Writers at work

Love them or loathe them, everyone has an opinion about wine writers. Adam Lechmere reports on what they talk about amongst themselves when they get together.

Satirist Ron Washam
Satirist Ron Washam

Who would turn down an all-expenses-paid stay at the five-star Meadowood Napa Valley Resort? Just outside the town of St Helena in Napa, it’s an establishment of such comprehensive luxury that “Croquet Professional” is one of the services listed. As such, the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, which has just had its 12th edition, has got the venue right.

In the calibre of its speakers, this singular four-day event also hits the nail on the head: Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson MW OBE, Hugh Johnson OBE, Eric Asimov, Jay McInerney and Jon Bonné are just a handful who have stood at the podium over the years. 

Add to that the fact that the WWS, as it’s known, takes place every year in the run-up to the biggest event in the Napa calendar, the Premiere Napa Valley auction, and the attractions are manifest. For any wine journalist interested in Napa, that week in February, packed as it is with tastings and dinners with the valley’s most compelling winemakers, is not to be missed.

The beginnings

The Wine Writers’ Symposium is owned by Meadowood and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), and by Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), the trade body for the 800-odd wineries of the valley. It was the brainchild of a trio of influential women: Antonia Allegra, who was running a conference for food writers in West Virginia, Linda Reiff (the head of NVV), and Ann Marie Conover, director of marketing at Meadowood. As Conover recalls, she took the idea to her boss, Bill Harlan of the eponymous cult winery and the owner of Meadowood. “He loved it,” she says, “and the rest is history.” 

For NVV (which exists to promote Napa), the advantages of filling the valley with wine editors and journalists in the busiest week of the year don’t need to be spelled out. The symposium attracts some authoritative names: Ray Isle of Food & Drink magazine, Richard Bradley of Worth magazine (aimed at the international business elite), Lisa Perrotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate, Neil Beckett of World of Fine Wine, best-selling authors like Karen MacNeil of The Wine Bible, top sommeliers… the list goes on. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the week, as the NVV also owns Premiere Napa Valley, an event which made $5m this year. It has all bases covered, you might say.

The Symposium’s 30 delegates are chosen on the strength of published articles judged blind by a board of professional wine journalists, and all costs are met by the NVV and Meadowood. Symposium director Jim Gordon described this year as “a leap of faith”, as for the first time all delegates were fellowship winners, with no paying delegates. “This made the attendance a little smaller and the overall experience level and writing ability of the attendees higher.” In previous years there had been grumbling that there were too many amateurs with no credentials beyond being able to afford the fee.

The new system also made the atmosphere more collegiate – something that McInerney, a frequent speaker, noted as a particular attraction. “I only wish it were longer,” he told Meininger’s. “Just as we’re getting to know each other, we’re packing to go home.”

How the event unfolds

The four-day event consists of lectures, panel discussions, group and individual writing sessions and wine tastings. Several sessions take place at the CIA in the splendid Greystoke building in St Helena. No opportunity for wine exploration is lost. Every lunch is themed: on the first day, “Napa Valley Rosés from the 2015 vintage”, on the second, “Heritage Varieties of Napa Valley”, on the third, “New Kids On The Block”.

The tone of the lectures and panels could be described as “wine geek informal”. The calibre of speakers – and delegates – is high, and in the big room at Meadowood, or the CIA’s raked lecture theatre, questions and comments are lobbed back and forth with little ceremony.

On a chill February morning the Symposium was kicked off by McInerney, hell-raiser (later in the week he amply lived up to his reputation), best-selling novelist and now wine columnist for the Hearst-owned Town & Country magazine. “I’m attracted to the story,” he said. “I come down heavily on the side of the subjective.” He listed his influences: Hunter S Thompson, Evelyn Waugh, Auberon Waugh, Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Lawrence Durrell, Kerouac, Carver, Cardinal Richelieu. His laconic delivery drew appreciative laughs. “This is called humour for those of you who are used to wine publications,” he said.

American journalists and writers made up 90% of the delegates, with a smattering of UK press – the present writer, former Decanter editor Guy Woodward, the Bordeaux-based Decanter journalist Jane Anson, Dr Jamie Goode, Fiona Beckett – but no other Europeans. “It would be good to see more European journalists,” one delegate told Meininger’s. There was a danger of the Symposium’s becoming “parochial” in tone, he said.

The same theme was taken up by another delegate, who pointed out that the sponsorship of the Napa Valley Vintners, which necessarily limits all tastings to its members’ wines, made the atmosphere somewhat claustrophobic. The inclusion of external sponsors and wines from outside the valley – Sonoma, perhaps – would widen debate and interest.

