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VinoCamp Lisbon – The Language Barrier

There was an interesting panel at VinoCamp Lisbon where participants discussed the language barriers between different wine blogging communities.

Overall, the round table discussion was very interesting.  I particularly liked Vicky’s idea at the end about designated cultural leaders (which I’ll address in detail below).

Here’s a video of the roundtable:

Language Barriers at Conferences and on the Web

The discussion was divided between how language barriers play out in conference settings and how they affect web communication.  This isn’t really surprising since Gabriella Opaz (who I believe proposed this session) is one of the organizers of the EWBC, and the VinoCamp itself is a very Francophone conference (Lisbon was the first VinoCamp that Gregoire and Vicky organized in English).

In case you don’t think language barriers are relevant, the participants in the discussion bring up a lot of evidence on how divisive language can be.  For example, Gab alludes to the friction between the EWBC and Portuguese wine bloggers in 2009.  Perhaps of greater interest, some of the Portuguese attendees speak up on their comfort level in attending English-language or French-language conferences.  It certainly seems everybody has a lot of hangups when it comes to language.

Most people seemed to find the language barrier equally troubling online.  Do I tweet in English or French or Spanish?  While I understand the frustrations in a conference setting, I think the virtual world is much more liberating.  I realize it’s easy for me to say that since I can write in English and French (which covers most of the wine producing world in one fell swoop)…But I really think that people can get away with any language online.  On the Internet, your audience is not limited to the physical time and place of a conference.  Your words live on in perpetuity and become indexed and searchable to other native speakers of the language you communicate in.  A Catalan-language wine blog does not have the same potential audience as an English-language blog, but it still has an audience.  And even if that niche is only in the thousands, it’s an important audience.  Consider the size of conferences like VinoCamp and the EWBC.  They are awesome gatherings and they generate great ideas and partnerships, but they’re actually sort of tiny.  VinoCamp Carcassonne had like 150ish people.  EWBC Vienna had about 300 people.  Even an obscure language blog can get that traffic in a week.

Getting Wine Producers to Participate

One of the toughest parts of my “job” is getting winemakers to take the plunge and start talking online.  Start showing up at conferences.  Start speaking up and sharing their experiences.  This is probably why I don’t make a big deal about language.  I’d rather see wine producers talking regularly in their native languages than haltingly or not at all in a more popular language.

Again, the Internet allows your words to be archived and searchable for generations.  So there’s really no language too small.

Conferences are a different issue.  It’s true that if you make delicious wines in Croatia and speak absolutely no English, French or Spanish, you’re going to have some trouble attending an International conference.  But if that is the case, you are not reading this blog post. :D

No I can’t just skirt the issue so easily.  This is a real problem.  Because ultimately, the real life interactions are just as important as the virtual content.  I know for a fact that very few French wine bloggers follow my blog closely.  But they all know who I am, what I do, and my communication style because we’ve met in person.  And even though I tend to write in English these days, they all know I’ll talk to them in French when we meet up.  So it’s tough for the kids who don’t speak one of the big languages.

Although I would also take a moment to say it’s not as bad as it seems.  Even though the conversation at vinocamp really focused on how hard it is to get everybody speaking the same language, the fact is that a huge percentage of winemakers speak some French, English, or Spanish.  Italian is a close fourth.  It feels like I’m snubbing Portugal, but most of the wine producers I’ve met from there can understand Spanish very easily.  Germany and Austria are sort of getting snubbed too, but almost everybody I meet out there has a bit of English or French in their vocab.  And obviously, South American wine producers speak Spanish.  North Americans, Australians, and South Africans that produce wine tend to be native English speakers.

Again, if you’re a rural Croatian wine producer, you might have more trouble.  But for the most part, the wine community speaks three or four languages.  Compare this to cereal producers or other agrarian professions, and you quickly find that our language barrier situation could be much worse off.

Designated Cultural Leaders at the EWBC

Even though there are just a few major languages, there’s still something to be done to ameliorate the conference situation mentioned above.  In the VinoCamp roundtable, Vicky Wine had a cool idea.  What if bigger conferences like the EWBC appointed cultural leaders for certain languages or countries?  The cultural leader would ideally speak the language of their culture, the language of the conference, and a bit of the local language for that year’s location.  This person wouldn’t necessarily have a lot of responsibilities, but they’d be a friendly face for other members of their culture and a go-between if people need help, translation, a friend, etc.

It’s very hard for conference organizers to get Italian wine producers to attend an English language conference.  Even when their English is strong, many producers tend to shy away from the anxiety-ridden experience of a week of English-speaking.  Having a designated Italian leader with a friendly face (Magdalene leaps to mind) might help locals to show up.  Similarly, traveling from far away like Hungary can be pretty imposing and knowing there’s a Hungarian pointman might make it easier to attend.  Same with French, Portuguese, Spanish, etc.   Good idea, Vicky!  VinoCamps generate good ideas!

