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Lessons I Learned from Cards Against Humanity at the Wine Blogger’s Conference 2014

I sit here straddling the line between (i) the euphoria of attending the Wine Bloggers Conference with so many amazing people in a region that I fell in love with (ii) trying to catch up on the reality of all the work I ignored (because after all, pros hydrate and execs don’t make career limiting decisions after a day of tasting).  I’m taking a few days to truly absorb all that I learned about the regions, the wines and the people before I begin my recaps.

But, those articles are expected.  What isn’t expected is there was more than wine that brought people together.  Reflecting back on past conferences, this is not a new phenomena

This year, it was Cards against Humanity.  It is a multi-player party game often compared to the kids game “Apples for Apples.”  It shouldn’t be.  It’s politically incorrect and dark.  It often has unexpected results where the least likely suspect comes up with the worst possible answer that leaves you laughing so hard you are crying.  

I think Jason Graham summed it up the best with his Tweet above. Jason, I have to tell you it was priceless.  As I look back, I realize if I had read the “Cards” prior, I might have been better prepared.  (Full disclosure: I chose the PG13 version as the others would result in an instant flagging by HR and IT in the workplace).   If you are easily offended, do not buy this game.  There is nothing Apples for Apples about it except the format.

Observation #1 (Never get in the car with strangers)

It all started with the pre-trip.  After leaving Tercero Winery and en route to Keana Winery, we came to screeching and sudden stop.  Standing on the side of the road next to us was fellow blogger, Frank Morgan.  “Frank Morgan, get in the car, we screamed.”  After realizing that he either had no choice or he was not about to disappear without a trace, he did. 

Observation #2 (Wayne’s World) and Observation #3 (passive aggressive behavior)

An email came out prior to the conference with a strong caution of attending unsanctioned events.  As a marketing person by day, I understand how important sponsors are to keeping the prices down for the rest of us. But after a few days, it felt a little like a Wayne’s World commercial with the big sponsors, who did throw some great events, eclipsing the regional guys.

We had some amazing opportunities presented to us and if I had not gone to these unsanctioned events, I never would have seen the diversity of those wines nor understood the complexity of the region. That was the essence of why I’m there and I’m non-apologetic for attending them.  At the end of the day, the non-sanctioned events created the own hashtag #goingrogue and a lot of unnecessary drama.  We are not 5 year olds to be spanked with a jelly shoe at the local K-mart. 

Observation #4 (Bless your heart)

The South and my Southern accent, which is exasperated when I am drinking wine, was a topic of conversation.  We also talked about the true meaning of the Southern phrase “bless your heart,” which has many meanings – none of them nice.

Observation #5 (The King of Pop rocks any party)

One of my favorite moments coming back from the Rodney Strong 25th anniversary dinner after a great evening of food, wine, friends and silver-themed clothes was when the Michael Jackson videos began on the bus.  Mary Cressler and I had a ball breaking into song and dance.  Let’s just say I should stay solely with dance.

Observation #6 (what you need to know you learned in kindergarten and don’t become a hashtag)

Come on people.  If you are going to complain about every single detail of the conference from the food to the wine to the organization, do not come. We don’t want to deal with your diatribes at every turn.  Every other conference that I’ve ever attended had a 5x cost (at least) and $95 is a hell of a deal. 

Also do not assume that just because an attendee is invited to an event, they have the ability to add you to an often small pre-configured guest list.  It’s up to the organizer who is on the list and they have to plan in advance. It’s uncomfortable for everyone.  

Observation #7 (the power of a good group of friends and just say no to #gentlemassage)

Missing Many Key People Who I Adore…

From the very beginning on Twitter, I had a great group of people that I knew would always have my back.  I have learned from them, I have laughed with them, I have toured with them and I sure have consumed a lot of wine with them.  As they proved this year when someone stepped out of line (#gentlemassage), they completely have my back.  We live all over the country.  If it weren’t for the Wine Bloggers Conference, I would be missing out of one of my favorite times to catch up with this special group. 

For the 27 people who played Cards against Humanity in our room over a two night period, there is a reason why we are good friends.  Thanks for the laughter, good wine and the memories.


Wine Blogger Conference 2014: Let the Countdown Begin

Bloggers Gone Wild at #wbc12

Many of you have asked me about what a Wine Bloggers Conference experience is really like.  With about two weeks left leading up to Wine Bloggers Conference 14 #wbc14 in Santa Barbara, I thought I’d go “old school” and recap advice that I gave after attending my first conference several years ago. 

Here’s the link and below is the updated recap.  As my blog has grown in readership, my invitations to private events have increased exponentially.  In essence, remember that if you are with a group of 300 citizen bloggers, everything you can say and do may show up online (exhibit A is below).  Someone posted this week that what happens in Santa Barbara stays in Santa Barbara … said no blogger ever.  So true!

1. You may have the opportunity to let another blogger who cannot attend live the experience through your eyes. Otherwise known as the what you say can and will be used against you adage Vintage Texas.

2. Under any circumstances possible, schedule your birthday to coincide with #wbc11. Trust me on this. My birthday falls a few weeks prior to the event, but Thea and I make it a habit to celebrate in style.

3. Get to know your local distributors, wine representatives and others in the industry.  

4. Share a room. Having been married for over 20 years, I was planning to have my own room until a mutual friend asked if I’d mind sharing with another female blogger who needed accommodations. I ended up with the most fun roommate in Liza and she became my running buddy at all events and has continued to be a fabulous roomie over the years.

5. Attend the unconference events. In the midst of one of our sessions, a note was sent out on Twitter that an unofficial wine tasting was in process on the back patio. As I slipped out in between the sessions, I found the bottle of Turley that I brought from home paled in comparison with the vintage Bordeaux wines, high end champagne and other cellar selections from other bloggers. 

