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Getting the Wine Bloggers Conference We Deserve

Malloreigh wearing boxing glovesI attended this year’s North American Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Santa Barbara last week. This was the fifth WBC I’ve attended. Some parts of the conference were truly excellent, many were interesting in the moment but not memorable. Others could and should have been much better in my view. The event is a for-profit venture. Attendee feedback is vital to improvement in future seminars, tastings, excursions, presenters and in the conference as a whole.

Zephyr does solicit feedback from bloggers for future sessions. Not all advice is taken. Some is conflicting, impractical or would cut into Zephyr’s profits. The organizers have made changes over the years based on our comments though.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement. And three of the six best events in Santa Barbara that weekend were actually non-sanctioned gatherings which Zephyr didn’t want anybody to attend. I’m concerned, though, that a negative feedback loop is being created. There was even an article this week, from a blogger who wasn’t present at the conference, that did nothing but regurgitate negative comments from attendees.

Some of the criticism is so virulent, and sometimes personal, that the relationship with Zephyr—who don’t react well to complaints anyway—can only become increasingly adversarial. That won’t lead to better conferences. Likewise, the tenor of gripes about individual panelists is such that only people totally desperate for exposure will agree to participate in coming years..

A few months ago, bloggers rightly called Robert Parker out for posting a scathing forum rant about a Jon Bonné/Eric Asimov tasting seminar he hadn’t attended. His comments were based on partially inaccurate missives from his colleagues. We should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others.

I’m not saying some of the criticism isn’t justified. We should keep that criticism constructive and impersonal though. Before we rip into panelists on blogs and social media, we should remember panelists are people with feelings, reputations they’ve built through years of diligent work, and families and friends who may see our posts. We should remember the panelists came to the conference with goodwill toward us, the intent to be helpful and that the only payment they receive is our goodwill in exchange.

Note: Per comments from Allan of Zephyr Adventures (see below), I have edited this article to remove text indicating that Zephyr  employees are not winee industry people or wine enthusiasts.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: Malloreigh - RetouchAll rights reserved.

Comments   

larry schaffer
#1 larry schaffer 2014-07-24 18:07
Great post, my friend! Lots of areas of potential improvement - but the base is there for a fantastic event year in and year out!

Cheers!
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Frank
#2 Frank 2014-07-24 19:30
Excellent commentary, Fred. While I enjoyed WBC (each day, and most of the panels/tastings I attended), I will say that my most memorable time during the five days I spent in the Santa Barbara County area was Thursday at Star Lane - thank you for all you did to organize that day. Much appreciated.

I have always found the team at Zephyr to be very open to comments and suggestions for improvement. I've provided what could be considered negative feedback (and much positive too) to them and I truly feel they accepted my comments in the spirit in which they were intended — to improve the overall experience of WBC for all attendees.

Agree 100% with you here; '...the tenor of gripes about individual panelists is such that only people totally desperate for exposure will agree to participate in coming years...' Oy!

Many of the gripes, IMO, are simple (and predictable) piling on... especially the post you referred to by someone that didn't even attend the event that just aggregated some of the negative comments. A silly play for eyeballs. Yawn.

Hope to see you soon for more tasting adventures. Cheers!
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Kathy Merchant
#3 Kathy Merchant 2014-07-24 21:23
Bravo Fred!
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Allan Wright
#4 Allan Wright 2014-07-24 21:49
Fred, thanks for your comments. As you point out, we do have a post-conference survey where we ask attendees to rate EVERYTHING - every meal, speaker, session, and event. We create an improvement plan each year based on these results and also compared ratings among the five conferences we run. So we are extremely into feedback.

We also have an advisory board of nine wine bloggers who are industry veterans. We frequently run issues past them for their advice.

What we can't do is make every change people request. I learned long, long ago that everyone has their own opinion and, when expressed online, it is often much more strongly expressed than anyone would do in person. I can tell you that for every person who says "You have to change X!" there is someone else who says "You have to leave X the same!"

I totally agree with you that ripping into panelists is not only non-productive but also one of those things people would never do in person. These panelists, as you point out, are volunteers and if the wine blogging community is critical, they won't return.

One correction for you: we are all wine enthusiasts. In addition, two of us are wine industry veterans and I personally am a food and drink blogger running my own blog about events in my hometown.

Allan
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Jeff Kralik
#5 Jeff Kralik 2014-07-25 01:59
Fred, I am not sure if you were lumping me into those that have been overly critical of the conference, but if you are, I understand. While the aim of my post was to be constructive, some might have taken it as overly critical (although no one has said or written as much to me). I mentioned several times during my post that I appreciated the panelists being there and I was thankful for the work that they put in. And I meant that, sincerely. I just felt that the sessions could have been more focused on where professional writing and blogging intersect—perha ps similarities and differences.

