When I launched WineZag in 2009, I did it under a founding motto of “wine is a lubricant for human connection that holds no bias.” The essence of my wine appreciation has always transcended the juice, gravitating to the center of human bonding and relationships that are accelerated by shared wine experiences; either during dinner with a few companions, over time with kindred vinous comrades, or for fleeting moments along a lifetime path of wine discovery. Business associates, winemakers, tasting groups, retailers, collectors, importers, PR professionals, chefs, maitre d’s, and journalists make for a rich wine community that I am continuously motivated to run with. Commonality of interests and shared bottles lend fluidity to communal moments and glue to a lasting community. WineZag affords me fuller participation and and more opportunities to make new connections. For me, it’s the quintessential benefit derived from publishing regular content born out of my enthusiasm for wine. Here are some of my personal 2011 highlights, discoveries, and disappointments as a participant in the IRL and online wine community I am still getting to know (in case you missed it, here is Part 1: The Wines and Restaurants):
Most Exciting Regional Community
I returned to South Africa in July, and more specifically the Swartland subregion of the Cape Winelands. Swartland has a lot going for it beyond its beauty and old vine farms. It showcases a community of pioneering winemakers that have recently reclaimed these forgotten bush vines to transcend the region’s communal bulk wine reputation by producing chenin blanc and rhone varieties that are totally expressive of micro terroirs from vineyards of varying elevation and soils. They have introduced farming practice that eliminates irrigation, optimizes yields, and keeps things natural to create what are the most exciting wines in all of South Africa.
Most of all, they are collaborating as a group should that is occupying unfamiliar outposts. Their collective enthusiasm and personalities are contagious. From the irreverent Adi Baedenhorst and creative Craig Hawkins, to the focused Chris Mullineux and rock star Eben Sadie, inclusive of the talented and aspiring David Sadie…the Swartland team is creating a revolution that’s hard not to root for. It was an honor to spend time with all of them this year. Their wines are thrilling, unique, and of a quality unseen in such consistent fashion anywhere else on the continent.
These wines are woefully under represented in the US, but that is starting to change already. Bravo to the Swartland crew, look for their wines with Swartland regional designations on the bottle, and pay them a visit to experience the wild beauty that is being captured in bottles by a community of deserving winemakers.
Most Interesting Critics I Met
Eric Asimov and Jancis Robinson were keynote speakers at this year’s Wine Bloggers Conference. Besides their moving talks where Asimov called on the wine writing community to succumb to humility, remain inquisitive, stay unattached to the wine industry, experience wine with meals instead of just tasting, and “avoid venerating wine appreciation as fetishistic.” He struck a chord with my own sensibility.
Robinson rolled into Virginia sans Royal pomp and full of signature British understatement. A woman of intense experience and wine knowledge mixed it up with twenty and thirty-something wine bloggers. I give her credit for that. She shared her full embrace of the internet for proliferating her content while extending her community. I was impressed by her commitment to new media and dedication to the pace of content creation and active engagement it requires.
Robinson’s informative FT column, and Asimov’s weekly New York Time’s insights as the paper’s first-ever Wine Critic comprise some of the most useful and engaging wine content available to consumers today. I managed to grab some words with both of them, and as expected they were gracious and intelligent, curious and helpful, and journalists to emulate. Meeting them both has impacted the way I think about wine writing and my own wine enthusiasm.
Favorite Wine Blogger to Hang It Up
I had the good fortune of meeting up with Jeff Lefevre in Canada and Virginia this year. I was surprised, and shouldn’t have been, by his midwest humility and high degree of graciousness. I have carefully followed Jeff’s writing since 2009 and was immediately taken by his creativity and ingenious approaches to even the most common wine subjects. His writing style is skilled, at the top of the wine blogger bunch. He deservedly earned a spot as Forbes.com wine columnist.
Jeff’s work always wreaks of intensity. I can never remember a casual post. He demands a lot from himself, and he found himself succumbing to greater self imposed rigor over time, never allowing himself the slack bloggers occasionally afford themselves after years of regular content creation. As I have learned to expect from Jeff, he made the value rich decision to reshuffle his priorities for greater family commitment. He has a very luck family, but readers will have to work hard to find suitable alternatives to his energetic journalistic style. Thanks for all the content Jeff, and hurry back.
