Symposium for Professional Wine Writers: the good and the bad

The Apple gang at SPWW

Wine writers writing.

The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers is three and a half days of full immersion in wine and writing for better or worse. It’s not a baptism exactly, but it can change your outlook in the same way that an oyster’s irritation can make a pearl.

In my case, the irritation makes for opinions. I left this, my third year in attendance, with some serious qualms about part of what we did. I also left with about 14 bottles of wine (no longer fit for carrying on so they were shipped back), a slightly sore foot and some deep convictions deepened. The event is put on by Meadowood, the Napa Valley Vintners and CIA Greystone.

I assume most of you reading this weren’t there so I’m going to put the trash talking up front. For one, the session on ethics was something of a clusterfuck. Most legacy media (newspapers and magazines) draw a bright line between making money and telling stories, but we lowly wine bloggers wear all the hats so it’s harder to make those firm delineations.  Some bloggers accept samples (I don’t). Some bloggers take junkets (I don’t). A few writers cross back and forth between working for wineries and writing about wine, which in any other line of journalistic endeavor would be fatal (I work for a Maryland winery Boordy Vineyards, pouring their wines at tastings but consider this fully disclosed right now).

But, remember, we said “wine writing,” not “wine journalism.” Bruce Schoenfeld said the best thing about a wine writer’s role, which is that we shouldn’t be concerned with the success or failure of the wine industry. Schoenfeld is the wine editor for Travel and Leisure. It is to be hoped that this discussion is retired after this year. By the way, 16 of the writers in attendance had their symposium expenses paid by a winery, although the fellowships came with no obligation to write. Also, the panelists attended dinners at the Dining Room at Meadowood and Greystone, which some attendees resented for the exclusivity and perk like nature.

Also irritating was the panel on “Maximizing and Monetizing your New Media Wine Writing.” First of all, I think them term “new media” should be retired since online and multimedia writing isn’t exactly new. As for monetizing your online writing, good luck unless you’re willing to embrace the 168-hour work week and leave the life you need to live to write about anything intelligently in a shambles in the background. Also, Alder Yarrow of Vinography (self-described as a “highly regarded wine blog”) cited Gary Vaynerchuk as an example of this maximizing and monetizing thing (Yarrow explains his position in a comment below). In the session, I pointed out with less vehemence than I felt that Vaynerchuk, love him or loathe him, is a retailer first and foremost. His Wine Library TV vlog only features wines his store sells, and his expansion of his brand identity into books, television and motivational speaking is supported by his retail empire and the staff that keeps it running while he incessantly tweets and Ustreams. It’s worth noting that Yarrow’s blog brings in about $2,500 a month, but he also has a full-time job to support his wife and daughter in San Francisco. Steve Heimoff, California editor of Wine Enthusiast, noted that $2,500 was not enough to support most people in a major city. You can’t cellar wine properly in a refrigerator box.

Probably the biggest hoot of the symposium was the panel on Luxury Media. Here we learned that Haute Living, available in four markets at this point, pays its writers 50 cents a word, which doesn’t sound very haute to me. Departures (you get this if you have an Amex Platinum card) and Worth (you only get this if you pay $20 per issue on the newsstand or are rich enough to receive it) paid more than that, but the scale only went up after you had a track record with each publication.

Lastly on the Symposium hatoration front, two quick takes: Christian Miller of Full Glass Research did a PowerPoint presentation on “What Wine Drinkers Are Reading.” The data he presented lacked some basic information for any polling or statistical research such as sample size and margin for error. I also like to see sample questions since some questions suggest answers. Perhaps that can be included if they do this again.

Also, there was a session on “Blogs and Books.” This could have been more accurately titled “How to Catch Lightning in a Beer Bottle for Fun and Profit.” I love Molly Wizenberg to death, but her experience with her Orangette blog isn’t going to happen to the millions of food and wine bloggers wandering the electronic countryside.

Now for the good stuff. Louise Kiernan of the Chicago Tribune and Antonia Allegra, who founded the symposium, led a pair of useful writing exercises about a sense of place and writing about wine and food, respectively. Eric Asimov reiterated his belief that drinking, not tasting, is the way to go. He finds tasting notes tyrannical. Jeff Morgan’s session on ‘What Wine Writers Need to Know about Winemaking” could have been twice as long, and his discussion of reverse osmosis and watering back to reduce alcohol was enlightening. Morgan said he might give the second half of the talk next year, and it would be worth coming back for.

Also, Chris Howell of Cain Vineyards led a discussion with Gilles de Chambure of Meadowood on Bordeaux varietals that are blended into his Cain Five wine. With illustrations of grape placement on the property and the ability to taste samples of each varietal in the Cain Five, it was lovely to see how, as one attendee put it, “two and two can add up to five.”

My favorite session was led by Mark Krasnow on detecting wine flaws such as cork taint, brett and methoxypyrazine. Krasnow had adulterated a basic box Merlot with the flaws so we could smell them (we couldn’t taste since Krasnow pointed out he used industrial chemicals to doctor the wine and it wasn’t safe to drink). He also pointed out that some of the chemicals could add a character to wines so perhaps they may not always be flaws.

