During the 2016 Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, California, I had the great pleasure of meeting Stephen Havill of Bella Grace Vineyards. During one of the conference lunches, he led me over to his table where he was pouring some of their wines. After tasting a few, I was immediately smitten and knew I had to plan a visit to Bella Grace in Amador County’s Sierra Foothills.
This post is a little different than my usual fare. I am two weeks into wine club processing at the winery where I work and I’m exhausted. I have travel on my mind. If I could take off this weekend, I would. I’d hunker down in an awesome rental space or hotel and do nothing but relax, sleep, eat, and drink great wine or beer. Or maybe I would just sleep for a couple of days. I just want to be alone with nothing on my mind in a place I’ve never been. Speaking of travel, did you know that it was my first love, before wine? My first outlet for travel-related social media was Twitter.
In September 2008, after attending an education conference as a community college professor, I decided to try Twitter. I had no idea what I was doing. My original name was @cestbeth, aka C’est Beth, it’s Beth in French (which still exists, I held onto it just in case). I had been a frequent flyer since 1997 and in 2008, I became a part-time, home-based business travel planner for Preston-Layne & Partners, Inc., a wine marketing and sales team. In 2011, I officially became an independent contractor with Montrose Travel and launched this blog. I found myself often having to explain the meaning of @cestbeth, so that same year, I changed my Twitter name to @travelwinechick (because @travelingwinechick was too long). The new name seemed to define who I was becoming, a woman who loves travel and wine, plus everyone understood it. Coincidentally (or not), most of my travel since 2009 has centered around wine destinations, such as Napa, Sonoma, Charlottesville (Virginia), Woodinville (Washington), the Finger Lakes (New York), the Okanagan (British Columbia), Mendoza (Argentina), Chester County (Pennsylvania), Santa Barbara County (California), Tri-Valley/Livermore (California), and the Hudson Valley region (New York).
After moving to the Napa Valley in January 2014, I haven’t had the opportunity to travel as frequently as before (no more Christmas break, spring break, or summer off in the wine business), but I still try to go somewhere four to six times per year, usually a weekend getaway. It just so happens that this year, I have been invited to some great wine, food, beer, and spirits destinations. During early summer, I will be traveling to Waterbury, Vermont for my first TasteCamp, then to Lodi, California as a guest of the Lodi Winegrape Commission. Later in the summer, I will return to Lodi for the 2016 Wine Bloggers’ Conference. I am hoping for more travel opportunities as the year progresses and I am open to travel anywhere (hint, hint).
With all of these wine-related travels past and present, there are a few key things that I always take with me, including my favorite accessory, The Wine Check. As a special treat, the kind staff at HomeAway created for me my own @travelwinechick travel essentials infographic to share with you, the top five things you need to travel if you’re a wine traveler. Pretty cool, eh? If you aren’t familiar with HomeAway (I wasn’t), then head over to their website to read more about how their vacation rental marketplace works. I know that when I plan my own travel or book travel for others, I search every option available for the best location at the best price, so I will include HomeAway in my future lodging searches. Perhaps HomeAway will hook me up with that weekend getaway that I’m sorely craving right now.
I’ve attended four Wine Bloggers’ Conferences: Virginia (2011), Okanagan (2013), Santa Barbara (2014), and New York (2015). While I always enjoy the conference, I’ve always found it challenging to share with my blog readers, most of whom may never attend a conference. I am also the kind of person who feels an experience and finds it very hard to put my feelings into words. That being said, I do have some favorite activities and takeaways each year. Below, in no particular order, are some of my highlights and thoughts.
The Host Region
My primary reason for attending the conference is to connect with and learn more about the host region. I came to the Finger Lakes because I wanted to taste Finger Lakes wines and interact with the region’s key players in the wine industry. While this year’s conference had many Finger Lakes sessions and tastings, I still think more could be done to focus on the host region each year. In my opinion, there should be more winery excursions or more sessions held at local wineries, because the best way to learn about wine and winemaking is tasting the wines and visiting the winery and/or the vineyards. Also, because being a conference sponsor is quite costly, I fear that some of the best, small producers are being left out due to financial constraints.
