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12.01.2010

You Should Be a Wine Writer. Officially.

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 (again -- I wrote this last year) 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 seventh 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 comes and 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 launched his own wine magazine; and several more published their first books.

This year, attendees will reap the benefits of the collective experience and knowledge brought by the likes of Gerald Asher, Neil Beckett, Bruce Schonfeld, Lettie Teague, 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 THREE 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.

The Symposium will take place from Tuesday February 22nd to Friday the 25th, 2011 at Meadowood Hotel and Resort in St. Helena. The deadline for fellowship applications is December 13th, and I believe general registration is open through the end of January.

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

Comments (18)

12.01.10 at 10:55 PM

Very interesting and appealing. I guess doing this event during a work week will pretty much eliminate those of us who have day jobs :(

Sediment wrote:
12.02.10 at 1:21 AM

So, you mention the 3-star Michelin food – "it's gonna be the best damn conference food you'll ever eat" - but you don't mention the wine??!!

Memo to aspiring wine writers - when writing, it's best if you mention the wine...

1WineDude wrote:
12.02.10 at 5:25 AM

Totally agree and having had the good fortune of being a panelist and a fellowship recipient last year, I can attest that the vast majority of the WWS is like digesting concentrated amounts of powerhouse wine-writing awesomeness.

I'll see you all there in Feb. as well - but even if I wasn't going back for another year, I'd still be going through my notes from last time and applying all of the things I learned to do (and not to do) when it comes to writing about wine; simply going at least once is worth the investment and pays dividends for years.

Mike Dunne wrote:
12.02.10 at 9:59 AM

As one of the judges who will evaluate candidates for the symposium, let me second Alder's motion that practicing and aspiring wine writers get in motion and apply for a scholarship. This past year, if I remember correctly, we had 60 or 70 candidates. What I most enjoy about reading the entries (and that's all we get, the entries, with the writers unidentified) is the enthusiasm and freshness they often represent. Wine writing - and wine consumers - could benefit from that sort of energy and fresh perspective, so bundle up those examples soon and get them off to Napa Valley.

Alfonso wrote:
12.02.10 at 4:35 PM

I second the motion. I have gone for several years and keep learning. Highly recommended!

Alder Yarrow wrote:
12.03.10 at 9:52 AM

Gary,

Two and a half months warning isn't enough to take three days off work? Don't know what industry you work in, but I've never had an industry specific conference in the Web world take place only on weekends.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
12.03.10 at 9:54 AM

Sediment,

Ah yes, the wine. The wine is donated by members of the Napa Valley Vintners association (the co-sponsor of the conference). There are usually a lot of older vintages on offer.

Wilma wrote:
12.06.10 at 6:03 AM

Is the conference open to bloggers aspiring to write a book someday?

Jon Land wrote:
12.06.10 at 6:20 AM

Very interesting Alder. Out of curiosity, was that THE Kurt Vonnegut, as in the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, that subbed for your fiction writing class?

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01.26.12 at 2:54 AM

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