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Wine Blogger Conferences ~ It’s a Matter of Taste

I’ve been to both the American Wine Bloggers Conference (Santa Rosa 2008) and the European Wine Bloggers Conference (Lisbon 2009).

What I’m about to write is something that’s controversial and now rumbling underground, as people think this through and begin to discuss their opinions. I was just reminded of it as I read Paul Gregutt’s blog about the conference. He asked the wine brands who were pouring to comment on their thoughts… from that perspective… and then he wrote his story.

Bean commented:

Chiming in on Joe’s #2, I talked to a lot of Washington wineries about participating in the conference and heard several reasons over and over again for not joining in, especially in the speed tasting.

#1 was lack of confidence that their wines would stand out in the crowd. I heard this even from wine makers who make some really good wines.

#2 Or some smart aleck would trash talk them. They thought the chance of bad press/tweets was too high for the gamble

#3 Speed tasting was too fast to connect with bloggers in a meaningful way. They didn’t want to be “part of the machine”

I’m really curious to see where this all goes, because I’ve been holding this one in since the first conference I attended in Santa Rosa in 2008.

  1. American Wine Bloggers Conference ~ Speed tasting ~ Vintners have five minutes to pour their wines, tell the tasters the story of their companies, and describe what they’re pouring. Palates go from white to red, and back to white and red, with each new vintner. There could be a wine with residual sugar, then back to white, to red, and off to rose.
  2. European Wine Bloggers Conference ~ Class room setting ~ The focus could be wines from a region (with the vintners talking about the wines), a class in fortified wines (sherries and ports), whites of a region, and then the reds.

I’ve given you this comparison, just in case you think that the tasting set-up at both conferences are handled in the same way… They’re definitely not. One is definitely old school, and the other is definitely new school. It’s a matter personal taste from the organizers.

In my own personal learning (and teaching), I always favor quality over quantity, because more is absorbed on any subject when it’s more than just sound bites.

This is just my personal and professional opinion, as humble as it may be.

It’s not meant to dismiss all the other good that’s coming from the American conference.

The organizers are doing a lot right. This one ~ Speed Tasting ~ is just not my cup of tea… ah… glass of wine.

It lends itself toward getting drunk, and that’s not where I want to go with wine. This setting’s scenario really encourages those less exposed to wine to really get hammered. (Tell me nobody got drunk during this tasting, and I’ll retract that last sentence.)

I know that it’s been mentioned to the organizers of WBC… that this element of their conference is challenging for some tasters… and they’re adamant that this is their style, and will remain as is.

The arguments ~ off the top of my head ~ against this style of tasting are the following:

  1. Is speed drinking ever a good practice, or am I just an old fart?
  2. What’s being done to encourage those less experienced with wine tasting to spit, so they don’t over indulge?
  3. What of value is being retained in the speed tasting process?
  4. Is it respectful to the vintners who have taken their time, staff, travel and entertainment budgets, and brought their wine to this event, only give these winemakers/producers just five minutes at a table of tasters to speed talk and pour?
  5. Could the people skipping out of these tasting be doing so because the underground tastings that are emerging (focused on one product for a good period of time) are more interesting and satisfying?

I’d love to hear all the pros and cons from those who have attended.

Help me to understand how cool and groovy speed tasting is… What am I missing?

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23 Responses to “Wine Blogger Conferences ~ It’s a Matter of Taste”

  1. I was there, and I did not participate in the speed tasting, except to walk around and observe it, from a sociological/journalistic POV. I had a talk with one of the organizers (Reno Walsh) and shared my thoughts with him, which are pretty much your thoughts, Jo. Reno understood, but he said they think that, overall, speed tasting performs a useful function, and they intend to continue it next year. I also talked to a few bloggers. They also said they like the format, because it forces them to think and write quickly. I think the bottom line is, speed tasting isn’t for everybody.

  2. Jo Diaz says:

    I agree… Like making wine… It can be done industrially, or it can be hand crafted… I know which side of the fence I sit on, especially after watching so many winemakers craft their products. I could only sit on the sidelines with this one, or craft my own method within the method… Like, only enjoy one variety within someone’s portfolio, or only observe/listen to what the winemaker has to say about his wine and work ethic… (Is there even time for a work ethic to be discussed?)

