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View from the Punt — Part II — Winemakers Share Their Perspectives on TasteCamp and a few Lessons Learned

As a follow up to last week’s TasteCamp recap post — View from the Punt Part I, Winemaker Perspectives on TasteCamp — I’m concluding the TasteCamp series with perspectives from a few more winemakers that participated in TasteCamp 2012.  And, As one of the organizers for this year’s TasteCamp, I have a few opinions of my own to share, which are noted at the bottom of this post.

I thought it was great to be able to get our wine in front of some new faces and it was nice to see some familiar faces too. Although the tasting lasted 1 1/2 hours, I don’t feel that I got the chance to chat with everyone.  Perhaps a little more time would have been useful in getting the chance to meet everyone.

I like the focused, small group tasting environment, and it was nice to have just 3 wines to pour and talk about. I do agree that it would have been good to give the attendees some background info on each of the wineries, but I understand that it takes time and effort to compile all of this info.   Overall it was a positive experience, and I hope to read lots of comments and blog posts from attendees about Virginia wine.   ~ Kirsty Harmon, Blenheim Vineyards

Blenheim Vineyards Team – Kirsty Harmon, winemaker, and Greg Hirson, assistant winemaker.

To make the most of TasteCamper’s time in Virginia and to introduce them to as many wineries and wines of the region as possible, the TasteCamp agenda is packed by design.  However, I agree with Kirsty and the other wineries that noted more time would be helpful for engaging more with attendees.  It’s important to remember that learning is a two-way street at these events — winemakers want to learn as much from ‘us‘ as we do from them.

I personally was excited and honored to be among a community of diverse backgrounds and efforts of this industry!  It was wonderful to put names to faces as well as to hear feedback from other areas of the country.  Since a lot of the wines/wineries were from the northern viticulture region of Virginia, I was honored to represent the southeastern/northern neck area of Virginia where a lot of great wines are being produced.  I do think it would be an added value to have more wineries from the other regions so as to have a more diverse sampling from all wine regions.  There are wineries venturing in to new viticulture and are producing some exciting wines that most are not aware can be produced here.  Virginia is definitely on its way to becoming more popular in the wine community/industry and although this event may have been small in attendees, the voice coming out of it is huge!

Coming from a small, low production winery that hardly anyone in the state of Virginia has heard about, let alone outside the state, it was a wonderful opportunity to not only get our name out to local bloggers/writers, but to also highlight a different area.

I was most impressed by how open minded and passionate everyone was about the wines.  It was nice to find everyone to be as sponges trying to soak up details and opinions without bias.  I felt very proud to be part of a diverse group, where although we each, as an individual entity, had visions of wowing the crowd with our wine; we also had pride in simply showcasing what Virginia can produce.

I am thrilled to hear comments and feedback about Viognier from our state!  I love hearing that our <Virginia> Viognier can rival those found in France! ~ Terri Hyde, General’s Ridge Vineyards

When I was approached to recap my thoughts on this spring’s TasteCamp I thought it would be an easy write up. Upon reflection, I found it very difficult to describe why I want to be in front of wine bloggers, some of whom I know and others I do not.  It’s about marketing, personal and regional branding, it’s about pride and ego, and it’s about camaraderie.

I think the marketing is a rather obvious point about getting your wines/brand out there. Pride and ego accompanied by humility require a little explanation. My cup of optimism runs over after pouring and discussing wines with passionate and seasoned writers of wine. I like to hear the honest remarks and enjoy the high regard from the evaluators. I’m further excited to know that I stand behind the table with winemakers sharing a philosophy and commitment to thrust Virginia into the world’s limelight. All of the writers/bloggers are excited by the breadth and quality of wines. There’s an exuberant camaraderie amongst winemakers and the writers/bloggers. Everyone here wants to be on board this new rising star called Virginia Wines. The excitement and enthusiasm is contagious and stands out during these events in a way that I’ve not experienced in any other venue.  Ultimately, this is why I attend.  ~ Derek Pross, Gadino Cellars

Derek Pross from Gadino Cellars, and Jeff from Glass House Winery.

I appreciate the passion and enthusiasm Derek and all the winemakers shared during TasteCamp, and have heard similar comments from winemakers about a certain excitement when pouring for wine savvy writers/bloggers like the TasteCamp group.

