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NorCal Wine Blog

A Tale of Two Conferences

Computer keyboard

In my last article, Cats and Dogs Blogging Together, I said there are two species of blogger: career bloggers and hobbyist bloggers. The North American Wine Bloggers’ Conferences could serve each type of blogger better by acknowledging the differences and playing to those differences rather than continuing the current “one size fits all” strategy. Below are my specific proposals. I welcome your comments on them.

WBC currently has two classes of attendee: Citizen Blogger ($95 fee) and Industry Blogger ($295). Like Career Bloggers, Industry Bloggers make their living through the wine industry. However, most Industry Bloggers are employed by a particular winery or reseller so their focus is on promoting that employer rather than exploring and writing about a wide range of wineries and topics. I suggest creating a new category, specifically for Career Bloggers, with a $195 fee and maximum attendance of 50.

The higher fee will do three things. It will discourage Citizen Bloggers from signing up under that category. It will make them feel a little better about the exclusivity of Career Blogger activities. It will also subsidize those activities, allowing certain aspects to be upgraded, enabling a lower fee structure that might allow small producers to participate, and/or paying an honorarium to one or two speakers. Careful vetting of Career Blogger registrants will help ensure people sign up in the appropriate category.

Limiting the number of Career Blogger tickets will allow for quieter, more focused sessions, use of smaller rooms/wineries, easier transport for off-site events, and pouring lower production and/or more expensive wines. It will make networking between like-minded bloggers easier. Grouping attendees in this way may also introduce new sponsorship opportunities.

Attendee badges would be color-coded to easily differentiate between categories. There should still be events which all bloggers attend jointly, but several each day would be designated for Career Bloggers only. Industry Bloggers could attend those events but, for planning purposes, would need to register for each such event prior to the conference.

Career Bloggers should leave WBC with deep knowledge of the host area’s terroir, history, wine styles and place in the market. This would be achieved through detailed seminars, extensive tastings and multiple excursions. Seminars should be focused, deliver on their title’s promise and emphasize education over entertainment. Q&A with winemakers and growers is essential.

No regional seminars or AVA-wide tastings should be held concurrently with each other. Some excursions might. Details on excursions should be disclosed well before the conference though, and attendees given the opportunity to choose their destinations—no mystery tours.

Seminars, workshops and tastings not focused on the host region are also important. Topics might be very similar to those already offered, such as consumer research, the business of blogging, writing workshops, tasting techniques and tutorials on media, web tools, etc. Tastings from non-host regions should deliver educationally and feature high-quality—or, at least, very representative—wines. All sessions should be led by very well-prepared moderators and panelists. Most sessions ought to be interactive. There shouldn’t be more than two such seminars running concurrently.

There should be no tasting of wines that come in bags, boxes or “paks.” Ideally, unless it’s a truly amazing value, there should be no tasting of wine that retails for less than $10. There could still be sessions where winemakers move from one small group of bloggers to the next. But each segment should be 10 minutes long, to allow for questions, and the groups of bloggers ought to be well separated so noise isn’t an issue. If sweet or fortified wines will be poured, each blogger needs two glasses so that one wine doesn’t color the next.

Removing some of the detailed and/or career-oriented components from the main WBC curriculum will allow for more events that Hobbyist Bloggers really enjoy. Add a third Live Blogging session. Add sessions where Hobbyist Bloggers interact with each other more, perhaps talking about what’s going on in their home regions.

I realize pulling all this off successfully will require more work. And I’d also recommend having a separate advisory board just for the Career Blogger segment. In the end though, I think WBC will be better for the new structure and might recapture some of those career bloggers who are abandoning it.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. The Wine Bloggers Conference logo is the property of Zephyr Adventures. The photo of typing is in the public domain. All rights reserved.

Cats and Dogs Blogging Together

There are two species of wine bloggers. Within each species, there are many breeds—reporter, diarist, taster, storyteller, etc.—which have analogs in the other. But the two species are very different animals.

The Dogs BedFor one species, wine blogging is part of a career in or around the wine industry. Their involvement with wine may not pay all the bills yet, but they seriously intend to make that happen. For the other, wine blogging is, and always will be, a hobby. They might hope to cover some costs and receive wine samples, but their blogging is really a pastime, a creative outlet, a way of sharing their experiences.

