, but we see her whenever she is available and we are in town. Part of being great at social media, and sales, is making others feel good about talking to you — so most everyone who is successful in this industry is flirty. Because that’s what makes people like them so much — and in turn makes them good at their jobs.
I’m glad I went to that first Wine Bloggers Conference, even if it started out for the wrong reasons. So many of our friends are those we have met over the past six years at WBC, and I have learned much in the process — about wine, about people, about life. I’m still a bit of an introvert, but you wouldn’t know it if you met me. And part of that is due to the WBC. I look forward to attending next month in Santa Barbara, and many more to come!