First of all, wine bloggers are consumers – so at the heart of it, there is reason to engage bloggers for all of the very same reasons you would engage any other consumer, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. An opportunity to pour your wine for a consumer is an opportunity to sell your wine to a consumer.

So when a “consumer” is also a “blogger,” how does that impact an event like this from the winery perspective – how is it different than attending to the hordes at a drunk-fest?

Well the way I see it, it’s worthwhile to first note that a “content creator” is not by default a “social influencer.” Put another way: two people can go start a blog and write about wine; in one year, blog “a” can have 1,000 daily readers, and blog “b” might only have 20 – or even be defunct. This is important because:

  • Negative content posted by minimally influential creators is largely irrelevant to wineries’ overall branding efforts.
  • The value of linkbacks in association with desirable keywords (“Virginia, Wine”) cannot be overstated, and while proportionate to the posters’ social influence (traffic) – the facts of the matter stand: “any press is good press.”

So when it comes to an event that offers me the opportunity to put my wines in front of the blogger-consumer, here’s how I feel:

  1. Good or bad, any resulting posts provide linkbacks out of the deal, which boosts my “Digital Street Cred” …an investment in SEO efforts.
  2. If my wines garner positive posts, the benefits are self-evident.
  3. If my wines garner negative posts, I have the opportunity to learn from valuable consumer feedback. And heck, maybe people start following me on twitter or Facebook just to see how bad – and if I can’t turn a few free followers into new fans just because one person said something mean, I better stop making wine and get back to drinking it.

Of course, there’s another factor to all of this… it’s not all sunshine and glory. The benefits of promoting my wines to so many bloggers with minimal effort must be carefully weighed against the circumstances: pouring wine for bloggers who’ve just been swooned by another producers’ intimate barrel tasting, or who’s palates have just been rocked by hours of food and drink, are far less desirable conditions than standing beside other producers on an equal stage, with balanced chances of pouring for a “fresh” palate (needless to say, WBC11 was a fiasco of an arrangement). Have you ever noticed how blog posts are dominated by mentions of those producers and activities that received the invitation/opportunity to really drive home the “wow” factor for the bloggers?  It’s incredibly difficult to compete for any serious attention amid 20 other wineries when only 3 of them have been selected to provide the group with dedicated face-time in a unique setting (read: guaranteed “tasting room” or “cellar” bias).  

Finally, regardless of the conditions, every winery must consider participation in events such as these from a “defensive” perspective. For example, when the 12 gold medal winners of the Governors’ cup are announced, more than appreciation for those twelve wines crosses a consumer’s mind: it also (fairly or unfairly) invalidates the quality of wines not mentioned. In similar fashion, when a blogger steps up to an event like this, if exposure to participating brands helps to affirm said brands as “established” in the blogger’s mind, then so too are other brands somewhat discredited by their absence.

At the end of the day, this is an opportunity to engage consumers, and carries with it all the same pros/cons of attending something like a generic wine festival. But unlike a general wine festival, there are some additional opportunities to extend the ROI, which are inherent in a “blogger festival,” ranging from SEO improvements to potentially viral brand mentions.

All of this considered, outside of unrelated hardships (staffing or scheduling issues, inhibiting costs of attendance/wine/travel, etc.,) – unless the organization of the event so egregiously devalues the opportunity for your winery, my opinion is that any winery confident in their wines should absolutely attend these events. And while the format might not immediately feel ideal for your business model or wine style, refusing to attend severely inhibits your ability to do anything about it. So any winery saying “I would go if…” should consider establishing a relationship with the community before pressuring said community to change. In a nutshell: if you don’t like how bloggers and blogging works, either zip it and quit it, or put your big boy pants on and get your brand in the game. Because unless your brand carries so much weight that you can dictate the terms, you’re probably looking to build that weight – and refusing to attend these kinds of events doesn’t speed the process. Meh, and I don’t know – if your business model doesn’t call for having any serious “weight” in the industry in the first place, why do you even care about your brand? Enjoy your hobby, and hopefully, it doesn’t cost you the farm.  ~ Allan Delmare, Rappahannock Cellars

Allan makes a number of notable points and I appreciate his insights and candor about wine writer/blogger events and especially his sensible view of potential negative reviews.  Each of us — winemakers and the blogger crowd — can learn from less than sun shinny feedback.   ‘In a nutshell: if you don’t like how bloggers and blogging works, either zip it and quit it, or put your big boy pants on and get your brand in the game.’ Hat tip Allan.