If you know of anyone that I either directly or indirectly offended by my post, please let me know so that I can apologize directly. It was never my intention to offend anyone, honestly.

Jeff
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Fred Swan
#6 Fred Swan 2014-07-25 03:04
Thank you all for your comments.

Allan, thank you very much for the corrections and I apologize for the errors.

Jeff, you're cool :-)

-Fred
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WineHarlots
#7 WineHarlots 2014-07-25 04:01
I don't think the columns by Mary Cressler and Marcy Gordon were inappropriate, and they brought up salient issues that digital writers need to be concerned with. Nor do I think you were airing dirty laundry by talking about the Rogue Events and the missive to all attendees forbidding them to attend.

The fact that you are calling people out, but not naming them, concerns me. If you're gonna talk smack -- do it all the way or not at all.

All the best,

Nannnette Eaton

P.S. -- It was excellent meeting you last week.
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Fred Swan
#8 Fred Swan 2014-07-25 05:37
Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Nannette.

I don't consider what I was doing to be "talking smack." I was simply stating an opinion. I didn't name the non-conference attending blogger because I didn't want my article to drive any further traffic to his or to start some pointless finger-pointing flame war.

I also didn't feel the need to, or see the appropriateness of, naming other people. It would actually have been counterproducti ve to my point, which is that I would like to see less confrontation and "calling out" of fellow writers by name and more civil, substantive discussion of issues.

An unfortunate side effect of my not naming people is that folks seem to want to guess who I was or wasn't talking about. I can't help that. But if you or anyone else is perfectly happy with what this or that person wrote, then I was either not talking about them or we disagree as to what's appropriate.

Again, my intention was not to call people out but to suggest that a) constructive criticism is better than personal attacks, b) that posts which are construed as personal attacks, whether or not that was the intent of the writer, alienates people, gives the blogging community a black eye and makes people unwilling to interact with us (Robert Parker will probably never submit to another interview with a blogger and I doubt Mike Dunne will ever attend another conference. That's our loss.) and finally c) that we should understand that ours words can cause harm and following "the golden rule" isn't a bad idea. It's up to every individual writer to agree or disagree with this and, if they do agree, to evaluate how it applies to their own writing.
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Alana Gentry
#9 Alana Gentry 2014-07-25 10:53
Fred,
I am delighted that you wrote this because you are a wine writer and person that I respect and admire. I find your criticism to be constructive and your tone to be inclusive and natural. I'm not familiar with all of the posts out there about WBC14; I'm glad you advised the unprofessional ones a bit. Nannette, I'm sure Fred was not including any of the more seasoned bloggers that I read, where compliments and thanks to the speakers are abundantly and sincerely given. Lenn, so glad to know about your conference, I am looking for an alternative to WBC.
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David Honig
#10 David Honig 2014-07-25 10:55
I fear I gave up on the WBC after a few years. Why? It made no business sense. It was great fun from a personal point of view, but to a bottom line business, I couldn't justify it. We should call it what it is, The Annual Wine Bloggers Prom, forget the seminars, invite wineries to give us free wine in a tweet-fest, and have a two day party. Four things really turned me off, and two are related.

I sat in on a seminar with Hardy Wallace, Meg Houston Maker, and a gentlemen whose name I unfortunately do not remember, but he was a long-time journalist. The subject was writing on a blog. Both Meg and the journalist suggested that writing, re-writing, and getting somebody to edit, or at least proof-read, would make people better writers and improve overall content. Hardy, who I find delightful, brought the room down exclaiming 'that's not what blogging's about - it's about getting your thoughts out instantly,' or something to that effect. Hardy was not just wrong, he was reinforcing the 'vomit-it-out-a s-you-think-it- even-if-you're- on-your-third-b ottle' mentality that allows people to paint all bloggers with the amateur brush.

The Wine Blogger Awards have gone from joke to farce. Sure, Ron Washam knows how to put both a noun and a verb in a sentence, but holding him out as an exemplar of wine blogging is like holding Aaron Hernandez out as an exemplar of playing football. It makes us all look like idiots. Not just because he's a one-trick venom-spewing pony, but because he adds nothing to the conversations.

