Last fall, before the grape harvest began here in the Willamette Valley, I gathered with a few other winemakers to taste through our wines from the prior year. We tasted blind, writing our notes in silence. Then we went around the table and shared our opinions on the wines.
Only then did we reveal the labels and, naturally, begin questioning our assessments. Did we even recognize our own wines? Sometimes no, which I always think is interesting. Blind tasting is valuable, but it's also something of a parlor trick, even for winemakers.
The gathering was a nice opportunity to trade knowledge with colleagues, some of whom are friends, all of whom share a passion for wine. And that was the point. To put a part of ourselves -- our wines -- out there and learn from the process. To get honest feedback. To talk about how we made the wines and what we thought we might do differently with the impending harvest.
And that got me thinking. Isn't the wine Internet the same? We blog, tweet and Facebook what we do and what we are learning and look to hear back from others. But instead of a small group, we hear from the world. It's incredibly powerful and, frankly, it's the reason I make wine at all.
Back in the early 1990s, something just clicked. I began thinking about the wines I tasted and, most importantly, I began reading about wine. I couldn't get enough.
But if you'd asked me then if I would ever make my own wine, I would have laughed. How could I? The whole process was mysterious. Besides, I didn't have any money. What's the old joke about making a million dollars in the wine industry? Start with $3 million. The barriers seemed insurmountable.
A few years later, I found the wine Internet. Back then, before blogs, Facebook and Twitter, there were discussion groups where wine lovers came to talk about wine.
The people were as varied as the wines they discussed. There were neophytes like me, more eager than knowledgeable. There were more established collectors, some with significant wine cellars, who seemed happy to share their passion. And there were all sorts of wine industry types. Producers, retailers, importers, distributors and journalists from all over the world. The wine world was suddenly flat.
I was living in San Francisco then, and it wasn't long before I was helping some of my new online friends at harvest. One was a home winemaker who had just gone pro. He encouraged me to make serious wine at home as he had, to do it again and again and, perhaps, go pro as well. I found I enjoyed writing about my harvest experiences online. Suddenly, thanks to the Internet, the wine world had opened itself to me.
Soon my family moved to Portland and I continued my wine apprenticeship. A friend suggested I start blogging and, in early 2005 I began writing elevage, "the education of wine."
I wrote about my experiences working harvests at local wineries, my own garage winemaking and tales of the wine I tried and places I visited. I enjoyed sharing my wine experience, and I found that reader interaction inspired me to learn more.
Occasionally, a wine shop would let me know they appreciated my kind words or producers mentioned they followed my writing. A few publications even wrote about the blog as a place to find thoughtful wine writing. Before the wine Internet, who could imagine an amateur like me could make connections like this?
Meanwhile, my own winemaking progressed. I got the idea of holding tastings of my wine in my garage and blogged the events to encourage readers to show up and taste. After three successful events, I decided to go pro like my mentor had instructed. I'm now looking forward to my third harvest as a commercial winemaker, blogging about it for all to see. Connecting with the world through writing is an essential part of my process.
Not everyone is so excited about the wine Internet. At that preharvest tasting, a winemaker friend complained, isn't it enough to make great wine? He said he doesn't have time for Twitter, Facebook, blogging or wine discussion groups. He doesn't want to put himself out there like that.
I understand that. We're incredibly busy as wine producers. My friend doesn't have any issues selling all his wine, so he doesn't need social media to get himself out there, at this point anyway.
But my point to him was, if you don't tell your story to people, they're just going to make it up. How many times do we know little or nothing about people or products we love and yet, somewhere in our minds, we have strong ideas about who they are and what they mean to us? We're sometimes crushed when reality doesn't match up to our fantasies.
Social media to me is about getting ahead of those narratives, about telling our own stories before other people fill in the blanks. It's about putting ourselves out there. To connect with people. To share our experiences and perhaps see some doors open up if we're honest in the process.
Sure, people will call it good marketing. But I'm just sharing what I'm up to, what gets me going each day. I don't have my own facility, so the wine Internet is my way to let people in to what I'm doing. People remember that experience, even if it's virtual.
Plus, it's fun. Like tasting wines with your friends.
Vincent Fritzsche writes the blog elevage, makes wine as Vincent Wine Co. and is a partner in Guilde Winemakers. He lives in Portland.
This story was originally published June 15, 2011 12:00 AM.