    Thanks for your insight, Steve.

  3. Dave N. says:

    Jo — I agree that the speed tasting doesn’t allow the enjoyment and consideration of the wine that it deserves. I was fortunate enough to attend the WBC event in Walla Walla and, overall, it was well done. For me, the Saturday program at the wineries and in the vineyard was much more rewarding than the speed tasting.

    It should be pointed out that reds and whites are not tasted at the same time, which apparently was a practice in the past. This year one evening was reserved for white tasting and the second for tasting the reds.

    There were a number of unofficial midnight tastings and other events, but after a full day of sessions and tastings, I couldn’t even contemplate going.

    Malcolm Gladwell makes an interesting point in “Blink” where he opines that the instantaneous reaction often is more accurate than careful consideration stretched over a longer period of time. As for me, I prefer time for the wine (and the taster) to unwind.

    Dave

  4. Jo Diaz says:

    Dave, It’s good to know that it’s evolving in a more meaningful way for how one’s palate is assaulted, or not. Thanks for bringing me up-to-date with it.

    I love Malcolm’s work, and agree with his “Blink” moments… Right up to the point that I’m tasting wine. It takes so long to make wine, and I can’t honor it in a blink… Like I can when I taste a blueberry or a raspberry. Wine’s flavors are so complex, and I prefer to be the tortoise in this tortoise and hare story.

    I appreciate your thoughts, because you did enlighten me a lot in the process for this tasting.

    Yes, the off site tastings are wonderful… as always…

  5. Hardy says:

    Jo-

    Live blogging / aka speed tasting at these events is not for me, but, for a lot of the participants, it is something they enjoy and find value in.

    Most are not members of the trade, not privy to industry tastings, here is a chance to go through 20+ wines, at speed, while getting the elevator pitch- not much different than going to a large tasting (except there is no downtime in between wines).

    The thought of a more tight knit theme- is a great one- All Sonoma Coast Pinot- All Dry Creek Zin, all Riesling from the Nahe, etc… A brief intro to the place, soil, climate, and all that stuff would be awesome and I think get people a much deeper view than they could get from almost anywhere.

    Whether they are pouring at live blogging or at one of the tastings, all producers are at the same risk- to get their wines praised or panned by a wide range of palates- If they don’t like that, they shouldn’t be pouring at any part of a bloggers conference.

    I disagree with the lending itself to getting drunk (anymore than any other of the tasting events). Participants are encouraged to spit, and this is repeated multiple times.

    There is room for improvement, but I could see this becoming one of the most educational parts of the WBC.

    I skipped out because I really wanted to chill out and drink some white Burgundy I brought… ;)

  6. Jo Diaz says:

    Thanks, Hardy.

    For two years in a row, I’ve brought up a focused tasting for Petite Sirah. I’d love to see it happen, because it’s something I’ve done successfully at the Florida Wine Fest, Santa Fe Chile and Wine Fiesta, American Wine Society, Society of Wine Educators… you get the drift. I bring in winemakers, and off we go.

    I remember coming out of that tasting in 2008, and seeing those less educated (spitting was still something parents had told us not to do for some) a bit teetering. This is what set up my red flags. You and I don’t give it a second thought, but someone arriving to learn how to blog about wine, enjoying it as a “new thing,” isn’t going to be so low-blood alcohol.

    Honestly, with running my Dark & Delicious event, I really worry about people and their blood alcohol, more than they do. I’ve seen so many drunken people in so many wine places. (Tasting rooms, events that are local, events that are national… for the last 17 years…) That’s my greatest concern. I don’t want to see one person lost because of a tasting, because MADD will be all over that one.

  7. Gretchen says:

    Jo, I like the speed tasting because it makes you have to focus on what you are tasting quickly and then to be able to form an opinion or at least comments. As a citizen blogger I rarely get this kind of opportunity.

    As for leading to indulgent behavior, there are spit cups and buckets on every table and I don’t recall seeing anyone drunk. I certainly wasn’t. No one wants to look like the amateur in the room.

  8. Jo Diaz says:

    Gretchen,

    Great points, well taken. Thanks for your insight.

