Tuesday, August 30, 2016

An Insiders Look at the Wine Bloggers Conference

Disclosure: In exchange for a reduced rate to the Wine Bloggers Conference, attendees are required to write at least three blog posts about the conference either before, during or after.

Me all up in the vines somewhere in Lodi

The Wine Bloggers Conference is one of the highlights of my year. This is only my second year attending, but the arsenal of information I absorb and the contacts, scratch that, FRIENDS I make have been wonderful. It truly feels like a community, and not just some sort of networking mixer with your colleagues. We are all real life people who aren’t afraid to show our vulnerabilities and our insecurities (whether online or offline), albeit while dropping some serious wine knowledge!

Theresa, myself, and Melanie, the Wine House aka WSET Diploma gals, from LA

Whether you are a wine blogger or not, the Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC from here on out) presented a trove of information. The content shared was valuable to me as a wine blogger, but could also be valuable to entrepreneurs, women in business, or someone working in another aspect of the wine world. Perhaps the best part of the conference is getting to know the host region in depth. Had I not attended the Lodi pre-conference excursion, I might not have gotten such an informative and immersive experience. Having attended the excursion, I feel like I got a very thorough and well-rounded view of Lodi. And I was pleased with what I discovered. This trip succeeded in shifting my beliefs about the Lodi viticultural region. Hands down.

Zinfandel field tasting

If you’re not a wine blogger, you might be wondering why you should read this post. I’d say check it out to get an inside look as to what we “wine people” do when we get together.  I find that a lot of people are very interested in the "world" of wine. The general public thinks that if a group of wine people (be it: somms, winemakers, bloggers, etc) get together, all we do is drink wine. I can attest that does happen...a lot. But there is so much more than what meets the glass.

I hope you enjoy my recap of the Wine Bloggers Conference highlights.

Wednesday August 10

On Tuesday the 9th in the late afternoon, I received an eblast from Coruce Vineyards in the Antelope Valley, asking for harvest help. First of all, I have no idea how I got on their email list. My dad has a vacation home in the Antelope Valley, but aside from that, I have no other connection to the area. The harvest was to begin at 6am the next morning (Wednesday August 10) and I needed to be in Lodi by about 2:30pm for the start of my pre-conference excursion. It would be an ambitious undertaking to leave my house in Los Angeles at 5am, arrive at Corluce at 6am, harvest until 8am, and then drive to Lodi with an (approx) 2pm arrival. But I decided to go for the gold and try to make it happen. After all, I have never spent any (meaningful) time in a vineyard, let alone harvesting the vines, and I felt that this type of real-world experience with the vines would be invaluable. You can only read so much about vertical shoot positioning in a book.  Sometime you’ve got to throw the textbook out and see what’s going on around you.

I arrived at Coruce Vineyard just after dawn and was greeted by Bruce, the proprietor. Bruce was dressed comfortably, had his long grey hair tied back, and wore a hard to miss headlamp. He greeted me warmly and put me to work. The vineyard manager suited me up with gloves and garden shears and off I went to harvest Symphony grapes in the early morning sunlight. I was working alongside a couple friends of theirs as well as the professional harvesting team. The harvesting team put us to shame. They’d fill their bins in a few minutes flat, while I was still trying to hold back the leaves/foliage in order to even get close to the clusters. BUT we were harvesting grapes that would soon become wine, we were tending to the beautiful vineyard, we were living the dream! The distinction became quite apparent to me: I am someone like me who loves wine and romanticizes the industry, and these harvest workers depend on that same industry to pay for the roof over their head and to feed/clothe their family. Bruce and his wife were very kind to me.  After the harvest I enjoyed some coffee and they sent me home with 3 of their bottlings!

Symphony grapes ready for harvest at Coruce Vineyards

Harvest lasted a couple of hours, and from there I was on the road towards Lodi. I arrived at our host hotel, the Holiday Inn Express Lodi.  Not quite a quaint wine country B&B, but a comfortable hotel regardless. The turnaround time was quick, and within a few minutes I was checked-in, showered, and on our shuttle to begin the excursion. The group was small, no more than 20 bloggers, and Randy Caparoso of the Lodi Wine Commission was our “tour” guide. Randy has enough personality for about 5 people combined and has more information than the Encyclopedia Britannica. He has a wealth of knowledge about Lodi and grape growing in general and he’s got personality for days! The first half of our excursion included a few visits to vineyards in the area. We were able to check-out some old (and even ancient) Zinfandel vines, see different kinds of training/pruning systems (i.e. VSP, double-cordon, and head training), and do field tasting of some grapes just about ready for harvest. We had firsthand discussions with vineyard managers and some of the farmers on these sites. It was also interesting to talk to winemakers while in the vineyards. They do not own these vineyards, but purchase the fruit from them. I had conversations with them about the push/pull relationship between the growers and the winemakers. The winemaker is the client of the grower and therefore has the power to make the decision for when to pick. Though sometimes the grower may have a different opinion of when that should be. I found that push/pull makes for a dynamic partnership to say the least.