6. Bring your list of Twitter handles included in the #wbc handbook. It was so much fun to put faces and names with personalities that I’ve come to know and love over the past year and a half.

7. Spit. Thankfully this is a lesson that I didn’t need to learn. If you were to ingest all the wine that is offered to you, especially during speed tasting, you would end up curled up in a ball in a corner somewhere. You already need a bionic liver to hold your own here anyway.

8. Open your mind and try to put aside preconceived notions. Over the years I went from being not a big rose fan to learning to appreciate it….

9. Partner with the local experts.  There are a ton of events that never make the formal agenda – after parties, educational events, tastings, etc.  Do keep in mind though that these invitations take time.

10. Exercise daily. Just trust me on this. It clears your head, jump starts your metabolism (you desperately need this based on the 6,000 calories that you consume daily with food and wine) and there is not a better way to see your surroundings.  The reactions of your fellow bloggers as they pass you in the exercise room on the way to the conference are priceless.

11. My bonus tip is to buy flair. The ribbons are sassy, fun and help define your personality. Know that your money will go to the scholarship fund to send a deserving blogger to the next blogger’s conference.

In terms of what the actual conference is like, it is like speed dating a wine region with the red carpet rolled out.  Imagine wine bottles everywhere, after parties beginning at 10pm and going until the wee hours, swag bags, wine makers, workshops, food trucks, bus tours and conferences that begin at noon.  Sessions where 10 winemakers have five minutes to pour the wine, tell you his or her story, and answer your questions for a total of 50 minutes. And wine – lots of wine.  For this year’s pre-conference excursion, we actually stay one night at the Day’s Inn where Miles stayed in the movie Sideways.  Apparently it hasn’t changed a bit.  And the after parties are just over the top – Jordan and Rodney Strong always do great events.  This year, I’m excited to be a part of the committee that chose the great scholarship recipients.  I can’t wait to meet them.

And tune on Twitter and on Facebook to follow along with the adventures from July 8 to 13.  I’ll be posting on the blog after the event and hope you’ll follow my journey.

Auburn Football, the BCS National Championship and Wine

I had the honor of attending the BCS National Championship Game last week.  I’m honest with you all — so I’ll admit it — the emotional hangover is still there.  For those of you who follow me strictly for wine – bear with me – I’ll get to that.  This game was about a “bucket list” experience that involved highs, lows, ups, downs, drama, fairy tales and passion.  It was about winning and losing.  It was about friendship – seeing very old friends and cementing relationships with new friends.  I couldn’t have better content for a blog that talks about experiences.

If you don’t follow college football, the BCS National Championship Game is the last game played to decide the top college team.  This year, Auburn and Florida State were the teams competing.  The atmosphere was electric and seeing Pasadena washed in a sea of orange and blue was an emotional experience.

So how did we get there?  I was asked several years ago to be part of an Auburn Athletics advisory committee and I’ve gotten to know the folks that make the athletics department tick.  Because of that relationship, we had an opportunity to buy tickets to the game at a decent cost vs. the four figure estimates featured on Craigslist.  Couple that with a dear friend who is a high ranking college conference official (who would never want to be identified) and we had our hotel hook up and friends to play with for the weekend.

We stayed at the Langham Hotel, which has been around since 1907 and has to have the most complete amenity kit ever.  The hotel also hosted many of the VIP college conference officials, ESPN’s commentators and other sports icons.  Walking through the lobby after going for a run and seeing ESPN’s Game Day’s, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, as well as Johnny Manziel formerly from A&M, and other sports VIPs was intense.

We drank some great wines and because of the company we were with, I can claim that the Chairman of an unnamed Bowl purchased a bottle of 2009 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir for our table.  I also had my first BevMo experience where I tried out several of the wines recommended by Wine Bloggers Conference friend, Wilfred Wong.  Wish we had this store in Texas!

And because I am a dork, one definite highlight leading up to the game was the multiple motorcycle police escort we had going to the Rose Bowl.  And answering the question that many of you had, I was not in trouble.  This was pre-game and I did not go all Alabama mom (just Google it, I don’t want to give that crazy woman any encouragement) on someone.  But blowing through lights when you are not dead or involved in a funeral procession, is a pretty cool experience.

Auburn was up until the last 79 seconds.  It was one of those games where the lead changed 3 times in the final handful of minutes.  Florida State had the ball last and took home the crystal football.  As an Auburn fan, I maintain my emotional hangover.  As a fan of the overall experience, I had a “bucket list” moment.  War Eagle and wait until 2015!

Wine Bloggers Conference 2014: A Preview into Clos Pepe and Central Coast Wine

With eight months to the day until the 2014 Wine Blogger’s Conference (#wbc14) in Santa Barbara, Central Coast Wine & Food conducted a live Twitter tasting with 12 of the top-tier wine bloggers (plus me).  Wes Hagen, the colorful winemaker and vineyard manager of Clos Pepe Vineyards, hosted us with lots of quotable commentary and the best hashtag ever #dirtdontlie.

Central Coast Wine & Food is undertaking a marketing campaign for the up-and-coming agricultural regions between Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.  Hagen led us through a tasting of his acclaimed 2008 Close Pepe Estate Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir.

Clos Pepe Vineyard was the ninth vineyard in what would become the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. The vineyard makes small production, boutique pinot noir and chardonnay.  The winery has its own label but provides fruit to other well-known California winemakers.

The wine was full of black cherry, spice, oak, cranberries, mushrooms, herbs, earth and a beautiful balanced taste.  Unfortunately this wine is really hard to find, but I would easily pay the $62 price tag.

Aside from the really funny comments from a great group of bloggers who have gotten to know each other well over the years, Wes’ great personality, promised “underground parties” and a really great bottle of wine, July can’t come soon enough.

