Wine Writers Symposium 2011: the writing part

This year’s edition of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers was more reality-driven than some past years. Trying to summarize the event can overlook some of the best stuff that shakes out. So the Negress has resorted to an organizing principle she thinks might help. This post will focus on how we wrote. Subsequent posts will focus on the wines official and unofficial (Many thanks to Jon Bonne for enabling the unofficial wine gathering after the vintners’ dinner and apologies to the Meadowood guests we woke up.

Gerald Asher noted wine writer

Gerald Asher at work (photo courtesy of ciaprochef)

More about that later). Our opening speakers were longtime wine writer Gerald Asher

Dominique Browning (courtesy of

Dominique Browning (courtesy of

and former House and Garden editor Dominique Browning. Each had useful advice for anyone writing about anything. But since a lot of wine writers need their natural inclination to pompousness amputated, this was especially valuable. Browning, who admitted falling into something of a depression when her gig was euthanized, admits she edited wine writing but never did any. She recommended loving what you’re doing and going where that love is. “The only reason to write about wine is to connect others to your particular form of worship,” she said. “There’s no such thing  as being a writer. There is only writing.” Words to live by. She is one of many people who suggested reading your work out loud. She also suggested walking away from the topic if you become stale. You should labor over writing and wear your heart in your copy.

Asher encouraged more reporting. “Writing is the best kind of conversation. You can’t get interrupted,” Asher said.  He also strongly urged the writers to have references, sources and history at their disposal. “Have more than you need.” He also strongly suggested that tasting notes move away from the fruit salad mode. Wine writers should keep more objective notes about tannin and acidity and refer back to those. Focus on the distinctive elements that calls you back to your mindful notes. He cited a recent Eric Asimov piece that questioned the usefulness of fruit-driven tasting notes but noted that Asimov then dug himself a pretty big hole after the sound premise. “Help people understand that wine is a pleasure,” Asher said. He then read a piece of his about the soil specifics of Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume on the myth of gunsmoke that was lavish, smart and compelling. The Negress felt humbled.

Corie Brown, former wine writer for the LA Times and proprietor of Zester Daily, a site the Negress isn’t cool enough to be part of, joined Jack Hart formerly the writing coach of the Oregonian for a writing exercise on how to write a narrative piece, in this case a profile. Brown interviewed winemaker Michael Honig, and then set us all to writing the opening of a profile using the material her questions elicited and what we observed about Honig. You  can find the Negress version of  Honig here. You can also read her take on food and wine pairing there to from an exercise conducted by Karen McNeil.

Wine Writers Symposium 2011: One more stab at ethics

The Negress had vowed she would bury the topic of ethics at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers forever  last year’s version of it (see her version of events in 2010). But this year brought some new faces with rule changes about fellowships and what have you. One of those new faces is W. Blake Gray, who runs the Gray Market Report. Gray is funny and knowledgeable, and does a wicked imitation of video wine twit James Suckling. We were chatting over a glass of wine (shocking for wine writing symposium, right?) when the Negress brought up the FTC ruling about disclosure on blogs of policy on freebies, junkies, etc. Gray doesn’t like this, he said, because newspapers and magazines don’t have to do it and they do a lot of the same stuff bloggers do. He cited sportswriters, saying they got to go to games for free. The Negress used to be a sportswriter. We went around on this for a while with neither side drawing blood and remained chatty through the rest of the symposium.

But, via l’esprit de l’escalier (big French for the extremely delayed riposte), the Negress has come up with a complicated retort that she thinks is effective. First of all, with legacy media (a slightly less depressing term for newspapers and magazines than dead-tree media), there is an implied contract with their readers that has evolved and devolved continuously. Most readers know the guy covering their teams gets to go to games, but it’s not like he or she is eating bonbons and relaxing with a brewski. You write a game story, keep up with team developments and, increasingly,  write blog posts and update a feed nearly constantly. This is work and the access to do it isn’t a perk; it’s a necessity. There was a time when some magazine and newspaper reporters did collude with entities they covered, hiding arrests and drug problems. That happens less and less now, though, a lot of entertainment journalism is constricted by publicist’s demands and reduced access.