The second best part of the conference is the people. I attend each year to network with like minded writers and people in the wine business, make new connections, and rekindle professional relationships and friendships. This year a few of my attendee friends made this conference extra special: Bon Vivant DC (Alison), Drink What YOU Like (Frank), The Drunken Cyclist (Jeff), The Grape Belt (Tom), and International Wine of the Month Club (Kristina). Thank you so much.
Keynote Karen MacNeil
This year’s keynote by Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, was on target. Her inspirational remarks included personal and professional stories as well as serious and funny ones. She told her own story of perseverance and success and offered us advice on how to improve our wine writing and tell our own stories, then took questions from the attendees.
Riesling, King of the Finger Lakes
This was my favorite wine discovery session, as we had the opportunity to taste Finger Lakes Rieslings from Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga Lakes. The samples from Dr. Frank, Keuka Spring, Red Newt, Knapp, Lamoreaux Landing, Sheldrake Point, Fox Run, and Lakewood varied in terroir, style, and age. The session was a nice introduction to Finger Lakes Rieslings, especially for those who had never tasted them before. The only caveat is that there’s never enough time to fully taste and experience wines in a 60-minute session that includes 30+ minutes of introductory material.
Key Takeaway: Finger Lakes terroir varies greatly from lake to lake, vineyard to vineyard, and winemaker to winemaker. There is not just one Finger Lakes style.
Conference Winery Excursion
Every year, there is a surprise destination excursion to a local winery. This year’s excursion took my group to Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars on Keuka Lake. I had visited Dr. Frank before on my first trip to the Finger Lakes in November 2012. This visit included a library wines tasting with wines from Dr. Frank, Glenora, and Lucas, followed by a wine dinner on the patio overlooking Keuka Lake. It was a perfect evening, complete with a rainbow and a gorgeous sunset.
Key Takeaway: We may be doing Finger Lakes wines a disservice by drinking them too early. Many of these wines are built to last for years and evolve wonderfully in the bottle. We tasted Brut Rosé, Blanc de Blancs, Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon from all three wineries, vintages 1983 to 2007, that were outstanding.
Jordan Winery After Party
The Jordan Winery after party is always one of the highlights of the conference. While it’s difficult (at least for me) to stay up until 11:00 p.m. to attend, I always do, because Jordan is one of the masters of wine and food hospitality. This is the premier, official networking event every year. Thank you especially to Lisa Mattson for hosting us.
The Final Dinner
The final dinner was both delicious and fun this year, held at the gorgeous Corning Museum of Glass, with a preceding glass blowing demonstration. Each meal course featured a wine showdown of sorts, a lighthearted, competitive pairing of two different wines from Finger Lakes producers. Representatives from the wineries shared with us why they selected their particular wine for each food offering.
Some of the unofficial (aka #goingrogue) activities are fantastic, because they allow us to step out of the conference box and taste some great wines. This year’s favorites included:
Pre-Conference Virginia Wine Dinner
The food from Corning’s Hand + Foot paired with wines from key Virginia producers was a perfectly executed, pre-conference kickoff to my arrival in Corning. Producers included Early Mountain, Thibaut-Janisson, Linden, Veritas, Barboursville, Fabbioli, King Family, RdV, Michael Shaps, and Glen Manor. Thank you to Frank Morgan and Early Mountain Vineyards for organizing and sponsoring this wonderful dinner.
Key Takeaway: Virginia wines have come a long way since I started seriously tasting them at the 2011 conference. The samples served at this dinner were in a league of their own.
Craig Camp and Cornerstone Cellars
Craig Camp is a longtime supporter of bloggers as well as the conference, so I don’t feel guilty attending his Cornerstone Cellars tasting, where he opens his hotel suite to participants so we can experience some of his California and Oregon wines in a very relaxing, friendly, and hospitable atmosphere. The wines are exquisite and improve every vintage. The dialogue between Craig and those of us who attend is open, honest, and educational.