Super Bowl: Santorini Style


It was time for the Super Bowl game and we were invited to a friend’s house for an impromptu get together.  It was a sunny day with weather in the 60’s, I knew we’d have some rich snacks, and since I am never one to follow the beaten path, I grabbed some sample wines from Santorini.  These wines impressed me when I tried them at the Wine Bloggers Conference (#wbc12) in Portland and I was ready to give them the focus that they deserved.

It’s funny how things come full circle. I’m asked often about my favorite wine experience ever.  Mine happened to come while I was in Greece before I knew anything about wine.  My husband had just received his MBA and we hadn’t seen much of each other while he was in school.  We decided that we would take a vacation that we couldn’t afford and visited Turkey and then some of the Greek Islands.  One day we were on Santorini with our trusted Foder’s book in tow.  Most of the restaurants that had four stars had price tags that matched the number of stars given, except for one which had the single “$” sign next to it.  We soon found ourselves in a courtyard with a Greek family who served us fresh fish, Greek salad, hummus and the most wonderful crisp and dry wine that I’ve ever had.  It was amazing and still tops my list of wine/food experiences.

Santorini, while also an island, is a Greek wine region located in the southern Cyclades Islands of the Aegean Sea.  The wines became famous because of the Assyrtiko wines, the island’s flagship grape, commonly referred to as a “white grape in red’s clothing” because of the full-bodied and age-worthy wines produced.

We tried several wines including:

  • Domaine Sigalas, Assyrtiko White 2011 – a delightful white with minerality and notes of citrus.  This was definitely a crowd favorite and one that I will seek out in the future. As it opened, I liked it more and more.
  • Santorini Nykteri 2010 – Nykteri means “working the night away” in Greek as it was traditionally harvested at night due to the hot temperatures.  I tasted citrus, nuttiness, pear and notes of flowers.  This wine begged for food that would stand up to its finish.  Our salty snacks didn’t do it justice.
  • Vin Santo Boutari 06 – this is a sweet wine produced from sun-dried grapes. I tasted maple, dried raisins, caramel and honey.  I immediately craved Baklava.

These wines not only were drinkable today, but have the ability to age.  Based on this experience, I’m going to invest in a few bottles and see what happens in the next decade.  Or on second thought, maybe I’ll drink them today.


#WBC 12: Evening Festivities, Speed Tasting, Peruvian Food & Cuffed in Carlton

After the fun pre-trip to Salem, our bus pulled up for the long awaited start of the Wine Bloggers Conference, but not without a lung stopping beginning.  All the rooms at the Doubletree were deemed non-smoking except for the non-compliant guest that stayed our room prior to our arrival.  I went up to the room first and Liza, my roommate, generously offered to get the wine we had stored with the bellhop.  I walked into the room and the wall of smoke hit me.  I called down to the front desk, but when Liza walked in and saw me standing by the open window with the patio window open thought she had busted a closet smoker.  The Doubletree quickly moved us to another room and generously hauled our stash of wine to the next place.

We started our day prior to the conference with a long-awaited tasting of Two Shepherds Wine, which is owned by my friend, William Allen (a.k.a Wine MacGyver for his endless supply of wine glasses and accessories at previous conferences).  Many of us who write about wine dream, “If Iever make the jump into the wine making world, would I have what it takes?” – and knowing that William has a job as encompassing as mine as a software sales executive – I am incredibly impressed.  His premise is to make Rhone varieties that reflect their sense of place and shine when blended. 

We started with the Two Shepherds 11 Grenache Blanc, which tasted of melon, citrus and lemon with some minerality on the end.  Then we tasted the 11 Viognier with a floral nose, but with nice acidity.  Our next stop was the 11 Pastoral Blanc, which was a blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc, with notes of citrus and pear.  This wine begged for some king crab.  We tasted the 10 Syrah/Mourvedre blend with lots of berry and pepper and then a barrel sample of the Grenache.  One word – wow.  Based on what I tasted, I can say with certainty that you will be reading about Two Shepherds very soon – get on the list now because this is truly a small production winery destined for very good things.

We stopped by the welcome session, which was hosted by the Oregon Wine Board, and were given a snapshot of what we had to look forward to during the week and served as a long-awaited reunion of bloggers. 

That night, we were invited to an intimate event to get a glimpse of Oregon’s wine history featuring 02-08 vintages from past years of the Portland Indie Wine Festival with some wines from some of Oregon’s top winemakers. The 5-year-old festival, which is on hold this year, but is sure to be back in 2013, is a project that brings together up and coming independent wine producers with music and food.  We were picked up by the good people of Watershed and brought to a “speakeasy” bar at Portland Wine Storage.  The vibe was cool, the wines were great, the change during the different harvests (lots of rain in 2004 for example vs. the coolest season on record in 2008) and it was fun to sit one-on-one and talk to winemakers from Harry Peterson-Nedry from Chehalem, Lynn Penner-Ash from Penner-Ash and Ben Thomas from Montinore.  And then it was 2 a.m. – welcome to the reality of the Wine Blogger’s Conference….

I’m not going to give a moment by moment recap about the event because there are some really good ones already out there such as Randall Grahm’s speech by Ben Simons or the great write-up of the “Ready, Fire, Aim” live wine blogging by Winemundo.  

But, I will mention the wheels off lunch that I had with David Honig and Liza at Andina, the best Peruvian restaurant that I have ever tried. 

In the afternoon, we were marched out to buses where we randomly selected our wine region tour for the duration of the evening.  We totally scored getting one of the best tours with a group of people whom I absolutely adore.  Zephyr won’t tell you where you are going until the bus is moving so we were very excited to hear that we were going to Carlton, “the wine Capital of Oregon.”  Thanks to Mary Cressler and Thea Dwelle’s invitation in 2010, I had the chance to get to know Amy Wilder and Lynette Shaw during my last trip to Oregon when Amy introduced me to Voodoo Donuts and Lynette introduced me to Willamette Valley.  A friendship was quickly born. 

