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So You Wanna Be a Wine Writer?

The wine world is made of dreams. Some people dream about drinking wine. Some people dream about making wine. And others dream of writing about it. For all those that have ever toyed with the idea of writing about wine, and for those who have dabbled in it, I have a small anecdote to share from my college days.

I was taking a fiction writing class one Spring, and our teacher managed to convince a good friend of hers to substitute teach a bunch of us eager, bright-eyed college students for one class session. The first thing Kurt Vonnegut said to the twelve of us in his mellow raspy voice, as he slouched in the uncomfortable, dim room was, "The novel is dead. No one reads fiction anymore. America has divested itself of its imagination. It's over."

In my memory, he said this and rambled on some more while chain smoking cigarettes. While I've probably symposium.jpginvented the cigarettes, I definitely remember his words though, and his answer to the timid question one of us managed to squeak out at the end of his rant.

"So, uh, are you saying that, um, we should just forget about this fiction writing thing?"

At this, Mr. Vonnegut (stubbing out his cigarette, of course) sat up a little straighter and got a bit of a glint in his eye, and said, "Oh no. Don't get the wrong idea here. You'll never make a living at being a writer. Hell you may even die trying. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't write. You should write for the same reasons you should take dancing lessons. For the same reason you should learn what fork to use at a fancy dinner. For the same reason you need to see the world. It's about grace."

I've met a lot of wine writers at this point, and none of them are rich. Hell, none of them (OK, maybe three of them) are even making a decent living as a wine writer. The majority of them actually have to do other types of writing or even other jobs to scrape by. But most of them write about wine because there's nothing quite like it in the world.

Wine writers are also great people -- passionate, engaged, knowledgeable, and generally a lot of fun to hang out with. Even the ones that are barely scraping by would certainly admit that they are living their dream, and they're generally excited to meet other folks who share that dream. Those who are actually good at what they do (i.e. someone pays them pretty regularly to write about wine) are remarkably willing to teach others how to do it.

Which is the primary reason that The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers is the best three days you could possibly spend if you are an aspiring, working, or even just dreaming writer about wine.

The Symposium is now in its sixth year, and has established itself as the preeminent gathering of its kind in the world. For three days, an intimate group of approximately sixty writers meet, teach, gather, eat, drink, learn, and celebrate their craft in the heart of the Napa Valley.

I have attended the Symposium every year, with the exception of its inaugural year, first as a participant, and then as a speaker and moderator. I can tell you it's like no other "conference" I've ever been to. I'm not one to get starry eyed about celebrities of the wine writing world, but it's pretty damn incredible that there is an opportunity to spend three days chatting and learning from essentially the best wine journalists and writers in the English language. These folks aren't just lecturers that show up, teach a class, and then disappear. You sit with them at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then hang around until the wee hours drinking wine with them (and maybe even singing, if Christina brings her guitar).

Of course, this socializing book-ends serious sessions of knowledge sharing and instruction, including writing exercises and private critiques of your work, if you so desire. The effect that this symposium has on people's wine writing careers is quite astonishing. I've seen an aspiring writer land a major story for the Chronicle wine section; another got a string of stories in a major wine magazine; still another just launched his own wine magazine; and several more published their first books. Perhaps most impressively, one or two of them even started blogging. And I'm taking all the credit for that.

This year, attendees will reap the benefits of the collective experience and knowledge brought by the likes of Frances Mayes, Steve Heimoff, Eric Asimov, Karen MacNeil, and more. The full list of speakers and their biographies is still being assembled.

Here's the bottom line: three and a half days of the best networking you could possibly imagine for wine writers for a mere $475. And you get to stay at Meadowood in Napa Valley (at a remarkably reduced rate of $250 per night), which brings the total to about $1200. That's cheaper than most three day industry conferences, and given that the whole affair is catered by the Michelin starred chefs at Meadowood, it's gonna be the best damn conference food you'll ever eat (yes, the meals are included in that $475 price tag).

