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How to dig a deeper and deeper hole. Or: "A Prima Donna shouts too loud"? - A Portuguese challenge

>> Wednesday, March 23, 2011

First of all I want to apologise to all my Portuguese friends, winemakers and others. And to all other who love Portugal and its wines.

I had wanted to leave this debacle with the 1º Encontro e Prova Internacional de Vinho / 1st International Wine Meeting and Tasting in Portugal (Celorico, Beira Interior) organised by Maria Joao de Almeida (and behind me and focus on constructive work.

(Update: read my first post on this subject here: An experience in how not to market Portuguese wines: the 1st International Wine Meeting and Tasting (in Portugal))

However, I cannot do that when again and again the organiser Maria Joao de Almeida comes back with untruths and insults.

There has been criticism from several people, some public and some only private, of the organisation of the First International Wine Meeting and Tasting in Portugal.

The reaction from Maria Joao de Almeida has been limited, but surprising.

The first reaction (not counting when I talked to her at the conference) can be read in the comments on the blog post by Luiz Alberto on the Wine Hub blog: What were you thinking Maria João de Almeida? What she says there is already quite astonishing.

Subsequently she has posted on Facebook and on her own site, specifically addressing us who have discussed the event online.

On Facebook she says this (unofficial translation from Portuguese):

The Prima Donna Tantrums

Dear friends, it seems that a group of international journalists is very bothered by not having participated in the tasting of fortified wines and decided to write their dissatisfaction on their respective blogs. So that it’s real clear: Nobody invited them to participate in the tasting, they have been invited only to attend the press conference about it. The tasting was done for sommeliers and the international orators, nothing more. Some people consider themselves more important than they really are.

(Click on the image for a larger size.)

In a “statement” that has been sent out but that I have not received but that is available on her site she says this:


The organization of the 1st International Meeting and Tasting ( Turismo da Serra da Estrela, Câmara Municipal de Celorico da Beira e a APM – Associação Portuguesa de Management DRS) regrets everything that has been written in recent days on the issue of fortified wines Tasting, and regrets even more that many people who doesn’t know us or did not participate at the event giving opinions about facts they do not know.

In order to restore the truth and to make it clear, national and international journalists never were invited to participate at the fortified wine tasting. Two press releases were sent earlier this year (on January and February): the first to explain that there would be a fortified wine tasting on March 19th with international sommeliers, and the second completed with the names of the participants. Not enough, the book of the congress had the same information repeated at the end. The only participants who were not sommeliers were international speakers Sarah Ahmed, Tim Atkin and Jamie Goode who were invited to participate in the wine tasting.

The national and international journalists were invited to participate at a press conference where information would be revealed about the wines in the competition, because naively I thought it was interesting to them to be present. Instead, I found a true manifestation of discontent on the part of several journalists who wanted to stay inside the tasting room where they were never told to participate.

I regret that journalists / bloggers use their «power» to attack someone just because they wanted to participate in a historical tasting to which they were not been invited! I wonder how important are these journalists to give such nasty opinions just because they feel themselves offended by not participating in a wine tasting? Which "disaster” is this that makes the whole event into question? What credibility do we have to give to such people who do not know us, did not attend the event, and speak in the name of others without their consent?

Finally, what importance should the producers give to this kind of communicators? I must also say that I also received very positive reviews about the Congress, not only from national and international speakers, but also from sommeliers, winemakers and producers, not to mention the international journalists who also sent me e-mails thanking for having been invited.

I do not recall seeing an event in Portugal that has assembled such important personalities in the sector to discuss key topics. Do we need to improve? Yes we do, certainly, but you can never please everyone, especially those who are prepared to throw the first stone. Finally, I want to thank everyone who believed and participated at the event, thank those who supported me in this moment of tension and inform that we will continue to organize events within the wine sector, and we are now preparing the 2nd International Meeting and Tasting.

Maria João de Almeida

I have to respond more in detail.

I have a small issue with this debate on the “historical tasting” since it detracts from the real issue: that the whole three day conference was lacking in organisation, in professionalism and in contents.

I may not have the experience in organising big international events that Maria Joao de Almeida has. But I do have some little experience – in addition to being a wine writer I also run a wine tour and travel business (named as “World’s Top Wine Tours” by Travel and Leisure Magazine) so organising travel and events is part of my profession, and I have organised three international wine fairs.

