Wine Conferences: No Time for Writing About Wine
Often when we attend conferences and tastings, we plan an extra day prior to or following our trip. We may rent a car, an extra hotel night here and there, with enough unscheduled time to upload photos, shop, relax, and enjoy a “vacation” of sorts. That way even “work” seems a bit like holiday. Last month we visited Washington State Wine Country. We just returned from Greece. You would assume we had fabulous opportunities for souvenir shopping. But when someone else does the planning, almost every minute is scheduled, and quite often “over-booked.”
Every Minute is Scheduled
So to relax, or even blog, for that matter, one must skip some of the planned activities. For blogger conferences, it usually means panel discussions or breakfast. That’s because the men planning the schedule have no clue about “fudge” time. They plan the entire weekend as if it’s a college fraternity excursion that requires no showers, no sleep, no make-up and no packing save throwing everything in a duffel bag for “Mom” (or wife, or significant other) to wash upon return home.
And blogging? Well sure, tweeting via iPhone is blogging right? You don’t HAVE a iPhone? Well too bad for you!
The conference day schedule looks something like this:
06:30 to 07:30 am – Breakfast on your own. Who gets up at 6:30 a.m. after “tasting” wine until at least 11:00 p.m. or midnight the night before? Often with few breakfast venues, 200 – 300 people are vying for the same 30 tables. Continental breakfast required. There is no time for ordering, preparation, service and eating. And in any given day of wine tasting, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day.
7:35 am – Board Bus for Trip to Wineries/Vineyards. Conference organizers tell everyone to just count off and get on a bus. It doesn’t matter which bus. But once you choose a bus, you cannot change. Just count off like in first grade. Oops! You are number 16 and the schedule calls for 15. So you cannot sit with your friends. Go choose another bus. Loser!
7:40 to 9:00 am – Travel to and visit First Winery/Vineyard. 200-300 people all board buses in 5 minutes. Yeah, right. At 7:50 am the bus leaves the parking lot headed toward the first destination. An unmarked vineyard. Which the bus passes. Three times. Of course, we blame Thea. Because of the whole “Bus #4″ thing in Napa the year before. Through the magic of twitter we learn two other buses are lost. So it’s NOT Thea’s fault. At 8:30 a.m. we arrive at the first vineyard, which will include a tasting/pairing and a vineyard walk. Behind schedule, no time for extensive walk. Or pairing. Or photographs. A few quick shots. Walk a few steps into the vineyard. Quickly “taste.” No real time for food. Get back on the bus. It’s 9:20 a.m.
9:15 to 10:55 a.m. – Visit to second vineyard/winery. Now 20 minutes behind schedule, the bus gets stuck behind a train. Ten minutes. Arrive at the winery at 10:00 a.m. 15 people need a bathroom break. There is one stall for each gender. You get the picture. 10:15 a.m. winery tour begins. 10:35 am sit down for tasting. Of six or more wines. No time for questions, we must get back on the bus for the next stop. Wait, they have a gift shop! We can buy some souvenirs! Sorry, we’re running late, get on the bus. Now! It’s 11:15 a.m.
11:00 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Visit to third winery. Fifteen minutes behind schedule, we travel to next winery. Arrive at third stop at 11:40 a.m. Parking lot is across the street. Tour starts at 11:45 a.m. Noon, sit down for tasting. Six wines, each, from the two wineries represented. 30 minutes to taste 12 wines. And take notes. And ask questions. Not too many though, because we’ll be late for lunch. Leave winery at 12:30 p.m.
12:30 to 2:00 p m. – Lunch with winery. Further behind schedule, we arrive at winery 1:00 p.m. No time for tour or tasting – we’ll taste with lunch. Tables set up in the sun. On an unseasonably warm day. The pasty white people ask for a table in the shade. Winery moves one table. We sit down for lunch at 1:15 p.m. Tables are now spread out, so winemaker must go back and forth explaining the wines. Finish lunch at 2:15 p.m. Back on bus and headed to hotel at 2:25 p.m.