Then the two things that are related. Money. Every wine blogger wants to know "how to monetize the blog." So I went to a seminar about monetizing blogs. Two people were talking about social media, creating a following, getting their name "out there," etc. I asked what seemed like an obvious question - "why not take your very best writing, the thing you're proudest of, polish it, polish it some more, and try to sell it?" There are plenty of places, not just Palate Press, that will pay for good content. People looked at me like I had an eye in the middle of more forehead, and went back to talking about increasing their Twitter followers and giving away content to "make their name." What does giving away content do? It devalues content.

In the same vein, we paid for a table and talked to dozens of bloggers about being paid writers. About selling their stories. About getting MONEY for their best content. What did we get? Crickets.

So what did I learn? I learned wine blogging is still an amateur venture, and people by and large want to keep it that way. Which is, of course, fine. But if it's just a way of talking to each other about which wines we like, as we drink them, and there's no interest in using the WBC as a real Conference, to learn how to be better and to network (not make friends, network), then don't pretend it's a Conference. Announce the party, and send out invitations.
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Doug Levin
#11 Doug Levin 2014-07-25 14:46
Fred, great post! David... your expectations for the WBC are out of whack! This is an event that invites - pro bloggers, hobby bloggers, pro wine writers, industry media, marketing pro's, winemakers, etc. It will be what you work to get out of it. I felt it met my expectations, both from a professional, social and wine knowledge perspective. No, the conference did not delve deeply into any of these themes directly, but I was able to get much more content from resources at the conference on my own. Wine can be a passion, a calling AND/OR a job. If it becomes business alone, the role as industry ambassador becomes impossible. In the end, isn't that really our calling?
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Tom Natan
#12 Tom Natan 2014-07-25 15:21
After WBC11 I wrote Allan Wright a long e-mail with suggestions and WBC12 in Portland reflected a good many of them -- at least the ones that didn't require time or money. (I agree that Zephyr has every right to push back on people who make gratuitously nasty comments.) Still, there are limitations. Until Zephyr hires someone devoted full-time to conference programming (or replaces that person, if the position already exists), an event with attendees of different backgrounds and skill levels is bound to disappoint many people when content is left to the potential attendees to suggest. And what happens is that the conference doesn't change all that much because it's kind of middle-of-the-r oad. What Zephyr could do for everyone, though, is make sure that people with similar interests can find one another there by asking attendees to better characterize their blogs and making that information available quickly. I found it was so difficult to find other importers and retailers at WBC that I decided it wasn't cost effective to go any more.
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Mary Cressler
#13 Mary Cressler 2014-07-25 21:06
Hi Fred, I am assuming you are not referring directly to my post, though it was mentioned by several others who either wrote their own posts on events or aggregates of posts.

My post never intended to be a rant directed at the panelists. In fact this is the very first time I've even written anything resembling a "rant" on my blog. It’s not my style.

I said it in my post and I'll say it here, I have a very high level of respect for the panelists. They've worked hard to get where they are and have earned their respect and place in the wine writing world. My only wish was that there were more voices on that panel, offering more perspectives… diverse perspectives, not diversity in gender, race, or age. The later three were just my initial observation of panelists and what many who read my piece chose to focus on.

I also wrote, and still feel, that I wish there were more panelists, in addition to the three that were there. Key was “in addition to.” Perhaps five or six. I meant no disrespect for the panelists, and I hope they didn't take it that way (if they even read the post that is). I think they had valuable insight to share, and I'm glad they were there. I just felt there were voices missing.

Thanks for bringing up the point about them being human, with feelings, who chose to speak out of their own goodwill. I agree! I have spoken at conferences before, and know that it can be intimidating to put yourself out there to an audience for potential judgment. It’s not easy and I applaud them for doing it. And I hope they didn’t take my post as criticism towards them.

Cheers
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Fred Swan
#14 Fred Swan 2014-07-26 00:47
Mary, thank you very much for your comments.

My post was a response to a number of things that were written by various people. Frankly, at this point I don't remember exactly who said what about whom and it really doesn't matter to me anyway. I didn't aim to vilify anyone. I wanted to encourage courtesy and balance. It's a general issue that extends well beyond this particular conference.
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Anatoli Levine
#15 Anatoli Levine 2014-07-27 03:08
This was my first WBC, and I think it was a find event as it was, and very well organized, considering overall amount of activities. Considering diversity of attendees, it is very hard if not impossible to create an event which will equally satisfy all the different people with the different interests. Things can be done better and different - but this is always the case, with any of the event in any of the industries. If we want improvements, the key is to provide not just the criticism, but actual suggestions how to make things better.
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Fred Swan
#16 Fred Swan 2014-07-27 19:35
Thank you for thoughts, Anatoli, and I'm glad you enjoyed the conference. My next two articles address your point directly.
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