I’m not saying one species of blogger is better than the other, just that they are distinct. Their goals, outlooks, interests and approaches to blogging contrast clearly. The Wine Bloggers’ Conference has always tried to serve both species. Each is addressed by certain activities within the programs. But the target audiences for seminars aren't overtly identified. Content doesn't give the impression of having been fine-tuned for either segment.

In retrospect, this is at the root of my frustrations with the conference and, I suspect, those of numerous "career bloggers" who have attended. We feel uncomfortable with multiple aspects of WBC that happen to have great appeal to hobbyists. And many careerists feel WBC doesn’t offer them enough unique value to justify their time and travel expense.

My favorite non-tasting seminar at this past conference was Michael Larner’s presentation on Terroir of Santa Barbara County. He was thorough, authoritative, focused and occasionally showed his dry humor. I found the session was very informative and time well spent. Unfortunately, there weren’t more than 25 bloggers in the tent.

Why, in a conference taking place in Santa Barbara County, were there not more people eager to learn about Santa Barbara County? First, the career group, which has much greater interest in the details of soil, climate and geological history, is, at best, 20% the size of the hobbyist camp. Second, Michael’s session was concurrent with two others, each having a title starting with “The Business of.” If you’re a career blogger, all three sessions have appeal. Which do you attend? If you’re a hobbyist, none are particularly exciting. Do you grudgingly attend one or do you sleep in?

My favorite tasting seminar of the conference was “Syrah Territory: Ballard Canyon.” It was instructive, allowed winemakers to address the audience directly and the wines were tremendous. The tasting seminar called “Dig In: Sta. Rita Hills” might have been even better. I’ll never know. These two core seminars on Santa Barbara wine were presented simultaneously.

Many people enjoyed the panel discussion entitled “How the Pros Taste.” I like and respect each of the panelists: Patrick Comiskey, Steve Heimoff and Joe Roberts. Much of the crowd enjoyed these gentlemen’s interplay, stories, enthusiasm for particular wines and occasional nuggets about their tasting habits. But I and a few careerists sitting around me, writhed in frustration, wondering when Steve, Joe and Patrick would tell us how they actually approach tasting: their process, how they characterize tannins, how they weigh various criteria to reach an overall quality assessment, etc. That never happened, but the majority of attendees—the hobbyists—were entertained and left happy.

And then there’s “live blogging.” I loathe it. I understand a winery’s desire for face-to-face time with many small sets of bloggers adn the benefit of having their brand trending on Twitter. I grok the revenue model for Zephyr. I can relate to the happiness and invigoration bloggers experience when learning and tasting so many new things in rapid-fire succession, and having to write/tweet about it under the pressure of 5-minute deadlines.

But I feel badly for the winemakers who can barely make themselves heard in a hall with hundreds of people talking at once. I wonder who, reading at home, can keep up with and benefit from the tidal wave of 80 character (plus multiple hashtags) “reviews.” I mourn for my palate which is required to first taste a fortified wine, then a delicate white, then a pungent Sauvignon Blanc, then a neutral white from a box. Thank Dionysus for the occasional palate-resetting bubbly!

In Tuesday’s article, I’ll offer ideas for restructuring the conference to better serve both hobbyist and career bloggers.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons: Petteri Sulonen. All rights reserved.

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 Copyright 2014. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: Malloreigh - RetouchAll rights reserved.

New White Wines and Rosés from Rutherford's Day in the Dust

Last Wednesday afternoon, the Rutherford Dust Society held their annual tasting for trade and media at Inglenook. Roughly 40 wineries were represented. I tasted 54+ wines (in addition to those from the morning session which I describe here). That article also includes a summary of the 2011 vintage overall.

Most of the wines offered at the tasting were red. However, there were some very compelling white and rosés too. I’ve dedicated this article to those wines, so they don’t get lost in the Cabernet shuffle.

