The Wine Bloggers Conference is sort of a cross between a press junket, MacWorld and summer camp. It involves some work with a lot of play and often serves as the kick-start to a summer vacation. Some people leave their families at home for WBC.
The majority of bloggers attend every year, so it gets quite old homey with the all the alumni and veterans hugging and kissing. To encourage fresh blood, though, the conference offers a scholarship fund to those who can’t afford the $95 “citizen blogger” fee.
What citizen bloggers get is 2.5 days of wine tastings, wine lunches, winery tours, tech talk, and a blog awards banquet. And, every night, private tastings in the hotel rooms.
In June, the 6th annual WBC crossed the border into Canada and held the conference at the Lakeside Resort in Penticton, BC, in the heart of Okanagan Valley. This was a hard act to follow after the outstanding Portland conference in 2012, but local businesses and groups pulled together to impress the bloggers.
And from all the feedback, the effort was successful.
The event that impressed bloggers most was an opening reception with the Great Estates of the Okanagan at the See Ya Later Ranch winery, sponsored by Constellation Brands. We arrived via school bus in time for sunset, and the wine, food and rugged views overlooking Skaha Lake was unforgettable.
Joy Road Catering prepared innovative bites with local ingredients. The French heirloom radishes and greens in “soil” with local goat cheese dip paired with the Sumac Ridge Gewürtztraminer was a stand out.
Osoyoos Larosse paired an accordian player with their mini-baguette with charcuterie and their Le Grand Vin.
Black Sage’s Cab Franc was perfect with Porchetta with salsa verde on mini ciabatta.
Strawberry shortcakes with Zebroff strawberries and vanilla bean cream was amazing with the Inniskillin icewine.
Nk’Mip had the most enchanting location at the edge of the vineyard where they paired poached salmon with arugula and heirloom beets with their excellent chardonnay and a tribal dancer in full regalia.
With a bottle of Sumac Ridge Pipe in our shwag bags, there were a lot of happy campers on the bus ride home.
Later in her hotel room, April Yap-Henning provided us with tastes of Oregon’s Hawks View Cellars, of which the Syrah stood out for me.
Conference Day One
On Friday morning, our keynote speaker was southern gentleman Jim Conaway, author of Napa, The Far Side of Eden and the new novel, Nose. He spoke about the writing profession, poked fun at wine blogging, and admitted that his favorite wine is bourbon.
Here’s some quotes I tweeted:
You’re after what’s real and true, you’re not there to make people like you – jim conaway, #wbc13
100 pt scale of wine is a high falutin’ version of mechanics illustrated, says author Jim Conaway at #WBC13
After a lunch provided by Wines of Ontario, in which Henry of Pelham was the most commented on, we settled in for afternoon sessions.
I sat in on the Google Plus workshop, since I’m such a geek these days, but I also heard raves about the eye-opening South African Chenin Blanc session.
Then it was time for Live Blogging, or more accurately, speed tasting, the vinicultural equivalent of speed dating. Bloggers stay seated and winemakers move from table to table every five minutes pouring their wine and pitching their story.
The trick is to taste the wine, listen to the winemaker, ask questions, and then type impressions as fast as possible into a computer or device. Some people blog, but I usually Tweet.
Fun, chaotic and not at all scientific, speed tasting is the closest thing to a sporting event at the Wine Bloggers Conference.
On Friday we speed tasted white wines and on Saturday the red wines. This was the first year Live Blogging wines focused on the host region, so bloggers had a chance to be lightening immersed in Okanagan wines.
Winery Field Trips
At 4:15 we jumped on buses and branched out in five directions to wineries around the area.
Mine was the “Rustic” tour, headed for South Okanagan, guided by Tinhorn Creek winemaker, Sandra Oldfield. We visited Road 13 for a group tasting, a cooperage talk and a cellar tasting of their delicious Chenin Blanc Sparkling. A beautiful cellar, there.
Then to Tinhorn Creek for dinner at Miradoro restaurant. Chef Jeff whipped up a paella on the grill that paired exquisitely with the wines being poured. We tasted Tinhorn Creek Oldfield Series 2Bench Rosé and 2Bench Red, Covert Family Estate Rosé and Amicita, Castoro de Oro Viognier, Church & State Viognier, Platinum Bench Gamay and River Stone Pinot Gris and Cabernet Franc poured by the winery owners themselves. The Zinfandel from Rustico was perfect with the churros and chocolate milk.
By twilight, all of the buses had convened at the southwest-style Spirit Ridge Resort for a rooftop tasting with all the wineries. There, I finally tasted the lovely new Piano sparkling from Stoneboat, and lots more wines. With the jazz combo playing and the roving winemakers keeping the stories and wine flowing, I could tell my fellow bloggers from the US were succumbing to the seduction of the South Okanagan.
Conference Day Two
On Saturday morning, the Downtown Penticton association fed us crepes, brioche, breakfast burritos and coffee in the Gyro park in front of the hotel. No wine was on offer, of course, but who needed it with my session being Learn to be a Wine Judge? Still clutching coffee, this was the only session in which I spat.
