Lessons learned at a wine-soaked writers’ symposium

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A boozable feast: Ernest Hemingway (third from left) dines in France in 1944, 20 years before the publication of his memoir on being an American expat in Paris. A boozable feast: Ernest Hemingway (third from left) dines in France in 1944, 20 years before the publication of his memoir on being an American expat in Paris.

I’m usually too busy drinking and writing about wine to really hone my craft. But last month, I received a fellowship from Terlato Family Vineyards to attend the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, where I had four days and four nights in the Napa Valley to do some serious navel-gazing. I normally wouldn’t subject you all to such self-indulgence (or overindulgence), but with books on our mind this week, I thought I’d share some of the more universal highlights of the week and what I learned about wine writing.

As a key note to set the stage for thinking creatively, Michael Gelb, renowned speaker and author of How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci, shared his “seven steps to genius every day.” He’s hired internationally to teach out-of-the-box thinking as a method for success in all sectors. From his detailed study of Da Vinci’s notebooks, Gelb delivers the word of the ultimate Renaissance man who believed that every child is born with genius, but that we “de-genius” them. Distilled, the seven steps to re-genius-izing (as long as we’re making up words) are 1) Staying forever curious, 2) Doing instead of assuming, 3) Opening up your senses, 4) Embracing the unknown, 5) Studying art and science, 6) Balancing mind and body, and 7) Remembering that everything is connected. There were mind maps, juggling, and a live opera solo to illustrate his points, but my favorite message was to “write drunk and revise sober.” It’s a method I’ve always practiced, but never dared to admit.

Eric Asimov, New York Times wine columnist and role model to many a wine writer, shared his favorite examples of wine writing. He read aloud excerpts from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, Hugh Johnson’s Life Uncorked, Robert Camuto’s Pentimento, and poetry from John Keats. What stood out for me was the writing of A.J. Liebling, an American journalist who wrote for the New Yorker from 1935 to 1963. In the year before his death, he penned an ode to hedonism called Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, in which he wrote gems like, “Last week I had to offer my publisher a bottle that was far too good for him, simply because there was nothing between the insulting and the superlative.” Liebling was also known for using bacon for a bookmark. What all this wine writing had in common was that it was less about wine and more about people, places, and experiences.

We did, from time to time, stop swirling our conceptual glasses long enough to enter the practical realm with writing workshops and exercises, panels of editors reacting to story pitches, and discussions of traditional book publishing versus self-publishing versus e-book publishing. One day, I learned that the average American writer makes $9,000. That’s to say nothing of the wine writer who spends a good portion of that on the materials about which he writes. Even amongst our all-star faculty, only but a few require other sources of income to survive. At least there was plenty of (free) wine at arm’s reach to drown out that sobering fact.

Entrenched in the digital age, we learned that while Facebook is the new gatekeeper (together with Google, they comprise 40 percent of display advertising on the Web), print hasn’t dried up completely—although numbers talk. When Condé Nast kicked sentimental favorite Gourmet to the curb in October 2009, it was because their lower-brow Bon Appétit had 40 percent more subscribers. The e-book business saw a 1,000 percent growth in the past two years, with authors reaping about 40 to 50 percent of royalties (compared to the 5 to 15 percent more common with traditional books).

I learned that hundreds of Napa Cabernets are too much of a good thing, especially when 42 of them are served alongside 27 Napa Merlots as breakfast one morning. I missed the character, restraint, and authenticity in Virginia wines—and some pancakes. I learned that I prefer the look of Virginia’s naked vines to California’s irrigated ones, but that golden mustard blooms against shiny blue skies make up for them. I realized that we are beyond lucky to live smack in the heart of a wine-producing region that’s growing exponentially, but that hasn’t gotten so big that it can’t humor a writer who wants to muck in during harvest. And I learned that even in a room bursting at the seams with a veritable who’s who of wine writers, they all drink their wine one sip at a time.

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