The best part? There are scholarships. That's right, through merely the sheer force of your talent, you could actually attend the Symposium for free. A short application and a couple of writing samples you've published in the past year and the whole week might just cost you a plane ticket or half a tank of gas.

Some people get a little intimidated by the fact that this Symposium is called the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. This event certainly focuses on appealing to and helping working writers. But I can tell you that each year there are a number of people who would describe themselves much more as aspiring wine writers than professional ones. I believe there is a stated requirement that you need to be a published writer, but in this day and age, "published" can mean a lot of things. And I think if you had a really good story to tell about why you should attend, even if you hadn't published anything at all you might still have a shot at getting in.

So yes, this is a bit of an unashamed plug for an event that I am a part of (though, like all the speakers, I don't get paid a cent for participating). I'll be teaching people how to swear like a blogger, embarrass themselves using social media, and have a better relationship with Google than they do with their romantic partners. And of course, I'll be learning how to write gooder, just like everyone else there.

But I also want to be doing that with passionate, like-minded folks, which is why I encourage you to attend.

The Symposium will take place from Tuesday February 16th to the 19th, 2010 at Meadowood Hotel and Resort in St. Helena. The deadline for fellowship applications is December 14th (which is why I'm writing about this now), and I believe general registration is open through the end of January.

I hope to see you there. If you have any questions about the event, I'd be happy to answer them.

Comments (12)

Jeff wrote:
12.11.09 at 7:45 AM

I doubt you were imagining Vonnegut smoking. He's an inveterate smoker. In fact, when his apartment building in New York caught fire about 5 years ago, he was, ironically, hospitalized for smoke inhalation. And for the record, I remember reading that he smokes Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes. Really cool that you got to interact with him. That must have been one hell of a teacher.

Tom Johnson wrote:
12.11.09 at 10:46 AM

I had a few sessions with Vonnegut at the University of Iowa and he said to us basically what he said to you. He was very much of the belief that writing was its own reward -- at least for a certain subset of people. Being a part of that subset was, for him, another kind of reward, and for all of his affected grumpiness, he enjoyed being in the company of other writers as much as he enjoyed anything.

Dean Tudor wrote:
12.11.09 at 12:32 PM

You mean you could make money by writing about wine? That I did not know. Why doesn't someone tell me about these things? ..;-)

Andrea wrote:
12.12.09 at 7:23 AM

It sounds like it would be incredibly interesting. I'm on the other side of the country in Philadelphia, otherwise, while I'm certainly not writing about wine professionally, (I write fiction) I would enjoy something like this. I write primarily for me and even if I never get that big paycheck, I'd still do it because it's who I am and what I like to do.

12.12.09 at 1:08 PM

You certainly have convinced me to attend even though I'll need to fly in from Texas. The interaction with others who are professionals and also are "aspiring" should be fascinating. I understand that there is a tasting at the CIA as well. Count me in.

12.13.09 at 6:23 PM

This is precisely the sort of thing I dream about attending; hopefully, I will win one of those scholarships someday. Thank you for the post, Alder, as always.

Bill Daley wrote:
12.14.09 at 12:28 PM

Loved your comments about the Symposium. Very, very true...and you come away feeling really charged up that you're doing the right thing. Bravo!

John Cesano wrote:
12.14.09 at 12:55 PM

I can't believe how fortunate I am to find your post on the last day possible to submit a fellowship entry application.

Thank you for posting this.

I have pulled everything together, and I am off to the post office to get it postmarked.

I hope to see you at the symposium.

Jim Nash wrote:
12.14.09 at 11:00 PM

Is this symposium reall as good as described?

Alex wrote:
12.15.09 at 8:47 AM

Very, very interesting read, definitely made me want to start writing again. You are very right on the price tag for industry conferences. It does cost considerably more.

Oh and good luck John Cesano with your application!

John Cesano wrote:
12.15.09 at 8:10 PM

Thanks Alex and Alder for your well wishes, but again, mostly want to express my appreciation for the info post.

Elizabeth wrote:
12.22.09 at 5:13 AM

Thank you for this information...

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