About 40 minutes into our journey I spotted a police car on the side of the road with a male and female officer in the car.  I made a comment to my seatmate right as the lights were turned on in the police car.  An officer boarded the bus and told us we needed to disembark due to a “situation,” which turned out to be a brilliantly executed PR ploy. 

And, so we began our #cuffedincarlton journey.  What the officer, who turned out to be the chief of police, did not bank on, were the comments about his attractiveness.  Female bloggers, thinking that perhaps he might be an actor or had a side job in Magic Mike, had fun writing about him.  Sorry Chief Kevin.

We stopped at the lovely Carlo & Julian winery where we were served 09 Albarino that was flinty and perfect for the hot weather – especially with the tuna and three pepper sauce that was served with it.  We walked to the vineyards where we had a beautiful cheese and bread plate served with the 09 Tempranillo.  I was surprised to see these two wines in Oregon, but they were tasty and made Joe ponder.


We then met Ken Wright, one of the father’s of Oregon wine, who talked about the geography of Carlton and Yamhill.  I’ll talk a little more in detail in a later post, since we were lucky enough to spend the morning with Ken on a post conference visit. 

Our dinner stop was at Cielo Blu and once again we had no idea what was waiting for us.  Imagine a room packed with “evidence” against us with the top chefs in Carlton and the top wineries ready to match a nine course meal with 26 of the region’s best wines.  Mary Cressler and I decided that we had to try everything and gamely set out to keep our palates sharp and our sobriety up. 

Our first course “or Evidence No. 1” was Chinook salmon from Pacific City cooked on a traditional Salish bake, which was an alder wood frame over an open fire by Chef Jeff Lorton from Valley Emporium.  We got to sample the 2011 Youngberg Hill Aspen Pinot Gris, the 2009 Noble Pig Pinot Noir, the 2010 Omero Iliad Pinot Noir, the 2010 Alexana Revana Vineyard Pinot Noir and the 2010 Ghost Hill Pinot Noir Blanc.  It was hard to choose a favorite, but I really liked the 2011 Youngberg Hill Pinot Gris as the match.

Our second course “or Evidence No. 2” was a duck confit salad with apple, fennel, candied nuts and an orange balsamic dressing from Chef Chloe Couchee from the Horse Radish.  We tried the 2011 Omero Pinot Gris, the 2011 MonksGate Rose of Pinot Noir, the 2008 Mouvance Pinot Noir Julon Vineyard and the 2008 EIEIO Pinot Noir. 

I liked all of these wines, but have to give a shout out to MonksGate for making the first and only rose that I have ever, ever, ever liked.  For those of you who know me, this is an accomplishment equal to pigs flying.

I abstained from the third course “or Evidence No. 3,” which was a Carlton Farms pork loin stuffed with herbs, garlic and onions served with Northwest Succotash from Chef Gilbert Henri of Cuvee, because I am allergic.  I have to say the people in Carlton love their pork, but see more about that later.  Our wine choices were the 2011 Troon Vineyard Vermentino, the 07 MonksGate Pinot Noir, the 2010 Alexana Revana Vineyard Riesling and the 2008 Youngberg Hill Jordan Pinot Noir.  The favorite pairing was the 2010 Alexana Revana Riesling, which surprised me as I thought it was destined to be a Pinot Noir.

Our fourth course “or Evidence No. 4” was braised short ribs in a red wine, rosemary tomato sauce with creamy rosemary polenta from Chef Bonifacio Solorzano from Cielo Blu.  We tried the 2005 Spofford Station Estate Syrah, the 07 Cliff Creek Cellars Cabernet Franc, the 2009 WildAire Cellars Reserve Pinot Noir and the 2009 Terra Vina Bella Vista Red Vinters Blend.  My favorite with the course was the 2009 WildAire Cellars Reserve Pinot Noir.

Our fifth course “or Evidence No. 5” was a grilled flank steak with blue cheese butter and peppered D’affinois mashed potatoes from Chef Sean David from The Horse Radish.  This was served with the 2010 Seven of Hearts Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre Cuvee, the WildAire Cellars Tempranillo (no year given) and the 2009 K&M Alchemy Cuvee Pinot Noir.  My favorite was a tie between the 2010 Seven of Hearts and the 2008 K&M Alchemy.

As if we hadn’t had enough, it was time for a cheese plate served with the 2010 Mouvance Pinot Gris and dark chocolate currant-cabernet ganache made by Dana Dooley with Honest Chocolates served with the 2005 Spofford Station Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and 2009 Troon Vineyard Meritage.  Yum!

Then, the desserts from Chef Amy Wilder, Republic of Jam, a cardamom cake with port preserved plums and dulce de leche cream with the 2010 Seven of Hearts Pinot Noir Coupe’s Cuvee.  Andone of the best desserts that I have ever had, the chocolate blue cheese cheesecake with cherries preserved in balsamic syrup served the same wines matched with the chocolate.  After we experienced every single bit of hometown hospitality in Carlton, we rolled (pun intended) on home. 

Perhaps my plan of moderation didn’t work (ya think…?) My apologies for starting the return sing-a-long on the bus home, but at least I kept it to show tunes and bad songs from the 70’s and 80’s.  Most of the people on the bus still talk to me, so that’s a good thing.

The reality at this point is that you should be done, you should go home, you should get some rest.  But, the post parties were just beginning.  We had the night of Many Bottles, where bloggers brought some of their favorites to share and there were hopes of a dance party (my contribution: 2 drained, one corked); a special tasting of Randall Grahm wines; the bubble and champagne lounge by Pernod Ricard and a few other late night happenings in which bloggers shared some of their favorite wines with a smaller group of people.  After making the rounds, I showed some restraint about 1 a.m. and retired fat and happy knowing I’d be running in the morning, which was not a a fun reality, but necessary with the food/wine consumed.


