Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Do you aspire to write about wine?

London-based wine writer Jancis Robinson works during a break in sessions at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley.
London-based wine writer Jancis Robinson works during a break in sessions at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley.

So you want to be a wine writer. Why?

“It marries a lot of passions for me – travel, food, wine, narrative writing and intrigue,” says Julie Case, a Seattle freelance writer. “I’m curious, and wine lets me go deep into something. I want to help people understand it. Wine is for everyone, but it can be confusing and difficult.”

“Four years ago I went to France for my MBA,” says Dong Li of Sunnyvale, now in the biotechnology field but also U.S. correspondent for TasteSpirit.com, an online wine magazine in China. “I’d been drinking wine but until then never realized that it has so much enriched content – stories, culture, a lot of different things. I like to write, and I like wine. I want to combine those interests, and also make a living at it.”

“I want to share my knowledge and passion about wine with other people and inspire them to drink wine. I want to demystify it so people are comfortable with it, but I don’t want to take away the magic of what’s in the bottle,” says Tracy Ellen Kamens, a New York wine educator.

These three, with about 40 others, weren’t just dreaming of being wine writers. They’d signed up for the 11th annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, which took place in February in Napa Valley. When we chatted, they were in the midst of four intense days of lectures, workshops, panel discussions and writing challenges.

Unless they’d received a fellowship – 14 had – they’d paid $695 to attend, plus $300 per night for lodging at posh Meadowood Resort, one of the symposium’s three underwriters. (The others were the trade group Napa Valley Vintners and the nearby St. Helena branch of the Culinary Institute of America.)

For that investment, students got 16 educational sessions led by 18 faculty members, one-on-one time with seven writing coaches, eight meals and, if they could squeeze them in, four themed wine tastings at which a cumulative 180 Napa Valley wines were poured.

I was there for the first time, in part as one of the volunteer coaches. For the past decade I’d been a volunteer judge of manuscripts submitted each year by dozens of aspiring wine writers hoping to win one of the symposium’s fellowships. For several years, Jim Gordon, the symposium’s executive director, had invited me to sit in on the symposium’s proceedings, but this was the first year that the timing worked.

In recent years, in reading the manuscripts, I’ve been struck by the rising number of aspiring wine writers coming from fields other than newspaper sports departments, which seem to have produced a disproportionate number of the practitioners of the craft, at least in the U.S. Today’s aspiring wine writers often have science, travel and food writing as a grounding. Some are bloggers. Some are sommeliers. Some already are seasoned wine writers, looking to polish their skills and broaden their marketability. A few were returning to the symposium for the third, fourth or fifth time.

Newspapers and magazines that customarily have included wine columns are shrinking, if not disappearing. Social media crowd-sourcing gathers and organizes all the tasting notes anyone should ever want. Sommeliers look to be the new gatekeepers. And, frankly, wine writers too often come off to their prospective audience as supercilious, exclusive and remote.

“People really don’t like us very much,” said Jancis Robinson of London, one of the symposium’s keynote speakers, and perhaps the world’s most accomplished wine writer, with a website, a Financial Times column and several books to her credit. She also manages to advise the queen of England on what the royal family should stock in the Buckingham Palace wine cellar.

“A certain humility is quite important for wine writers,” she gently scolded.

Her refrain was echoed by other speakers. Los Angeles Times restaurant critic and wine columnist S. Irene Virbilia lamented that so much wine writing is “exclusionary, snarky and off-putting,” and Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre admonished aspirants to avoid a tone that asks readers rhetorically, “Don’t you wish you were me?”

Billy Collins, the U.S. poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, another keynote speaker, urged students to become more personal in writing of wine, to use descriptors that make sense (“intense, flabby, nervous, timed” don’t, to his eye) and to avoid overanalyzing the topic. “Wine anxiety is like poetry anxiety,” said Collins, “the joy gets lost in analysis.”

John Gillespie, a specialist in consumer research and wine marketing, ran through a series of studies that suggest that wine writers often don’t address subjects that would seem to be of interest to consumers. Merlot, for example, remains one of the nation’s more popular varietal wines, yet it’s a topic of only the occasional article or column. “There’s a disparity between what you write about and what’s selling,” Gillespie said.

Much of the instruction dealt with nuts-and-bolts stuff common to other writing workshops – developing narrative, structure, voice, pace, tone and the like.

And despite the dire outlook for wine writing that speakers sketched at the outset of the symposium, by the concluding session the prospects for aspirants had brightened.

Robinson, for one, sees possibilities in the spreading global popularity of wine, with its availability and intrigue no longer confined to a few precious regions and markets. “Wine is a hugely popular leisure interest,” she noted, though she also was quick to acknowledge that that interest hasn’t yet much translated into a whole lot of opportunity for aspiring wine writers.

Nevertheless, she’s hopeful that aspirants can find their niche. “Find yourself a specialty and sell yourself on that as an authority,” she recommended. Writing about the business side of wine looks especially promising, she noted. And while English remains the basic language of wine, it wouldn’t hurt to learn Mandarin, she added.

Other speakers also provided participants with cheery prospects. Blake Edgar, an editor with University of California Press in Berkeley, noted that his house has published 60 books with wine themes over the past decade and continues to entertain proposals for more.

Jim Gordon, the symposium’s executive director, who also is editor of the trade magazine Wines & Vines, noted early on that several fellow editors at the gathering actively were looking for writers.

Indeed, one session gave participants an opportunity to pitch story ideas to various editors. Several landed writing assignments, including Dong Li, who bagged two. One is to be on pairing wines with Chinese regional cuisines for The SOMM Journal, the other is to be an analysis of the wine market in several regions of China for Wines & Vines.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at mikedunne@winegigs.com.

Want to attend?

For information on next year’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, including the particulars and the deadline to seek a fellowship, keep an eye on the website www.winewriterssymposium.org.