Friday, April 16, 2010

TasteLive With Nautilus Estate

I pushed through the heavy doors into the lobby of Local Kitchen, a restaurant that sits on First Street just before a major Bay Bridge on-ramp. Horns honked as drivers fumed under the late afternoon sun. Cars jockeyed for what few inches they could muster from the thicket of steel and glass around them.

The restaurant lobby was cool and quiet. Thick, frosted windows made the evening traffic vanish. I wandered to a room to my left, and mentioned to the waitress that I was here for a tasting of New Zealand wines. I milled about with the other people in the room, who greeted each other like old friends. Maybe these were the Twitterers I was meeting? They were dressed well, but it could be, right? It's not like anyone knows what anyone looks like on Twitter.

I smiled as they looked at me askance and said hello. I'm never good at introducing myself to a bunch of strangers. None of them looked like Katy Prescott, the sales and marketing manager for New Zealand's Nautilus Estate. I had last seen her two and a half years ago when Melissa and I visited New Zealand. Maybe she had stepped out? Maybe I was misremembering what she looked like?

A minute later, the waitress I had spoken to came over and grabbed me. I was in the wrong private room.

Further inside the restaurant, in a walled-off area, Katy — obviously Katy, a pretty woman with short, dark-brown hair and a telltale New Zealand accent — was waiting for her guests. I was the first arrival. She shook my hand, and we exchanged European-style cheek-kisses. Wine glasses and Nautilus bottles sat on the long table. Each place setting had her business card, a name card, and a DVD of images from Nautilus's 25 years.

"I don't really know what to expect of this," she said. I couldn't help. I had never been to a TasteLive event before.

TasteLive is social media meets wine marketing. We would be tasting wines in one physical location even as other people across the country were tasting the same wines at their locations. Someone more cynical than even I might note that while TasteLive might be a good way to let consumers "directly interact with the producers," it is also a good way for lesser-known bloggers/tweeters to get the samples normally sent to bigger names.

I had seen these events happening in my Twitter feed. Wine bloggers from around the country would be filling up my Twitter client with comments about the flavors in the wine, what they thought of them, price points, and so on. Think of it as the Twitter equivalent of a wine tasting group. Except with bottle variation and shipping issues.

The other guests showed up. The first was Paige Granback, a tall woman with shoulder-length blond hair and a slight rasp in her voice. She obviously knew Katy, and I figured out why: Paige, now the eCommerce and Marketing manager for online wine shop JJ Buckley, was formerly at San Francisco's Jug Shop, one of the main American retailers for New Zealand's wines. Next was Thea Dwelle, an energetic woman who does social media consulting for the wine industry. Paige filled us in on the other guests: Leslie Sbrocco, a wine writer best known locally as the host of Check, Please!, was en route from Napa; Chuck Hayward, formerly the New Zealand buyer for The Jug Shop and now also at JJ Buckley, was in a meeting running late. Paige and Thea were veteran TasteLive participants, so Katy and I figured they'd guide us a bit.

The first wine, Nautilus's Sauvignon Blanc, came to the table, and everyone got ready. I opened my notebook. Everyone else pulled out their iPhones. I reached into my pocket for mine and found that it had just 10 percent battery left. My TasteLive performance was off to a grand start.

Katy's cable plus my laptop solved that problem. I scribbled notes in my notebook — pitch-perfect New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with great balance and depth, zingy acidity, not too aggressive or green. Our two TasteLive veterans fielded questions from the distributed tasters and gave quick primers (good and bad) about the personalities of the people behind the twitter aliases, both those tasting along and those who were regulars but absent from the stream.

Then we moved on to the Pinot Gris. The Twitter stream commented on the creaminess and what food they were drinking it with. I scribbled notes in my notebook and worried about spamming my followers. Does anyone ever want to see constant updates from TasteLive participants if they themselves are not joining in? (Or, frankly, even if they are?) I never do when I see the events unfolding.

As Paige and Thea talked social media and as Katy poured the Pinot Noir (in addition to the three lots that went into the blend), I began to realize how far behind I am in this world. No matter that I've been blogging here for 7 1/2 years. No matter that I have a number of scalable websites and seventeen years of systems design under my belt. No matter that I have a solid command of a wide variety of programming languages and au courant technologies. When it comes to social media and its role in the modern world, I feel like a dinosaur.

Conversation quickly left the wines — did it ever focus on them? — and moved to the benefits of different Twitter clients, the promises of iPhone OS 4.0, and the upcoming Wine Bloggers Conference. Curious about what a social media consultant does, I asked Thea and got a quick overview: How to effectively communicate across the different networks of your imaginary friends. Is this something people focus on? Does it matter to their sales? Or their brand? (A question I've asked elsewhere.)

Leslie and Chuck finally arrived, and I found a way to retreat into my geekiness. Chuck and Katy were talking about the New Zealand wine industry and the wines in front of us as Leslie, Thea, and Paige discussed social media at large and industry gossip in general. I'm a geek — wine, technology, puzzles, you name it — and so I leaned over to Chuck and Katy and tried to absorb the knowledge of two people deepy enmeshed in New Zealand's wine industry (another topic that I've pondered before).

Melissa and I have noticed, more and more of late, that we don't get the new generation of bloggers. And I think that applies to social media as well. The young bloggers of today seem to be saying, "How do we fit this in the modern world, and how do we make it work for ourselves and others?" My generation of bloggers — and, to be clear, any number of people probably consider me a young blogger — simply wanted to write about our experiences, whether anyone was listening or not. Search engine optimization wasn't a buzzword when we started, though we all know varying things about it now. There was no WordPress: Blogger, LiveJournal, and TypePad were the solutions of the day. Easy access to tools and technologies mean that new bloggers have different concerns. Melissa and I sometimes feel like the young bloggers see their blogs as vehicles to a restaurant or a book deal or a foot in the industry and not as ends in themselves.

But at the same time, the current generation is imagining possibilities we mostly can't. They see opportunities to reach new audiences, to find new communities, to build networks of contacts and associates and friends. They see themselves as agents of change and, realistically, they probably are.

And where does that leave me, who is skeptical of social media and who writes in two increasingly archaic media: print and full-length blogs. I'm not sure. But I feel a sudden urge to change Twitter clients.