WBC 11: Bus Trip, Virginia Wine Takeaways and General Musing

The tough thing about doing a series on an event like the Wine Blogger’s Conference is that by the time you reach the fourth article, your story is old news.  You already know about the well received keynote from Jancis Robinson, who has a list of accomplishments including, writer for the Financial Times, and editor of The Oxford Companion to Wine and co-author with Hugh Johnson of The World Atlas of Wine.  That was a good thing for me as I was stuck in my room on a work conference call and was glad it was well documented.  Also, Eric Asimov of The New York Times had some great things to say about responsible journalism, democratization of wine and paths of wine knowledge and appreciation.

You already know that it was unseasonably hot – even for a Texan — in Virginia, at the wineries and at Monticello.  If you’ve been following closely, you might even know who decided to learn about Virginia wines and those who decided they had better things to do and ignored all things Virginia while attending the conference. 

You’ve heard that speed tasting was met with mixed reviews.  It’s hard to put a box wine up against a $90 reserve Cabernet and expect positive results.  There has to be a better way to make this a fair game.

My biggest takeaway on Virginia wine was the European influence on its winemaking.  From Barboursville to Tarara to Breaux, European winemakers and wine consultants are the norm here, and Virginia seems to be on the map as a destination for U.S. entry. Winemakers like Dennis Horton of Horton Vineyards traveled to Southern France before planting a single Viognier grape. Bordeaux, Portuguese and Spanish varietals are abundant.  Wines I would consider to be non-traditional to this region like Albarino, Nebbiolo and Petit Manseng are being offered.  This will be an interesting place to watch as some of the top European wine makers and wine families are playing here.

And now for the fun stuff – the winery bus tour.  Attendees are broken into seven groups and each group visits two wineries and has lunch.   Last year, we had a great experience at one winery and the other seemed to be bothered that they had to deal with us.  This year karma smiled upon us as we found out we would be visiting Horton Vineyards and Barboursville Vineyards.  Score! 


Dennis Horton, Horton Vineyards

We started our tour at Horton Vineyards and got to meet one of Virginia’s innovators, Dennis Horton.  Dennis started with a home vineyard in 1983 and founded Horton Vineyards in 1989.  Horton Vineyards is a 110-acre estate that has more than 20 grape varieties.  He is credited for the first viognier from Virginia (1992), the first cabernet franc (1991) and reintroducing the Norton grape (1992).  I also had a chance to try the Norton Sparkling Viognier during a Twitter tasting prior to the conference.  It was my favorite viognier that night and it remains my favorite of the Horton wines.


We started with a demonstration of methode champenoise to show the hand-crafted nature of the Sparkling Viognier.  In Dennis’ own words, “It’s hard to label this shit. “  Yes, Dennis, I agree – what a labor of love!




We tried the following nine wines – six reds and four whites.

  • NV Sparkling Viognier, entitled Dom Virginion, um… ok.  Again, this was a great sparkler and one I definitely appreciated, $25
  • 10 Rkatsiteli – this was very fruity tasting of banana and anise, $15
  • 10 Viognier – tropical fruit, crisp and light, $20
  • 08 Petite Manseng –  tropical, creamy and dry, $20
  • 08 Cotes d’Orange – interesting wine that used the Tablas Creek clone from Chateau Beaucastel; $15
  • 08 Nebbiolo – lots of cherry, plum and smokiness, $20
  • 07 Pinotage – berry and acidity with mocha on the end, $20
  • 09 Tannat “The Art of Darkness” – lots of leather, spice and dark fruit, $20
  • 09 Norton – stone fruit with some spiciness.  As a said before, I really wanted to love this grape for its history, but I couldn’t, $15


Winemaker-General Manager Luca Paschina

Our next stop was Barboursville, which was exciting enough until we found out about lunch at Palladio, its James Beard award-winning restaurant.  Winemaker-General Manager Luca Paschina and Owner Gianni Zonin, greeted us at the front of the winery and talked to us about the history of Barboursville Vineyards.  The second-generation estate house at the Barboursville plantation was designed by Thomas Jefferson for his friend, James Barbour, who became the governor of Virginia and a Senator.  Sadly, the estimate burned down in 1994 and the family returned to the residence that today is the 1804 Inn.

Barboursville Vineyards is Virginia’s first wine estate dedicated to growing European, vitis vinifera wine varietals.  Zonin’s family has been involved in wines since 1821.  Barboursville is the family’s only venture outside of Italy (they have seven estates there) and consists of 900 acres. 

I had the chance to meet Luca, who has been at Barboursville for 21 years, at a conference event prior to the tour.  He told me, “Like a chef loves to work in the kitchen, I love to work in the cellar.”  His passion for wine and dedication to the vineyard showed immediately and I was thrilled to have chosen my bus well. 


Gianni’s Toast

We were led through the winery into a room where several culinary stations were set up and Chef Melissa Close Hart and her fabulous team enticed us with an antipasta station, a pasta station, a pork loin with a cherry sauce and a to-die-for dessert table.  My heartbeat sped up when I found tables set with verticals of most Barboursville wines.  Gianni Zonin led us in a lovely toast in Italian, that was translated by Luca, with the Barboursville Brut sparkling wine.


Chef Melissa Close Hart






I didn’t try everything as there were so many to try, but  David Honig and I had a fabulous time trying to describe the wines.  I think if there’s ever a market for a comic duo to taste wines, we might get to quit our day jobs.  And, we tried to some fabulous wines – ranging from Viognier to Cab Franc to Nebbiolo to the much lauded Octagon wines and with reason.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I also shipped home a case of Barboursville wine because I enjoyed them so much.




