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
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:
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.
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