Randy Caparoso of the Lodi Winegrape Commission

While in the field, we also got to see how a refractometer is used (so bummed I forgot to take a picture!). According to Wines & Vines, a refractometer is an optical instrument that measures the density of water-soluble materials, i.e., the proportion dissolved in the water as a ratio. It measures the refractive index, which is the speed at which light passes through a liquid: The denser the liquid, the slower the light will travel through it, and the higher the reading will be on the refractometer. The unit may include refractive index (RI), but it is surely calibrated in a more useful scale, such as Brix, specific gravity, Baumé or other scales in some countries**. In the case of the refractometer we were using, it was calibrated in a Brix scale to measure sugar concentration.

After spending time in the vineyards, we retreated to Harney Lane Winery where we met some of the Lerner and Mettler family members who told us about their families generations of growing grapes and making wine in Lodi. As Randy says, you can’t trip in this town without running into a Mettler! That evening we were treated to a delightful dinner at Harney Lane. We had a lovely family style, farm-to-table meal paired with the Harney Lane current releases. It was a welcomed respite from the long, hot afternoon in the vineyards. The pre-excursion group had an early night, as we had a 5:30am call time the next day for harvest.

Kyle Lerner telling us the history at Harney Lane
Harney Lane wines paired with a farm-to-table dinner

Oh, but before we went to bed, we rode on a mechanical harvester at sunset. Pretty damn cool if I don’t say so myself!

My view from atop the mechanical harvester at Harney Lane Winery

Thursday August 11

Sunrise harvest in Lodi

Thursday morning began bright and early with a 5:30am shuttle pick-up. Our first stop was the Michael David Winery (one of the larger operations in Lodi) for a Viognier harvest at sunrise. Having harvested the morning prior, I felt like an old pro! Well, only sort of. Us bloggers were still moving as slow as molasses compared to the actual vineyard workers. We were also busy “capturing the moment” by taking selfies with the vines, video documenting the experience, and scribbling notes in our iphones or notebooks. After the harvest and a vineyard visit or two, we settled down for a great lunch under a big oak tree at Bokisch Vineyards. Markus Bokisch’s family comes from Spain. He grows Spanish varietals and a family friend visiting from Spain prepared a traditional Catalan meal of: gazpacho, watermelon/feta salad, and Catalan toast with fresh tomato spread and various cured meats and cheeses. What a treat! By the mid-afternoon our Lodi pre-conference excursion was winding down and I spent a couple hours resting before the official Conference Opening Night Reception. Though I will say that I felt as if I had attended a full conference by the time the opening reception rolled around! We had been all over Lodi, harvesting grapes, getting to know the vines, the people, and the wines. I was seriously exhausted at this point yet so excited to get the actual conference started!

Vineyard lunch at Bokisch Vineyards under the big oak tree

The opening reception was in the front yard of the private home at Mohr-Fry Ranch, which is so very Lodi. The people are some of the most genuine and hospitable people I have met. It was a lovely and relaxing evening. Great weather, sunset, live music, lovely food, and a casual pouring of some key Lodi wines.

The true Lodi spirit at the Mohr-Fry Ranch opening reception

Friday August 12

On Friday I got to participate in the white/rose Live Wine Blogging, which I can only describe as speed dating for wines. The bloggers are placed at banquet rounds with wine glasses and spit buckets. The session is an hour long and each table will see 12 winemakers/wines who have 5 minutes each to pour their wines, talk about them, and answer questions. It is a bit of a whirlwind, and I am not sure if I love it or hate it. But it is a good time!

That afternoon I hopped on a bus for one of the wine-country excursions, which is always a highlight. We first made a vineyard stop to harvest some grapes, which we then took to the Lucas Winery. There we met with Heather, the winemaker, who showed us a small-scale pressing of these grapes. We also used a device that tested the Brix level. At Lucas Winery we got to know the Lucas family. Heather is married to David Lucas, the namesake of the winery. Mitra, his daughter, was our tour guide for the evening. I can say that our group of 10 bloggers had a fantastic time at Lucas Winery. The family was so welcoming and proud to share with us their history in Lodi. We also enjoyed a lovely feast prepared by Doug Seed of “A Moveable Feast”. He prepared a meal that we paired with Lucas, Fielders, McCay Cellars, and McKenzie wines. The meal culminated with an exquisite Elk chop that was to die for. My first time eating Elk and I loved it!

