Carcassonne, the medieval fortress strategically positioned between the eastern Languedoc cities of Narbonne, Béziers and Montpelier and Toulouse, was the rear-guard stronghold for the ancient Counts of Toulouse. It also was famous as being a Cathar castle, taken in 1209 during the Albigensian Crusade.
The declared reason for the crusade was to eradicate the Cathars, a Christian religious sect whose beliefs put them at odds with the Roman Catholic Church. But Pope Innocent III’s papal decree permitted the confiscation of lands owned by Cathars and their supporters, and King Phillip took it as the go ahead to bring southwestern France into the French crown.
For almost 800 years Carcassonne has experienced nothing more heretical than tourists insisting, against all common gastronomic sense, on ordering cassoulet, an extremely rich, slow-cooked bean stew filled with pork sausage, duck and goose, in the summer. That is, until VinoCamp came to town on March 19 and 20.
VinoCamps are based on a user-generated-conference concept that originated with hacker meetings in Europe. Much of the anarchistic emphasis of these original BarCamps (as the hackers poetically named them) has been retained (even though the format has been used now for everything from public transit discussions to political organizing), and anyone can sign up and suggest a conference-session topic. VinoCamp Carcassonne was, after VinoCamp Paris and VinoCamp Beaune, the third such event in France.The VinoCamps’ intent is to evangelize, energize and bring together bloggers, journalists, programmers, web designers, online wine merchants, winemakers and anyone else at the crossroads of wine and the internet.
The role of host fell to Ryan O’Connell, an irrepressible young American-turned-Languedocian who, along with his parents, is making wine in the Cabardès wine region that surrounds Carcassonne. O’Connell’s Love that Languedoc wine blog, his tweets on Twitter, and his Facebook page, and a self-published book about the region have made him a star in the French internet wine scene. The co-organizers of the event were a wine-tourism-coordinator-turned-social-media-guru named Grégoire Japiot and Miss Vicky, the vivacious daughter of a winemaker who has become a blogging force in her own right, and who also makes wine,
The first session that I attended was about an European Union project called “places2be.” In fairness to the speaker, a German gentleman who said that he was a computer programmer, his limited French would have made it difficult to order a meal in Paris. I can identify with that, having struggled with languages all my life, including my native English (or American English, as I’m often told by people in Europe, especially Brits). A kindly Frenchman jumped in to help with some translations, which allowed us to understand that “places2be” was an initiative to connect rural areas through a website that allows them to share their experiences and ideas. Halfway through the one-hour session it still wasn’t apparent about how this related to wine or winemakers, or why these communities couldn’t just create Facebook pages, so I left. My major takeaway from that session was that obtaining EU funding was way too easy.
My next session involved a lively discussion between bloggers and journalists. The bloggers were debating about how to make money with their blogs (this question can be answered in two words: Jancis Robinson), and the journalists were hinting, not so subtlety, that the majority of bloggers were not qualified to write about wine.
Ryan O’Connell, like any good host, took a bullet by explaining how his first efforts at blogging were not that successful as he was too focused on his own wines. It wasn’t until he started blogging about issues facing the French wine industry and posting videos about other winemakers that his blog started to take off, he said.
Another American making wine in France, Amy Lillard of La Gramière in the Côtes du Rhône appellation, told us that she started her wine blog seven years ago to write about being a winemaker in France. The only problem, she explained, was that most of the comments were from “50-to-60-year-old wanabee winemaker men.” Which immediately made me understand why, when I say hello to her at conferences or wine salons, she says “hello” back and then sprints away.
This began two years ago when she was participating at an off-site event at Vinexpo, and I, who had been avidly reading about her winemaking exploits for several years, tried to interview her for my blog. In retrospect, it was almost comical the way our cat-and-mouse game played out in a 200-or-so-square-meter exhibition space, I asking the questions, and she ducking off to talk to anyone else she might know in the room. I finally resorted to piecing together my blog story about her with quotes that she had given to others, who, I suppose don’t fit that into the male-wanabe-winemaker category. I, unfortunately, at 55 years of age and in pursuit of some vines of my own, fit this description to a “t.” In fairness to Lillard, it must be difficult being the target of someone’s dream, so I imagine that having people pepper you with questions about making wine in France becomes tiresome after awhile.
There were other VinoCamp sessions about wine tourism and online wine sales, and a particularly lively discussion about the proper use of online social media tools besides blogs, like Facebook and Twitter. My comment at that social medial tool session was that 90% of the French winemakers who I try to contact don’t (A) answer emails sent to them (or they don’t even have email addresses), and (B) the vast majority don’t answer their phones or return calls when you leave a message. We will likely have to wait for the next generation of French winemakers to see more online social activity.
Other than the lack of winemakers in attendance, the main problem with VinoCamp Carcassonne was that the big “stars” who had signed up for the event—people like Hervé Bizeul, a former journalist who now has a vineyard in the Roussillon, and whose Clos des fees wines sell in the three-digit euro range, and Evelyne Resnick, author of the book Wine Brands and the blog of the same name—were no-shows.
I must admit that there were a lot of interesting, enthusiastic people in attendance, and I enjoyed meeting new members of the French internet wine community and seeing others who I have met at other events. And the wine tasting that closed the VinoCamp on Sunday, which featured wines made by the Outsiders, a group of winemakers, including the O’Connells, who have settled in the Languedoc area, was excellent.
If I was to offer one bit of advice to organizers of future VinoCamps, it would be to charge a small conference participation fee—say €20, which could go to guaranteeing the participation of a keynote speaker (or speakers), maybe someone like the elusive Mr. Bizeul, who people told me repeatedly was on a plane that was supposed to be landing imminently. This might take away from the counter-culture, heretical Barcamp origins of VinoCamp, but just look at the Cathars: they were eradicated over six centuries ago, and they’re still drawing millions of tourists to Carcassone each year.