Being a blogger, press trips and different ways to visit and learn…

San Daniele ham platter

San Daniele ham platter

I have been thinking a lot lately about blogger’s trips and other freebie’s and what they mean to me or what I expect to take away from them. I think all of this has been brought on by the discussion about the future of blogging and the definition of a blogger. To be totally honest I do not define myself as a blogger no more as I would define myself a dog walker. Yes I do blog (keep a web log of my wine adventures) and I walk my dog but besides blogging and dog walking, I also teach, write, broker, consult on wine marketing, study, translate, take tourists around, read, cook, dance, run and travel just to name a few other activities which are important in my life. However, to me these activities do not define me – instead I feel they are just a facet of who I am. So when people define me as a blogger I feel I have been reduced to just a part of me, in a similar way as when people call me ” the blond chick”. Yet being blond has sometimes given me preferential treatment, and indeed being a recognised blogger does have several advantages as well.

One of these advantages are “press” invites. As I somehow made it onto the French (and to a lesser extend Belgian and UK) press list I tend to receive all kinds of invites, including several “press trip” invites. A press trip is a sponsored (read just about free) trip to a wine region/chateau/event/ tasting, where the travel, accommodation and meals are provided as well as the opportunity to learn more about the region/event/tasting or chateau with an implied semi obligation to make some “noise” about the experience. This noise can include or sometimes even be limited to all kinds of social media mentions, shares and posts instead or as well as a more elaborate written, photo or video article.

In the past I have accepted trips to visit a wine region, en primeur tastings, conferences and wine judging opportunities, but only if I felt that 1) I could learn a great deal from attending and 2) contribute to getting the message out and create a buzz. The latter means that I already had a previous interest and limited understanding in whatever was on offer so would be more inclined to be enthused and share. Having worked on the other side of the fence for many years I feel pretty strongly about being able to give something back as I am well aware of the costs involved. If I go for free that means someone else picks up the tab and I feel it is not fair to let this happen if I already know in advance I will have very little interest in writing on whatever is on offer or if I feel it is not very related to what my readership may expect to find here, or on any of the other sites I write for.

I therefore have to admit to being more than a little annoyed with my experiences of a press trip to Friuli I took at the end of June. Ever since last year’s EWBC, I have been more than a little curious about Friuli wines after hearing so many great things about them so I decided to attend this trip as I wanted to learn and write about these wines. However, as soon as I confirmed it appeared that the organisers of this trip were not too familiar with what they were doing and slowly but surely I felt I had ended up in Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”.

First there was the confusion about whether or not I was actually confirmed on the trip an all the craziness that went with it. Next none of us received flight confirmations till the eve of our departure. When we got to the airport the next day, it seemed the ticket had not been confirmed and the flight was overbooked. In the end we only made it on the flight as a connecting flight had been held up in Canada. On arrival in Venice, there was no-one at the airport to pick us up, and when we finally met up with our pick up it seemed we were part of a large food and art bloggers trip rather than the 8 people wineblogger’s as we were originally told. By the time we arrived at Pitar winery where we were scheduled to have lunch and a tasting we had established that the wine part had just been tagged on to an already existing bloggers trip to give some international visibility to the Selezione Friulano & Friends 2012 wine competition and the San Daniele Aria di Festa Festival. Organising groups with different interests can be tricky and soon enough we realized that the choice to combine bloggers from different ilks in the same programme meant that everybody lost out.

Friuli wine tasting at Pitar Winery

Friuli wine tasting at Pitar Winery

I am a little sad to admit that I learned very little about Pitar Winery, besides what I already looked up on the internet. I tried a Prosecco, Friulano and a little Merlot, but had to drink the wines to taste them as no spittoons were provided. The wine was served by catering staff who spoke no English and had no information about the winemaking at all. The lunch was elaborate, and went on for several hours, which I guess was great for the food bloggers. After lunch we had a good presentation about the Friuli wine industry where we learned about the diversity of varieties before we started the tasting at 3.20pm. This meant we only had 40 minutes to race through the 30 odd wines… I originally was taking and comparing notes, but gave up 10 minutes before the bus left to speed taste through the rest of the whites as well as a few reds. Because of this fast pace I did not get the time to analyse the wines enough and feel the tasting could have been so much more…

Luckily the diner at al Picaron was great – we had the opportunity to taste some of last year’s Selezione Friulano & Friends winners in the whites as well as a few red’s which were on the table, which allowed us to at least sample some of the diversity together with the local cuisine. However, as no information was readily available we did not really learn very much.

Principe San Daniele Ham factory

Principe San Daniele Ham factory

The next day really was a waste of time. We were picked up early only to wait about an hour at al Picaron for our ride to the Principe ham factory where we had a 2,5 hour tour. After the ham factory we were off to the International School of Mosaics in Spilambergo (la Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli) where we were taken on a tour which unfortunately was only in Italian so us international bloggers did not understand much. At about 1 we finally arrived at agriturismo La Casa Rossa, were we had an opportunity to taste the wines which made it to the finals of the Selezione Friulano & Friends 2012 competition as well as participate in a cooking class. I skipped most of the cooking and managed to taste just about every wine, which gave me a better overview of Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio in Friuli. However, I was totally baffled to find out that whilst we were visiting the ham factory and mosaic school, we could have been judging in the competition if things had been properly organised in advance. As an experienced judge, I would have much preferred this as it would have provided me with more material to write than the 2 morning visits did. Especially since we would have still had the opportunity to take a shorter tour of the ham factory in the afternoon after the tasting…

