Wine Writing 101: My Takeaways from Meadowood

The CIA in St. Helena
The CIA in St. Helena

“The central defining element of a novel is, ‘And then…?’ ”

That quote comes from E.M. Forster by way of James Conaway, one of the most inspiring speakers at last week’s Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood in Napa. It’s as true for nonfiction writing as it is for novels, and it even holds for wine writing—though, in my opinion, too few wine scribes follow that code.

I’m a new fan of Conaway, and I haven’t even read his books yet. (But I’m heading to B&N posthaste to buy his 1992 best seller Napa: The Story of an American Eden and its 2003 sequel The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley.)

Conaway epitomizes the kind of long-form narrative nonfiction that I love and aspire to. Something that sets scenes, establishes characters, and moves them through environments and conflicts. Writing that approaches wine through people and the culture they create and populate. It’s precisely what I want to do with my own wine writing, even in magazine form.

Did this conference get me charged up? You bet. There’s nothing like a week of talking shop with fellow writers and editors to get energized and re-set one’s compass. I managed to connect with editors from Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, and the travel magazine Afar, which has the kind of first-person writing that’s right up my alley.

As my high school English teacher Clyde Coon used to say, the best way to learn to write is to read. So, in addition to Conaway, I gathered a list of recommended reads that begins with Hugh Johnson’s A Life Uncorked, GQ’s Alan Richmond, Corie Brown’s Zester Daily, the Smitten Kitchen and Lot18 blogs, the aggregator, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, and stretches on from there.

I Want My YouTube!

An all-day session on video production by Storycellars got me jazzed about learning iMovie. While 60 to 90 second videos (the sweet spot for YouTube) might be down the line for me (honestly, I’ve got only so many lives to live and hours to learn), I do see iMovie as a way to repurpose the zillions of photographs I’ve shot during our 13 years of La Dolce Vita Wine Tours. Expect to see a short iMovie on each of our tour itineraries.

For those of you in my shoes—comfortable with a DSLR, but video curious—here’s a short list of low-cost gear worth knowing about that was mentioned during the seminar:

Zoom H1 digital audio recorder ($95) for usable sound (forget about your iPhone mic)
• Foam-core board ($6) or Impact5-in-1 collapsible reflector ($25–47) for bounce light
PluralEyes for audio sync / sound slate ($199)
GoPro camera for timelapse and wide shots (shoots up to 4K) ($200–400)
• Tip: Use a 100mm focal length for interviews, set to 320 ASA. When doing a walk & talk, stay wide to maintain focus
Killer Tracksfor royalty-free music for tutorials about editing software and how-tos

Our Storycellars instructors put together this 90-second video of Meadowood 2013 for our farewell dinner, which nicely encapsulates the vibe of this event. But as proof that entertaining video needn’t be so polished, another panel showed William Shatner's crazy, low-rent Brown Bag Wine Tasting—as addictive as cat videos, and just as cheap.

“Don’t quit your day job”

While it’s nice to get motivated, this conference also dumped a bucket of cold water on our buzzing brains. In the conference’s most-tweeted panel, Wine Enthusiast editor Susan Kostrzewa presented figures on pay rates gleaned from 20 wine journalists. On average, those scribes bring in only $15–25K from wine writing (mostly from print), which constitutes just 10-25% of their annual income. The balance comes from wine education, consulting, judging, or wholly unrelated work. Their word rate is $1.50 maximum; more typical is 25¢ to $1/word.

Pathetic, in other words. And this is for established wine writers. The data sent shivers through the room.

After Susan recounted these sobering facts, we did something interesting. All 55 of us were given a remote-command unit that could instantly tabulate survey results and produce a pie chart. What this live survey showed was another jaw-dropper:

• 44% of those attending the Professional Wine Writers Symposium earn less than $5K a year on wine writing.

• The vast majority (43%) get between 1–10% of their income from wine writing (mostly for magazines; the web pays little to none). Only 19% derive most or all income (75–100%) from their chosen métier.

As Vinography’s Alder Yarrow later quipped, “Don’t quit your day job.”

Since mine is La Dolce Vita Wine Tours, I have no intention of quitting. But neither do I plan to give up my other paying occupations: film writer for American Cinematographer and freelance copyeditor for Elle. I suppose I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not the only wine writer who gets scandalously low rates. And I’m reassured to know that virtually everyone—including the most successful, established writers at this event—are spinning multiple plates, just like me.

This was my second time at Meadowood, and I feel I’ve found my peer group. It’s nice to belong—even it that means sharing the pain along with the satisfactions of the wine-writers’ life.