  9. Blake Gray says:

    Jo: Thanks for explaining that this was the tasting style at the conference. I was wondering if I should regret not attending. Now I do not.

    Speed tasting does not facilitate intelligent criticism. It’s too easy to miss subtleties.

    I actually do a form of speed tasting all the time, judging at competitions. I can reject a badly made wine in seconds. But a wine I like, I want to spend a little more time with.

    This seems like a choice of form over function. Is the format designed to help people find good wines? Or is it about enjoying the format itself? Sounds like the latter.

  10. Jo Diaz says:

    Blake,

    I have to agree with you, and love your line… “form over function.”

    I, too, like to take my time with a wine that has merit. In one second, I can spot TCA, oxidation, bret, etc… I can not in once second find star fruit, kiwi, or lemon grass.

    It may be that those of us who have been in the business a long time have a deeper appreciation of this nectar called wine, and want to give a brand deeper consideration…

    Just trying to sort it all out.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  11. Hi Jo,
    I poured our wine (Parducci) during the speed tasting for the first time. I thought it was fun, engaging, and overall a good exercise for wineries to go through.

    Do I think that my presentation left a lasting impression in more than a few of the 60 or so people I poured for? Probably not, but there have been a few blog posts, tweets, comments and e-mails that i’ve received since the tasting – for which I have been pleasantly surprised and grateful for.

    What it did do is this:
    like it or not, the speed tasting portion of the conference was a reflection (perhaps a bit extreme) of the direction our culture/society is going in with regard to how it digests (no pun intended!) content and media. The speed tasting was a reality check for me as a marketeer on the quality of my “elevator pitch”. In a highly distracting environment, did I get my message across? And did I connect with my audience (and did they connect with me!)? Isn’t that Twitter and Facebook in a nutshell?

    I think if I only poured the wine and told everyone I thought we were great, I wouldn’t have gotten any supplemental feedback from the tasting. I thought I did a few things that made me stand out, and I definitely learned a few things that I need to do at future tastings (and online!). Many tasters commented to me that they were surprised some of the wineries involved were not even on facebook or twitter. Their question to me was, why are they here then?

  12. Hi Again,

    And I realize my comment was from the point of view of a winery whereas your post was regarding the quality of the tasting as a taster.

    I didn’t participate as a taster when the red wines were being poured because frankly, I was fairly wine-overwhelmed saturday after our vineyard visits.

    I do think, however, that this was just as much of an exercise in “blogging” as it was a wine tasting – for the bloggers and for the wineries…

    Thanks!

  13. Chris says:

    Hi Jo,

    I participated in this year’s speed tastings, my first. My take was that it was a fun thing to do, but by no means an effective or accurate way to sample and compare the wines. Fun though and I don’t mind the format.

    Though you didn’t imply this, I think it’s worth pointing out that this was a short segment in the overall WBC program and agenda. The speakers (including Steve Heimoff), panels, workshops, vineyard tours, and other wine activities, were 4 days packed with information. The speed tasting was 2 1-hour events.

    One thing the speed tasting did do for me is validate my thoughts about folks who do use these type of events for judging and scoring wines. I’ve seen blogs and others who attend large tasting events, including your D&D event this past January, then post numerical or other scores, for over one hundred wines tasted in a 2-3 hours period. Maybe there are palates trained to do this, but for me a.) it would be impossible to give even close to fair ratings under this scenario, and b.) it would sort of take the fun out the event anyway. But that’s just me.

  14. Chris says:

    Regarding the concern about too much alcohol during the speed tasting, at the WBC at least, spitting certainly was encouraged and used by just about everyone I saw, which was mainly just my table since I was trying to focus on the winemakers pouring and the wines.

    The other point for WBC is that it is a 3 day event and almost all of the participants, in this and the other wine tastings, are staying on-site or at a walking distance hotel. Not that it is OK to get wasted in public, but the concern about drunken driving I think is lessened for the WBC.

    FWIW, Charlottesville, site for WBC’11, has a downtown walking mall, no cars even allowed, and the host Omni Hotel is on that mall.