Some of the verticals of wines that I tried included:

-          02 Viognier Reserve, (also 04, 09, 10) which was my favorite white.  This was a classic Virginia viognier and found interesting the changes in fruitiness and minerality depending on the age.

-          98 to 09 Cabernet Franc – the smokiness eased and I really liked this wine in both vintages.

-          02, 06, 07 Octagon, their Bordeaux blend wines that were labeled flagship for a reason. 

  • The 02 had notes of licorice, earthiness and “murderous blueberry” notes that would be perfect with game. 
  • In the 06, we tasted spearmint, espresso and dark chocolate.  This wine would be perfect with a steak.
  • The 07 was full of tobacco, violets, floral and the same dark chocolate finish, but muted.

-          01, 06 and 07 Malvaxia Reserve Passito, the dessert wine.  The 01 was darker, caramelized with butterscotch notes and more acidity.  The 06 was much fruiter, but less floral with notes of orange blossom and honey.  The 07 had a tough of clover honey, was less aromatic and had more floral notes.

We also had the chance to sit with viticulturist Fernando Franco, who has been at Barboursville for 13 years and very patiently answered any question we had and suffered through David and my descriptions of the wine.  It was a delightful day.

WBC After The Fall

The Remnants of Our Afterparty on Sunday Night

Now some conference advice for next year.  For those who are new, I would urge you to immerse yourself in the experience.  Get out there, meet folks, watch Twitter for party updates and put yourself out there.  Bring wine and host a party in your room if you want to meet folks (and apologize profusely if it is corked)!  While the wine experience is fun, it’s the people that make the best memories.  Also for the love of god, attend the pre-conference!  I can’t emphasize this enough. Twenty bloggers are much easier to manage than 300, and I can’t tell you the value that $95 bought for my Loudoun County wine experience.  I walked in the conference with a familiarity that can only be gained through experience of tasting wines from some great wineries I may have missed.  I dare say that I would have had a very different Virginia conference experience if I had missed this trip.



Andy Reagan, Jefferson Vineyards

Stay on Sunday after the conference.  We had a delightful visit with Andy Reagan from Jefferson Vineyards who hosted a small group of remaining bloggers for lunch and poured his lovely Pinot Gris, 07 Cabernet Franc, 07 Estate Reserve, 07 Cabernet France Reserve and the 01 Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was a fun, non-pressure gathering of good friends and good wine.  Again, another positive Virginia wine experience gained in a small, casual setting.

Loudoun County Wine Pre-Trip: Continues to Bring Great Surprises

Shaun T

I came out of my early morning haze with two words running through my mind – Dig Deepa! You see, I brought along the Shaun T Insanity workouts and I knew that I was about to sweat out the wine, cheese, dessert, nuts and other sins of yesterday. After a very ugly workout session, I was ready for day two.

Our first stop was Chrysalis Vineyards. This was to be my first experience with Norton and I was excited. I had read the “The Wild Vine: A Forgotten Grape and the Untold Story of American Wine,” by Todd Kliman and was very intrigued to taste the native Virginia grape that was such a labor of love for Dr. Norton. The Norton grape was almost destroyed during the Civil War and then again during Prohibition.

Chrysalis Vineyards is a 412-acre farm that is known for being the world’s largest grower of Norton, deemed by owner Jennifer McCloud as the “real American grape.” In addition to Norton, McCloud has planted a variety of Spanish and French varietals in addition to the usual line-up. The vineyard also has several American milking Devon cows and will be making cheese and ice-cream soon.


We were split into two groups and our hostess, Pat, was born to showcase Chrysalis wines. She introduced us to “Sarah,” namesake of several blended wines and the vineyards gorgeous outdoor patio. Sarah, who died an untimely death of “consumption” or tuberculosis at the age of 16 in 1855, was the daughter of the property owners of the estate in the 1800s. Based on what I saw, she’s definitely resting in peace.


We tried 15 wines – all except for two were grown on the estate:

- 10 Chardonnay – this was made in the Old World almost Chablis-like style with lots of acidity and green apple. This is one of the wines sourced from grapes outside the vineyard, $17.

 - 09 Barrel Reserve Chardonnay – more New World in style. Citrus and oak abounded, $24.

 - 10 Viognier – very refreshing with notes of vanilla, melon, floral and peach notes, $29.

 - 10 Mariposa – a dry rose with notes of raspberries and strawberries. Not my favorite wine as I struggle with rose wines that do not sparkle, $15.

- 10 Sarah’s Patio White – I tasted citrus, honey and almost a Chinese spice, $15

- 10 Sarah’s Patio Red – This 100 percent Norton had almost a hint of sweetness to it. Big cherry, raspberry and a note of Asian spice. Pat talked about how good this is as a base to sangria and I’m inclined to agree, $15.

 - 08 Rubiana – This wine combined Spanish and Portuguese varieties and tasted of black fruits and pepper, $17.

 - 07 Norton Estate – I really wanted to love Norton especially after reading about its resurrection and knowing this vineyard brought back Norton in 1992, but the earthiness combined with fruitiness made me pause, $17.

- 10 Norton Barrel Select – This wine was made in a Beaujolis style and was very fruity, n/a

- 08 Norton Locksley Reserve – Aged for three years in the bottle, this blend of Norton (75 percent), Petit Verdot and Nebbiollo was very earthy with pepper and chocolate. I would have been interested to see what happened to this wine had it been decanted.

- 06 Petit Verdot – I tasted chocolate, pepper and earthiness, $35.

- 07 Tannat (or poker playing wine) – I tasted mocha, currant, vanilla and blackberry. This wine could benefit with several more years in the bottle, but had nice structure, $35.

 - 08 Papillon – Had notes of mocha, cedar, pepper and pine, $35.

 - 10 Albarino – An explosion of white peaches, floral and even a bit of mango. This was one of my absolute Virginia favorites at $24.