Instead, the international group spend the whole afternoon in the grass at al Picaron waiting for a bus to bring us back to our hotel. The bus never came, and this meant we missed another tasting which had been put on especially for us… Having worked for a winery in the past I know that to be included in these kind of tastings a participation fee has to be paid and special promotional materials are often prepared as well and I felt really bad that this all had been in vain. By this stage I was pretty shocked by the inefficiency of the organisation, it seemed that no-one knew what was happening, and instead of looking for solutions the different parties were too busy yelling on the phone, blaming each other whilst the minutes and later hours ticked by…

When we finally arrived in San Daniele later that night we unfortunately did not experience the Aria di Festa festival. I am not sure if this was because we were late or because we were expected to attend some kind of VIP reception. The wines poured at the reception had very little in common with the wines we tasted earlier that afternoon as most of them were extremely commercial and ordinary. As we were not too sure what the point of the reception was (again there was no explanation), all 8 of us left the VIP marquee to go and have beer in a neighbouring bar. By that stage we were more than fed up with the whole shenanigans and just wanted to chill…

This day really put a damper on the trip for me. I actually felt like I was not supposed to be there, that including wine bloggers really just was a hassle that the rest of the group did not want to deal with and the whole thing left a semi bitter taste in my mouth. Yes Friuli was a beautifully sunny place, but I did not feel welcome, and to be frank I often wondered what the point of our trip really was…

Taking notes and tasting at Masut de Rive

Taking notes and tasting at Masut de Rive

Luckily the last few hours were a little better as we spend the morning visiting 2 wineries and actually learning something. I do find it a pity that the focus Masut de Rive was put on Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs rather than some indigenous grape varieties, as I feel this once again was a missed opportunity. However the wines were good, we received plenty of information about the winegrowing and wine making process and I feel I finally was doing something I wanted to share.

As you may have gathered, I feel pretty bad about the whole Friuli experience. I feel like I was sent on a free holiday – a nomination which is often used for blogger’s trips and one I really do not like very much – but in this case free holiday is pretty accurate… I feel that after 2 days there I still have very little understanding of Friuli wines in general nor am I clear on the criteria for the selection of the best Friulano and Friends wines, and what the competition stands for. I am also still not sure what exactly the Aria di Festa entails or what it’s history is. All I figured out is that it seems to be a big street festival with lots of entertainment and ham eating. Really not a good result all in all, especially not if I am semi expected to share my experience online…(*)

I do however know that my stay in Friuli would have cost ERZA at least €800, and that they probably did not expect this kind of article in return…. So why then have I decided to write up my experiences in this way? I feel often blogger’s and journalists get given a bad name for accepting anything and everything that comes their way, and I want to distance myself from this. As explained in the beginning I am not just writing to receive the freebies. I furthermore feel that if I was to hide the true waste of this trip I would just be prostituting myself – ie say only what people want to hear as in a round about way they have paid me for it by plying me with a press trip. I am well aware that any wine region/event organising a press trip will think twice about inviting me after reading this, however I feel we need to understand that these trips are supposed to create some ROI.

But as in all business to create ROI certain conditions need to be fulfilled. First of all the the organisers (whom often are a PR agency or another third party) need to know what exactly they are trying to achieve and provide the facilities needed – ie educate wine bloggers on Friuli wines requires time for them to taste in peace, a means of transport to be able to attend all of the tastings, and information in English. I feel the agents should never forget that they are spending other people’s money and that they need to organise themselves to cut costs to a minimum – ie not purchase flights at the last minute so prices are extortionate and organise transport in advance so not taxi’s need to be ordered at the last minute…

I am also writing this in the hope that inter-professional organisations and other event sponsors will check on what the agents are doing as well as connect directly with the writers/bloggers so they can contact them if they want to plan another trip or need more information. I often prefer to make my own arrangements to visit properties and areas I want to learn about rather than just going on any tricket that comes along. I feel there is a lot more value in this approach as I feel I can focus better and often have more opportunity to get exactly the information I am after and relay the story better afterwards. In a way I think the ROI on hosting me or a small group in this way is significantly higher and after the Friuli trip I have taken this more independent approach to organise a small trip to Bordeaux focussing on organic wines, which I felt was a great success. It is also the approach Onne and I are taking in regards with our road trip in Oregon and Napa later on this month. I hope more inter-professional organisations will follow the lead of the BIVB and the CIVC who have been focussing on facilitating specific individual or small group needs rather than organising more general press trips. Tailor made press provisions, rather than tagging on different groups of writers onto an existing press trip, I believe, will increase the ROI, as they allow for deeper and personal experience. And these are the stories we all want to write and read I think… So from now on, I will be actively looking to expand on those more tailor made experiences. Watch this space to find out how I am getting on with this:-))

(*): I would like to note here that I did make some positive “noise” on Twitter and Facebook about the Friuli trip whilst on it and straight afterwards. All in all I had a lovely (if unproductive) time and feel I at least gave something back for in the ways of Social Media noise :-)

About Caroline

Caroline is a certified Sommelier (by the CMS) and WSET diploma student. In order to specialize in the wines of Champagne she moved to the region and currently works as a wine consultant, wine educator and wine writer. She is a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and writes for several international publications including Palate Press, Snooth, Wine-Searcher, Decanter and Vinogusto; further activities include teaching Champagne related courses at Reims Management School and organizing personalized tasting experiences at as well as being a regular judge at international wine competitions.
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