To come back to the issue, the “historical” tasting was just the tip of the iceberg, or the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Historical Tasting

But let’s start with that. If one reads between the lines in the conference invitation, yes, then one can with good will interpret it as Maria Joao de Almeida does. However, I for one was told by the organisation that the tasting was a very good reason to stay also the Saturday, since it was such a special event. So, on their recommendation I stayed. Secondly, if one reads the conference program and invitation documents in a way that any normal person would then it is clear that the tasting is indeed part of the program. And finally, if it is as Maria Joao de Almeida says, why is it then the case that we were a whole group of people who were standing there, stunned that we had been invited to a press conference about a tasting rather than a real tasting? Apparently we were all incapable of reading a simple conference program.

Maria Joao de Almeida tells me that on many occasions she, in her work as a journalist, has attended press conferences about tastings, where she has not participated in the tasting – and that she has found it useful. I wonder what kind of wine journalism that results in? Writing about other people tasting wines that you know nothing about how they taste? Unfortunately, that is not a type of journalism I am capable of doing.

But, as mentioned, the ‘historic’ tasting was only one of many details. So, for the record, I am not in any way "attacking" anyone only because I felt spurned, as you say, in a tasting. No, you are wrong on this too, Maria Joao de Almeida.

What is more important is that the organisation, the management and the contents of the conference was not good, simply not acceptable.

To me.

Others may have different opinions. Others may have had different expectations.

I invested a lot of time in this event, others invested a lot of money in it. I feel that we did not get what could be expected from it.

I feel I have an obligation to let you know Maria Joao de Almeida (as the person ultimately responsible), as well as the people who gave you money to organise it (providing funding for this and possibly future events), even if you do not want to listen. So there is no reason to say "they are just jealous because they were not in the tasting". That is not true at all.

Let me take a few examples:

Conference Goals

It is very unclear to me what the goal of the conference was.

Was it to promote Portuguese wines to an international audience? Very little of the presentations seemed to be aimed at that. Was it to help Portuguese winemakers market themselves more effectively on an international market? As a foreign visitor it appeared to me that that was target. Several presentations were geared towards such themes. But if that was the case, why bring in 20 or 30 international delegates for whom such presentations had little value?

It seems to me that the conference wanted to be all things to all people. This was not possible so instead it became a disappointment for everyone. Or at least for some. I cannot speak for others of course but my impression was that many journalists found little of interest in many of the presentations. (Why else did so many walk away during the presentations?) My impression was also that the attending wine producers and other delegates did not quite get what they expected from it. But again, that is just my impression.

Conference contents

This brings us to the core of the conference, the contents: There was a long list of very illustrious names. The speaker names were surely one of the main magnets for those who came there. And yes, some of the speakers did have interesting things to say, but frankly, in total, not much I can write about as a journalist.

Let me take a few examples:

Jancis Robinson, the star speaker, spoke about what could be called “tips and tricks on how to market your wines internationally”. Interesting in a way but not really much that I can write about. Perhaps more relevant tips for wine producers.

Jamie Goode gave what was basically a quick introduction to the internet and to social media – what it is and how to use it. Again, any journalist worth his salt knows very well what social media and online communications is about, wouldn’t you think? (We (BKWine) have been writing about wine on the internet since 1996.)

Salvador Guedes talked about the history of Sogrape and the story of Mateus Rosé and recent corporate developments. Interesting in a way but to do something about such a theme one really has to sit down with him and do a proper interview, as well as taste the Sogrape wines.

Dirk Niepoort talked about how he sells wine with original labels, different in different countries. Curious example of branding and marketing, but again, without sitting down with Mr Niepoort and doing a proper interview, and perhaps visit the vineyard and, importantly, taste the wines, not much I can write about. And also perhaps more geared towards giving tips and inspiration to wine producers.

Etc etc. It was indeed a very impressive list of speakers, but they did not really get the possibility to put their cases forward and to create something solid that I can write about.

Wines – where were they? Only cheese!

You had a captive audience in the conference facilities (there was nowhere to go!) so there could have been plenty of opportunities to have people taste wines (when they choose not to listen to presentation). But during two full conference days there were virtually no wines to taste! Two days of wine conferencing and no wines to taste!?

