Rubbing Shoulders With The Talented

So kid, you wanna be a wine writer? That could easily be the opening line on the registration form for the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, a secluded gathering of wine writers from around the country into which I have snuck for a few days this week for a look-see. I found out about the inaugural event too late last year to attend, and so when it came around again this year I thought it would be worth exploring. The event is three days long and I will be blogging about it this week as I understand and experience the only gathering (at least on this side of the Atlantic) of professional wine writers.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the event. I worried at first that this was some sort of “learn from the masters” event where lots of aspiring neophyte wine writers would pay their cash for 20 minutes with a famous journalist to look over their stuff. Not that I’m not a neophyte myself, I just don’t have heavy-duty aspirations to be a published wine writer in the same way that some people do. Additionally I was worried about silly courses for a couple of days which were the wine writing equivalent of the useless design process tutorials I get at the conferences for my other job. I had nightmares about “How to write a lead sentence” and “interview techniques for winemakers.”

At the end of the first day, it looks like this event will steer clear of these pitfalls. Certainly, the level of accomplishment of the participants is extraordinary. Leaving aside the luminaries like Frank Prial of the New York Times, Harvey Steiman of the Wine Spectator, Rob Kasper of the Baltimore Sun, Jack Hart of the Oregonian, Karen MacNeil, Leslie Sbrocco, and Andrea Immer Robinson, the attendees are quite accomplished writers of all kinds. Some, like me, of course, are on the earnest fringes of professionalism compared to others, but its a sharp crowd.

So what happens at these sorts of events?

Today began with a writing basics course by Jack Hart that played to some of my fears that this event might be a proving ground for overly enthusiastic supplicants to the craft, but despite treading some ground that any self respecting writer should have walked over before, Hart was an excellent presenter and instructor. He spoke very clearly and precisely about techniques for better writing, beginning with the process of writing from idea to completion, and then moving to very specific techniques and methods of editorial writing. The middle of the session included a fun writing exercise based around a demonstration of “champagne sabreing,” the technique of removing the top of a champagne bottle, often using a sword or other sharp object.

The second session of the day was very interesting if only because it focused on something I knew nothing about, namely, finding an agent and getting a book published. Harper Collins Editor Harriet Bell and Leslie Sbracco spoke about their work publishing Leslie’s book, Women and Wine. They covered all sorts of interesting ground including the three criteria that an editor or publisher uses to evaluate a new book proposal:

1. How does the book fit into its category? What is the competition like? Can it be a category killer?
2. What is the ‘platform’? Basically, who is the author and do they have the profile, charisma, and personal story that would help the book sell?
3. What is the concept? What is the hook or special thing about the book that will grab people’s attention and make this more than just one more book on wine?

I was particularly interested to hear that second criterion, as I wouldn’t have guessed that it weighed so heavily in the consideration to publish a book.

The third session of the day involved a discussion between Frank Prial, Rob Kasper, and Rod Smith about “voice” and its role in wine writing. This session seemed a bit unfocused to me, but it was hard to not enjoy listening to these folks talk about and read their work. I really enjoyed their anecdotes and thoughts after so many collective years writing about wine. When I asked Prial whether he considered himself a wine critic (yes, he does, but interestingly, neither of the others did), he answered with a great anecdote about his timidity in providing tasting notes when he first started writing about wine. Content to merely report what others said at tastings for several years, Prial eventually felt the need to comment himself, but was unsure of how to start and sought the advice of a friend. This friend told him “Just say, ‘well, it sort of drops off in the mid palate.'” The young Prial tried that line out a few days later on a group of wine tasters, and was amazed when it met with a chorus of “Oh yes, you’re absolutely right.”

So far so good with this Symposium. It’s quite a treat and somewhat surreal to be in a room all day with folks who care so passionately about wine, and in particular about writing on the subject. Lots of good conversation was to be had and many interesting topics promise to come up as the next couple of days unfold.

My fellow participants, beginners and seasoned experts alike, are at once curious about the blogging world and already have preconceived notions about it, some of which I may feel obligated to publicly dispel by the time the conference is over. For now I’m enjoying the event as it unfolds.