Be a Wine Writer. And Be a Good One.

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 invented 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 learning 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.You might say it’s about drunken grace.

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 fourth 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 for two years — once as a participant, once as a speaker and moderator — and I am returning again this year as a speaker. 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 fucking 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 has brought 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 Lettie Teague, David Rosengarten, Bill Daley, Karen MacNeil, Linda Murphy, and of course, the woman who makes it all happen, Antonia Allegra, who is sort of like a fairy godmother of writing. She waves her wand and people suddenly have book contracts. OK, not really. But it sort of seems like that, sometimes.

You can see the full list of speakers and their biographies on the Symposium’s web site. And while you’re on the web site poking around, you really should fill out the registration form.

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 with Meadowood having just received two Michelin stars for its food, 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 February 19th to the 22nd, 2008 at Meadowood Hotel and Resort in St. Helena. The deadline for scholarship applications is December 1st (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.