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View from the Punt – Perspectives on TasteCamp from the Other Side of the Bottle, and a few Lessons Learned – Part I

TasteCamp 2012 is in the books!  A yearly gathering of print and online wine writers, the fourth annual TasteCamp was held in Loudoun County, Virginia this past weekend, May 4 – 6.  Like all of these wine events, TasteCamp was a blur — going so fast I barely felt like I had time to connect with anyone.  This weekend reinforced the need for me to get back out on the Virginia wine trail and visit more wineries and spend time with winemakers.

True to form, all of the wineries that participated were enthusiastic about meeting the group of wine media influencers and sharing their wine and stories.  I was proud of how Virginia wine showed and the hospitality extended to the group.  The ~20+ Virginia wineries that participated in TasteCamp, represented the entire Virginia wine industry well!

After the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville last July, I posted two pieces (here and here) to share the opinions of those that made the event possible — the vintners and winery teams that produced and poured the wines we all tasted.  Sticking with this theme of sharing the story of those from the other side of the bottle, I have collected feedback from a number of vintners that participated in TasteCamp, and from one or two that decided not to participate.

Boxwood Winery, situated in Virginia’s picturesque town of Middleburg, served as host for the official TasteCamp kick-off event on Friday afternoon.  The Boxwood team graciously provided lunch for TasteCampers, catered by Ayrshire Farms, and followed by a grand tasting that included nine Virginia wineries.  I can’t think of a nicer place than Boxwood to start an event like TasteCamp.

Rachel, Cat, Adam and the entire team at Boxwood spared no detail to make the official start to TasteCamp memorable.  When our group arrived, the entire setup looked perfect, with nothing out of place, as if this is always the way the chai looks:

Unbeknownst to TasteCampers, there was a last minute behind-the-scenes weather-related logistics scramble to breakdown and relocation the entire lunch and grand tasting setup.

This event will always stand out for me; and I’ve done a lot of them.  I’ve never seen anything like what went on yesterday.  We had lunch set up on the cursh pad, and the tasting in the chai. Then the wind started, and 15 minutes later, heavy rain.  All hands on deck moved the tasting to the cave and the entire luncheon set up into the chai in less than half an hour when they were expected in only 45 minutes. And we did it: made it look as if it had always been that way.

Then, during lunch, the sky cleared, and the cave was less than ideal anyway  — would have been too tight for the tasting — so we executed another move to get the tasting event set up (for the third time) now, out on the press. We owe the guys from Rappahanock Cellars a cocktail when we see them because they too jumped in and helped us get it done.  ~ Cat Coughlin, Marketing Manager, Boxwood Winery

The Boxwood team handled the last-minute changes with poise and grace.  I would like to sincerely thank Rachel, Cat, Adam and the entire Boxwood team that worked so hard to make the TasteCamp kick-off luncheon and grand tasting a memorable event.  Team Boxwood rocks!

First off, I want to say that personally we were excited to have been invited.  We work hard to make nice wines and look for any opportunity to increase folks’ awareness of Hume.  As far as taste camp is concerned, I must say I was quite surprised to see the majority of bloggers swallow (!) all their tastings at each and every table.  Makes me wonder how one could be in any position to do a serious evaluation of the wines they tasted when they got to the 8th table (and probably the 30th wine!).  This aside, it was nice to hear lots of comments on the part of folks on how surprised (!) they were by the quality of the wines they tasted.  This says more about us as an industry then them: namely that Virginia does a poor job of getting the word out to the rest of the country about how good our wines are (although we are very good WITHIN Virginia at patting our own back).  Only time will tell what the impact of this type of events will be on raising the awareness of the Virginia wine industry outside of our own boundaries, but I can only hope that it is a step in the right direction.  Now I just want to see all those writeups to gauge the level of analysis. ~ Stephane Baldi, HUME Vineyards

Stephane makes a great point here, and one that I also heard from a winemaker on Saturday as well.  This winemaker asked me if the event was called TasteCamp or DrinkCamp because so many at the tasting seemed to be drinking vice spitting.  Spit cups and buckets were aplenty so I’m sure most TasteCampers were spitting, as is customary at trade-type tastings.

As always, its a pleasure to “press the flesh” with the passionate wine blogger community and I felt honored to represent Southern Virginia wineries at the event, since most of these things take place in Northern Virginia or Charlottesville.  Perhaps in the future it might be worthwhile to have a gathering of some sort in Southern Virginia or the Shenandoah Valley to show visiting bloggers the breadth of winemaking styles and the gorgeous countryside.  I realize that when you get away from the familiar and make travel a bit more difficult, participation will decline.  If the organizers of an event wanted to “split the difference” on Southern Virginia (since there are relatively few wineries compared to other parts of the Commonwealth), I would suggest a meeting in a place like Scottsville, Virginia on the James, which is close enough to both Central Virginia wineries and Southern Virginia wineries for them to easily participate.

Or Lynchburg, which offers lots of great restaurants and proximity to Southern Virginia, Bedford County and parts of the Shenandoah.  In the Shenandoah Valley, Lexington is a great destination, with interesting history, restaurants, etc.  I imagine the bloggers might get tired of “the usual suspects” that you can find in the bigger wine shops and grocery stores.  I’d push for a change of venue (though I must say Boxwood was a spectacular place to have the lunch/grand tasting).