Least Friendly Consumer Wine Blog
I love reading Steve Heimoff’s writing at his own steveheimoff.com. I try to catch up with the blog every few days. He is a committed journalist, editor of Wine Enthusiast, and a fixture in the California wine community. His posts are stimulating, topical, personally styled, passionate, and intelligent. He manages to keep the issues of the day in full view. As such, he has attracted a serious following from the wine trade. I find Steve’s instigations and the trade’s reactions educational.
Sometimes I have a point of view, always as a consumer wine enthusiast, and post comments that are often ignored. Sometimes, I am flamed by members of the trade taking defensive positions, insisting my point of view as a consumer lacks appreciation for their realities of making and selling wine. I acknowledge, respect, and accept their challenged conditions. But, my points as a consumer are genuine. They deserve fair engagement instead of dismissal. I would think the trade should appreciate input and engagement with interested consumers. If I think that the proliferation of $100+ bottles of bad cabernet are earning California a reputation for overpriced wine, isn’t it worth understanding where I am coming from instead of shouting why it’s the way it needs to be? I am a consumer with the ability to scan the global wine market for the best quality and value. If somebody told Ford their cars were bad and expensive, would they respond by telling consumers that their costs are high and they are disadvantaged compared to Japan’s favorable politics and legislation….so just go away? Overall, I just don’t feel very welcomed by Steve’s reader community. But it won’t keep me from continually reading the blog….Steve is a masterful journalist and critic.
Most Energetic Wine Blogger I Met
Jason Phelps, author of Ancient Fire Wine Blog, lives in New England but it took a trip to the Wine Bloggers Conference to finally meet. Now Jason is one of the newest members of our Boston blind tasting group. His energy is boundless and infectous. Maybe it has to do with the fact he is a cancer survivor. In Virginia, amidst all the frenetic activity, Jason found ways to post to his blog multiple times a day. While I hydrated with bottled water and lounged in the pool during breaks, Jason would retreat to his room and pour his tasting experiences into his keyboard. He was present at every event. He wore five or six ribbons hanging from his attendee badge at all times. He tasted every wine that was poured…hundreds. And always, he wore a big smile and had interesting things to say.
Since the bloggers conference, I have followed his blog and am amazed at the volume of legitimate content he produces. It’s all good, well written, often pithy, and always engaging. He comes to wine as a home winemaker and its refreshing to read about his progress in that regard, and his newer connections with serious global wine enthusiasts. It was my fortune to connect with Jason this year.
Best Wine Event I Attended
I latched onto the Taste Camp bandwagon in Niagara. Lenn Thompson’s brainchild, the event brings together wine writers for a few days of complete regional immersion. Lenn was assisted in Canada for this year’s event by folks like Remy Charest, Suresh Doss, Rick VanSickle and several others. It was a first class event, unadorned by the commercial activity that takes place in so many other wine industry events. We visited with winemakers in their cellars, participated in grand tastings, walked vineyards, ate well, and completely immersed in what was once an unknown wine region for many of us. Making wine in Canada is not a straight forward proposition with inconsistent vintages and weather. The region’s short history has it still experimenting, working hard at matching the right varieties with suitable terroir. The event showcased the region’s personality, and there was little chance of leaving Canada without a full appreciation of the local wine culture, challenges, progress, and triumphs. It’s hard work organizing these events, and I am fully appreciative to Lenn and his local cohorts for creating my very positive experience.
Worst Wine Event I Attended
I really looked forward to showing up at my first Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville, VA. It offered the full on and exhilarating experience of meeting up with so many people I had only once known online. Jancis Robinson’s and Eric Asimov’s talks were powerful. The after parties were congenial and intensely social.
But, the meeting planning was horrible. The wines poured on the opening night were boring and often bad. There was no food to speak of at the opening night tasting. The conference sessions were poorly coordinated and often lacked valuable content. The grand tasting of Virginia wines was a failure at Monticello. Temperatures reached 100 degrees and there was no possible way to enjoy or appreciate the work of the local winemakers. Meeting organizers knew the conditions well in advance, and needed to shift their plans to indoor facilities. As a conference and exhibition organizer myself, it is easy to notice holes in the meeting’s planning. But the organizers managed to pour weak or bad wines all three days for a group of wine writers and didn’t adhere to their responsibilities of hospitality and event management. The meeting earned a grade of C- and that was too bad for all of us that committed our time and money. I will give the event one more shot in 2012.