Then it was time for the pinnacle – the 10 Petit Manseng, reserved for only the VIP wine club members and it usually sells out instantly. Chrysalis was the first to bring this wine to the Americas. I tasted honey, candid fruit, spice and orange. It was a very special wine and as much as I tried, I couldn’t convince anyone to sell me a bottle.


Our next stop was Boxwood Winery. Rachel Martin, EVP of Boxwood and the daughter of Rita and John Cook, former owners of the Washington Redskins, greeted us and talked about the history of the winery. Designed by Architect Hugh Jacobsen, it’s an airy, light filled and cheery place to experience wine. The 16-acre winery was first planted in 2004 and focuses on French Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot. The focus is producing fine wines in a French style with Virginia terrior.

Stephane Derenoncourt, a French winemaker, consults with Adam McTaggart, Boxwood’s day-to-day winemaker. Boxwood was Derenoncourt’s first U.S. consulting venture.



We tried several wines:

- 09 Topiary Rose, a dry sipping wine with tasted of strawberry. You guys know I struggle with roses, but the rest of the bloggers enjoyed this wine, $14-16

 - 08 Topiary, a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, was done in a right bank style. It had a deep purple color, dark fruits, berry, smokiness, spiciness and eucalyptus notes, $25-27.

- 08 Boxwood was done in the left bank style and was a blend of petit verdot, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. I tasted blackberries, black cherries and almost a sandalwood essence, $25-27. – 09 Topiary, muted berry, cedar and earthiness. This wine will be released in the Fall, n/a.

- 09 Boxwood had big berry, a powerful structure and benefitted from a quick whirl in the Wine Soiree (actually both 09 wines did). I brought home a bottle of the 08 and 09 to compare at a future tasting, n/a.

A few things struck me after spending these two days tasting Virginia wines. First, I was surprised at the number of European influences on the wine styles and the grapes being planted. Second, it is clear that no expense has been paid to bring in some of the world’s top wine consultants. And finally, Virginia is an area that is making the commitment today to make some serious wine in the future.

The Experience of Loudoun County: Award-Winning Wines Take Bloggers by Surprise

I remember the crowd reaction last year during #wbc10 when Virginia was named as the host city for the next Wine Bloggers Conference in 2011.  There was skepticism, puzzlement and I heard the comment that the conference was clearly sold to the highest bidder.  I encouraged those around me to give the state a chance and that some of the wine there just might be a well-kept secret.  I was correct.

Fast forward a little over one year and I found myself at the Dulles airport at the pre-conference tour of Loudoun County.   Stacey and Wendy served as our very generous and knowledgeable hosts and we had no idea what a fabulous time we were about to have.  I was also thrilled to see some old friends from last year and those I connect with often on Twitter.  Our first stop was a tour and tasting of Tarara Winery.  Jordan Harris, general manager and winemaker, served us a variety of local meats, cheeses and fresh-picked blackberries.  I had to exercise a great deal of willpower to not eat the entire blackberry bowl single-handedly.



Jordan Harris, general manager and winemaker


Tarara Winery was founded in 1989 by Whitie and Margaret Hubert.  It is one of the oldest wineries in Virginia and focuses on artisan wines.  The winery has three main vineyards – Nevaeh (estate vineyard), Tranquility (in Purcellville) and Honah Lee (in Orange).  In Jordan’s opinion, these three vineyards best represent the terrior of Virginia and are defined by their place, not their varietals.  Interestingly, all of the wines produced by Tarara have screwtops.

We tried the following wines:

-          09 Charval, a blend of chardonnay, pinot gris, viognier and sauvignon blanc.  I tasted tropical fruits, floral notes and a little lemon on the nose, $20.

-          10 Viognier, a classic Virginia viognier (and that is meant as a compliment) with peach, melon and honeysuckle.  A very elegant wine for $15.

-          09 Navaen White, which is a blend of viognier and chardonnay.  I got mandarin oranges, floral, cinnamon and a little minerality.  This elegant wine was borne from a hobby that got out of control, $30.

-          09 Three Vines Chardonnay, full of pears, butterscotch, fennel and citrus.  This is a classic chardonnay for $20.

-          97 Chardonnay.  This was an interesting wine as we wondered how well Virginia wines could age.  Unfortunately this was past its prime and I couldn’t get over the musty smell, n/a.

-          09 Tranquility Red, this is a blend of the top two barrels that three wineries – Tarara, 8 Chains and Hiddencroft Vineyards – produced from Tranquility Vineyard.  It’s a great example of the collaboration that you find between Virginia winemakers.  I tasted blackberry, licorice and pine.  I’d like to have some time for this to open up to truly experience the flavors and in fact the winemaker recommends holding for 5-7 years, $40.

-          08 Nevaeh Red.  I tasted berry, cassis, mineral, plum and oak.  This wine is one of the first east coast wines to be named a Rhone Ranger, $40.

-          09 TerraNoVA, this allocation-only wine tasted of big currant, eucalyptus, menthol and red raspberry.  The fruit was harvested from several vineyards from Loudoun County.  Tarara selects its two favorite barrels of cabernet that best represents Loudoun’s terrior.  At $45, this is a very nice wine.

-          08 CasaNoVA.  This was the biggest wine of the bunch and therefore, my favorite red.  I tasted chocolate, mint, tobacco and cedar.  It was lovely, complex and well-rounded.  It was also $45.

-          07 Cabernet Sauvignon.  It was very Old World with earthiness, plum, cooked raspberries and strawberry notes.  It aged better than the white, but wouldn’t be my first choice to pull out of the cellar.

We ended with the 10 Honah Lee LH Petit Manseng, the winery’s first late harvest wine.  I tasted floral, honey and tropical notes.  It was a great dessert wine, but wasn’t for sale. We also tried an 08 syrah that was cold fermented with viognier – also not on the regular wine list yet.


