Surrounded by Blog
By Jim Gullo
In one corner of the Willamette ballroom stood, in the flesh, the Hudson Valley Wine Goddess. In another, equally corporeal — as in tangible, of this world, not virtual — was the Grape Occasions queen. And as I leaned in to get a refill of an outstanding Argentine Malbec, a redheaded Tweeter in a power dress and flip-flops roughly brushed past me, thrust her glass forward and exclaimed to the pourer, “”You know me! You follow me on Twitter! WineGirl365?”
This social interaction, not to mention proximity to such rock stars of the wine blogging world, were two of the main reasons to attend the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference, held on Aug. 17–19 at Portland’s Doubletree Hotel. Following close behind were the ample pours supplied by more than 200 participating wineries and the hospitality provided by Oregon wineries, which welcomed convention attendees with everything from tastes of their best bottles to visits to their wineries and a five-course, sit-down dinner for 400 people hosted by King Estate.
“This is a huge feather in our caps,” said a beaming Charles Humble of the Oregon Wine Board, which wooed the wine bloggers to Portland for their fifth annual conference, and facilitated Oregon wineries’ participation throughout the festival. “It lifts all of our social media boats.”
Colorado-based organizer Allan Wright added that the bloggers themselves had chosen Oregon’s Rose City over Paso Robles, Santa Barbara and Penticton, British Columbia, the host for next year’s event. “We have sold out every conference,” he said, with the Portland conference topping out at 370 attendees, with many unhappy bloggers left on a waiting list.
The participants, who would enjoy three days of seminars, tastings, private parties, hosted meals and excursions and pre- and post-conference tours, included: citizen wine bloggers, or private individuals who blog about wine; industry wine bloggers affiliated with wineries, retail stores or other businesses; and non-blogger participants. Dozens of sponsors provided a steady and copious stream of wine in hopes that the bloggers would, well, blog about them.
There was just one question surrounding the event, and it was a good one that was asksed repeatedly throughout the conference: What exactly is a wine blogger? And does he or she have any real influence over the decisions of people who actually buy wine?
OREGON GETS DIBS
The conference began with a Thursday night tasting sponsored by the OWB, with 50 Oregon wineries pouring. Large and small brands alike had the opportunity to introduce themselves to the assembled bloggers, like Steve Lutz’s Lenné Estate and Robert and Ellen Brittan’s Brittan Vineyards, which sampled an unreleased 2010 Pinot Noir and its cool-climate ’09 Syrah. As Russell Gladhart of Winter’s Hill Vineyard pointed out, the conference allowed wineries to connect with people with whom they had been interacting in the blogosphere for years.
“We’ve invested a lot in building up a social media presence, so it’s good to make contact with people in that world,” said Gladhart, who poured Pinot Noir with his wife, winemaker Delphine Gladhart. “It makes an even playing field for large and small wineries.”
“It’s exciting,” said Michael Donovan, chairman of the Oregon Wine Board and managing director of RoxyAnn Winery. “The wine board is very proud to host this,” he said, noting that the first four bloggers to walk into the room were from New York and Virginia.
Two of those bloggers were the aforementioned Hudson Valley Wine Goddess and Grape Occasions queen. Respectively, their real names are Debbie Gioquindo, from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Shannon Jones, from Alexandria, Va. “I wanted to get closer to Oregon wine,” said Jones, whose introduction to Oregon wine was an A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir poured in Amsterdam. “I’ve been to Portland but had never gotten out to wine country.”
Added Gioquindo, “It’s a great place to network with other bloggers and wineries, and learn from everyone.” It was her first visit to Oregon, and she was already taken, she said, with Left Coast Cellars’ Pinot Gris, Methven’s Chardonnay and Scott Paul’s Pinot Noir.
The Oregon wines would share the stage with producers from all over the world the next morning when the conference went into full swing. Importers and trade associations had set up tasting booths for wines from Argentina, Italy, Greece, Spain and France, among others. A live-blogging event of white and rosé wines offered a series of five-minute presentations that ran the gamut from California Chardonnays to Rhone rosés, Washington Viogniers and Oregon Pinot Gris and Gewürz.
Oregon would have the last word, or the last Tweet, as it were, on the day. After a keynote speech by Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm — “Very few of us have figured out how to monetize our efforts. We blog because we must,” — the crowd boarded eight buses for tours and dinners at Willamette Valley and Columbia Gorge vineyards, among others.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A WINE BLOGGER?
“Are we wine bloggers or wine writers?” was the title of one of a dozen seminars offered the next day —no conclusion was reached. Are bloggers writers, journalists, critics or something else entirely was the head-scratching theme of the day; the only point of agreement was that few people make a living at it yet. As one Carlton winemaker dryly noted, “The bloggers don’t buy wine, and they don’t sell wine, so basically I’m not sure what the point is. But my social media person says it’s important to be here.”
At another keynote speech with “Sideways” author Rex Pickett, “Girl With a Glass” blogger Alana Gentry snapped to the crowd, “You’re writers in here. Be good writers. Saying, ‘there’s blackberry in the wine’ makes you a critic. Be a writer.”
Or be something else entirely, something new and as yet undefined by traditional media standards — and for the record, this publication, along with Wine Business Monthly, were the only brick-and-mortar publications in attendance, as far as we could tell.
On Saturday night, the OWB’s Charles Humble had another big smile on his face, and it wasn’t because the Wine Goddess had shared some of her vertical flight of Alsatian Rieslings with him. The bloggers, he announced, had posted so many tweets over the past 24 hours that the Wine Bloggers Conference had been named one of the top trending topics in all of Twitter.
That counts for something in the wine-blogging world. Doesn’t it?
Jim Gullo is a McMinnville-based wine and travel writer. He is also the author of “Trading Manny.”