Lunch was provided by Wines of Uruguay and we got a tour of that country by Francisco Carrau, owner & winemaker of Bodega Carrau, who flew the 7000 miles specifically for this event to promote their healthy Tannat wines. On the Uruguayan team was Leslie Fellows, a partner in Artesana Winery in Canelones. She’s determined to make Uruguayan wines the next hottest thing in Canada since the importation of New Zealand wine. I believe she will do it.
In the next afternoon session, we were treated to an education on the production of icewine by the winemakers of Inniskillan. That was very cool – literally.
After the red wine speed tasting, we jumped from BC wines to Greek wines in a matter of minutes. In a room off the ballroom that spilled onto a patio over looking the lake, we were presented with an astounding array of wines from Greece.
What I remember about the unpronounceable wines I tried were bracing acidity, sharp minerality, and a natural affinity toward heat and sun.
Banquet and Blog Awards
This banquet was the most entertaining ever presented by the WBC. Actors posing as a typical Canadian couple began a lengthy repartee about dining out and they quickly started engaging the audience. Organizer Allison Markin and birthday girls Sandra Oldfield and Jeanette Montgomery were called up to perform antics on stage. It was hard to eat from all the laughing.
The Mutineer Magazine Blog Awards presentation with Publisher Alan Kropf was dramatic as ever. When award winners were absent, he played theme music and held forth on TV show Falcon Crest to pass the time.
In his theatrical way, Kropf finished with a rousing speech. After alluding to his theme music from the film, Transformers, he said,“The people in this room, we are all transformers of wine culture. We are the trail blazers, the pioneers, we are writing the story as it unfolds in front of us. This the most inspired group of people who have ever been in this room in the history of this entire convention center’s existence! I wanna make as much noise as our little blogger bodies can make. I wanna wine glasses to shatter, I want to crash the internet, I want to freak people out!” That brought the crowd to their feet and the decibels up, and the official conference to an end.
After dinner, we repaired to the ballroom next door for Wines of the World. Over pours of Rueda whites, we sat with author Jim Conaway, who signed my book, Napa, and marveled at the photos in this 1992 trade edition. He also told me which Napa Valley winemaking families he liked and which he loathed, but I won’t go into that here.
On our way through the lobby we met a fellow with some Washington wines to pour for us in his hotel room. Turns out he is Charles Herrold, formerly of the 1980’s rock group, Trooper as well as former owner/winemaker of Blackwood Lane. His wines from his new winery, Silverback Vineyards in Walla Walla, were awesome. The $240 Reserve Syrah was my favorite.
Then it was up to the top floor for the annual Jordan Winery party, this time affiliated with sister winery, J Vineyards. We tasted the J Brut, and through a 10-year vertical of Jordan Cabernets Sauvignon. That magnum of 2003 was something truly memorable.
For two years, I’ve wondered how my fellow wine bloggers would respond to BC wines. The Okanagan is, after all, a fairly young wine region and these bloggers are nothing if not picky.
At the J/Jordan party, I was able to do an exit poll of the Wine Bloggers to find out what they thought of BC wines. Here is what they told me without slurring one word.
“The wines were just really different and interesting. Everybody had a rosé but also pinot noirs, cab francs, sauv blancs. Just big-time diversity.” said Matt Talbot of Portland’s, Winerabble.com.
“I think the gewürtztraminer really stood out for me as far as quality and enjoyability, as well as the lovely pinot noirs. It was especially exiting to see some Bordeaux varietals and blends being produced in the Okanagan Valley. That was an eye opener for me.” said William Pollard of wild4washingtonwine.com.
“I thought BC wines were surprisingly phenomenal,” said April Yap-Henning CWS of sacreddrop.com in Portland. “I was impressed by how many different types of wines BC was able to create – and well. From north to south, I have to say there is a lot of potential.”
“To be honest, I came up with fairly low expectations and it kinda blew them out of the water,” said Californian Michael Wangbickler DWS/CWE of throughthebunghole.com. “Every BC wine I tasted was solid and several were outstanding. I really liked the Tantalus Riesling.
Not only did they love BC wines, the bloggers adored the “stunning” landscape and the “friendly” locals. They all said they plan to come back soon.
In an official survey, the bloggers rated the Penticton conference the highest yet, just barely edging out the 2008 conference in Sonoma County. That’s saying a lot, and the Penticton organizers deserve huge pats on their backs for pulling off this successful coming-out party.
To read more bloggers impressions of BC and to register for next year’s conference, go to the Wine Blogger Conference site.
Next year, the Wine Bloggers Conference goes back to California on July 11-13 to Santa Barbara County, before heading back east in 2015. By mid June, about 45 bloggers had already signed up, and the conference is likely to sell out by the Spring.
And, like a former governor of California once said in a movie, “I’ll be back.”
Mari Kane is a wine writer and blogger from Sonoma County, now living in Vancouver. Her wine blog is Tasting Room Confidential and you can follow her on Twitter.