Our train wobbled along a stretch of rail near Sofia on a mid-October day spitting rain. The railway is being modernized, and work on the line snailed our pace. Outside the window, a sky-blue sub-compact lounged on an abandoned factory estate along with several other towaways. The car’s front grill had been crumpled to its mid-section. Glass shards in the building’s windows blinked as we passed. Stacks of disused concrete ties, their job done, waited to be carted away.
Almost every station we passed seemed to be under construction, welcoming travelers with spiffy new platforms and light poles ready for fixtures. Station masters came out at each stop, smiling, jaunty in their brass-buttoned jackets and red-trimmed caps. Between towns, autumn splashed orange and yellow onto hillsides, and farm workers loaded enormous cabbages onto flatbed trucks. Harvested fields had been turned, exposing rich black earth.
I had traveled in Bulgaria years ago, just as the region was emerging from decades of Soviet domination. This time around, Tom and I were in Bulgaria to attend a conference, which offered a chance to update my impressions.
In Plovdiv, we disembarked into a snarl of cables, ladders and concrete, and the buzz of drills. We made our way through the construction zone beneath the station into the light of a modern city.
Digital Wine Communications Conference
Plovdiv, Bulgaria is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe, but it is positioning itself for the future. Its choice as host for Digital Wine Communications Conference 2015 (DWCC) was in many ways, an inspired one. The conference provided a brilliant window onto Bulgarian wine, culture and context. For Tom and me, the event and the venue provided opportunities to learn more about wine while enjoying a taste of the “new Bulgaria”.
As food travelers, we were eager to hear from those for whom wine-making, wine marketing and wine writing is life’s work. What do you do when confronted with 200+ self-identified “wine geeks”, met to share their love of the grape? You have a good time and you learn, that’s what.
How to taste wine. The differences between wine cultures, even within a single region. The special aspects of wines that tell the story of place– tales of indigenous varietals, family stories, local legends–that will resonate with cultural explorers. The challenges of wine producers and providers of tourism experiences. The economics and technology of digital story-telling. These things and more, we found in Plovdiv.
We met vintners and tasted vintages from Bulgaria, and from other countries in the region: Turkey, Greece, Moldova and Romania. We discovered wine brands eager to provide experiences coupling food and wine. We found that we can help bridge the gap between those deep into wine culture and those who engage in it through travel and as consumers. Best of all, we had a sampling of a fascinating cultural and culinary landscape that invites exploration.
My DWCC highlights
The conference was content-rich, with the added benefit of speakers who were fully engaged throughout the event. Here are four DWCC moments that resonated with Tom and me:
- Pre-conference BYOB. This networking evening prior to the conference opening was fueled by wine shared from bottles brought by attendees. To our delight, and to the credit of Basel wine maker Valentin Schiess, our contribution–a complex and layered Jeninser red from vinigma, with elegant, wild-berry notes–was a hit! Meeting Valentin at last week’s Baslerweinmesse was the perfect occasion to share the good news.
- Wine master classes shone a spotlight on the countries of the Balkan Peninsula, celebrating the millennia-old wine-making tradition of the region as expressed in today’s wines. I especially appreciated the session on wines from Moldova, led by Robert Joseph with Diana Isac of Winerist, which mapped wine regions and grape varieties across the centuries and into the glasses poured for us. We look forward to following up with a wine appreciation class back in Switzerland.
DWCC sessions presented food for thought, with an emphasis on digital: e-books, storytelling for wine writers, and a tech Q&A with helpful hints, to name just three. I did my bit as a food traveler, helping Konrad Jagodziński present Delipair, an online tool for matching wines with food. The product, developed by this wine lover with a nose for chemistry, supports marketers in introducing wines to adventurous, wine-curious consumers.
- Speakers for the innovative Disrupt! Wine Talks inspired us with high-energy, inspirational presentations. Each talk, applying the conference topic of “BLEND” to the speaker’s individual passion, was strictly limited to eight minutes. Judith Lewis started things off with a plea against consumption of chocolate produced with child labor, and the session closed with Chris Hendricks’ musical advocacy for change in our own self-perceptions. Disrupt! was like six Ted talks, only punchier!
Postscript: In the session on e-books, Cathy Huyghe invited us to download her new book, Hunger for Wine: Seeing the World Through the Lens of a Wine Glass. It’s a great read, one I heartily recommend for its innovative perspective and gripping storytelling.
The inspiration continues!
Morning in Plovdiv
My recollections from my first time in Bulgaria are mostly of a gray place with little to see and do, and especially little that was memorable to eat or drink. How fitting that we had arrived here on Wednesday, 21 October, 2015, known to many cinema fans as “Back to the Future Day“. It was invigorating to see how much things had changed since 1991.
We had flown into Sofia’s slick international terminal, and after our throw-back train journey, it was a pleasure to experience the imposition of modernity on Bulgaria’s past reality. I was happy to replace my remembrance of things past with things present.
Plovdiv sits at the very center of Bulgaria. It was little touched by the wars of the 20th century, and retains architectural elements from Roman, Ottoman, Renaissance, Secession and communist eras. A walk through the old city takes you past many of them. To imagine Plovdiv a few years from now, check out the competition to re-imagine Plovdiv’s Central Square, linking its past and future.
We did not have time to explore Plovdiv’s complex and varied history during our conference trip to Bulgaria. However, even a brief foray into the city’s well-tended pedestrian zone, and a fine meal in the old town left us with great memories of our time here. Plovdiv is getting ready for its run as European Capital of Culture 2019 and we were delighted to have a preview!