This is a writers’ forum and the business of writing – how to package your message, how to pitch, how to write – was subjected to forensic examination. Speakers came up with pithy takeaways. “Look beyond the obvious when considering wine stories: business readers love to learn about wine,” said the hyperactive Mike Veseth, editor of The Wine Economist; Isle had the briefest and most important message for any freelancer: “Deliver on time and to length”. “And remember you’re in the entertainment business,” someone offered from the floor. 

A panel on publishing stressed the importance of “crossover”. Tilar Mazzeo, author of The Widow Clicquot, pointed out how Ben Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar (about the Jefferson bottles saga) was bought by politics and history fans, and Don and Petie Kladstrup’s Wine and War by people who normally buy military books. Alder Yarrow of Vinography and Karen MacNeil shared their varied experiences.

Yarrow explained how he financed his The Essence of Wine by kickstarter.com (“I couldn’t have done it without social media”), and Mazzeo offered the advice to remember that in any book deal, “your editor’s career is also on the line”. MacNeil concentrated on the raw realities of getting a deal: “to be a book writer you also have to be a business person – you have to make sure yourself your book is going to sell.”

While the first day used McInerney as the celebrity warm-up, Hugh Johnson was the second day’s headline act. The legendary wine writer addressed the packed – and rapt – lecture theatre at the CIA as if this were a convivial kitchen-table chat over a couple of open bottles. He too listed his influences: André Simon (“he was a peasant really, with a wonderful line in chat, and I loved him dearly”), Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly (“she describes a wine as ‘searching’. Now, isn’t that wonderful?”), and Michelangelo. It was an effortless performance and it got a standing ovation.

The wine elements of the WWS are given as much weight as the writing side. As already noted, the wines represented are exclusively Napa, but the choice is imaginative. The second day’s headline seminar with Jeannie Cho Lee MW, Doug Frost MS MW and Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW tackled the subject of minerality in wine, showing 2014 Sauvignon Blancs from Charles Krug and Araujo’s Eisele Vineyard, Robert Mondavi Fumé 2008 and Stony Hill Chardonnay 2008, Dalla Valle Red 2011and Paul Hobbs Cabernet 2012. 

Minerality is a complex subject – is it just another term for salinity? Does it exist? The panellists and most of the audience (Johnson was an active participant) were keen to discuss what amounted to a series of unanswered questions: “Does ripeness preclude minerality – and indeed, what is ripeness?” asked Frost. Cho Lee and Perrotti-Brown offered hints on how to describe it in tasting notes: “The term is deficient on its own,” Cho Lee said, “It should be qualified by other adjectives.”

The minerality seminar was thought-provoking but exemplified a recurrent criticism of the Symposium – that there is sometimes an unwillingness to engage. “We had three speakers who all agreed outright that minerality could be discerned in wine – whereas some in the audience disagreed with the premise. But that viewpoint wasn’t really addressed,” Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle told Meininger’s. “Indeed, during the week it seemed to me that there were many instances in which everyone profusely agreed with each other. Maybe we needed more controversial subjects. Or we needed to foster an environment that could make edgier discourse possible.”


The Symposium finished with a dinner hosted by Meadowood’s owner Bill Harlan. Its title was “Perfect Pairings”. Twelve wines, including a Roussanne from Truchard Vineyards, Chappellet’s Chenin Blanc, Stags’ Leap Winery’s Viognier, and Ancien’s Pinot Noir, were chosen by 12 master sommeliers, each of whom gave a five-minute talk on their choices. “Who knew,” asked Woodward afterwards, “that a master sommelier has to have stand-up comedian in their job description as well as everything else?” Sommeliers at the top of their game, from Andrea Robinson MS – winner of three James Beard awards among other accomplishments – to Fred Dame MS, Gilles de Chambure MS and Robert Bigelow MS, treated the several hundred guests to mini-masterclasses in how to keep the attention of a raucous, enthusiastic crowd. You could see McInerney taking notes.

Apart from the few caveats noted above, delegates – all of them professional journalists with decades of experience – came away enthused. Anson said she was “hugely positive. It focused my mind on how I am approaching my career, and let me step back a little from the freelance habit of thinking about the current and next 10 jobs I am juggling.” Eric Asimov from The New York Times said: “This was the best yet, with the most talented set of fellows. I felt I had more to learn from a number of them than they might have learned from me.” 

And the last word should go to Mobley, who found far more to like than otherwise. “Everyone there was truly a professional wine writer, and that elevated the level of discussion tremendously. It was a conference of peers.”



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