Next year the conference will be held August 11-14, 2016 in Lodi, California. An outline of the conference agenda is already posted. I hope that organizers and Lodi wineries will perhaps consider freshening up the schedule a bit to include more of what Lodi has to offer.
Santa Barbara County was my third Wine Bloggers’ Conference. I attended for the first time in 2011 in Virginia, just shortly after I created Traveling Wine Chick. My second conference was 2013 in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia with a pre-conference excursion to Lake Chelan, Washington. I am not really a rabble rouser, but more of a polite Southern Belle type (with the accent to match), so I won’t be ranting in this post. I am happy to have been able to attend this conference. Below are some of my thoughts.
Thank you so much to the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association, Zephyr Adventures, Vincent Group Consulting, the Marriott Santa Ynez Valley, the conference sponsors and partners, the wine producers, and everyone else who was involved in this conference. From this participant’s point of view, it appeared to go off without a hitch.
Most Interesting Session Surprise
Wine Discovery Hosted by Jackson Family Wines – How the Pros Taste included a panel comprised of professional wine writers and reviewers Steve Heimoff, Joe Roberts, and Patrick Comiskey. At first, I was a bit star struck to be tasting a selection of wines with these guys as the helm. However, none of the panelists guessed correctly the mystery wine we tasted, which was a wonderful reminder that we are all human and that our palates can be swayed not only by taste, but by a seed of perception planted in our minds.
I was fortunate to have gotten on the bus to Sanford Winery, where we enjoyed the story and journey of Sanford, a grand tasting of Sta. Rita Hills and other Santa Barbara County wines in the cellar, and a wonderful chef-prepared dinner outside accompanied by a beautiful vineyard setting and sunset. This excursion rivaled my excursion last year which culminated at Tinhorn Creek Winery with paella. Sanford went above and beyond to give my group a wonderful lasting impression of the Sta. Rita Hills area of Santa Barbara County and their wines.
My Favorite Official After Party
Jordan Winery and J Vineyards’ after party last year in Okanagan was so much fun, but this year it was better (translation: had space for more people) as they were able to secure a larger space at the hotel instead of a hotel room suite. There was something for everyone: sparkling, rosé, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and a stellar vertical of Cabernet Sauvignon, accompanied by hors d’oeuvres. The unexpected highlight was The Drunken Cyclist sabering a bottle of sparkling wine with a wine glass. True story.
Cool Rogue Events
There were a few off-the-schedule, unsanctioned (rogue) sessions in which I participated and was glad I made the choice to break the rules, so to speak. Soléna Estate outdid themselves hosting a hotel suite of Oregon Pinots to taste along with some wines from British Columbia. Shawn Burgert organized a wonderful, relaxed media meet and greet, Authentic Press, at Saarloos + Sons with some of Santa Barbara’s winemaker stars and small producers. These are the kinds of interactions that need to happen more often. Nothing beats establishing real-life connections among wine consumers, writers, and producers.
Suggestions for Next Year
I am already booked to attend the 2015 conference in New York’s Finger Lakes, one of my favorite wine destinations, so here are some suggestions for next year’s planners. I would love to see a track that runs throughout the conference for just the Finger Lakes, for those who want to delve in deeper into the region, its wines, its wineries, and its winemakers. Along that same theme, perhaps develop other tracks that might include tasting practice and evaluation, successful writing/blogging techniques, wine tourism, etc. I would also like to get out of the hotel more and see the Finger Lakes and its wineries. Perhaps we could have two excursions or enjoy a breakout session or two outside of a hotel conference room.
The second full day of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Conference, I participated in live wine blogging with red wines. I decided to stick with the same formula as for the whites and rosés: take a photo of the wine, write a brief review, and post simultaneously to Instagram and Twitter. I also posted this session to foursquare and my Facebook fan page. Below are my mini, first-impression reviews and links to photos.
