Wine Bloggers Conference 2009: Cyber Success in Wine Country
Bacchus would have fit right in at the second Wine Bloggers Conference, held last weekend at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, California. There was a lot of mirth, quite a bit of hugging, and less than the usual amount of spitting. As one veteran PR wag observed after two days of cavorting with agents of the wine blogosphere: "That sure looked like one long party to me."
Blogging, by nature, is a slippery field to define; all it takes is a modicum of tech know-how to start chronicling one's particular take on wine as a "web log." Attendees came from all over the country (even Europe and New Zealand) and varied widely in their blogging frequency, degree of commercialization, readership and thematic niches.
One prime storyline leading up to the conference was simply that of energized anticipation: a relatively fast follow-up on the inaugural event held just last October, this conference sold out its 275 slots weeks in advance and still had a waiting list of 70, according to organizers at Open Wine Consortium. (By comparison, the Wine Writers Symposium held in February drew fewer than 30 paying registrants.)
Another key component was the extent to which the wine industry has embraced the blogging phenomenon. Sponsorship this year came from as far abroad as Spain (Rueda, Sherry Council of America) and Portugal (ViniPortugal), and included individual wineries (Benziger, Bonny Doon, Bouchaine, Rodney Strong) and companies tangential to the wine industry (Vinfolio, Zephyr Wine Adventures, Bottle Shock) as well as several high-profile Sonoma associations and Napa Valley Vintners.
The injection of trade participation was likely both pushed by the economy and pulled by the vibrant novelty of blogging. In fact, as blogging has become a viable communications tool for wine-related businesses, it was inevitable that many trade bloggers were nestled cheek-by-jowl with "citizen bloggers" throughout the conference. By my scan of the participants roster, about two-thirds of attendees were independent bloggers; the rest were trade bloggers, trade members and/or sponsors. Crowd at the Wine Bloggers Conference - Photo courtesy of Hardy Wallace
Ironically, the technology that so unites and empowers the bloggers also failed them at one important juncture: a "live blogging" session scheduled for the first afternoon was hampered by lack of WiFi access due to system overload. No worries, though; as two dozen vintners rotated among round tables in a large conference room, pouring samples every six minutes, some bloggers turned from laptops to PDAs (which let them "tweet") and others simply took notes for posting later. The round-robin style tasting was a far cry from guided press tastings--but nobody was complaining.
The opening day also featured presentation of (previously announced) American Wine Blog Awards; a poolside walkaround tasting of Sonoma County wines; dinner at the hotel with more Sonoma wines; and, finally, an after-hours reception hosted by Russian River Valley Winegrowers.
On Saturday the bloggers shifted en masse to Napa Valley, highlighted by a keynote address by Barry Schuler, former CEO of America Online as well as a vintner himself (Meteor Vineyards), at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. A veritable rock star in the cyber world, Schuler kept a rapt audience laughing and nodding as he chronicled the rapid ascent of blogging as it has evolved from a hobby to a career for many. He described how blogging and social media have "disrupted traditional media faster than we have been able to invent new models," adding that "wine has not yet had its Internet moment." He encouraged bloggers to use the Internet's freedom and reach to develop their individual brands: "If you can build and maintain an audience, the model for monetization will come."
The bloggers left the CIA on what amounted to seven separate content-gathering "mystery tours," in that bloggers boarded buses without knowing actual destinations. My particular bus went to Peju Province for lunch; then Spring Mountain Vineyard for a "then and now" Cabernet tasting led by winemakers/principals from Spring Mountain, Freemark Abbey, Beaulieu and Oakville Ranch. All the buses then re-convened at Quintessa for a late-afternnoon "grand tasting" of 80-plus Napa Valley Vintner member wines, and then dispersed again for winemaker dinners. I went to Pine Ridge, where dinner in the caves was complemented by wines from not only Pine Ridge but also Ceja, Rocca Family and Howell at the Moon wineries.
As a writer who has often been treated to press tours and meals in the past, I would characterize the events staged as part of the bloggers conference as every bit as "serious" as traditional press outings, but with a heightened degree of excitement and conviviality. There was an atmosphere of wanting to be at the leading edge of the new wine media, even as no one is sure exactly what that new media comprises. The lines between citizen bloggers, trade bloggers and representatives courting bloggers were continually, happily blurred.
While the wine blogosphere itself has been peppered in recent months with high-profile discussions of ethics, there was surprisingly little talk of ethics in the circles I found myself in throughout the conference. I would attribute this to two factors: 1) the business at hand centered on blog content, with a concerted commitment to sharing and learning about wine from start to finish, and 2) bloggers are by nature independent beasts who forge their own standards, so issues of blogging ethics and blog-trade overlap at the conference are bound to be handled in diverse ways moving forward.
The event's closing day resembled a more straightforward conference, with breakout sessions covering nuts-and-bolts topics (legal considerations for bloggers; ways to generate revenue via blogs; using social media; how search engines can increase blog traffic). But by noon, it was back outdoors, as bloggers took part in vineyard walks sponsored by Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley--a more than symbolic reminder that bloggers crave firsthand contact with their subject material as much as traditional writers who aim to communicate the story of wine to interested readers.
The third Wine Bloggers Conference is scheduled for June 25-27 in Walla Walla, Washington.
W. R. Tish tweets as @tishwine and blogs at http://wineskewer.wordpress.com
Crowd at the Wine Bloggers Conference - Photo courtesy of Hardy Wallace