2:30 to 3:00 p.m. Break. Arrive at hotel 2:45 p.m. Run upstairs to room to drop literature. Thank goodness we’re on a lower floor. Two elevators have lines waiting to ascend to rooms on higher floors.
Afternoon at the Hotel
Vanity wins out. Since I take longer, Joe hits the shower first. He gets dressed and announces he needs coffee. Promises to be back in 5 minutes. I emerge from the shower refreshed and choose an outfit that requires a bit of assistance in getting dressed. Shouldn’t be a problem because Joe will be back in a few minutes. Or so he says.
While I’m waiting for help with a certain hook in the back, Joe has been side-tracked by Ward, aka drXeno. And Thea. After 10 minutes have passed, I pick up my phone to send a “Where the HELL are you?” text. And find a message. Which I missed, because I had turned off the sound during the winery visits. By this time I have given up on the chosen attire for something that requires no help getting dressed. And the message indicates Joe is drinking Bordeaux at the “Anti-Conference.”
Every year during the WBC there is a portion of the conference that the “regulars” have no desire to attend. Usually it’s the awards ceremony. It’s a boycott of sorts, because all of the “regulars,” whose blogs are very good, are never nominated for an
award. Among the nominees there are usually 1 or 2 very good blogs in each category. The other nominees rounding out the category are either conference organizers’ blogs; famous traditional print journalists with on-line columns that appear in the newspaper that employs them; or the on-line column of a major newspaper’s wine editor. And thus the boycott. Not because there aren’t genuinely deserving blogger nominees. But because they make up only about 20 percent of all the finalists. It’s as if, in a BCS National Championship, the rankings include The Ohio State Buckeyes, The University of Texas Longhorns, the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and the NCAA Convention planners.
This year the Awards Ceremony comes immediately after the “welcome and introduction,” so the Anti-Conference moves to the following day. It’s already 15 minutes into the panel discussion, so I opt to join Joe, drXeno, DallasWineChick, BrixChicksLiza and Thea, the winebratsf outside on the patio for some Bordeaux. Given the next panel discussion includes the tired, worn-out, beating-a-dead-horse topic of “The Future of Wine Writing,” we continue the Anti-Conference until it is time for Speed Tasting.
The Evening Activities
5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Live Blogging. Live Blogging is actually Twitter Speed Tasting. Tables for 10 bloggers are set up and every five minutes a new winemaker pours and describes his or her wine. Bloggers must taste and comment within 5 minutes time. There is no time to actually “blog,” but you do have time to tweet. After one of the organizers concludes that there were too many bloggers at our table (never-mind we just filled the chairs available) two less stubborn of our group get up and move to another table. At 5:15 pm the speed tasting gets underway. Three-year veterans now, we find we have plenty of time to taste and tweet. This gives us more time to craft tweets more apt to get projected on the screen at the front of the room. At promptly 6:00 p.m. we were told to vacate the premises, so that the tables could be prepared for dinner.
6:00 to 6:30 p.m. Break. We join the hordes at the elevator to make a quick trip to the room to drop computers and tasting notes, and upload any pictures from the speed tasting. And run back down the steps for the pre-dinner reception.
6:30 to 7:00 p.m. Pre-dinner Reception. Everyone (Reminder: 200-300 people) gathers in a room designed for about 50 people. Long lines form at every tasting table, and the two-sided, two-ended buffet has folks starting at one end, and stopping in the middle. The other “entrance” is unused, mainly because the set-up is counter-intuitive. We spy one of the few cocktail tables in the corner and make our way to it, snack quickly, and leave as to allow others to use it. Spying cheese, crackers and meats piled on our tiny plates, one fellow blogger says, “We ARE having dinner, you know.”
