Friday, July 31, 2009

A wine opportunity wasted

There were a few moments at the recent Wine Bloggers’ Conference where I thought a few opportunities were wasted. I think, overall, the conference was a success, with bloggers indoctrinated with information and positive messages surrounding the Sonoma Wine County and the Napa Valley Vintners. However, on Saturday I was part of a group where the messaging went wrong.

After our visit to the CIA we all piled into buses to go visit different wineries. There were eight or nine buses and I was on bus #4. Some of my bus-mates were the Luscious Lush, Sharayray, the Beer Wench, WineHiker, El Jefe, Sonadora, Catie, The Texas Duo, and many others. We, uh… we were trouble.

We went to visit Cuvaison and it turns out that the winery has two tasting rooms. We of course went to the wrong one. An honest mistake and I know all about what happens when there are slight bumps in carefully ironed out plans for winery visits. Roll with the punches and all that.

So we arrive at the correct Cuvaison tasting room where we have a nice lunch with sandwiches and some of the wineries products. Cuvaison is working towards total environmental harmony. Yes, they are green and comply with sustainable practices, they recycle cork, they have solar panels, they process and recycle their own water, etc. and so forth… I know all of this because of the piece of paper they gave me and everyone else at the winery to take home. Let’s just hope it was on recycled paper…

Honestly though, I loved their electric hand-drier that I slipped my hands into and it blow-dried them from 100 angles.

The wines were pleasant. The Cuvaison Sauvignon Blanc 2008 had a bright lime/grapefruit beginning, a creamy round middle, with a bit of peppery jalapeño at the end. The Cuvaison Chardonnay 2007 was a little too tart for me. The Pinot Noir 2007 was tasty, smoky raspberry with a really interesting bit of brine that I found very appealing. Then the Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 was nice, with a rich cassis and cinnamon.

We arrived in the afternoon, after our trip to Cuvaison, to Staglin Family Vineyard. We were slightly tired of riding on the bus, a little antsy, and ready to taste some more great wine.

We met a few winery owners at the entrance to the winery at Staglin. It seemed to be cut into the side of the mountain, which allowed the room to be cooler with concrete walls. It was quite pleasant after a brief walk in the hot Napa sun. There was a long hardwood table along the center of the room, past fermenters and sitting directly before the barrel room of the winery, with library storage on either side. We sat down and began to listen to a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of large and small wineries. Sue Parry from Parry Cellars spoke to us about being a small winery, hers being a total of 2 acres of vines large producing 200 cases a year and run by her and her husband. Staglin was represented by Sheri Staglin, CEO of Staglin Family Vineyards. Staglin produces about 5,000 cases a year. Pete Przybylinsky, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Strategy for Duckhorn Wine Company was there to talk to us about his winery, which produces a ton of cases a year. Then there was Russell Weis, General Manager/Sales and Marketing Silverado Vineyards, which produces ….

After about twenty minutes it became obvious to us that while we were discussing distribution practices, the issues of either renting or owning your own bottling and labeling machines, and the difficulties of balancing the management of the tasting room with running the back office, we were not going to taste any wine.

I must admit, at this point I became somewhat unprofessional. In fact, one could have rubbed the glaze on my eyes over a donut and served it as a tasty treat. And the group I had chosen to sit with did not make paying attention that much easier. We actually deteriorated to a massive amount of note passing on the back of napkins, the contents of which could give Jeff at the Good Grape a run for his money. I kept the napkins, not to have a memento of the good memories, but because I was embarrassed to have the winemakers and winery owners, who had taken time out of their extremely busy day to talk with us, see what had been written there.

I would also like to apologize to all of the winery representatives and all of the other bloggers that were in attendance that witnessed my deplorable behavior. However, I think this deserves a moment to think about what went wrong.

First of all, it was just after lunch, one where we had been doing some wine tasting. I personally feel that it would be insulting and inappropriate to spit at a lunch table (although I did not drink very much from any glass of any of the wines we had at Cuvaison). Anytime you do something after a meal, it needs to be engaging and interactive in some way. Instead we sat in a cool, dark, quiet place and were talked at. The only bit of the entire hour and a half that was interactive were the last fifteen minutes we were there, when I asked the winery representatives what they thought of social media and were they active. That spurred a discussion of what bloggers are looking for in winery engagement and a short instructional session where we explained to them that we do not expect 24 hour, 7 day-a-week engagement. That not only woke me up, but got me excited about being there.

There’s a lesson there: Know your audience. This was a group of people that loved the Internet, the ability to instantly access information and to share it, and used it regularly. The whole key to social media is interaction. As we were listening (or not) to these wineries, many of the people sitting there were expressing their displeasure on twitter.

Another issue that particularly bugged me, I had flown across the country to this conference so that I could do something that I could not do from New York, taste wine with my peers from around the country and discuss it with the winemakers. These wineries had a captive audience, a golden opportunity to show their wines (even if it was only ONE wine) in a controlled environment to a group of people who were excited by the prospect of tasting the wine and are going to then write about it for the world to see. Instead, I am now writing about how unfortunate it was to not have tasted the wine. It does not matter that some of the wines were going to be tasted at a tasting later in the day. In fact, during that tasting I used my time to taste other wines, having such a bad taste in my mouth from these wineries.

To be fair, the information we were heard from the wineries was somewhat interesting. Being able to compare and contrast practices amongst different wineries is certainly an interesting topic. However, to do so for such a long period of time and not have wine in front of us was a mistake. I think the discussion would have been fine if those of us that already had a decent understanding of winery management could have focused our energies on a wine from each of the wineries.

Live and learn. Always take an opportunity to interact with your audience.

(Photos thanks to Megan Kenney and Amy Corron-Power)
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