There’s a slight risk that this sort of designation encourages segregation, but that segregation is already occurring to a great extent.  So I’m mostly in favor.  Then again, it doesn’t have to be super official.  Maybe just a section of the EWBC site that lists the friendly faces / ambassadors / whatever you call them, to encourage people to attend despite the language barrier.


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  1. louise hurren Says:

    Really interesting issue. I was amazed at Vinocamp Carcassonne by the “gap” between the French- and English-speaking participants, not in terms of language per se but more in terms of experience or awareness of what was going on in the virtual wine world (remember the explanation of Olivier B, who he was, his story? I found it amazing that anyone who professed to be involved in the world on French wine online, whatever their mother tongue, wouldn’t have heard of this story). To me, it seemed that people were polarised not just by their language skills (or lack of) but by their world vision – in other words, by how far they were (or weren’t) prepared to look for information, for knowledge, for input. I’m as guilty of it as the next person: I take most of my cues from the UK, for obvious reasons, I dip into the US (but it seems like another planet) and I make myself look at what goes on in France to some extent, and in Languedoc in greater depth. But dear me, it’s hard work. Which is why, to my mind, it makes sense to figure out what your communications objectives are, as a wine communicator, and then adapt your online behaviour accordingly. You’re a Languedoc producer who hopes to export overseas? Sorry but you’re going to HAVE to communicate in English (or hire someone who can). You want to focus on cellar-door sales to private clients from your area? Fine… stick to French. But if you want to boost sales to tourists travelling through the area, some English or maybe Geman might help. And for anyone who wants to really exploit the potential of the internet, it still seems to me that English – no matter how poor, how stumbling – is the way to go. Hope that doesn’t sound to imperialist – I really enjoy communicating via twitter with wine fans from all over, and somehow we all muddle through. One more point: I recall how angry certain French wine commentators got over the fact that the recent Grenache Symposium held in Provence was run in English. I guess you have to be aware of national sensitivities… but honestly. Get real…

  2. Per-BKWine Says:

    It is obvious that it is a great help to be able to communicate in English if you are a wine producer and want to sell your wines outside your local market today, as you say Louise.

    But this is far from a one-way street. It is equally obvious that many English speakers assume that everyone else is capable of communicating in English. And that is both wrong and arrogant.

    Blogging (for example wine blogging) is far from as international as one might think. The UK wine bloggers form a clique which interact (read, comment…) very much within itself. So is the American wine bloggosphere (much more so actually). And the French and the Spanish, etcetera. There’s a little bit of “cross border” communication but not much. Louise’s comment about the US being “another planet” illustrates that very well.

    How many times have we not seen things purporting to be “international” when in reality they are not. Instead they are “American” covering more than one state and perhaps a token expat, or, at best “English language” (which mostly will mean US+UK, which at least is two countries). The recent BDWA did set an ambitious goal to be “international” but even they (run by the same people as the EWBC – Americans in Spain and a Scot in England…) “failed” more or less in being international. Virtually all contributions to the competition were written in English. How international is that?

    It is simply not easy. It is, yes, probably more a question of a mind set.

    But the problem is also in the other direction – how much can you hope to understand about a wine region, when you to there to talk to the wine producers, if you don’t speak the language of the producers? A case in point: if you don’t speak French can you really hope to get to grips with Languedoc? Sure, you will understand what they say at Mas Chevaliere, Mont Tauch, St Jaques d’Albas, Gerard Bertrand, Domaine Sainte Croix etc (all able to communicate in English for various reasons). But what about Aupilhac, Canet Valette, Garance, Grecaux, Chabanon, etc. OK, those were taken at random. They may be excellent English speakers, but you get the point anyway I hope. Many wine producers don’t speak English. This is a very real issue when you travel in wine regions – it helps to have at least some grasp of the language, in most wine regions. The most interesting wine producers are often the small ones, and they are the ones that are least likely to speak English. It’s not the Freixenets and the Codornius are the most exciting… (And that’s why it is important for us, when we organise wine tours, that we speak the language of the producer – and translate to our wine loving travellers if need be.)

    Yes, it is a great help if people in the “wine community” speak some English, and it does not have to be perfect. But also, the native English speakers could perhaps also show a bit more curiosity and open-mindedness?

    And no, Google Translate is not the answer. At least not yet.

  3. Iris Says:

    Good point, Ryan, Louise and Per – and happily, in one or two sentences, Ryan, you talked about German/Austrian (which written tends to be the same language;-).)

    I’m trying, like you, to help a bit, to transgress the language barrier, by translating from French to German and vice versa, if I find an interesting information or from English to both…I did it on a “bénevole” way during EWBC via Twitter, to help to spread the “spirit” – and i’m very pleased, that the organizers of the first German Vinocamp at Geisenheim on June 18/19th had the idea to invite me, to be exactly the “friendly face” between the German and French culture (via Web 2.0 communication before, while and afterwards).