  15. Jo Diaz says:

    Cindy, I appreciate your comments, even though… as you noted… you’re coming from the winery’s side of the fence, because you make many good points. What I have as a take-away is that this is about speed writing… Facebook and Twitter. In that context, it serves its purpose. I find myself Twitter at events, and I’d probably Twitter at this one, and have others not Twittering wondering what I’m doing.

    That said, I get to taste so much wine at a consistent clip, because I’m in the Biz, that I’d skip this tasting in deference for keeping myself energized for something else… And now I know that’s just me… and other seasoned wine pros who have weighed in on this one.

    This does make me understand – because I asked what I was missing – the thrill of it.

    So… thanks.

  16. Jo Diaz says:

    Chris,

    Yes… I mentioned that “The organizers are doing a *lot* right.” ~ And that’s the rest of the conference. The seminars, the field trips, the dinners… It’s all good.

    I’ve gone to events and tasted a lot, and then written about it. Your writing that you couldn’t do this in this kind of setting is probably because you also love the social element that food and wine events deliver.

    I can do that without batting an eye…

    1) I’m a loner, for the most part, and function in a crowd as one. This makes me able to do whatever I stated out to do.
    2) I don’t get distracted.
    3) I don’t get into the social behavior around me, if I intended to get some work done.
    3) I go to these tastings as a learning exercise, or I don’t go to them, anymore (because I live the business 24/7/365). I need to go elsewhere to have “fun.”

    So… as others hum and buzz around me, I’m taking notes, asking questions, and formulating a story. It’s the nature of the beast inside of me.

    Yup… I had one just like me at D&D. His name is John Cesano. I have to say that before D&D I felt like he was going to drive me nuts. (Sorry, John.) Why? Because he studied every wine before he even arrived at Dark & Delicious. As an event nears, an organizer is going out of his or her mind, attending to a billion details… And there was John… Asking me to Email all of the producers for the their tech data sheets. When he got a few, then he had me contact them again, and again, and again. It wasn’t something that I ever anticipated, and didn’t even know how to deal with, because I was so busy… Let’s just say, he kept me up at night. Then, he spent the night tracking everyone down. He came prepared, and was the only guy that I know of who tasted and evaluated at D&D. (Clipping services pre and post…) I do have to say that after the event, his story was spectacular, so it was worth the extra effort, and had the brands mentioned very pleased to be included… So, it was well worth it. (Thanks, John.)

    I’ve done the same thing, as I’ve said, but I do it without social distractions. Others, including writers, who can’t function like this because they love the social ability of it all, just go to enjoy the moment…

    We’re all different, and that’s why this is working for some, while for others it doesn’t quite fit.

    That’s where I’ve come to understand this… It’s for some, and not for others. An,d the others seem to be people in the business who have copious opportunities, so they don’t have to cram.

  17. Ken Payton says:

    Out of an abundance of good will felt once so many friends and associates were in one place at one time, I did participate in the white wine speed tasting. I regret it in this key respect: Our comments were arbitrarily selected to appear on an enormous screen for all to see, and they were archived for later rereading. I sympathize with the participating wineries, for although there was a level of tweeting independence, it did often happen that a particular wine came in for a drubbing. Beyond the commentary a winery might have subsequently received on scattered blogs and the verbal feedback they may have gotten along the ‘tasting row’ set up just outside the venue, the most durable ‘memory’ of their participation may well be the Twitter feed alone. And inasmuch as the pourer, often the winemaker, had prepared remarks, a story they gamely repeated at each table, Twitter’s 140 character limit made it impossible to recap it in any meaningful detail.

    I did not, therefore, take part in the red wine speed tasting the next day because I came to believe it to be inherently unfair.

    I did not notice many instances of drunkenness, by the way. The red wine tasting, however, occurred after hours spent on busses and at wineries. Perhaps the timing could have been better.

    Bottom line, if you must have a speed tasting, it has to be focussed on a specific grape, blend, or region. Just as wineries arrange their tasting room selections in a proper order of heft and depth, so must the WBC folks understand that a hot climate, full malo Cali Chard cannot be properly followed by an Albariño with screaming acidity, followed by an off-dry Riesling, followed by a mass produced $10 Italian Pinot Grigio. It makes no sense.

