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January 21, 2012

Howard Hewitt: Trips offer credibility and good experience

The wine industry spends a lot of money worldwide to promote brands, regions and wine tourism. One of the many ways the wine industry invests is press trips.

Depending on when you read this column, I’m either in France or just returned from a press trip.

Friends, co-workers and acquaintances really lay it on thick when I’m off on one of these jaunts. I visited Paso Robles, Calif., in 2010 and Mendocino County, Calif., in January 2011.

The picture of a bunch of wine geeks with noses in a glass pontificating on aroma, finish and terroir isn’t far off. And anyone who has ever taken such a trip will tell you it’s a pleasure to visit the regions and be given the royal treatment. The wine, food and lodging are normally first class.

There are some ground rules almost every wine writer or journalist follows. First, there is no quid pro quo. Most marketing firms are pros who understand no journalist is going to promise to write specific stories or a story at all. It’s the same as free wine samples — which I do receive — there is no guarantee I’m going to write about the wine or certainly that I’m even going to like it.

But my response when approached by these trip planners is fairly simple. I write this column every other week for 18 newspapers. I have a wine blog, write for Madison the Magazine and contribute a handful of stories each year to Palate Press — the National Online Wine Magazine. I have a lot of mouths to feed. I need content.

Such trips open my eyes to new wines in new regions and most importantly new ideas. Today’s column is No. 85 since I started this column in October 2009. That’s not counting more than 500 blog entries, two years of magazine stories and about a dozen major stories for Palate Press.

But that image of the wine geeks around the table being wined and dined isn’t totally accurate. On some trips the day is scheduled 8 or 9 a.m. until 10 or 11 p.m. Two winery visits in the morning and three more in the afternoon. That means five wineries times six to eight wines a visit to be tasted. A side note, you do learn how to judge and appreciate wine employing the spitting method.

My Jan. 21-27 trip to Montpellier in southern France is something new for me. It’s my first wine junket abroad and it’s centered on the 19th annual Millésime Bio — the world’s largest organic wine fair. All the wineries in attendance produce wine from organically grown grapes. It’s a private trade event where nearly 600 wineries pour wines for importers, wholesalers and others who get it to retail shelves.

I’ve been set up with a fabulous full day of winery visits Jan. 26 before I return home.

So all that’s great for the wine writer but what’s it all mean for the reader? I think it adds credibility to my wine writing. It greatly expands my knowledge base. It allows me to tell readers to try the powerful and balanced red wines of Paso Robles that come at half the cost of Napa Valley. It allows me to recommend Pinot Noir and Zinfandel from Mendocino that will blow you away. And after this trip, I’m going to know a lot more about organic wines and how the movement is improving the environment while providing a truly natural product.

I think that’s a pretty powerful message.

I will be blogging daily from Montpellier. Follow along at: or go back and read those posts. I’ll also be doing updates throughout each day on Twitter:!/howardhewitt

Howard Hewitt of Crawfordsville writes every other week for 18 Midwestern newspapers.

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