Thursday, November 15, 2012

European Wine Bloggers' Conference 2012: The review

The traditional method of transportation still in use at a vineyard in Diyarbakir
The most amazing thing about this year's European Wine Bloggers' Conference is that there wasn't a single time block without at least one interesting panel.

The highlights were panels on wines from the area. We learned we were tasting history reborn.

It's possible that some of the same grapes domesticated 8,000 years ago are still lingering in the feral vineyards of Kurd-dominated Eastern Turkey. Turkey is the world's sixth-largest grape grower, but most of those grapes are eaten or drunk as juice. Scientists are just scratching the surface of the genetic riches here, and we got to hear about some of the results.

Joel Butler explaining Turkey's terroir
It's a tough call for my favorite panel of the event. The tasting of Turkey's indigenous grapes with Joel Butler laid the foundation for everything we learned about the wines afterward. Patrick McGovern and José Vouillamoz taught me as much about the domestication and early history of wine in an hour as I probably knew previously.

We learned about raki, the anise-based spirit that dominates the Turkish alcohol market because it's not in the Koran. (It's also surprisingly good with food.)

And Tim Atkin and Charles Metcalfe led perhaps the best 7-wine tasting of the year, a look at fine wines from Georgia (amphora-based natural wines), Lebanon (elegance is the defining characteristic), Armenia and Turkey.

The whole conference had a seriousness that, I'm sorry to say, isn't really associated with blogger get-togethers in the US.

Taking notes on raki
Sure, we drank some wine, and tasted a lot more than we drank. But we also had real conversations about climate change and wine, the business of web publishing, etc. If anybody was wearing a lampshade, it was probably me.

After about 20 glasses of everything from 7-year-old red Rully to Polish Chardonnay to Trockenbeerenauslese (I had two of those) at the BYOB night, I was wondering aloud about gene exchange between grafts and rootstock and learned the guy standing next to me was vine geneticist Dr. Vouillamoz. I guess I like being the dumbest guy at the table.

Surprisingly, the lingua franca for the conference was English; even the French spoke it.

Tasting sessions made us all instant experts on Turkey's three most prominent red grapes: light-bodied Kalecik Karasi, which makes an excellent rosé; fruity Öküzgözü, reminiscent of Zinfandel; and the tannic monster Boğaskere, which at first I couldn't handle, but by the time I left the country, it was the grape that haunted me most.

Speaking of leaving the country, I'm writing this while safely at home. Palate Press, for which I write a monthly column, refused to send an official representative to the EWBC because Turkey has the most imprisoned journalists of any country in the world. I'll be writing for Palate Press next week about Turkish wines -- they really are fascinating -- but not the EWBC itself. After reading "Snow" by Orhan Pamuk, the country's best-selling and Nobel prize-winning writer, who was put on trial for the crime of "insulting Turkishness," I decided not to blog live in any detail from the conference because I didn't want to take the chance.

Grilled lamb and peppers atop warm yogurt and bread. So yummy
I have no intention of insulting anything about Turkey. The people were wonderful, the wines are interesting, I'm having lamb and yogurt withdrawal already -- but I'm a smartass and misinterpretations happen. Geez, what if the police missed my nose while beating me up and broke my red spectacles? (See, that's exactly what I'm talking about.)

That said, the coastal town of Izmir, home to the conference, as well as the grapegrowing region of Thrace and the area where I stayed in Istanbul all felt much safer than my own neighborhood in San Francisco and had better deals on leather jackets. I'd go back to Turkey in a heartbeat, even without the EWBC. But seriously, I would edit this blog post first. And that's something.

Here's what Turkish people are like: On my last afternoon, a group of us went to a restaurant in Diyarbakir, a city in the southeast with Kurdish terrorist activity and big plantings of Boğaskere. After a half-dozen plates of meze (appetizers), the owner brought out two enormous platters of grilled lamb shoulder on rice. We dug in but the pile was bigger than we could handle, and we probably finished a third of it. Our host tried to tell the restaurateur to bring us tiny portions of dessert (some sort of nut paste with ice cream, outstanding.) The restaurateur put his hands on his hips and said sternly, according to our host, that it was his job to feed us, and if we left without a Turkish muscle (he patted his belly), he wasn't doing his job. A resident winemaker told us early on, "There's never any danger of going hungry in Turkey," and that's the truth.

Here's what I brought home:

* Tulum cheese, my favorite of the many goat's milk cheeses Turks eat at every meal. Mild and salty, it looks like tofu and tastes like a goat's milk feta.

* Turkish tea. You hear about Turkish coffee but mostly they drink Nescafe, and leaving grounds in the coffee cup is more about tradition than deliciousness. But Turkish tea, brewed strong and so tannic that you usually need sugar, has a slight fruitiness and gives a gentler caffeination.

* Smoked eggplant paste. The Turks do great things with eggplant. I thought about bringing home olives, also present at every meal, but decided the jarred kind wouldn't be as good.

But more than the food and even the learning, as at any conference of this type, it was the personal interactions that made it wonderful. I tried to sort through Turkish wines on a wine list with Christy Canterbury, Tim Atkin and Charles Metcalfe. I hitched a ride to my hotel with Randall Grahm. I discussed cricket bowling versus baseball pitching with Jamie Goode. The EWBC, it was a
fastball down the middle Yorker.

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Robert McIntosh said...

Thank you for the review - I'm glad you got so much out of it. I hope to catch up with you again soon

Joel said...

Fine post, thanks for the photo, and I am envious you got to dine in the wild east of Diyarbakir! Hope you find my book a good read, but also helpful on the Turkish pronunciations!

Unknown said...

My favorite post yet! Awesome trip!