Yes, there were a few wines to taste with the dinners. But as a professional wine journalist you must be aware of that if you want to taste wines seriously and comment on them, doing it over dinner is not ideal.

A great missed opportunity to have a lot of people, hungry for information and knowledge, taste your wines.

The tasting show and exhibition

This was probably the most valuable part of the event, as it turned out: a wine show / tasting with some 50 wine producers presenting their wines. But again, the organisation was botched.

First, it was very unclear in the communications before the conference what this was all about. Secondly there was no information given to us before we came to the conference on what producers would be there. You must know, Maria Joao de Almeida, that if you have 50 producers in a room, each with 10-15 wines you cannot meet all wine producers and taste all wines. You have to do your homework before and make a shortlist of who to go and meet. Walking around from one table to another without a plan is a waste of time. But how could we plan, without any information at all?

And why plan it so that it coincided with the ‘historic’ tasting? That meant that many of the sommeliers and wine journalists who participated in that tasting did not come to the wine show at all. Did they? It would be interesting to know if the exhibitors thought that they had a good crowd of visitors, both general public and professional journalists and sommeliers.

The location, the venue, the hotels

The location of the conference was 2 hours (or more) from Porto and 3 hours from Lisbon (I’m told). In the mountains of Portugal. Very difficult to reach. Sparsely populated.

An “International” conference needs to be in an “international” location, relatively easy to reach. And a “national” conference / wine show needs to be in a place where there are many people who can come and visit. The actual conference facility was a sports arena – freezing cold, poor sound, sanitation facilities that were a joke, video screen hard to see etc. And no internet and wifi connection; in a conference that talks about internet and social media and wants to show the way to the future!? Do you really think that was appropriate international conference facilities?

The three (or four?) hotels where people were staying were far from the conference and far from each other – half an hour bus drive or more. Terrible planning, terrible for networking and making contacts, terrible for getting to and from the conference. Yes they were nice but with all the bussing needed we were hardly in the hotels at all. (And I was told that one did not have wifi – for a journalist meeting!? Correct or not I don't know.)

Not to mention the Friday evening when we were told at 9PM over dinner: “you have to check out by 8.15 tomorrow morning because you will be moving hotel”. Why were we moving hotel? No one could answer. To which hotel were we moving? No one could answer. (Yes, we did ask several times.) Not that that we left at 8.15. Rather 8.50...

Logistics and planning

This may be seen as a question of personal comfort that there is no reason to bring up, but it is typical for the whole organisation: lack of organisation, information, coordination. Examples:

Many had to wait for hours at the airport to be picked up, some waited three hours, before leaving for the hotel, a two-two and a half hour drive away, which meant arriving at 1.30 at night. Were there no better way?

Going back: we were a small group of people going to the airport on the Sunday morning – a two and a half hour drive. I had been told that my transport left at 6.45. Another person was told 7.00 – and we were taking the same flight. By chance we bumped into one of the staff very late the evening before and asked. None of us had the correct time. Now it was supposed to be 6.50… At 7 AM we still sit waiting for the bus but there is no bus. A few more people arrive who were supposed to take the same bus, it turns out, but had been given a different (later) time. 20 minutes after we were supposed to leave there was still no bus. And nor was there someone from the organisation there who could find out what was happening. When I called the contact phone number I had for the organisation there was just voice mail… (I left a message but no one ever called back.) 25 minutes after the time we were supposed to leave the bus arrived. I arrived at the airport five minutes after check-in closing time.

This was just two examples, but typical of the whole - a continuum of lack of information, contradictory information, and misinformation.

Each time I asked the staff what the planning was (When will we be leaving? Which hotel are we going to? What’s the schedule? etc) no one knew. “I will have to check and come back later to you.”

Showcasing Beira Interior

I have understood that this too was one of the objectives. (I have been told that it was the region who financed or co-financed the event. I do not know if that is true.)

What I saw and learned about Beira Interior told me that it was beautiful region. But I really saw very little of it and learned very little about it – not enough to give me any substance to write about it or see much of it. A great shame. Most of the time we were sitting in the gymnasium, where we did watch a video, yes. Or we were driven between hotels when it was dark outside. So unfortunately I did not learn much about it. Perhaps I will have the chance to come back and visit some day, to learn more about it! Oh yes, we were given a book about Beira (well, Celorico) in our visitors’ pack. A nice book with the town’s history. Unfortunately it’s only in Portuguese so I can’t read it.