Most Useful Blogpost I Read
Easily, it was Levi Dalton’s post on navigating wine lists. Levi is an accomplished sommelier and an whimsical writer. Last year So You Want To Be a Sommelier was my favorite new blog to enter the space. This post provides insider insights that are often missed by most restaurant goers. It’s worth a read for novice and advanced wine enthusiasts.
My Blind Wine Tasting Group
I am eternally grateful that I have been able to continue to host monthly blind tastings. It gives me a chance to taste the wines I want with a more clinical approach, share wine with people I enjoy being with, and connect with savvy tasters in a relaxed but serious setting. 2011 added so many great wine consumers and trade folks to our taster ranks. But, thanks to Rich, Rich, Dale, Eileen, Brett, Amanda, Malcolm, Stacy, Doug, Rene, Marie, Jason, Jillian, John, Louis, and the thirty others that have been regularly shlepping glasses to my home and sharing in the cost of the wines every month. These are some of the most educational and enjoyable nights of the year in wine for me, and I hope everyone continues to share their enthusiasm for years to come.
Wine Shops I Was Happy to Spend My Money With
Chambers Street Wines- Amazing global selection of natural and small production producers found in New York’s downtown. Easy online shopping. Fair prices. Expedient and inexpensive shipping. Great informative blog.
Wine Bottega- Amazing inventory, personalized service, and focused selection on natural and small production wine can be found in, of all places, Boston’s North End. Kerri Platt and Matteo Mollo apply their intense knowledge and great connections to an enviable customer service program. If there is one wine shop’s inventory that I wished was actually my personal cellar, it would be Wine Bottega.
Wine Blogger (Maker) I Was Most Happy to Meet In Person
A young Hardy Wallace made the transition from grinding big business to wine blogger….and it was a good thing for him. I watched his glorious moments in the Really Goode Job contest and followed his fuller transition to winemaker. He has fully leveraged new media to change his life for good. I met Hardy in Virginia and he turned me onto Tribute to Grace Grenache…one of the most exciting wines I tasted last year. I am excited Hardy accepted my invitation to speak at our Design Bloggers Conference to share his history of leveraging content and community for the good life. Most of all, Hardy is a respectable, polite, and honorable guy. He’s also a Dead Head, which further explains my fascination with his life progress. Great to meet you, Hardy.
New Winemaker I Root for Most
David Sadie- David David is a kind and hardworking man with a vision. He is an engaged member of the Swartland community and his Aristargos white wine blend is remarkable. I hope he succeeds.
Angela Osborne- A Tribute to Grace- I don’t know Angela, but her wines speak well for her. Focusing on Grenache in California, Angela has gone to a new place for California Grenache. A young New Zealand woman that came to the US to make wine with a passion and creative flair for writing, her wines are sexy, new, and different. I hope she succeeds.
Best Newly Discovered Longtime Blogger
Jeremy Parzen, author of Do Bianchi gets it right just about most of the time. He’s been around for a while, but I really started paying attention this year. His intense knowledge of Italian wine and culture, unassuming style, inquisitive nature, and self effacing approach to discovering and writing about wine and food is completely sensible to me. More than once Jeremy helped my clarify mysteries that regularly plagued my mind. Thanks Jeremy.
Best Secondary Market Wine Seller
The nod most certainly goes to WineBid.com. I became a seller of Bordeaux and a few other treats this year. I had no experience reselling wine and selected WineBid as my market maker of choice. They sold the wines as promised, fetched a fair price, and delivered on every aspect of the transaction. I have subsequently bought wines on the platform, and the experience is equally reliable. I would not make it a regular habit to buy wine here since the price will never be cheap, and at best fair. But for highly desirable and hard to find old wines, it makes a lot of sense.
Have a happy holiday season, and hope you join me in welcoming in 2012 for the entire wine community.