Highlights From the 2010 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

I spent most of the week playing hooky from my day job and pretending that the only thing that mattered to me was writing about wine. It was a lot of fun. Every one of the five years that I’ve attended the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers has been uniquely interesting, largely due to the group of attendees that joins us every time.

In past years I’ve been able to blog a bit more in the course of the event, but this year I found myself using spare time to catch up on other things, so here are some of the highlights from this year’s event.

What Wine Writers Need to Know about Winemaking
We were joined by Jeff Morgan, winemaker for, among other things, the kosher red wine Covenant. Jeff also has “done time” as a wine writer for the Wine Spectator and other outlets, so he seemed quite appropriate as a speaker. Unfortunately given only 45 minutes to cover a lot of ground, Jeff took us through the mechanics and chemistry of winemaking until several somewhat controversial statements resulted in a flurry of questions and debate that ate up the rest of his time.

The first thing Jeff maintained was that approximately 80% of California winemakers “water back” a practice that involves adding water to the juice prior to fermentation as a means of lowering the alcohol of the final wine. This practice was so common, he maintained, that journalists needn’t even bother to ask winemakers whether they did it or not.

Jeff also suggested that acidulation (the addition of tartaric acid) was nearly as common in all but a few of the coolest growing regions of California. He also went on to make points about the use of sulfur dioxide in winemaking or at least in bottling (important, he said for keeping wines from being “naturally awful”), and the current dance of yields, hang-time, and brix levels for the ripening of fruit.

Several members of the crowd brought up the question of alcohol levels and whether watering back was really just treating the symptom of a larger malaise and that’s where the debate got lively. Unfortunately we ran out of time before clear arguments could be made on either side.

The Evolution of the Tasting Note
Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for the New York Times, and Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, presided over another interesting session focused on both the theory and practice of writing tasting notes. Eric introduced the session as a continuation of his talk last year which he entitled The Tyranny of the Tasting Note.

Here’s a summary transcript of his opening remarks.

“My point last year was that tasting notes were not merely comical, they are pernicious. They are the dominant mode of talking about wine in our culture. People read and hear tasting notes as they get into wine and think that they are the way they should talk about wine. But by focusing on enumerating every last flavor and aroma, tasting notes reduce wine to something certain, definable, and clinical. And wine is not so easily defined.

The more we know about wine, the more we find out it is highly subjective, contextual, and mysterious. Tasting notes tend to rip out mystery that is at the heart of a wine and replaces it with unambiguous solidity.

The tasting note way of talking or thinking about wine produces the kind of anxiety that pervades the culture of wine in America. People who drink wine casually and read tasting notes that include esoteric and definite flavors and aromas they don’t themselves experience think that there is something wrong with them. They chalk it up to their lack of experience, but not without a great deal of anxiety that ultimately prevents them from appreciating wine as it is meant to be appreciated.

Those few who manage to get past this anxiety and move on to real excitement about wine assume that tasting notes are the way to talk about wine, because that’s the dominant paradigm.

We absolutely need to describe wine to our readers. But I want to contrast the absolute definite specificity that you see in typical kinds of tasting notes, with the kind of note that I think is much more effective. Yesterday Frances [author Frances Mayes, the keynote speaker for the conference] called a wine “fruit basket fresh” yesterday. That communicates so much. You don’t have to know the specific flavor involved, yet you have a sense of the wine.

My thought in talking about wine and describing wines, is not to come up with a litany of flavors and aromas. But come up with characteristics that you say directly or to which you make allusions. Convey style, convey intent and convey achievement. People need to know what they’re going to get themselves into when they open a bottle, they don’t need an effort to pin down every last flavor in the wine. List characteristics rather than ingredients.

Before we start tasting wine, I want to distinguish between public tasting notes and private tasting notes. I’m talking about the notes we publish. As writers or wine lovers we also write notes to ourselves to remind us what we’re tasting, and to remember wines later on. For the purpose of a mnemonic device it doesn’t matter what you’re writing — whatever works for you is fine. But the private modes of communication that help you relive or remember the wine don’t work for public consumption. This is an effort to think again about how we describe wine and what it is we are going to communicate to readers.”

