Getting ready for a big one!

Robert McIntosh (RM) of thirstforwine.co.uk & Ryan Opaz (RO) of catavino.net are the guys behind the Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC). When they started just a few years ago, there were only 30 attendees and not much to brag about. Their company is called Vrazon, inspired by the French “véraison” or the change of color of the grape berries used for the production of wine but of course you already knew that, didn’t you? Things really seem to be getting riper for them as this year’s 8thedition of the conference will gather more than 250 wine writers and experts from around the world in the city of Plovdiv, Bulgaria. As proud host bloggers, we managed to get an interview with them and hope to show their many faces.

Why Bulgaria? What makes it an emerging market and a deserving DWCC host hot spot in 2015?

RM: As you already know, we move the conference every year and part of the idea behind that was to explore because it is a community event and we do expect a lot of people to come back. It is not just a conference where most people don’t know each other. This presents a great opportunity for these people to learn new things, go off the beaten track and visit places they have probably not already been to while talking about communications. The best way to do this is to go around the vineyards and learn. We are looking for destinations that are doing something current, so they are worth writing about but are still not so well known. There is a reason why the bloggers in digital communications talk about the latest things that have not already been covered by big magazines and this is part of the pitch. Of course, there is also the other side of the people who come to us and say “We want to host it”. It is up to us to choose the best option. In this case, we research the market, the facilities and infrastructure, etc. This is the official answer to looking for exciting places (he smirks dubiously as if about to disclose a big secret).

The unofficial answer to that is that I actually lived in Bulgaria a long time ago – you were probably still at school (ha-ha, got us there). Anyway, it was 1994 and I was here in Sofia, teaching English. I came here with my girlfriend who later became my wife and we lived here for a year, so we love Bulgaria. We have been back afterwards to visit some friends and we have always been in touch. Bulgaria has always been an option for me and I fell in love with Melnik when I was here. When Galina Niforou called us saying “We would like to be considered for this” we just thought “Yes, let’s make it happen!”

Is next year’s location known yet?

RM: It is in the planning. We haven’t announced it. We don’t do it partly because it is not finalized and we would upset a lot of people if it changed and partly because we really want to focus on Bulgaria now, instead of having people making plans to come in 2 years. This would simply make people ask a lot of questions about another country and this is not the point.

Did you expect the conference to become so successful?

RM: When we started doing this we never imagined it was going to be this big. There was only 30 people at the first one but then again in 2007 when we started the planning there were maybe 500 blogs in the entire world and most of them were in the US. It was very new and very small.

If we look at a case study from previous editions of the conference, can you tell us a story that would explain the role of the DWCC in the success of wineries, not just wine writers?

RM: Every year is very different and when we first started, we went to La Rioja because Ryan’s site was based in Spain and I had a connection there. Then we were in Portugal with quite an international focus and then in Austria. We were there at exactly the right time when the Austrian wines were taking off in the UK and the US as people were discovering their local grape varieties. This was great synergy because local wineries wanted to show the world something beyond Grüner Veltliner – the varieties that were not that popular at the time like their Blauburgunder and Blaufränkisch. Last year we were in Montreux looking at Swiss wines, which are popular but mainly consumed in Switzerland, so nobody really knows about them.

For a winery, however, it is all in their hands and it depends on what they are after because this is not a trade tasting. There will be representatives of close to 40 countries there and they will be building a profile of the country. This is number 1 priority. Wine buyers and wine consumers won’t pay much attention unless there is relevance to them. Everything needs to be done at the same time: the profile, then distribution and sales. We are focusing on the profile, so for a winery it is about making contacts. They need to be proactive. The skills you get at the conference will make your business better. I’ll give you an example with a German winemaker who was interested in selling his wine. He makes Riesling like almost any German winemaker in his region. So he comes with the usual attitude “I want to sell my wine and everyone who is in my region, although they may be my friends, are still my competitors.” He came to the conference and realized that wine bloggers are effective competitors but we are actually working together because we help each other, link to each other, promote each other, share content, etc. He took that attitude and the friendships and went back to his region. He is also a creative guy and he made a new type of drink, based on his Riesling with mate tea from Argentina plus elderflower. This is not traditional wine but many people want to try something different. He also started organizing trips where he, the winemaker, is a guide to visitors and he says “Don’t just visit me, get to love my region.” He has been very successful.

RO: You are always more successful when you are proactive. The wineries that have benefited most in the past were the ones who saw this conference as a learning experience. When they come, anybody they sit next to is an expert in something and probably something very different. We have people coming with very wide range of skills: PR experts, social media experts and export managers. What we have seen in the past is wineries that come back every year because they get more and more contacts and they sell more and more wine but they are the ones who want to engage. What we are trying to do is create an atmosphere that isn’t an exhibition where you go around tables and people say “here is my wine”. We try to make sure that if you are showing your wines, you are also at the dinner and at the workshops, and at the sessions. When you do that, you create these connections because it is the relationships, partnerships and friendships that remain.

What do you expect from this year’s edition of the conference? Do you think it will be better from the last and in what ways?

RM: Every year is different since we try to bring about a new focus. Last year we had some new technologies and investments involved. This year we are experimenting with a bigger tasting session. What we do on Saturday afternoon is not just for us but involves the local wine-loving community, so we are working on inviting the Bulgarian public to join these creatures called “wine bloggers” to communicate and learn at the same time. We are focusing on Bulgaria but it is also a center of a lot of exciting things that are happening and there will be a lot of wines from Greece, Turkey, Romania and Moldova.

There will be wine tasting trips as part of the conference. How are these organized, who can join and did you choose the wineries to be visited?

RM: There are pre-conference trips. One of them is going to Turkey and another to Northern Greece but they are by invitation and participants have to apply for them. As part of the conference, there will be two different trips: one of them is a morning trip on Sunday because a lot of people need to catch a plane afterwards and the other one will be longer and will last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Local partners helped us choose and organize the wineries that we will be visiting based on routes, facilities and willingness to participate. We are learning about Bulgarian wineries now and we look forward to learning much more during the conference.

We remind you to hurry up and get your tickets. The schedule is packed with amazing workshops and tastings plus the speakers will be excellent. We leave you with the teaser video for the 2015 edition of DWCC. It promises to be fun!