  18. Jo Diaz says:

    Ken,

    I appreciate your thoughts.

    With this one, there seems to be a huge gap between those who’ve been in the business for a while, and those just starting out.

    … and… this conference is serving both parties…

    I honestly think that in a few years, it will all come together.

    It’s kinda like we don’t want to grow up to be our parents, but then we have our own kids and find ourselves saying, “Kids are starving all over the world. You kinds stop playing at the table and eat your dinner!”

  19. I attended the 2009 WBC speed tasting and blogged about it (and Ken you were at the table!), I attended the 2009 EWBC with its tastings, and I just returned from 2010 WBC where the reds and whites were separated.

    I admit that in 2009 our table enjoyed Cellar Rat’s syrah before the speed tasting. We got a bit wild maybe and it was loads of fun throwing out descriptors for the wines, asking questions, like running a race, quite a challenge. Tasting at speed with that group made me really think. Did we have too much to drink? No, not really–we spit and dumped but switching whites to reds was a problem.

    However, I was grateful for the pace and the education at the EWBC09, and that this year the WBC10 separated the reds and whites.

    For the whites, my table at WBC10 was rather quiet. My friends at the table were in the industry so that made sense, but one of them and I did confer a bit quietly.

    Most of the wineries had their “elevator speech” down. But some didn’t have a clue what their story was or how to present their wine and their story quickly and effectively. I noticed as the tasting progressed that many wineries figured it out. I would think this would be hugely valuable to a winery.

    For the reds, I sought out a table with Christopher Watkins (Ridge) and sat with him and Amy Cleary (UC Press) because I wanted to listen, learn, talk, be challenged.

    When I look at my blog posts at http://winepredator.wordpress.com I see that I took down the stories from the wineries and the answers to our questions but very little about my response to the wine–because there really wasn’t enough time for me. Chris did much better with his tasting notes (he’s one of the best writers out there blogging in my opinion!)

    One last point: At my tables, we dumped wine and we spit. Sometimes we saved a wine for more reflection. There were 2 reds I saved to ponder further. I didn’t see any one inebriated at the red or the white speed tasting at WBC10. I saw people dumping and spitting both days.

    At first I thought it was stupid. But I have come to appreciate what it has to offer both bloggers of all levels and to wineries.

  20. Jo Diaz says:

    Gwendolyn, were we at the same table in 2009?! I only remember the people to the direct right and left of me. I was so intent on the wines, the people presenting, trying to take it all in, I didn’t even see you at the table… There’s a microscopic view of how one can only take in so much with this format.

    Good to know that everyone’s got the spitting thing down. also, having pros at your table would exclude inebriation… That’s just the way it is.

    Also, good to know that there’s an audience for this, but I will never be in this audience ever again… just as a personal observation.

    I have access to anyone (just about) at any time, and that gives me an edge to not have to speed anything. I’m very fortunate, being in the wine business… is all I know….

  21. I liked the speed tasting format; it brought some energy into the end of the day. Is it a great way to savor wine, no. But 5 mins is plenty of time to evaluate a wine; I probably average that many an hour at other industry events. I think its also good for the people pouring to refine their ‘elevator pitch’ how many minutes do you get per consumer at the table of a busy event.

    The getting drunk part to me is a non issue. Any wine blogger/writer or even passionate educated consumer should be on the spitting bandwagon; you won’t ever be a serious evaluator of wine, until you do; period.

    I do agree they should amend the order of pours as if you would a tasting; working from whites to reds in progression etc etc.

    Glad to see its on the WBC11 agenda. I get some people don’t like it and why; attending each session is optional; I certainly skipped a few ;)

  22. Jo Diaz says:

    I appreciate your Comments, William.

    In my wine experience, I’ve found many people new to wine are really uncomfortable with the spitting aspects. (Mom always told us not to spit… period.) There are so many new people to wine at the conferences, wanting to expand their knowledge, and they are suspect for not handling it well.

    Yes… one can skip the melee.

  23. […] recently read an interesting post on Jo Diaz’s blog, http://www.wine-blog.org regarding “Wine Blogger Conferences ~ A Matter of Taste”. To summarize, Jo objectively questions the value in the American Wine Blogging Conference segment […]

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