Angst & inspiration for Napa writers

We congregate in Napa annually, like monarch butterflies seeking warmer winter climes. This year, 67 wine writers and editors alighted on the forested hills of Meadowood Resort for the 11th annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Housed in posh bungalows that normally go for $900 a night, wined and dined like dignitaries who matter, surrounded by landscapes vibrant with Easter-egg colors—pink magnolias, chartreuse grass, yellow mustard, robins-egg skies—we were nonetheless an anxious lot.

Writers always are. Thomas Mann has our number: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

As glamorous as “wine writer” sounds, it’s not an easy profession. Meadowood offers three days of group therapy, a safe place for writers to recount successes and failures, talk craft, pitch stories, and bond with fellow scribes. Good ones. We’re talking Jancis Robinson, Andrea Immer Robinson, Alder Yarrow here, and folks from Wine Enthusiast, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Chicago Star Tribune, LA Times, Forbes.… You can see why I’m hooked.

We do sometimes talk about wine. More than 150 Napa wines were poured over the three days, and that’s not counting the orgy of tastings that accompanies Premiere Napa Valley, the benefit auction that dovetails with the symposium.

But ultimately, we’re here to focus on the business and craft of writing. So what follows is my notepad of takeaways from 2015.

The CIA in spring colors, courtesy my Waterlogue app

The CIA in spring colors, courtesy my Waterlogue app

If your writing’s getting stale and your vocabulary recycled, read some poetry.

It was an inspired choice to pick U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins as our keynote speaker. Though a self-confessed wine novice, he enraptured us with his poems—all ‘gettable’ in one go, every one a precise alignment of images that are as finely crafted as handwrought cabinetry, to use his metaphor.

Take the opening of “Osso Bucco”:

I love the sound of the bone against the plate and the fortress-like look of it lying before me in a moat of risotto, the meat soft as the leg of an angel who has lived a purely airborne existence. And best of all, the secret marrow, the invaded privacy of the animal prized out with a knife and swallowed down with cold, exhilarating wine.

The moat, the fortress, the angel’s leg…that’s anything but routine food writing. The poem goes on to other subjects—its meandering structure is a lesson in itself—but these unexpected analogies inspire. NOTE TO SELF: When I catch myself lazily recycling phrases, grab a Billy Collins book. That’ll light my fire.

For further inspiration, one need look no further than the winners of this year’s writing challenge: That was to write a tasting note that’s either a) head-over-heels positive or b) over-the-top negative. (Read their brilliant responses here, courtesy

Armed and dangerous: Matt Ashby, vineyard manager of Robert Mondavi winery and one of my pruning coaches during our "Down and dirty" session

Armed and dangerous: Matt Ashby, vineyard manager of Robert Mondavi winery and one of my pruning coaches during our "Down and dirty" session

Being a wine wonk doesn’t make you a better writer.

Voice does. As Northwestern University writing professor Louise Kiernan said, “Your voice is your fingerprint. Lots of people can convey the information. But you need to get them to follow you through the narrative.”

Ah, the narrative. At our best, we are storytellers, as we were reminded time and again. “Be a writer first, a wine writer second,” said Jancis Robinson.

“Don’t get mired in details. Think about story,” advised Betsy Andrews, former editor of Saveur, now with Departures. “Conjure tangible physical settings with sensory details. Otherwise, your story is inhabited by phantoms in a conceptual space.” (To illustrate her point, she read from her own delectable story, “Taste of Umbria,” Saveur, October 2014.)

A personal favorite at the Premiere Napa Valley auction

A personal favorite at the Premiere Napa Valley auction

Writing is a tough business…and it ain’t getting any easier

Jancis Robinson asked for a show of hands: How many attendees were writing or editing about wine full-time? Only eight raised their hands. We all gasped.

That dismal display echoed a poll on pay rates during the 2013 symposium, which revealed that 44% of attendees earned less than $5K per year on wine writing. (Remember, we’re talking top-quality writers here.) It can be depressing.

The barrel preview, my favorite part of the Premiere Napa Valley auction

The barrel preview, my favorite part of the Premiere Napa Valley auction

Still, it pays to persevere

I remember a conversation with friend, now an NPR news director, who said the problem with most writers—most people, actually—is follow-through. We dream, we get motivated, and, if we’re good, we act. We knock at the door, then if it opens, we give ourselves a big congratulatory pat on the back. But it’s premature. Too often, we miss the next critical step—fleshing out that pitch, expanding that research, doing the follow-up, clinching the deal. (That’s my post-conference mission: to keep the lines open with editors from Afar,, and The World of Fine Wines who liked my pitches and want to hear more.)