Rutherford White and Rosé New Releases

Alpha Omega Sauvignon Blanc “1155” Napa Valley 2013, ~$38
Sauvignon Blanc and 4% Semillon, all estate-grown in Rutherford, were fermented in French oak barrels. Fresh, summery flavors of tart peach and dry grass are coupled with enjoyably grippy texture and freshness. Recommended

El Molino Chardonnay Rutherford 2012, $60 - 856 cases
White peach and beautiful floral notes of honeysuckle and pikake with some oak in the background. Very pretty. Highly Recommended

Elizabeth Spencer Chardonnay Rutherford 2012, $45 - 300 cases
Aromas and flavors of green apple skin, fresh herb and under ripe peach with a fresh palate. Recommended

Fleury Estate Winery Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2012, $50
Fermentation and aging was 50% stainless steel, 50% new French oak. This is a boldly tropical wine with passionfruit, pineapple and white flower aromatics. Medium-plus body and the flavor of piña colada on the palate. Recommended

Honig Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2012, $28
Salty lemon-lime aromas with grapefruit, peppery spice and herb on the palate. Medium-plus body and very fresh. Aged in French oak, 40% new. 10% Semillon, 2% Muscat. Highly Recommended

Long Meadow Ranch Winery Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2013, $20
Salty lime pith, passionfruit, melon rind and herb aromas join with loads of grapefruit on the palate. Fresh, long and intense. Highly Recommended

Conspire Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2013, $28 - 267 cases
Welcome to Sancerre! Intensely aromatic with passionfruit, grapefruit, salty minerality and pipi du chat. Body is a light medium-plus and the finish very long. 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% Sauvignon Musque. Conspire is a sub-brand of Amy Aiken's Meander wines. Highly Recommended

Provenance Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford 2013, ~$23
Fresh, tasty and softened ever so slightly by 5% oak (new French). Peach blossom, guava and spice. Recommended

Provenance Sauvignon Blanc Rutherford Estate 2013, ~$29
30% usage of new French oak lends added richness to the palate of this estate wine. White peach, sweet citrus and spice. Best to let this wine breathe a good while or splash it into a decanter. Highly Recommended

Staglin Chardonnay Rutherford Estate 2012, $75
A gorgeous Chardonnay with green and yellow apples and pretty floral spice on the nose and creamy palate. Very Highly Recommended

Talahalusi Vineyards Roussanne Rutherford 2012
First things first: Talahalusi is the name the local Wappo tribe had for what we know as Napa Valley. There’s 5% Picpoul Blanc blended into this full-bodied Roussanne. It’s juicy and long with flavors of kiwi and dry grass. Recommended

Tres Sabores Rosé Rutherford “Ingrid and Julia” 2013, $24
Forget that this an unlikely dry rosé, made from Zinfandel (85%) and Petite Sirah (15%). Just enjoy the pale pink color, delicious flavors of nectarine and fresh berries in sweet cream and the refreshing, long-lasting palate. Highly Recommended


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

Examining 2011 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

On Wednesday, July 16, Inglenook hosted “A Day in the Dust,” the Rutherford AVA’s annual media and trade tasting of new releases. This year’s focus was 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon.

The event included:

  • a blind tasting of 13 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2011 vintage for a small group of writers
  • vitculturalist/proprietor Davie Piña presenting a summary of the 2011 vintage
  • lunch with glasses of the 2011 Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon and 2012 Inglenook Blancaneaux white Rhone-variety blend
  • a walk-around tasting for trade and media of more 2011 Cabernet plus other releases from roughly 40 producers of Rutherford AVA wine.

2011 was a difficult vintage throughout California. Winter and spring were exceptionally cold and wet, leading to poor fruit set for some growers. Cool weather continued for most of the growing season, necessitating later than typical harvest. Ripening and harvest were further complicated by rain in early October. The end result was below average ripeness along with unusually high levels of mold and rot. As in other regions, the impact of these factors varied considerably from one vineyard to the next, sometimes from block to block.

Many analysts essentially wrote off the 2011 vintage. However, with the advanced viticultural techniques and precise sorting machines now available to wineries, very fine wine can be produced in years that would have been tragic in decades past. In regions such as Napa Valley, where maintaining brand reputation and customer loyalty is essential, vigneron spend a lot of money to ameliorate the effects of bad weather and will readily sacrifice quantity for quality. Some wineries, such as Honig, are already sold out of 2011 Cabernet.