Another great missed opportunity for Beira.

A lot of money must have gone into this effort of which am am very uncertain of its value, especially for the Beira Interior region.

It goes on and on and on.

Maria Joao de Almeida, you may think I am a Prima Donna or an amateur or someone who does not know what I am talking about, or that I write inelegantly. But you might at least respect my opinion and listen to what I have to say.

Again, I am deeply embarrassed by having to say all this. But having been challenged publicly I feel I have no choice.

I love the wines of Portugal and the wine regions that I have visited. I wish I had seen more of the country and Beira Interior is certainly on my wish list of regions to learn more about for the future. The winemakers and the people that I have met are all very welcoming and they have plenty of interesting and exciting wines to taste.And are often longing to tell the world about them.

I will be more than happy to come back to Portugal again and again.

But perhaps not to the 2nd International Wine Meeting and Tasting in Portugal organised by Maria Joao de Almeida. 

I imagine I won’t be invited....

-Per Karlsson

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Cortes de Cima March 24, 2011 12:33 AM  

Portugal is certainly in the international news of late, unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons! ;-)

Per, as a portuguese wine producer, I would like to thank you for the fact that you care enough about Portugal and Portuguese wines to keep hammering on this unpleasant subject. It would be much easier for you to say "to Hell with it!" and turn your attentions and your admirable journalistic skills on the other wine producing areas of the world. I have seen your work, both as a writer and a photographer, and know that you are among the best in the field.

You are correct in assuming that some of us wine producers, share your observations. -

1. Confused sense of purpose - the conference did seem to be trying to be all things to all people. And if it was directed towards wine producers, it would get poor ratings, due to the very minimal number of producers in the audience listening to the talks- a great chance to listen to Jancis Robinson and other wine gurus, and hardly any wine producers there to listen. What a waste.

2. Lack of wines. Everyone whom I talked to complained about going to a wine conference without wine tasting on the first day. "Where are the wines?" I heard repeated again and again. We felt helpless, cause there was nothing we wanted to do more than show them our wines! As you point out, we should have been allowed to pour our wines from Day 1 of the conference, and not just on Day 3. It didn't make any sense for us wine producers, to be denied the chance to show our wines until the last day, when it was quite probable that the majority of the foreign visitors, would be ready to get out of there - which is exactly what happened. A bad investment of time and money for us, which we can ill afford, especially in the current economy.

3. If the wine tasting on Day 3 was directed towards the local market, than the location was wrong. Who today has the time and money to drive halfway across Portugal for a wine tasting, no matter how many Portuguese wine producers are awaiting them ready to pour their best wines?

4. Lack of information. Again, Per, you are very right here. We never received or were able to find online any information about the list of attendees (besides the few VIP journalists of course), or fellow wine producers. This sort of information is imperative for our pre-conference preparation and for our after conference follow up.

Like you, Per, we will have to receive a lot of reassurances by the organizers that these grievances will be addressed, before we will sign up for the 2nd International Wine Meeting and Tasting in Portugal. We hope they will address them seriously.

Onirovins March 24, 2011 10:49 PM  

I don't think organizers could have gotten better feedback.

Roger Sleigh March 30, 2011 3:26 PM  

I'm sure the organisers will take on boadr the comments and critiscisms. It's great that such a conference took place but it sounds like it needed a bit more focus and a more practical location.

Angela Reddin,  April 03, 2011 1:29 PM  

Per I did attend this event and was also shocked at the disorganisation and lack of coherent communication on all aspects of the conference, travel and accommodation arrangements. You and others have covered what went wrong very well. I feel Maria had good intentions as to what should have been achieved. To quote from one producer present "unfortunately she does not have the experience in staging this type of event". I do organise and manage events both in the UK and internationally and therefore know how difficult it is to 'please' everyone. I sincerely hope that the whole management team take the comments of those who attended on board, take a deep look at what went wrong and perhaps ask for guidance as to what international attendees and the Portugese producers expect from the next event. I wish them well. Angela

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