Karen MacNeil reminded us of the history of wine writing, and then treated us to a reading of one of the most amusingly convoluted and erudite tasting notes I’ve ever heard in my life, which was so complex I was not able to follow it enough to write it down.

The rest of the session was spent actually tasting wine blind and writing tasting notes which were shared and discussed. Some people took Eric’s suggestion of metaphor quite literally. The session got amusing as silk thongs and velvet condoms made appearances as descriptors. I’m not sure, however, if that is what Eric was getting at.

The Recession and What it Means for Wine
One of the most interesting presentations at the conference was given by Vic Motto, CEO of Global Wine Partners. He offered an extremely articulate argument for the notion that the sky is not, in fact, falling.

I’m sure I can’t do full justice to the many detailed points of his argument, but I can try to boil it down. He essentially wanted to convey that while these are certainly tough times at the moment, the wine industry in the United States is poised for significant growth in the future thanks to the inexorable and unchangeable nature of demographics. The single greatest guarantee of the successful future of the industry is the Millennial generation, a generation characterized by its size (70 million of them, 50% of which are just entering their 20s) and the cultural desire to drink differently than the parent generation (which means wine, not beer and spirits, at a rate twice any generation in modern history).

Combine this unavoidable train full of wine drinkers hurtling down the tracks with the increasing availability of channels to purchase wine and the ever widening selection of what is available as well as the increasing interest in lifestyle in general (with wine a big part of defining one’s lifestyle) and you’ve got a recipe for a big wine boom.

And that is just in the united states. According to Motto, 1.2 billion people have been added to the global middle class in the last 20 years, and in another 20 years, a full 50% of the globe will be considered middle class in terms of their consumption habits and wealth levels. If the evidence from China is any indication, this middle class will have a very strong interest in wine.

In short, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for sure, we’re just not sure how long the tunnel is.

Ethics and Income Streams for Wine Writers
Steve Heimoff of the Wine Enthusiast led a very interesting panel discussion that devolved into a larger group discussion on ethics for wine writers. The conversation was wide-ranging, and covered samples, transparency, relationships to PR and industry, junkets/press trips, advertising, and reputation, among other things.

His panelists were Michael Bauer, executive Food and Wine editor for the San Francisco, Chronicle; Heather John, Sr. Editor at Bon Appetit Magazine and blogger at The Foodinista; and Thomas Ulrich, a contributing writer for Wines & Vines Magazine and professor of Journalism at San Jose State University.

Ethics seem to be an endless source of lively conversations among wine writers, for reasons I can’t entirely fathom, and this panel did not prove otherwise. The most interesting aspects of the discussion for me came from Heather John, who, after suggesting she might need to go into the Witness Protection Program, served up the following bomb:

Wine writers have some of the worst reputations for bad ethics in the business.

She went on to explain that she knows a lot of people in the PR industry, and they constantly complain (or salaciously dish) about wine writers and their bad behavior. The kinds of things involved included requesting multiple bottles of samples; asking for free meals or free wine in restaurants; attending a free dinner and ordering the most expensive wine on the list; asking for the keys to winery guest houses or for free lodging; hitting on publicists; bad mouthing wineries to publicists; and in one particular case, threatening to write negative stories about a PR person’s clients unless they footed the bill for a trip the writer wanted to go on.

When asked whether the main offenders were print journalists or bloggers, she said print journalists without hesitation (I cheered). She went on to say, however, that in her experience and in the experience of her friends in PR, the two areas that bloggers seem to abuse are samples and what she called “seat warming.” — the practice of attending every press luncheon, dinner, or other free food function possible.

Michael Bauer offered an interesting point relative to the respective ethics of traditional and new media writers as the session closed. He suggested that print journalists borrow the reputation of their masthead, while bloggers have to earn their reputations as they go. I thought this was quite elegantly phrased as well as profoundly accurate.

Sadly the session ran out of time before we could have a discussion of the recent FTC rulings on the ethics of free samples, which I would have liked to hear the group discuss. Many of the “traditional” media wine writers I talked with at the conference were really appalled at the double standard in the ruling.

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And there you have it. You can find additional coverage of the Symposium, including some of the sessions I did not attend at Steve Heimoff’s blog, OneWineDude.Com, AWineStory.Com, and at On The Wine Trail in Italy.