Tom Rinaldi, winemaker for Hewitt Vineyard, told us that they did "“an awful lot of sorting and removal.” HUNNICUTT’s Kirk Venge said 2011 brought “a careers’s worth of rain” and they “controlled botrytis by being out in the vineyard, sometimes twice a day.” He found old, widely spaced vines with loose clusters fared best.

Despite best efforts, rot was an issue for many, perhaps most, producers. Ted Edwards of Freemark Abbey said he saw more botrytis in Cabernet Sauvignon around the valley than ever before in his 33-year career. He added, “We were lucky. Our vineyard crew was very aggressive.”

Winemakers also deviated from their normal procedures to compensate for the vintage. State and Federal laws require just 95% of a wine to be from the stated vintage. Tom Rinaldi blended in some 2012 wine and said that, in his 35 years making wine in Napa Valley, this was the first time he’s come close to the 5% cap for off-vintage content.

Many wineries, including Hewitt, turned to barrel fermentation. It creates a softer, richer wine but is much more labor intensive than fermenting in large tanks with automated pump-over or punch-down. Tom Rinaldi also said that, to prevent any traces of botrytis from showing in the wine, he didn’t do any stirring of the barrels. And he was careful to keep free run and press wine from each barrel separate until the latter could be carefully evaluated.

Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications noted, as did many attendees, that the wines seemed to show less oak than previous vintages. Yet, Jeffrey Stambor, winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards, said they used 100% new oak—more than usual—in their George de Latour Private Reserve. He did agree that oak signatures were less obvious though, attributing this apparent contradiction to use of lower toast barrels and greater oak-fruit integration due to barrel fermentation.

The end result in general is wines that are very good, but also very different from those of more typical vintages. Color is deep and inviting, but rarely opaque. There is plenty of fruit, but little jam. Acidity plays a significant role in the structure of these wines. One might be tempted to say that these are early drinking wines. However, I think the combination of ample fruit and generous acidity may allow them to develop over an even longer timeframe than most Rutherford Cabernet.

Reaction from others on the tasting panel was very positive but reinforces the notion that the nature of 2011s is atypical and may be most appreciated by a different set of consumers whose palates favor Old World dynamics and expression of terroir. Traci Dutton, sommelier for the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, found quality high, but the profiles diverse. “These wines are really unique. They don’t all taste the same.”

Grooving on the acidity, sommelier/wine writer Randy Caparoso said wryly, “We should have these lousy years every year.” Another veteran sommelier/wine writer, Christopher Sawyer, ruminated on how 2011 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon will fit in at the dinner table. “These are not the wines I’d be pouring with steak that has blue cheese running all over it. I’m thinking Ahi. I’m thinking roast chicken. I think these wines are real gems.”

Tasting Notes for the 13 Panel Wines plus 2011 Inglenook Rubicon
(in the order they were presented)

2011 rubicon 540

12C Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard 2011, $78. 91 cases released July, 2013.
Aromas of smoke, tart blackberry, mocha, oak, tobacco and chewy black cherries. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and very fine-grained tannins. Flavors of oak, black fruit leather and spice. Recommended

Beaulieu Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Georges de Latour Private Reserve 2011, $130. 5,600 cases to be released August, 2014.
Black currant, brown spice, toasted cedar, vanilla and malt on the nose. Medium-plus body with fine-grained tannins and high acidity. Piquant blackberry, oak and spice in the mouth. Highly Recommended

Conn Creek Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $60. 100 cases to be released in Fall, 2014.
Bing cherry, candied cherry, mint, cocoa, brown spice and oak aromatics. Nearly full-bodied with very fine-grained tannins, medium-plus acidity and long flavors of blackberry cream, spice, oak and tobacco. Highly Recommended

Frank Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Winston Hill, $150. 1,089 cases to be released September, 2014.
This wine was less of a departure from typical vintages than most wines in this tasting. Aromas of milk chocolate, coconut, ripe black currants, brown spice and oak. Nearly full-bodied in the mouth with balancing acidity and fine-grained, grippy tannins. Flavors include mint, tart black currant, spice, oak and coconut. Highly Recommended