7:00 to 8:45 p.m. Dinner. We enter the Main Ballroom to discover seating is limited. Half of the room includes round tables for 10-12, but nearly all of the seats have been “saved” by conference organizers and the other few who “got the memo.” There are two stations set up. On one end are a few seafood hors d’oeuvres with white wines. The other includes sliders with red wine. Long lines to each, nothing being passed amongst the cocktail tables. After a quick glance around, some bloggers determine they’ll have a better chance fortifying for the next event if they choose a restaurant in town. We opt for the white wine line. After 25 minutes we get to the serving table, pick up a few bites and a glass of something white then head to a cocktail table. I think back to the blogger shocked at our reception plates, hoping he got enough food to keep from getting drunk while “tasting.”
9:00 to 10:30 p.m. After Dinner Walk-About. Following dinner we rush upstairs to change to “sensible shoes” for our walk about town. We’re given a map to 12 tasting rooms nearby. Thea knows of a killer party afterward, so we follow her merry band of tasters. Everyone decides to start with “Tasting Room Number 1.” So 50-60 people attempt to crowd into a room designed for 12. Not wanting to fight a crowd or risk wearing my wine, I hang back and wait for the opportunity to taste 1 or 2 wines. Out of about 12. Well at least I will stay sober, since dump buckets are few and far between.
The last Tasting Room is that of our Bed and Breakfast hosts. We stop in to taste and chat with our host. This is the first opportunity we’ve had to actually taste the wines, look at the interesting art, and talk with the actual winemaker. In the process we lose Thea and the merry pranksters. Thank goodness for twitter. And text messages. We get the address for the “Killer Party” and follow the music to a warehouse, where a Punk-a-Billy Band is playing. We plan to stay only a little while, but the band is pretty good. Then come the strippers. (aka Voodoo Dollz) Yes, strippers.(click the link for a few stripper pics, possibly not safe for work) MelanieO proclaims that this wasn’t exactly how she envisioned spending her birthday (it’s now after midnight). The merry pranksters leave, probably to enjoy some fabulous wine in Melanie’s room. We stay for the second set.
1:00 a.m. Back to the Hotel. In the lobby we run into some fellow bloggers and share pictures. Then chat with the Chef from Chateau Ste Michelle whom we met during the WBC-or Bust tour. After a lively discussion about wine, food, politics and BP, we head up to the room. And fall into bed. only to start again the next day.
Suggestions About Scheduling
I took a tiny bit of “poetic license” with the schedule. All of those events didn’t occur on the exact same day. The evening activities were on Friday night and the winery visits through the afternoon were on Saturday. The starting time isn’t exactly the same. But the sequence of events, time allotted each event and break times are roughly identical. There was actually more time to blog this year than last if you wanted to skip all the “breakout” sessions. Last year, for instance, we left the hotel at 9:00 a.m. and did not return until nearly midnight. Every single minute of that day was scheduled with no breaks whatsoever. But given we didn’t have much internet access last year, extra time wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
It’s true that you cannot please everyone. Conference organizers attempt to pack lots of events into a tight two-and-a-half day schedule. But if the event, trip or conference is designed to garner publicity about the event in real time, there has to be some time built in to do that. Otherwise you’re doing a disservice to the sponsors, the wineries participating, and the writers you’ve invited to attend. Granted, some media personnel do pre-scheduled posts and broadcasts. Some even produce media before the event that claims to be during the event. Back when I was in journalism school those were deemed unethical. Like the reporter who reviews a concert she left after the first two songs; but has a copy of the set list. Or the commentator who doesn’t attend a big football game, but writes from the stat sheets he downloads from the athletic department website. To those folks: Do us all a favor and re-run a “best of” or a pre-taped interview that is identified as such.
If you want us to blog, or write about an event, please give us time to do so. Otherwise, you get stale stories that we write two weeks later. That is, if we have time between the events that are happening now. There is no need to pack so many things into such a tight schedule. Send pre-conference DVDs to registrants prior to the event. Build in some cushion between winery visits. Allow some non-structured visiting time between bloggers. Because as anyone who attends lots of conferences can tell you; most of the meaningful interaction takes place between the planned events. And finally, get some women on the planning committee. Women who have lives, and families, and like to dress for dinner. It makes the conference more enjoyable for us which in turn allows us to attend, and write about all of the events on the schedule.