Bloggers are not always journalists so fact checking, confirming rumors and being scrupulous aren’t necessarily guaranteed. My policy regarding what I do and don’t do is on this site. I do agree with Gray that more disclosure is needed since, as one dead-tree vet and I discussed, newspapers are increasingly buying pieces from freelancers who take freebie trips while still forbidding their own reporters to do so. Not to mention the increasing practice of health “reports” assembled and paid for by local hospitals appearing on local newscasts with no indication that this is advertorial, not independently reported data.

So, in short, the Negress urges thoughtful skepticism and paying attention. As has always been the case, much is not what it seems.

Blending my own Napa Cabernet at Conn Creek Winery

Blending the 2008 vintage at Conn Creek

Topping off their very own bottle

The  Negress started her Wine Writers Symposium 2011 journey at Conn Creek Vineyards doing something she thinks everyone would love to do and thinks they can do better than anyone else. No, it wasn’t managing a baseball team or running a corporation. She had the opportunity to blend her own signature Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux-style blend using juice from all of the Napa AVAs (the American version of appellations). Her Perry-stroika 2008 was heavy on Spring Mountain fruit with a little Calistoga and Yountville fruit tossed in for grins. Also part of the mix were a touch of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. She was pleased with her efforts. However,  when she shared a glass with her fellow fly in the buttermilk Wine Chef Tony Lawrence, he noted she had made the kind of wine she would normally beedistressed by. The Negress noted she didn’t intend to pair this wine with any particular food, just enjoy it after a long day of selling insurance. Lawrence is a wine idea mogul (The Negress loves his winemaker speed dating concept) and has forgotten more wine than the Negress has drunk. So his opinion had meaning to her. But the exercise brought her back to the gulf between a professional wine life and the life of a drinker. When we taste, delving for items on the flavor and scent profile checklist, are we really drinking or are we back in junior high science? In short, do we taste as wine lovers drink? The Negress knows her palate was slapped back to rigor by being in the company of her fellow wineaux (she and 1winedude feel as though the event is a support group, allowing the attendees to geek out and then go back to their normal friends cleansed and able to talk about other stuff). But she admits when her shoes are off and a long day has ended, she abandons the search for damson notes.

By the way, if you want to do this, Conn Creek charges $95 and that includes the bottle you make and keep. If you join their wine club, the cost is 30 percent less and you get the opportunity to compare your efforts their winemakers.

Fellowship at Silverado Vineyards

The Negress believes in full disclosure so she will note here that she is only at this year’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers thanks to the generosity of the folks at Silverado Vineyards. She was delighted to find out that the winery is friendly with Gary Fisch of New Jersey wine retailer Gary’s  Wine and Marketplace (if you live in New Jersey near Gary’s and aren’t shopping there, you must be a glutton for abusive customer service and high prices). Fisch may have been relaxing in the Silverado guest house while general manager Russ Weis and winemaker Jon Emmerich  were letting her taste some barrel samples.  It doesn’t matter except to note that the Negress likes their taste in retailers.

Silverado Cabernet sampling

Silverado winemaker Jon Emmerich samples some Cabernet

She also liked their wines. In fact, her relationship with Chardonnay was irrevocably altered by their 2009 Vineburg Vineyard offering.  She had tasted barrel samples from their stainless steel barrels as well as the older oak barrels. Emmerich said he used mostly the INOX wine in the ’09 with a touch of the juice that had seen oak. The wine was lean  but well-structured with a touch of pineapple and honeysuckle but a nice hint of minerality. Consider the Negress sold. She will buy some to take home with her. Other faves included the 2006 Zinfandel from Silverado’s Soda Canyon vineyard. at 14.6 abv, it’s nearly ethereal as Zins go but still has the plummy quality that the Negress favors.

