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Wine Writing Day Three

Today marked the third and final day of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, which I have been attending to check out how some people legitimately make a living doing what I dabble at.

After some more theoretical sessions on the second day, the third day began with a very focused and tactical panel discussion on working across multiple media. Moderated by Rob Kasper from The Baltimore Sun, the panel included blogger Derrick Schneider, Harriet Bell of Harper Collins and author Leslie Sbrocco. Derrick spoke about blogs, giving the crowd an overview of how they worked, the state of the blogosphere as it pertained to wine, and presented some thoughts on why wine writers in traditional media outlets might benefit from blogging. As an aside, apparently at last year's conference, only about 30% of the crowd knew what a blog was. This year 100% did.

Harriet spoke briefly again about book publishing, noting that she saw an area of opportunity in narrative nonfiction about wine and food. She also pulled out her list of words and phrases that she never wants to see in proposals or finished works:

Marries well with
Serves as a counterpoint to
I love to serve
I like to prepare this
Grandma would have served her with

You are on notice from Harriet. The above words are trite and overused.

Leslie Sbrocco focused on specific tactical advice about pitching magazines for work, and outlined a succinct process:

  • Make a list of the 10 publications you want to write for
  • Find the editor's name
  • Either by calling or writing the editor or anyone else, find out if they have a submission policy.
  • Follow it.
  • If they don't,write an e-mail that is short and to the point and include three different ideas for stories, each of which should be expressed in less than 25 words.
  • Make sure these proposals fit the tone of the magazine, and don't duplicate articles that have been written in the last year.
  • Include writing your writing samples.

    Leslie also talked a bit about landing speaking gigs and television appearances, the latter of the two being the most difficult to find.

    Rob finished the session by saying that the process for pitching that Leslie had laid out was essentially the same for newspapers, and went on to offer a few specific pieces of advice for that media which included branching out from the food section with your proposals and considering other sections of the paper for wine related work, including the Op-Ed section.

    The day's second session was extremely interesting from a content perspective. Essentially just a two hour writing exercise, we were treated to the personal and family stories of Mike Martini, Jan Trefethen, Roger Trinchero, and Robin Lail. Anyone reasonably familiar with Napa wines will recognize those last names. Each is the child of one of Napa's first pioneering families. Their stories were frankly astonishing. I've heard bits and pieces of them before, but never the whole story, and not as related by a member of the family. They included such historical moments as the first bottling of a single varietal Zinfandel wine, the invention of white Zinfandel, the discovery and naming of various wine clones and rootstocks, and more.

    One of my favorite quotes from the session came from Jan Trefethen: "I'll bet you didn't know that there was a time Napa was better known for its mental asylum than for its wineries. It was literally the land of fruits and nuts."

    After hearing these stories we had a few minutes to write the beginning of an article on what we had learned.

    The final session of the day was a free for all, and turned out to be one of the best parts of the symposium from my perspective. With most of the speakers up on the stage, we had group discussion / Q&A session that ranged across such topics as what rights you should sell to a paper or a publisher (first serial rights); the ethics of wine writing (samples ok, but just enough for you to taste -- dinners, lunches, parties not ok, trips generally not ok, though there might be some exceptions on the parties and trips depending on the circumstance); dealing with taxes and what you can write off as a writer (best bet: write as much as you can and hope you're not audited); what the target audiences and potential new audiences might be for wine writing (no consensus); globalization and terroir (issues abound); and more.

    An hour or two of lively discussion, and just like that, the symposium was over.

    My final evaluation of the three days is generally very positive. Had I been a working or even struggling/aspiring wine writer, I would have found it invaluable in most respects. I go to a lot of conferences, however, and I've gradually formulated my own point of view on what works and what doesn't. In my opinion, conferences either need to be very tactical and educational, focused on what the participants do on a daily basis, (this sort of conference is mostly tutorials and information) or they need to be about inspiration and collegial communication (a sort of meeting of minds for peers in a given industry).

    I would have preferred the symposium to be the latter -- a place where wine writers of all skill levels and experience could come together to talk about the issues, the subject matter if you will, that they deal with everyday. Such a symposium would be a three-day discussion on the wine world -- a fugue on what to write about and how to write about it. We engaged in some of this type of discussion, most of which were the highlights of my experience, but the conference also tried to have an educational component too. While many of those sessions were effective, I thought the overall mix weakened the potential for the full package.

