Aspiring Wine Writer? Go West Young Scribe!

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.

Those who have been reading this blog for a long time know that I share this anecdote pretty much every year when I am writing this particular article, which itself appears each year.

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. Most every major wine writer on the planet, save Hugh Johnson and Oz Clarke. Not tooting my own horn here, just making a point that I’ve had a chance to chat a bit with most of them. All but a few require other sources of income to get by. Some manage to ensure that those other source of income come from wielding a pen, but a lot of them still need other jobs, or the security of income produced before they became writers. But most of them write about wine because there’s nothing quite like it in the world.

I can also say confidently that wine writers are generally 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.

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. Perhaps most impressively, many of them are actually blogging as well, for which I can take the teensiest bit of credit.

This year, attendees will reap the benefits of the collective experience and knowledge brought by the likes of Eric Asimov, Joshua Greene, Guy Woodward, Katie Tamony, Karen MacNeil, and more. The full list of speakers and their biographies is available on the site.

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 (but aren’t required 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 chefs that run California’s only other three star Michelin restaurant besides the French Laundry, 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. Quite a few of them, actually (20). 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. You definitely must have published some bit of wine writing professionally, or have a very serious blogging habit about wine to qualify to attend. The one catch is that they don’t let people whose main writing outlets are wine PR and Marketing, or those in the business of selling wine, attend. The symposium is about making better journalists, not better marketers.

So yes, this is a bit of an unashamed plug for an event that I am a part of. By way of full disclosure, I have been a speaker many times, and am currently on the Advisory Board for the event, but like all the speakers, I don’t get paid a cent for participating in any capacity.

I’ll be attending as a plain old participant this year, unless they rope me into a panel at the last minute. I want the folks I’m going to hang out with there to be passionate, like minded, and interested in the craft of wine writing. So that’s why I’m encouraging you to attend. Every year, one or two people come up to me at the dinner on the first night and tell me how glad they are that they came across my yearly blog post about this and applied for a fellowship, and how amazed they are that they were accepted.

Maybe this year that will be you?

The 2012 Symposium will take place from Tuesday February 22nd to the 24th at Meadowood Hotel and Resort in St. Helena. The deadline for fellowship applications is December 14th 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.