    Unfortunately, I’ve got the impression, that this idea passed without being noticed so far. No “foreign” participants, even from the French Vinocamp organiser just across the border will come, to watch and exchange their experience … Only the Bordeaux CIVB, very professional on the Web in any export country, had the good idea to sponsor an all-inclusive visit to Vinexpo for a Vinocamp participant, to “hold the line” between the two parallel events…

    If we consider, that we all would like to extend our export relations (in Europe – there is not only China;-) – I think it’s really a pity, that so few exchange among bloggers and social media freaks is taking place…

    as you explained already very often for your Love that Languedoc blog: it’s not talking only about yourself and considering everybody else as concurrency, which is really in the spirit of the Wolrd wide Web and wine as “partage”, fun and cultural heritage;-)…

  4. Arnold Waldstein Says:


    An articulate post…thanks for sharing.

    The issue you are touching on is much larger than the conference (although Vicky’s idea is an excellent one and I support it).

    My point of view as an American (with only smatterings of French and Yiddish at my disposal) is with the American market for natural and artisanal wines. I am less interested (publically right now) with the selling of wines over the Internet than with the connection between consumer and producer, between enthusiast and the brand itself, which is the wine maker.

    I believe fervently that in order for the wine industry to change, it needs to do so from the bottom up, from the relationship between winemaker and myself. This smacks hard into the language gulf between myself and French and Italian and Spanish winemakers that are my heroes.

    How to fix this on a larger level? How to connect the small producers in Europe with a ravenous US market for the natural and artisanal wines?

    Three statements:

    1. In NYC at least, wine shops (and orgs like Vin Naturel from Arbois) are bridging this gap in two ways:
    a. Bringing the wine makers over to meet the consumers. Every month I am invited to meet winemakers from Arbois, from Sicily, from Spain through shops and organizations. I’ve developed friendships and this goes a long way. Austria BTW, does a much poorer job of this at least to me.
    b. Experts within the local stores. The best shops have buyers that are enthusiasts (who speak the language usually) and as well start to bridge that gap, provide information and translations.

    2. EWBC in a small but important way is starting to help. I am not clear how Ryan and Gabriella and Robert think of themselves, but I choose to think of this as access to European wineries and bloggers, which I bring back to my communities in the states. To me EWBC has to do with the origins of the wines, not the areas of interest that is communicated to.

    3. There is a lack of a global community for Natural Wines at least. Once this community develops further, filters will be in place, if not for the winemakers to speak to the English speaking audience then for their ‘ambassadors’ or their distributors but mores, their stateside marketing orgs to help out.

    Per…I agree with you that international wine travel for myself is sometimes a challenge being raised in an English speaking reality of my upbringing. I try but my need to connect, my passion for the wines will always exceed my language skills, C’est la vie ;)

    Thanks Ryan.

  5. Ryan Says:

    Great post, but a couple of points we need to clarify. The EWBC is only 200 people(with some plans to expand, maybe!), we do want to try to keep it small. Your statement:
    “EWBC Vienna had about 300 people. Even an obscure language blog can get that traffic in a week.”
    is a bit misleading save for the 300 people part. The true reach of the conference and it’s messages are much more than 300 people. We have people contact us from all over saying that they “followed along online” and got a lot out of it. Not to mention any one of those bloggers can have a very large audience paying attention.

    To Per’s point. The BDWA did not fail in it’s goal, or at least I dont’ think we completely failed. We had 2 shortlist winners with non-english content, and all in all that represented about the same percentage (English to Non-ENglish) posts that were submitted. THis to us was a lot beter than we honestly expected for a first year, unknown event. Next year we do expect much more non-english content, due to the amount of recognition we received this year. And we hope too that more people who contributed will spread the word about the Born Digital Wine Awards. Sadly we are limited in our own languages, so promoting in other countries is left to our friends and community. Finally we do hope to get our site translated, a task which is far from small when you have 8+ pages of judging regulations. :) That said, the next question is where do we draw the line with this? Which languages do we put it in? Not to mention some of the new categories we want to enter, like podcasts. Hard to do when you need a full transcript of a podcast to make it happen!

    This is a HUGE question/problem/project language as a whole, and with the EWBC in Italy this year, we have a lot to work on to make it flow smoothly! That said we’re listening. And we’re trying to make this the best year yet!!!


  6. mroconnell Says:

    Good points all around. Thanks for keeping this conversation going (even if we are doing it in English!) :D

  7. Per-BKWine Says:

    @ Ryan

    Don’t take it too hard if I use the word “fail”. You did a great job of it! It seems to have been a great success. But it was very, very dominated by English. If you really want to call it international you need to have more than a few token non-English submissions.

    But managing that is not (NOT) an easy task. I’m not sure it’s even possible.

    It would be nice to get much more participation from other countries – there are vibrant blogging communities in many other languages – but you have to figure out a way to make it happen. If you want to make it “international”.

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  9. Ryan Says:

    Per, we had quite a few for the first year of a one of a kind competition. Next year we’ll have many more, I’m confident as we have spread the word well. I think it really comes down to getting more international ambassadors on board to spread the word. We want more!!!

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