WineInk: Words on Wine
A Virtual Wine Writers Symposium
I spent much of the past week thinking about you.
Yes, you. The people who read this column. It’s not that unusual for you to be on my mind. Each week as I begin to lay out my story and determine the direction that it should take, I ponder, contemplate, wonder and hope that what I am writing should be relevant to you. It is pretty standard for a columnist to have those kind of thoughts.
But last week, that concept involved a deep dive as I spent the better part of three days in “virtual” time with 200 or so of my peers who also write about wine. The occasion was the 2021 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, and much of the discussion centered on “writing for your audience” and “knowing who you are writing for.” Hence your presence.
A MAGICAL EVENT
Participating in the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers over the years has been one of the great privileges of my life. On three separate occasions I have joined a group of 30 or so other scribes in Napa Valley at the Meadowood Resort, where we focused intensely on the subject that has drawn us together. It is a lavish luxury. Not only in terms of the accommodations, the food and wine, all of which are over-the-top, but also due to the opportunity to meet and mingle with icons of the industry and my wine writer peers.
There are visits to vineyards, focused tastings in the wine sensory classrooms at the Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies at the Culinary Institute of America, myriad presentations by writers and group gatherings where prodigious wine is poured and connections are made. Each visit provided a sense of community and I always came away inspired and honored to have been a part of that community.
Alas, as with so many in-person gatherings the world over, so too did COVID cancel that experience.
In 2020 the symposium had to shutter operations, and this year, in a heroic attempt to reinvent the gathering, the organizers — Napa Valley Vintners and The Learning Center at Meadowood Estate — pivoted to a virtual conference.
A GLOBAL GATHERING OF WORDSMITHS
On the opening Monday morning, with considerably less pomp and circumstance than had been the case at previous symposiums, I settled in at my kitchen table, set a notepad to my right and opened my computer, not knowing what to expect from the next three days. Within seconds I began to see colleagues from across the country and the globe, signing into Zoom and joining the symposium via virtual chats. “Hello from Napa!” “Bonne nuit from Paris.” There were people from Lebanon, South Africa, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia. It seemed all of the time zones of the world were represented.
Who were these people? Many were freelance writers who sell their stories to wine, travel and lifestyle publications and websites. Others wrote books on wine and the places they are made. There were bloggers and influencers and people who write notes for websites that sell wine. And there were a lucky few of us who have a regular home for our wine writing as columnists. All shared a passion for what is both a global industry and also a niche subject for writing.
Over the next three days, this group of writers spent their time listening to speakers, also from around the world, talk about the business and the craft of writing about wine. And about who wine writers write for. And about what audiences want.
The symposium began with a keynote address by an Atlanta-based entrepreneur who has turned his love of wine and food into a powerful and thought-provoking culinary publication called Whetstone. Stephen Satterfield challenged the group to use their wine writing as a prism to examine larger issues of the world, like discrimination and climate change and the economic interests that create the status quo.
“Try and think about wine as a ‘land-based issue,’” he counseled. The point being that if we consider not just wine itself, but how vineyards are owned largely by white and Anglo interests and worked by people of color, we can gain a better understanding of how discrimination functions in a society. If we look at the carbon footprint of wine, we might better understand the effects of the industry on the overall environment. As writers, we often focus primarily on the pleasures of wine, and Stephen’s take was a powerful wake-up call. Do readers want to see the world below the surface of the liquid in the glass?
And that was just the beginning. A discussion that focused on the words we use to describe wines featured panelists from different cultures who had completely different ideas about the flavor profiles that people around the world experience. While we write wine notes that feature comparisons to goose berries and Meyer lemons, other regions of the world may be more sensorially tuned into tamarind, or soy as points of reference.
“I grew up with molasses as a flavor in the Caribbean,” one speaker said. “When I taste a great Cabernet Sauvignon, I get that flavor and it takes me back to my youth.” The conversation blew up entrenched ideas of how wines are described in much of Western culture. How best do we explain the taste of wine to readers?
Then there were conversations that delved into the act of writing itself. Writers Eric Asimov of The New York Times, Karin McNeil, author of the Wine Bible, and Dorothy J. Gaiter of the Grape Collective conducted a beautiful seminar titled “The Art of the Written Word.” Each chose past writings from the others that they considered beautiful and read them with explanations of why they admired them. The process illuminated the skills of each writer and offered an educational — and emotional — moment for every writer in attendance.
More practical information was provided on “How to pitch stories” and the business of wine writing. There was a wonderful presentation by Jullianne Ballou, a librarian at the University of California at Davis, who spoke on the prodigious collection of papers, stories and podcasts that are being stored and made available to wine writers.
But the main point I believe for most writers in attendance was that what we do has value. “Few things can conjure memories like wine,” wrote Dorothy Gaiter. And few things conjure joy for so many as wine does around the world.”
So why does this matter to you? Well, hopefully if you have read this far it is because you find this weekly installment on wine to be interesting enough to spend your time with it. And I believe that having pursued and participated in the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers that I have learned a little to improve your experience.
For over 10 years, WineInk has been about the people, places and things that make up the world of wine. We live in one of the best wine communities in America, made up of a cadre of great wine professionals who sell and serve wine, guests and collectors who buy fine wines, and locals who, well, just like to drink wine. The sommelier community and the annual Food & Wine Classic in Aspen offer us exposure to many of the most learned members of the wine community. But there are other wine lovers here who don’t necessarily care about the “inside baseball” aspects of wine. They just want to know what a wine tastes like, where it comes from, and where or how to purchase it.
I consider WineInk to be a column for all of you who read it. If you would like to contribute ideas, suggestions or comments, please email me at email@example.com.
I’ll be thinking about you.
2017 Duckhorn Vineyards “The Discussion” Napa Valley
Of course, if I had been in the Napa Valley in-person instead of virtually, wine would have flowed. And if I had my way, this Bordeaux blend of Napa Cabernet Savignoun , and Merlot sourced from six different vineyard sites would have been one of the wines poured. The apt name is one reason as “The Discussion” could serve as catalyst for conversations on Napa history, the economics of wine, the grape varieties in the valley and the descriptors used to describe a wine. But another reason is that this wine is imbued with an elegance, richness and pedigree that make it a treasured luxury. It reminds me of Meadowood and symposiums past.
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