Our next stop was Breaux Vineyards, which was founded in 1994 and opened to the public in 1997.  It has 104 acres planted with 18 different grape varieties – half red, half white — with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Owners, Paul and Jennifer Breaux, welcomed us with a hayride around vineyard.  It was scorching weather, but of course I had to participate as did most of our blogging crew. 



Jennifer Breaux Blosser, Sales & Hospitality Director 

We then moved into the cool cellar where we got to taste amongst the barrels and see how Virginia winemakers are encouraging experimentation with lesser known varietals like nebbiolo. 



We tried the following wines: 

-          10 Sauvignon Blanc – the perfect “after hayride” wine.  At $17, it was very crisp with citrus, melon and green apple notes.

-          10 Viognier – Lots of apricot, honey and floral notes with a touch of oak on the finish.  A very nice elegant wine for $24.

-          07 Nebbiolo Barrel Sample – Lots of promise in this wine.  I tasted deep berry, violet, roses and a bit of terrior-driven chalkiness.  It was a soft wine – even in the barrel – and one I can’t wait to try in the bottle, n/a.

-          07 Meritage – Definitely an Old World style with spice, pepper, blackberries and chocolate and oak on the finish.  It was a nice mosaic of Bordeaux varietals, which is priced at $28.

-          07 Cabernet Franc Reserve – very soft tannins with spice, blackberry, vanilla and raspberry.  Two bottles of this came home with me.

-          10 Cabernet Franc Barrel sample – I tasted raspberry and mocha.  This had a nice structure and it will be interesting to see what the end result brings, n/a.

-          10 Cabernet Sauvignon Barrel sample – Blackberry, chocolate, mocha, cassis and mint were the dominant flavors in this blend.


David Pagan Castaño, winemaker

We then got to try a few others including the 08 Nota Viva Viognier, which was refreshing with tropical notes, but a nice minerality and the Corcoran Seyvel Blanc, which wasn’t my personal taste.


After that, we took a short bus trip to Grandale Farm Restaurant. The restaurant is located on a Historic Operating Farm in Loudoun County.  The mission of the restaurant is to source locally as much as possible and the picturesque garden showcased some great looking herbs, fruit and vegetables.  The dinner was fabulous and paired with Loudoun County wines.  I enjoyed the first two whites – a Viognier and a Chardonnay, but the dessert wine pairing tasted to most of us at the table like it had turned.


Wine Soiree Came to the Rescue Many Times This Weekend, But Couldn’t Save the Dessert Wine


After eating way too much food, we were transported back to one of two hotels where we either hit the bar, pool tables or if you were smart, got a full night’s sleep.  I wasn’t.

The Similarities of the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference and Comic-Con

I wasn’t originally going to write such a tongue in cheek perspective as my first post from the Wine Bloggers Conference (#wbc11), but over the past 24 hours there has been virtual gnashing of teeth, wringing of hands and pulling of hair.  That’s not typical of the wine blogger community that I’ve gotten to know and it bothers me.  So, instead of kvetching, I thought it would be fun to discuss the top 5 reasons why Comic-Con, the largest comic convention in the world, is similar to the Wine Bloggers Conference.  I promise that more serious posts will come soon discussing what I learned about Virginia wine and the conference.  And, clearly I need a new camera or to drink less wine before taking any pictures.  But, try to visualize in spite of bad photography.

wbc elephant in room

The Elephant in the Room

1. Comic-Con had the deadliest warrior competition: vampires vs. zombies episode where “authorities” held endless debate on which of these mythical creatures would come out on top in a fight to the finish.  The Wine Bloggers Conference had the pretentious wine pose off with a fight to the finish between @suburbanwino @thewinesleuth and myself.  The competition was so tough a winner was never decided or everyone quickly lost interest.

Wbc pretentious pose

The Wine Sleuth Rocking the Pretentious Pose .. So Sad I Didn’t Get Joe

Pretentious Wine WBC

And then my try

2. Ballroom 20, a normally bland conference room was transformed into a masquerade party, sponsored by HBO’S True Blood at Comic-Con.  The meeting room behind the bar at the Omni was transformed from a room with florescent lighting to a club scene that went until after 4 a.m.  We even had a robed guest.


Comic-Con’s Masquerade Winners

wbc ceasar

Who IS That Robed Man?

wbc empty room

Richard Rocking the Before Pic

wbc happy room

Fast Forward a Few Hours

wbc happy happy

Last Call!

3. Cartoonist and author Patrick McDonnell, creator of the award-winning Mutts comic strip was a speaker at Comic-Con.  We actually had a live dog who may or may not have received a scholarship.


Mutts Creater, Patrick McDonnell


Wbc dog

Unofficial Mascot and Winner of Aromas Tasting

4. A main focus of Comic-Con’s seminars was how to create a character-driven story.  The main focus of the Wine Bloggers Conference was how to find your voice.  Both were designed to capture the hearts and clicks of readers.

5. Pop culture icon, Pee-wee Herman, took the stage at Comic-Con.   Hell, we had Thomas Jefferson in costume.  I now appreciate Thomas more.  And, the Monticello tour alone with @pmabray and @palatepress was worth the heat.



No Caption Needed


wbc thomas jefferson

Thomas Jefferson .. Not The Costumed One

Again, this was just meant to get folks to lighten up a bit.  We went to a conference with good wine and some amazing folks – bloggers, winemakers, top wine writers and industry people.  Yes, at times, it did feel a little like the Wayne’s World sponsor clip.  But, at the end of the day, as bloggers, we are offered an unbelievable deal to attend.  I look forward to turning those 20 pages of notes into some tangible blog posts about Virginia wine and I’ll see you in Portland next year.

wbc Sad baby

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