Meeting of Grape Minds

By Karl Klooster

A big gathering involving elements of a given industry is most often called a convention. Smaller, more focused meetings are usually called conferences. Seminars, workshops and lectures may take place during either type of event.

When Oregon wine industry leaders cast about for a name for their annual gathering several years back, they settled on “symposium” instead.

What does that mean, anyway? Is it synonymous with convention or conference, or does it connote something different?

That all depends on whom you consult. But as it turns out, “symposium” is more directly applicable to the annual wine industry conclave than any other term.

A thesaurus search brings up “meeting, congress, convention, seminar and summit” as words of similar meaning. An online dictionary calls a symposium “a conference for the discussion of some subject, especially a meeting at which several speakers talk on or discuss a topic before an audience.”

That’s the primary definition. The secondary definition reveals, “In ancient Greece and Rome, a symposium was a convivial meeting, usually following a dinner, for drinking and intellectual conversation.”

Merriam-Webster reverses that order.

Its first definition is “a convivial party—as after a banquet in ancient Greece—with music and conversation, or a social gathering at which there is free interchange of ideas.” It’s second is “a formal meeting at which several specialists deliver short addresses on a topic or on related topics.”

Looking at the root, we find “Latin, symposium, from Greek symposion, from sympinein, to drink together, from syn- + pinein, to drink.”

Now if that doesn’t say “wine,” and all the congeniality that accompanies it, I don’t know what does.

During the Feb. 23-25 Oregon Wine Industry Symposium, held at the Hilton Hotel and Conference Center in Eugene for the fourth straight year, attendees and exhibitors immersed themselves in both the business and pleasure of wine.

There were more wine people—871 this year, as opposed to 743 in 2007. There were also more suppliers, more booths and more of everything the industry has come to expect of this event—in the midst of a tough economy.

Given the prevailing environment, symposium presenters conveyed messages that were more than cautionary. Consensus has it that the industry is headed toward very difficult times. Indicators point toward both overproduction and reduced sales.

Consensus has it that there will be numerous casualties, but ways to ameliorate the impact include cost-cutting measures and selling excess inventory under secondary labels to protect brand image.

Despite near-term negativity, however, attendees appeared to be generally confident about the Oregon industry’s long-term future, owing to greater maturity and sophistication with the resultant increased quality across the board.

It’s uplifting to see such optimism, but not all that surprising given the prevailing worldview of those who choose grapegrowing and winemaking as a profession. To do it with unswerving dedication, you’ve got to be a glass-half-full kind of person.

Consider these realties:

When you plant a vineyard, it takes three to four years before you can harvest anything approaching a commercial quantity of grapes, and another three or four before the vines have attained enough maturity to be at their best. Did I mention the ever-present possibility of Mother Nature throwing a last-minute monkey wrench into the mix?

If you’re a winery, you can buy grapes, go through the vineyard planting process yourself, or employ both options. Whatever way the fruit is obtained, after making the wine, you face a wait of at least a year or two before you can sell it.

This glacially slow cash flow comes only after a huge, upfront investment in land acquisition, vineyard planting and winery building.

Then, there’s the mountain of paperwork required to comply with all the governmental rules and regulations. This is, after all, an alcoholic beverage, strictly controlled and subject to taxes that must be paid before a single drop goes out the door.

Last, but far from least, you’ve got to sell the stuff. Everything that has gone before will be for naught unless enough cases get into the marketplace for owners to cover their overhead, pay their employees and, hopefully, have something left over for themselves.

All of the above-mentioned areas were encompassed within the symposium’s three-day scope—viticulture, enology, management and marketing. And it was accompanied by the largest trade show to date, with 95 exhibitors.

Simply walking around the floor told the story of what it takes to make this industry tick. An alphabetical listing of products and services on display provides a succinct overview of that encyclopedic array: architects, attorneys, bankers, barrels, bottles, capsules, chemicals, consultants, contractors, corks, excavating, fertilizer, filters, harvesters, insurance, labels, lab testing, metal fabricators, nurseries, packaging, pipes, presses, print media, pumps, shipping, software, storage, tractors and valves.

Seventeen seminars and a technical tasting were offered. Covering all aspects of interest to the industry, they ranged from making better wine to controlling vineyard pests and maximizing tourism dollars.

While winemakers dug their teeth into such complex oenological issues as sulfides and pediococcus, marketing and sales people soaked up advice about distribution, brand protection, wine-buying habits and creative use of the Internet’s emerging social media networks.

Opportunities for socializing were part of the packed daily agenda, including the highlight of the symposium: the Industry Awards Dinner on Tuesday evening, prepared by guest chef Jack Yoss of the much-praised Ten 01 restaurant in Portland.

The prestigious Founders Awards went to Bob Kerivan of Bridgeview Vineyards and Winery in the Illinois Valley, and Marilyn Webb and Terry Casteel of Bethel Heights Vineyard in the Eola Hills. Also honored were Masatoshi Hamamoto of Village Cellars in Japan, who received the Industry Partners Award, and Maria McCandless of ¡Salud! received this year’s Outstanding Service Award.

During the course of the award banquet’s many courses, glasses magically became half-full again after being emptied more than once. ◊

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