What I learned at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

March 11, 2011

During the last week of February, I attended the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. I was lucky enough to win a fellowship to this incredible gathering, thanks to another winner who had to cancel at the last minute. It all happened rather suddenly, but now that it’s behind me, and before too much time goes by, I want to share a little of what I learned.

Wine blending is tough.
I learned this at a kick-off event, a “blending experience” in Conn Creek Winery’s AVA room. There they’ve arranged fifteen barrels of different Cabernet Sauvignons, representing nearly all of Napa’s fifteen AVAs, or sub-appellations. My job was to taste them, then choose from them – plus barrels of Cab Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot – to create a blend in my glass. Once I got an in-glass blend that I liked, I was to make a 750mL batch to bottle, cork, label, and bring home (pictured).

I made four different blends in my glass, fiddling with the mix each time. With the last one, I wasn’t so much satisfied by my creation as I was clear that one could fiddle indefinitely. Besides, by that time, even with spitting, I was getting a little tipsy.

It left me thinking, though. I know how to blend different ingredients into a delicious dish – but if I had fifteen versions of the same ingredient to choose from? That would take a refined palate.

Wine changes over time.
Duh, right? But it’s one thing to know that intellectually, and another to experience it. Over and over and over.

I got this opportunity on the last day of the symposium, when we attended a “Perspectives Tasting” by the Napa Valley Vintners. We tasted twenty Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignons, the three most recent vintages of each. (Yep, that’s sixty wines, starting at about ten in the morning.) As usual, I wasn’t so much interested in how the wines were distinct from each other as I was with what they had in common, because I find that’s more useful for food and wine pairing. And what I noticed was how, for pretty much every wine, as the vintages got older, the acids and tannins mellowed, and what started out sharp and austere became complex and voluptuous, almost to a wine.

Again, not so much news as it was just plain magical. And what an opportunity to be mesmerized by that magic over and over again, to wallow in it.

Wine writers are just as screwed – I mean, challenged – as food writers.
In all the time I’ve been a food writer, there’s been talk about how hard it is to break in, how hard it is to make a living once you have, and how opportunities are becoming fewer and fewer. The mood is so pervasive that I suspect it’s always been there and always will be. That said, the recent double-whammy of Food Network stars stealing much of publishers’ attention and the slow death of traditional publishing makes the screwed-ness more pronounced.

At the symposium, I learned that wine writers are just as challenged. And maybe it’s worse – because they don’t have the Food Network to blame it on.

There’s hope.
One of the things that writers particularly bemoan is that nowadays, thanks to blogs and crowd-sourced (free) online and even traditionally-published content, anybody can call themselves a writer, and they often do so for less money than those of us who’ve been working at it for years, which denigrates writing as a whole and brings down income-earning opportunities.

Corie Brown of Zester Daily, however, gave me hope. In a session about the future of wine publishing, she talked about how she firmly believes that although the medium is changing (books and magazines to electronic media) the message isn’t necessarily. In other words, there’ll always be demand for both schlock and quality, and she’s enough of a believer in the good stuff that she’s gambling her livelihood on serving it up in this new medium.

That was a happy thing to hear, a fresh and hopeful opinion amidst all the recent fears.

Thanks, Corie.

Symposium Blend bottle

In between Tuesday’s wine blending and Friday’s perspectives tasting, there were more sessions featuring more esteemed speakers (here’s a complete list), and I learned about search engine optimization and got some new ideas about food and wine pairing and some realizations about how I may, or may not, fit into the wine writing world and met and parlayed with many of its major players.

I also had the distinct pleasure of a private coaching session with Gerald Asher, long-time wine writer for Gourmet magazine and member of the California Vintners’ Hall of Fame – a more charming and eloquent gentleman you could not imagine. And a major highlight was dining with Ted Edwards, winemaker at Freemark Abbey Winery, my fellowship sponsor, at the grand finale dinner, a dinner that included fifteen glasses at each place setting, each with wine from a fellowship-sponsoring winery. I’d never seen anything like it – thirty glasses between me and the person sitting across the table! – and was relieved when many attendees pulled out their cameras and started snapping photos like crazed paparazzi, because it meant I wasn’t a total rube for being awed.

Many thanks to my friend Sophie Menin for encouraging me to apply for a fellowship – she won one, too, and so we got to be there together. Also thanks to Jim Gordon, the symposium director, and to the Napa Valley Vintners and Meadowood Napa Valley for making the symposium possible. Finally, thanks to Michaela Baltasar, Ted Edwards, and everyone at Freemark Abbey for sponsoring my attendance. It was an honor.


4 thoughts on “What I learned at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers

  1. Rosemary

    Jill –
    What a wonderful experience! I loved your comment about fiddling to infinity on blending — I thought that at the Bourassa tasting we did last year. Your honest comments about the plight of food/wine writers and professionals is heartfelt. Cory’s words were good to hear.

  2. Pam

    What a fascinating event! Like you said, while some of the info is well-known, it was clearly very impressive to experience it first hand. Impressed you were able to write the blog even days after the 15-glass event!

  3. Jill Post author

    Thanks for reading and commenting, Pammy! A visit is long overdue. And yeah, I almost joked that the reason it took me so long to write about the symposium is that it took me that long to get over my hangover! I certainly didn’t drink all 15 glasses, though – just tasted a few and then stuck with my favorites. (Choosing a favorite is easy when the winemaker for one of them is sitting next to you.)

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