David Lucas harvesting in the vineyard

Press at Lucas Winery
Starters (L to R): Insalate Caprese, Crabcake, Vichyssoise with Quail Egg, and Smoked Trout
Watermelon and Heirloom Tomato Salad
Grilled Elk Chop with Zinfandel Reduction, Exotic Mushrooms, and Leek Acorn Pudding

I figured I’d go to bed after the excursion dropped us off at the hotel, but I saved enough energy to visit a hospitality suite put on by Wine Australia. My new friend, Catherine (aka PursuingPinot) joined me and we headed to downtown Lodi to a charming area. The old Craftsman style home they rented for the conference was adorable! It was a perfect setting to enjoy light bites and some Aussie wines. Thank you to Allison of Please the Palate and Emily from Wine Australia for their hospitality! I also enjoyed meeting Fred Swan who walked us through a tasting of the whites and a few of the reds.

Saturday August 13

On Saturday morning our host bribed us with sparkling wine and scones. It seemed to do the trick, as the session was packed! This session was about Wine Sampling and how to dance the delicate dance of requesting wine samples. Our moderator was Marissa Indelicato of Fox Run Vineyards and the panel included representation from a couple of different wineries as well as a couple different bloggers. Newsflash to my readers: I’m not blogging just to get free wine. Sure, that is a perk that I enjoy from time to time, but it is only a sliver of a reason why I do what I do. The session covered both how a blogger should go about requesting samples that they are interested in and how the wineries/producers go about selecting bloggers/press to review their wines. My biggest takeaway from this session was the advice to create a Media Kit. This is a one pager that talks about who I am, what my blog is about, my blog/social media stats, and a listing of any other writing I have done besides the blog. I have set a goal to create my media kit by the end of September!

The dinner on Saturday (hosted by Lodi Wine) was the highlight of my day. I picked a stellar group of people to sit with including: Bottles and Bites, Jim aka JvB Uncorked, Michelle aka Rockin Red Blog, Martin aka Enofylz, Anatoli aka Talk-a-Vino, and Robin aka Wine Stained Lens. Each table was hosted by a different winery/winemaker, and by the grace of god I selected the Fields Family Wines table! We were a lively bunch; my tablemate Jim even brought some of his own personal bottles to share! The dinner was very well coordinated and the Southern style fare from South Restaurant in Sacramento did a great job catering the meal.

Brisket and Pork Tenderloin courtesy of South Restaurant

After dinner came the announcement of our 2017 conference location. This will be the 10th year for the Wine Bloggers Conference. The first conference was held in Santa Rosa, and that is where we are going back to for the 10th anniversary! I have made a few trips to the Santa Rosa area in Sonoma and I am DELIGHTED to go back for the conference next year. I’ll be registering for WBC17 in September!

Sunday August 14

The last day of the conference was a short one. Content only ran until noon, but I attended a power-packed session in the morning. The session was hosted by the husband and wife team, Vindulge and was entitled “Increase Your Audience and Engagement”. I don’t think I have one bad thing to say about this session. This session was PACKED with hard, fast, tangible takeaways. This is exactly the type of content I had been seeking all weekend. Major props to Vindulge for putting together this well thought out and well laid out session. After the conference was over, I checked out of the hotel, got into comfy clothes and made the drive back down to Los Angeles.

I am still deep in WBC follow up. Thanking those who presented wonderful sessions and shared time with me and the other bloggers. Following up with new friends I made and starting our online friendships (this is the fun part!).  I’m also following up on the notes I took in the various sessions. Most importantly on my agenda in September is to create a media kit and to write a vision statement for my blog. I also plan on starting to utilize social media management (perhaps HootSuite?) to help maximize the time I spend online. I want my focus to be on my content, so I’m all about being able to save as much time as possible for that.

Do you have a wine blog? Or a blog in general? If so, tell me about it here. I'd love to support my readers who blog as well!

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  1. Great post. I'm looking forward to staying connected online and seeing what else you have to say. You've probably already seen my post about media kits so let me know if you need any help there. If you want to talk about social media management tools please send me a message and myself or my team can let you know what we are using. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Leeann. I will definitely be in touch re: my media kit and social media mgmt tools. THANKS so much for offering your expertise!

  2. Whew, what a comprehensive post! Great to see you, again, and get that Media Kit going!

    1. Seriously! It was a long one! Next Monday will be #MediaKitMonday!