Allan Delmare from Rappahannock Cellars.

Visit Loudoun was thrilled that Loudoun County, Virginia was selected as the host destination for Taste Camp 2012! Our goal is to increase exposure for Loudoun as a destination, and working with wine bloggers facilitates the relationship to help build awareness about the quality of wine and travel experiences emerging from Loudoun as a wine travel destination. We hope that all ‘campers’ will remember the authentic experiences had with the winemakers, winery owners, and fellow wine bloggers, and that they will pass along these great experiences in their blogs and with family and friends. Thank you to all the bloggers who enjoyed the visit to DC’s Wine Country. We are continually growing, and with four new wineries scheduled to open this summer alone, there’s always something new and exciting to write about. We hope to see everyone again soon!  ~ Stacey Sheetz, Loudoun Convention & Visitors Association (Visit Loudoun)

Thank you Stacey and to the entire team at Visit Loudoun for all of your help with planning TasteCamp.  I would like to also thank the Marketing Office of the Virginia Wine Board for sponsoring the TasteCamp lunch with Pizzeria Moto on Saturday afternoon — very much appreciated (and the pizza was great)!  Much thanks also goes to each winery that shared their wines with the TasteCamp group.

As I noted in my previous post, helping organize TasteCamp allowed me to cross one more profession — event planning — off my potential future career choice list.  In the spirit of improvement, I’ve recorded a few lessons learned on how I might improve planning for future wine events, and I present them here for consideration for TasteCamp 2013 in Quebec.

  • Start early.  Though I could make a many (irrelevant) excuses, I did not begin my part of the planning soon enough, and this procrastination resulted in unneeded confusion leading up to the event.  Next year, I believe Lesley Trites, author of the Girl on Wine blog, and Remy Charest, author of Wine Case blog, will serve as local hosts.  I recommend that TC2013 planning begin today.  :)
  • Retail Sales.  While we’re on the subject of early planning, I recommend that consideration be given to finding a way to allow wineries that pour at the grand tastings to sell their wines to attendees.  Here in Virginia, this was not possible due to the labyrinth of licensing and ABC regulations.  Well, it may have been possible had I planned far enough in advance for off-site sales.
  • Less compressed schedule. For many attendees, TasteCamp is a once-a-year chance to catch up with friends so the party tends to go late in to the night (and wee hours of Saturday) after the Friday evening dinner.  Perhaps a 10am on Saturday morning, and one less vineyard walk on Saturday would be more reasonable and allow more time at the Saturday grand tasting.
  • Invite local winemakers/winery folk to participate in the evening dinners (at a minimum, the BYOB Saturday dinner).  Having winemakers participate in dinner may provide attendees a better/another opportunity to interact with local winemakers and learn more about the region.  Trying to learn about a particular wine or winery in a few minutes at one of the grand tastings isn’t ideal.  I believe having more time to interact with winemakers without them having to pour wine and manage a tasting table would be beneficial for attendees.
  • Provide each winery a copy of attendee list along with blog site and Twitter names prior to the event and encourage them to connect before TasteCamp.
  • Provide each TasteCamp attendee with a list of participating wineries along with Twitter handles and encourage them to connect before the event.
  • Provide phone numbers for local Taxi or shuttle service to each attendee in case the bus leaves them.  Ok, kidding, sort of.  I would recommend that in future events, consider assigning everyone a bus buddy (I recommend Marie Payton :) ) or count attendees when getting off and back on the bus before leaving a vineyard.  This year we left two behind — my bad ya’ll.  (although, a head count would not have been helpful as two attendees who took the bus to dinner actually rode back to hotel with someone else)
  • The Friday and Saturday evening dinners at wineries, vice a local restaurant, seemed to work very well.  Keep this format of dinners at the wineries.   (I believe from past attendees that the lunches were always held at wineries?)

If you attended TasteCamp this year or in prior years and have other suggestions on content and/or schedule improvements, leave a note in the comments section.

For more perspectives on TasteCamp 2012 Virginia, please check out these posts from fellow TasteCampers (if I’ve missed linking your post here, please let me know):

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