This year I was shocked to hear Richard Bradley, editor of Worth, say that only 50 percent of the writers who’d pitched him last year—and been encouraged to follow-up—had actually done so. That’s jaw-dropping.

Which leads me to Karen MacNeil’s story. We know her as the powerhouse author ofThe Wine Bible; head of wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America; and a regal beauty, in a Nicole Kidman ice queen kind of way.

But here’s the thing: She started from nothing and created her present self from scratch. Speaking in a trembling voice, MacNeil recounted her difficult beginnings: How she ran away from home at age 14 and moved to New York at 19. How she had $6 in her pocket and didn’t know a soul. Homeless, she talked her way into a room at the YMCA, and the next day landed the first of multiple menial jobs, as housecleaner, waitress… She moved into a five-floor walkup and lived on food stamps. “But I wrote every night,” she said. MacNeil acquired 324 rejection letters, pinned to her bulletin board. Then this starving writer had an inspired idea. “I thought, If you write about food, maybe they’ll give you samples!” Her first published piece, for the Village Voice, was about butter. It earned her $30.

MacNeil went on to describe her challenges doing TheWine Bible’s first edition. Written before the age of the fax, this hefty tome had to be researched by snail mail and telephone. It took 10 years to complete.

The moral of her story, MacNeil said, was perseverance. We all nodded; lesson received and noted! The usual writers’ laments seemed downright petty after that.

Jean-Charles Boisset's inimitable style, at his legendary auction lot preview party at Raymond

Jean-Charles Boisset's inimitable style, at his legendary auction lot preview party at Raymond

There’s a curious disconnect between what writers are writing and readers are drinking.

Wine-market researcher John Gillespie presented some interesting stats that show topics in the wine press do not reflect what people are drinking. French wines get the most ink, with even Provence taking a decent slice of the pie. But when it comes to wine imports—what people are actually buying—France falls in fifth place, at 10% of imports. It’s preceded by Italy (26%), Australia (16%), Chile (13%), and Argentina (11%).

Given those numbers, you’d think a book like Evan Goldstein’s Wines of South Americawould sell like gangbusters. But the Master Sommelier confessed that sales for his latest title are struggling—unlike his Perfect Pairing evergreens. Evidently, just because 24% of imbibers are buying Chilean and Argentine wines doesn’t mean they care to read about them. The implications are another reason for writer angst.

Wafting morning fog on Oakville Road

Wafting morning fog on Oakville Road

Take youriPhone camera seriously

I forgot my Canon EOS Rebel SL1, so I was forced to give my iPhone 5 a workout—with mixed results. Trying to capture the full dynamic range of an early morning Napa landscape, where white fog encroaches on dark, wet trees, can be a fool’s errand—unless you have the right tools.

So I owe a hat-tip to John Curley, Tasting Panel writer and photographer extraordinaire, who turned me on to the following apps:

Pro HDR X – Combining three shots, it solves the extreme-range-of-exposure problem, filling in highlight and shadow details on shots like that Napa landscape.

TouchRetouch – Need to erase a sun flare, telephone line, or exboyfriend? This app’s got your back.

Slow Shutter!– Just what it sounds like, this app enables long-exposure FX with moving water, sports action, night lights, and so on.

SnapSeed – This photo editor gives Photoshop-like control over brightness, contrast, cropping, and straightening.

I downloaded these apps post-Meadowood and will be testing them over the next few weeks. Let me know if you like what you see!

Wines from the fellowship sponsors during our farewell dinner

Wines from the fellowship sponsors during our farewell dinner

Lastly, stock up on those 2005 Napa cabernets

This falls into my “if only” category. If I had the cash, I’d buy a mixed case of 2005 Napa cabernet sauvignon, my personal favorite during the blind tasting of 2003–2012 vintages. It seems the 10-year mark is the sweet spot, a phase when the wine’s primary fruit is still lively and fresh, but the underlying structure has had time to integrate, melding into a beautiful, supple, approachable whole. I drew several stars next to the 2005s from Rocca Family Vineyards, Ackerman Family Vineyards, and Reynolds Family Winery—all new names to me. That’s nice, because it gives me some wineries to investigate when I flutter back to Meadowood in 2016.

My al fresco tasting room: Mondavi Cabernet Reserve after pruning

My al fresco tasting room: Mondavi Cabernet Reserve after pruning