Freemark Abbey Cabernet Sauvignon Sycamore Vineyard 2011, $100. 1,500 cases to be released January 1, 2015.
Complex and engagingly Old World with aromas of black currant, black cherry, trail dust, mushroom, drying herbs, earth, vanilla and spice. Full-bodied with acidity and fine, powdery and chalky tannins well in balance. Lengthy flavors of black cherry, coconut, coconut, spice and earth. Highly Recommended+

Hewitt Vineyard Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, $100. 3,200 cases, releasing Summer, 2014.
Mouthwatering red currant, coconut, dewy forest floor and spice on the nose and palate. Medium-plus body, acidity and grippy tannins of fine grain and chalk. Recommended+

HUNNICUTT Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard 2011, $85. 123 cases slated for September, 2014 release.
One the most highly regarded wines among tasters I polled, and also one of those I found most reminiscent of Bordeaux. Black currant/black cherry preserves, brown and black spices, oak and moist tobacco aromas. Full-bodied and showing excellent balance of acidity, alcohol, tannins of fine grain and chalk, and intensity on the palate. Long flavors of tangy black currant, spice, earth and dry herb. Very Highly Recommended

McGah Family Cellars “Scarlett” Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $60. 471 cases released December, 2013.
Another crowd favorite, the McGah smelled of black cherry, black currant jam, mushroom, damp forest floor and spice. Almost full-bodied on the palate with medium+ acidity, fine powdery/chalky tannins and exceptional balance. The very long-lasting flavors echoed the nose. Very Highly Recommended

Pestoni Family Rutherford Grove Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $55. 300 cases to be released in 2015.
Aromas of oak, brown and black spices, heady blackberry, oak and mint. Medium-plus body and juicy in the mouth with fine-grained and chalky tannins. Flavors of baseball card gum, tart black fruit and herb. Recommended

Provenance Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $47. 13,500 cases released in January, 2014.
Black cherry, moist cereal grain, dark spice and brown sugar on the nose. Full-bodied with prominent acidity and firm tannins of fine grain and chalk that will soften to reveal lush flavors with time in the cellar. Highly Recommended

Quintessa Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $145. 9,000 cases released in April, 2014.
Mannered aromas of dried black currant, cigar box and dark spices aromas give way to a full-bodied palate with very fine-grained and chalky tannins. Rich black cherry, medicinal herb, spice and oak. Highly Recommended

St. Supery Estate Vineyards Rutherford Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $100. 340 cases to be released September, 2014.
A simultaneously lush and juicy tasters’ favorite with aromas of black currant, black cherry, dark spice, tobacco, oak and vanilla. The full-bodied palate is loaded with mocha, tangy black currant and spice. The fine-grained, chalky tannins are well-balanced by the fresh fruit. Very Highly Recommended

Wm. Harrison Vineyards Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $55. 400 cases releasing in May, 2015.
A distinctive nose of chocolate mint, huckleberry, black cherry, brown spice and mocha. Full-bodied and replete with fine, powdery and chalky tannins. Very long flavors of oak, chocolate mint, dry herb, tart blackberry, spice and mocha. Very Highly Recommended

Inglenook Rubicon Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, ~$200. Estimated release September, 2014
This wine was poured at lunch but I essentially tasted it blind. I was talking to people when it was poured and had no idea what was in my glass. The wine quickly got my full attention though.

Opaque and ruby-black in color with a nose offering dense, dusty black currant and mocha. The palate is of medium-plus body with matching acidity. Tannins and flavor intensity are slightly more prominent. The dusty black currant and mocha recur in the mouth but are joined by violets, earthiness and ferrous minerality, all of which are harmonious and very long-lasting. Tannins are a blend of dry, slippery graphite powder and grippy light grains. Overall, the 2011 Inglenook Rubicon reminds me of top growth, Left Bank Bordeaux. Highest Recommendation

I will provide tasting notes on wines from the afternoon’s walk-around tasting in a subsequent article.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.