We also got to eat at the Culinary Institute of America Greystone. During one of those meals, Vic Motto of Global Wine Partners, laid out the statistics of consolidation of winery ownerships and distributors. The take home from his talk was that smaller wineries might not weather this downturn unless direct to consumer shipping becomes the norm since the remaining distributors can’t work with every winery.

Since we were staying at Meadowood, we also got to enjoy some wines from members of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. A hearty raise of the glass to them for opening the vaults. Among the highlights were a 1987 Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon along with older vintages from Trefethen and other landmark producers. I always hold out for the dessert wines. My favorite was the Frogenbeerenauslese from Frog’s Leap, which was nectar like and nearly made me moan aloud. The nightly postprandial tastings did renew my exuberance at finding a delightful wine and wanting to tell people about it, which may be the best thing the Symposium does every year.

San Francisco and getting there

With ziggurats and mesas of snow piled at every corner, I tossed and turned every night last week wondering if I was going to get to California. I packed, repacked, fiddled online and rescheduled hair appointments blown off course by the snow. The hair will abide like the Dude. I made it to BWI Marshall airport with a driver who drove as though his van had a governor stuck at 50 mph. The Beltway and 95 were clear, so I was slightly frustrated at the lack of speed.

Turns out it didn’t matter. My flight was delayed by about an hour and a half due to mechanical issues. I got coffee, got rebooked and waited while a few passengers fumed and smoldered dangerously. These people like to suck the joy out of my day. I tried to give some of it back with mixed results. I ate corn flakes and a banana (Continental still feeds people) and slept my way to Houston. I also updated my dinner companions with each leg of the journey.

Thanks methinks to some of that shared joy, the Negress got booked on an earlier flight, saved dinner with Dara and Dan and slept well for the first time in a week.

The only downer of the trip was the loss of my bright fleece hat, heretofore famous for blowing into the waters off Antarctica. I suspect it’s at TSA in Baltimore, but no worries. I’m staying at the Palace, a grand hotel just off Market near Geary. I had a nice breakfast while listening to “Car Talk,” and then struck out for the Ferry Building. It’s about 60 degrees here and the wimpy Californians were bundled in hats, fleece, heck, everything except Snuggies. I was wearing a sweater and a cami and felt fine. Before you arrive at the Ferry Building, there’s a warren of market tents with goods awash in peace signs, crystals and strange photos of zebra butt closeups. I remembered my hat and meandered

Katz Knits rules

through the warren, rejecting much of the merchandise with a look. I need little, but I wanted a hat. Luckily I found Ann Katz’s booth and, after much contemplation, bought the hat you see here. Katz Knits is Ann’s website and it’s definitely worth checking out.

I went on to the Ferry Building, bought a skim latte at Peet’s, which is great coffee. By comparison, Starbucks is nasty, brutish and burnt. I browsed at Book Passages and then remembered my search for Petit Sirah. So I bought a half case at the Ferry wine store from a student of Karen McNeil’s, and started walking back up Market. In all my time living in northern California and visiting, I have never ridden a cable car. So I caught the one that starts at California off Market. It’s a good choice since it’s a less touristy route than the one on Powell, which passes through Union Square and goes to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is one of the worst places to go in San Francisco for anything. I sat next to Sugar Ray Robinson’s son on part of the trip, and got off at Van Ness at the end of the line. The weather was amazing so I decided to walk back down Van Ness to Geary down to Market. The walk was a nice flood of memories — Tommy’s, the joint that is a favorite of bands like Metallica, the Alcazar Theatre  where I saw a great Ray Davies solo show, Union Square and the groovy Needless Markups (aka Neiman Marcus) building. I got back to the hotel, took a dip in the pool and hot tub and am waiting for drinks and dinner with pals. If life could be better, I can’t see how.

Snowbound and headed West shortly

Thanks to about 30 or so inches of snow being dumped on the DC area in the past few days, I’ve been in my house (luckily with power and heat. A few others were not so lucky). I read, caught up on my TV, celebrated the Saints victory in the Super Bowl, was bored by most of the ads in the Super Bowl and slept wrapped in flannel. Of course, through it all, there was wine. Some of the wine had found its way back with me from New Jersey when I was there last week; the rest was from the six-case run I made a few months earlier. Frankly, I am stuck on this 2006 Vina Zaco Rioja Tempranillo, which drinks easily and well. I also mixed in some of the 2007 Casa Lapostolle Cabernet Sauvignon, a lovely value wine I have only seen once in a local booze emporium. Also mixed is 2007 Casa Castillo Monastrell (it’s Mouverdre in France) from the Jumilla region of Spain. I’d recommend the Jumilla with roast pork and it held its own nicely in against the veggie samosas from Trader Joe’s. When I was in New Jersey, I bought the last six bottles of the Vina Zaco. Now it seems like a very good decision.

Assuming the additional snow slated for tomorrow night doesn’t just break this town right in half, I’m headed out to San Francisco then Napa for this year’s Sympsoium for Professional Wine Writers. I’m packed. I may try live blogging from the conference if stamina and interest permit. That’s all for now. Happily Mazzy Star is garaged and snow-free.