It was great to see familiar faces — the local bloggers we’ve met at other events — but I would like to see two things handled differently: 

1.  Being arrayed at tables with tasting stations as if we were at a festival isn’t really conducive to getting to know the bloggers personally.  I think something akin to a “cocktail hour” where we can have conversations rather than presentations might be more effective if the goal is to promote personal connections.  For example, at the Virginia Vineyards Association annual meeting they do that, and everyone brings wine to share.  It’s very easy to grab your own bottle during a conversation, and present it to a compatriot: “Try this and tell me what you think.” The physical separation of the table limits interaction and dialogue.

2. I think it would be helpful to provide the participants with information on the participating wineries.  As far as I could tell, this was not done only because of having to tell our “story” again and again to everyone we did not know.  Perhaps something like that would not be read, but I do recall that the Virginia Wine Marketing Office provided a booklet at WBC11 that listed the wineries and had tasting notes that I think was consulted when it wasn’t being used as a fan during that ungodly heat wave.  At that event, there was more discussion of the wine and less explaining where we were from.  ~ Stephen Ballard, Annefield Vineyards

That ‘non-harvest party‘ in October sounds like a great time for such a gathering!

Stephen makes a great point about educating TasteCamp attendees about each of the wineries prior to the event, and vice versa.  Not providing attendees with basic winery information — winery overview, website address, Twitter handle, winery point of contact, etc. — was the local organizer’s fault. Unfortunately, I thought about this on Friday afternoon as I heard someone ask one of the winery folks if they were on Twitter.  Definitely a lesson learned for next year.

I thought Taste Camp 2012 was a great experience and super well organized.  I wish there was an equivalent event for winemakers!  The passion these bloggers bring to the table both as consumers and reviewers helps to energize the whole industry.  Its also a huge relief to be pouring for a group that is well informed, knows what they are tasting, and what questions to ask. I was very impressed with the level of feedback.  ~ Rachel Stinson, Stinson Vineyards

I thought it was a great event.  The bloggers were very complimentary.  Showing just two wines I think was helpful in allowing the bloggers to get to more tables.  ~ Lisa Champ, White Hall Vineyards

I agree with Lisa about limiting the number of wines to allow attendees to visit more tables and meet more of the winery folks.  Since the grand tastings are generally limited to just 90-minutes, perhaps this suggestion should be considered for TasteCamp 2013.

I found the bloggers to be sincerely interested in learning all they could about our wines, our story and our region.  They were busy tasting, asking questions, taking copious notes and learning as much as they could about the many wines and wineries present.   They are obviously passionate about what they are doing, many having come from the Northeast, Canada and points west and south, giving up precious time to learn more about the experience of Virginia wines.  I personally enjoyed meeting them, putting faces with names and sharing our personal story and our wines with them.  

The reality for many micro-boutique wineries whose production is very limited is that distribution to distant locales, especially out of the country, does not make feasible financial sense.  But the beauty of this circumstance is that it emphasizes the unique and sometimes rare opportunities to partake of local wines in the land of their “birth”.  We all know wine is more than a taste.  It is the experience and the setting that creates the magic of the memory, and sipping a wine on the earth from which it came makes it all the more real, authentic and memorable.  Hopefully the bloggers will take our stories back home with them, write about them and pique the curiosities of their readers enough so they will want to come to our region and create their own special memories as they sip Virginia wines and experience a true sense of place.

The organization of the weekend seemed extremely well thought out.  The size of the group was very manageable, giving the wineries a chance to enjoy a thorough visit with nearly every blogger.  Hats off to Lenn, Frank and all the others who played a role in putting it together.  Bravo!  ~ Christine Vrooman, Ankida Ridge Vineyards

Rachel Stinson, Nathan Vrooman, Christine Vrooman at Friday afternoon Grand Tasting at Boxwood.

I appreciate Christine’s kind words about the organization of the event, but helping organize TasteCamp served as confirmation that I have no future in event planning, and should leave planning/organizing such events to the professionals.  🙂

Overall, everyone — wineries and attendees — seemed pleased with the event.  Since I have not attended past TasteCamp events I don’t have a basis for comparison to determine the success of this year’s event relative to past TasteCamps, but I consider TasteCamp 2012 Virginia a huge success.

Major thanks and huge kudos to Jennifer Breaux Blosser, Lawrence and the entire Breaux Vineyards team for organizing and hosting Friday evening’s dinner!  Hat tip Chef Patrick from Tuscarora Mill restaurant for an amazing meal.

Thank you to Doug, Lucinda and Jim at Fabbioli Cellars for your time Saturday morning — the vineyard walk and tasting was very educational.  I would also like to thank Jordan Harris at Tarara Winery for hosting our group for a vineyard tour, lunch and grand tasting.  A special thanks to Ben Renshaw, winemaker/owner of 8 Chains North Winery, for sharing his time to take our group on a vineyard walk the day after his wedding!  Saturday evening’s dinner would not have been possible without the hospitality of Mark and Vicki Fedor, owners of North Gate Vineyards.  Thank you both for sharing your time and opening your winery to the TasteCamp group.   Last, but certainly not least, a special thanks to Stacey Sheetz at Visit Loudoun and to each winery that took their time to pour for us.  Each of your respective, and collective, contributions is appreciated!

Part II of this series and detailed day-by-day TasteCamp recap posts are forthcoming.

Be sure to check out these TasteCamp posts:


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