Silverado makes an excellent case for blending, a practice the Negress thinks got shoved aside a bit unceremoniously in post-Mondavi American wine. Some wines need a helping verb and a good example of this was a comparison of a barrel sample of Silverado’s 2010 and 2009 Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blancs. The 2010 has about 4 to 5 percent Semillon, and is slated to be bottled in the middle of next month. It’s somewhat more lemony than the ’09 and a bit green. Emmerich noted that the vineyard workers grow tomatoes on some of the unoccupied land and thinks this is a great indication for soil that is SB-friendly. The 2009 has 8 percent Semillon and has more notes of green apple and pear.

Emmerich and Weis went over their learning curve that led to the 2007 Mount George Vineyard Merlot. They only make about 5,000 cases of it, and it’s the antithesis of every indifferent Merlot that leaves your palate feeling fuzzy and dull (The Negress has likened drinking substandard Merlot to chewing on an Army blanket). The Silverado duo realized they had spent a very long time trying to make Merlot behave like Cabernet Sauvignon. Upon changing their thinking, their Merlot became brighter, with red fruit  and a delicacy that’s addictive. The Negress rates this a strong buy, but that’s only likely if you’re in the Silverado wine club. Production is only 5,000 cases.

Her tasting closed with the 2007 Solo, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon grown on different parts of the property. It runs about 14.9% abv, which makes it a lightweight compared to some Napa heavyweights. But this wine can cozy up to food and not instantly induce a headache. Well-balanced and with enough tannin to guarantee some real aging potential, this one is also a keeper. Bad news for the Negress’ Chicagoland pals, Binny’s doesn’t carry Silverado wines. Call them up. A lot.

In which the Negress attempts to earn a living and help people

The Negress had to do something. Her money was dwindling and being out of work for a nearly two years was dulling her ability to embrace reality without sweating and wincing. So she started going to gang interviews with insurance companies. Insurance agents are salespeople, and she had done some of that in Maryland while working for the state’s oldest winery. She also knew the writing thing was not exactly a way to earn a living anymore with content mills and people writing all over the Internet in a masturbatory, worthless fashion that had reduced payments even for those who knew better. Knowing better doesn’t seem to count for much these days. So now the Negress is selling insurance and spends much of her time with the people who keep the country running –home caregivers, bell operators, sheriff’s office people, day care providers. Many of them are union folks, and their friends and family are also part of her daily landscape. The Negress hears heartbreaking stories and hopes what she’s selling can help. In some cases, she knows for sure that it can.

My home away from home

A place of good food, fine wine and great use of space

The hours are long and, perhaps a related event, she’s on new medication which requires liver function tests every now and then. Fatigue is a companion but she works for people who deride yawning and want her to work very hard so she can kick back in 10 years on her residuals. The Negress would love to do that, but some days she’s not sure she will live long enough to make it happen.

As Livia Soprano would say, “Oh. Poor you.” Clearly, a renewal of purpose was essential. So the Negress decamped to California since she won a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Her liver has mixed feelings about the trip, but her spirit is soaring even though she is exhausted. She’s been to the Ferry Building, eaten at Gott’s Roadside (a turkey burger this time since her butt is now spilling over into neighboring airline seats), had that amazing chicken coconut milk soup at Manora and is resting comfortably at the Palace, which is responding to the recession by deeply discounting its lovely rooms. The Negress hasn’t had much wine since the Equality Illinois gala  and a trip to Gino’s North for yummy thin crust pizza (thin crust is the real food of Chicago, not that deep dish crap). She did manage a pair of Pisco sours and a $6 margarita and they felt lovely. But she’s conserving her strength to the point of even having a Diet Coke at Gott’s.

She returned to the Palace using her Muni transfer to take another of those lovely historic trolleys on Market Street (the Negress passed two from Milan, which kind of made her want to knit something) . Well fed and dosed with Peet’s Coffee, a nap was in order. There’s also a larger question to ponder in the next post, which will most likely be from the Silverado Vineyards, the sponsor of my fellowship.  Do my liver’s misgivings need to be taken seriously?