    Regardless, for $500 it definitely remains one of the highest value conferences I've attended from a professional standpoint. I certainly will be likely to return.

    Vinography now returns you to your normal programming.

    Comments (13)

    03.09.06 at 11:39 PM

    Technically, and just because I can't resist a pedantic streak, last year 30% _didn't_ know what a blog was. 30% knew and actively read them, 30% knew of them but didn't really know much about them (approximate averages, obviously).

    I was quite surprised to find that everyone knew what a blog was this year.

    tduchesne wrote:
    03.10.06 at 4:29 AM

    Thanks for the last three days of insight. Appreciate it.

    Conor wrote:
    03.10.06 at 6:11 AM

    I found this posting interesting. I am quite curious to see how the traditional media world, particularly the wine niche, react to / interact with new media and blogs. Cheers!

    Geoff Smith wrote:
    03.10.06 at 9:55 AM

    Unfortunately, I no longer have an OED (Oxford English Dictionary). I'd love to know the etymology of the word "blog." I would guess definitely anglo-saxon in origin, but it might have some amusing origin and or cognates.


    Casey wrote:
    03.10.06 at 4:42 PM

    Actually, I think it comes from "web-log."

    Alder wrote:
    03.11.06 at 11:26 AM

    Right you are, Casey. Except I think Geoff was joking -- providing an example of what the "traditional media types" response might be.

    His sense of humor is subtle sometimes.


    Alder wrote:
    03.11.06 at 5:06 PM


    The "mainstream" media seemed to understand that the blog world was something that was going to have an impact on the world of wine, but they were not sure how, exactly. There was the impression (which I can't say is misplaced) that most blogs were junk. I think there was generally the acknowledgement that having more people write about wine cannot be anything but good.

    There were a few journalists who sought me out for advice on how to start their own blogs, but beyond the session with Derrick, there wasn't much discussion of blogs.

    03.11.06 at 6:04 PM

    Alder, it was good to meet you at the Famous Wine Writers School and put a face on the blog. As one of the grizzled print veterans (turned out I'd been writing at something longer than anyone in the room, which was sobering), let me put in a little plug for a conference just for wine writers, aimed at wine writing.

    You mention in some of your conference postings a worry that we'd all be mired in "how-to" sessions, and not get to the meat (bad metaphor) of wine controversies. In the long run, content rules. But while a Harvey Steiman wine note in the Spectator (with accompanying score) may sell a bottle of wine, a lyrical voyage with a Rod Smith piece may turn someone into a lifelong wine lover. That's why the craft part matters -- though it's not, for sure, something anybody picks up in three days.

    Alder wrote:
    03.11.06 at 6:08 PM


    It was a pleasure to meet you as well, and to taste some of your wine! Thanks for bringing some. I'm definitely with you -- the Rod Smith school of wine writing is the one I'M enrolled in.

    03.11.06 at 6:35 PM

    Yeah, add me to the newly formed Rod Smith fan club. His writing has that element I find so lacking in mine -- a poetic, evocative style that, to quote Tim, would turn someone into a lifelong wine lover.

    Something to shoot for.

    Alder wrote:
    03.12.06 at 12:09 PM

    Derrick has posted his notes/presentation from this session for those who are interested.

    Harriet Bell wrote:
    03.14.06 at 3:17 PM


    Thanks for making me look so good in your blog. I enjoyed meeting you and other wine writers last week.

    To me, the topic that deserved more attention at the symposium came up during the last session on the last day when most of us had one foot out the door. One woman (amazing how many women were there), brought up the issue of introducing young people (above 21 years of age,of course) to wine instead of beer, and how some winemakers are marketing to them. As an example, she told of wine sampling before recent Rolling Stones and Smash Mouth concerts, and how those particular wines increased in sales in the following weeks. When one well-known wine writer said that he wasn't much interested in converting beer drinkers to wine, another attendee suggested that he should be. She went on to say that since his particular writing style doesn't appeal to her as well as other women, young people, etc., we are losing potential wine drinkers for staying with an old model. Excellent point and a very fine topic for further discussion.


    Alder wrote:
    03.15.06 at 9:20 AM


    Thanks very much for the comments, and thanks for your contribution to the Symposium. I think you're right, there was a good deal of depth in that discussion about younger generations that would have been interesting to explore. Perhaps we can suggest that as a topic to Toni for next year's event.

    Personally I was thrilled to see how many women were present. It bodes very well for the future of wine journalism.

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