#wbc13 #wine @CedarCreekWine ’10 Pinot Noir: raspberry, strawberry, tart cherry, great acidity. http://instagram.com/p/aUS0SSzawj/
#wbc13 #wine @quails_gate ’09 Pinot Noir: nice red berry flavors, good acidity on the finish. http://instagram.com/p/aUSPLhza_0/
#wbc13 #wine @bench1775 ’11 Cab Sauv/Merlot blend: black cherry, dark fruits, mint, vanilla. http://instagram.com/p/aURsNFTa-5/
#wbc13 #wine @LFNGWine ’10 Portfolio Bordeaux blend: luscious black cherry, lush mouthfeel. http://instagram.com/p/aURJNGza-B/
#wbc13 #wine ’09 @McWattersWine Meritage: blackberry, blackcurrant, tart cherry, soft & silky mouthfeel. http://instagram.com/p/aUQguaza8m/
#wbc13 #wine @HillsideWines ’09 Cab Franc: cherry, cranberry, dark berries, raspberry, tea. http://instagram.com/p/aUQDebTa7v/
#wbc13 #wine @SummerhillWine @EVKWine ’06 Cab Franc: aromatic, red fruits, silky mouthfeel. http://instagram.com/p/aUPZ1Jza6v/
#wbc13 #wine @mtboucheriewine ’09 Zin: Primitivo-style, aromatic, nice berries and spice. http://instagram.com/p/aUO8EOza6D/
#wbc13 #wine @dangelowinery ’07 Sette Coppa Riserva, Bordeaux-style red: blackcurrant, chocolate, coffee, mint, vanilla. http://instagram.com/p/aUOQcYTa41/
#wbc13 @perseuswine 2010 Tempus Syrah: velvety black fruits and spices. #yum #wine http://instagram.com/p/aUNvWqTa3u/
One of the highlights of the Wine Bloggers’ Conference are the live wine blogging sessions, in which we have an hour to taste 10 wines. This was my second Wine Bloggers’ Conference and I still haven’t mastered live blogging, but I think I’ve mastered live microblogging. Below are my tweets of the wines I tasted in the reverse order that they were presented (@travelwinechick) and links to my Instagram photos.
#wbc13 @terravistawines Fandango: Albariño/Verdejo: almond, citrus, melon, stone fruit http://instagram.com/p/aRnPxlza5D/
#wbc13 @bench1775 ’12 Chill white blend: lemon, stone fruit, acidity, off-dry http://instagram.com/p/aRm0MAza4T/
#wbc13 @quails_gate ’12 Chenin Blanc: bit of Sauv Blanc: honey, citrus, tropical fruits, good acidity, minerality http://instagram.com/p/aRmH-kza3Q/
#wbc13 @cedarcreekwine single-vineyard ’12 Riesling: lemon-lime-citrus, amazing acidity, 2.2 RS. My fav so far! http://instagram.com/p/aRlo2uza2P/
#wbc13 @monsterwines ’11 Riesling: apple, citrus, stone & tropical fruit, acidity, minerality http://instagram.com/p/aRlFxZTa1d/
#wbc13 @blackhillswine Alibi Sauv Blanc/Sémillon: citrus, melon, tropical fruit, great acidity! http://instagram.com/p/aRkfeOza0e/
#wbc13 @graymonkwinery is #BCWine’s oldest family owned and operated winery
#wbc13 @graymonkwinery Pinot Gris: tropical fruit, then citrus; aromatic, good acidity http://instagram.com/p/aRj28wTazj/
#wbc13 @poplargrovewine ’12 Pinot Gris: citrus, stone fruit, tropical fruit, acidity http://instagram.com/p/aRjS7NTayq/
#wbc13 @joiefarm Noble Blend, 5-white, Alsatian-style blend: aromatic, good acidity, slightly sweet. http://instagram.com/p/aRivYjzax3/
#wbc13 @TherapyWines ’12 Fizzio Blanc, Chard/Muscat: frizzante, tree/stone fruits, good acidity. http://instagram.com/p/aRiJpgzaww/