For the past three years I’ve had the privilege and pleasure to attend the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Now in its 11th year, the symposium, held at the Meadowood Resort in St. Helena, brings together writers at all levels of the global wine trade, from the famous to those just getting started. Along with industry representatives, local winemakers, and publishing leaders, writers spend four days discussing current editorial trends, the state of the wine industry, both domestic and global, and sharpening their analytical and writing skills with a variety of classroom and tasting sessions.
This year’s symposium featured U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Jancis Robinson, the first female and first non-industry member to earn the prestigious Master of Wine designation. Robinson, one of the world’s premier wine writers and critics, led several tasting sessions and discussion panels, and made herself accessible to conference attendees at every turn.
It’s said that good writing not only tells but shows. With that in mind, let’s emphasize the show. Below is a collection of images from the symposium for you to enjoy. So, grab a glass of wine and let’s head to Napa!
Our first item of business on Day One was a chance to get “Down and Dirty” at Raymond Vineyards in Rutherford. Here, Julie Case, Dong Li, and I find out if we are going to fit within the Raymond framework.
I love working outdoors on projects that require me to carry a glass of delicious wine wherever I go. Communications Manager Tamara Stanfill makes sure we all have the proper tools for our work among the vines.
Joe Papendick, head gardener at Raymond, explains the general elements of sustainable, organic, and biodynamic farming, and why compost is so damn beautiful.
Is it just me, or do things look a bit clearer when glimpsed through a glass of wine? Okay, I guess it’s just me.
As we found out, over and over again, Raymond is not your typical Napa winery. Their hands-on approach, for example, is a bit different than that found in other tasting rooms.
Given that many wineries in the valley were preparing for parties held in conjunction with the annual Premiere Napa Valley events, I couldn’t tell what displays were gala decorations or, simply, Raymond being Raymond.
The Red Room, one of Napa Valley’s most celebrated private tasting rooms. The three of us were treated there to a private tasting hosted by Stephanie Putnam, Raymond’s winemaker, and Jean-Charles Boisset, the winery’s owner/proprietor and its most vigorous promoter. The Raymond wines, across the board, are restrained and elegant, an intentional marriage of French and California styles.
The symposium’s first full day was dedicated to the craft of writing, as well as current publication trends in the industry. The day got underway with a smart, and often funny, keynote address by U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (2001-2003), titled “There Stands the Glass: Description and Story.”
One of the many surprising bits of information came from this “word cloud” that shows Bordeaux dominating in the number of stories found in wine publications. This is despite the fact of Bordeaux’s steady drop in recent years in both market share and influence. The interesting stories about developments in the wine world can be found in many of the other, small-type regions, which, clearly, are still being somewhat overlooked.
One of the great benefits of attending the symposium is the wide range of Napa wines we are served at various events. Every year I come across a few producers I’ve never heard of, or bottles I’d never be able to obtain on my own. And the meals at Meadowood are, as one attendee said, “the best conference food you’ll ever find.” No argument here.
Can’t have lunch on a sunny California day without a few fine whites to enjoy. A number of attendees did their best to taste through all the whites and reds before lunch hour ended and we, er, I mean, they were called to the next session.
Most of the sessions at the symposium are quite educational, and the best ones, like the best wine articles, have a personal story or context. In this grouping, Karen MacNeil, author of the bestselling The Wine Bible, facilitated a panel comprising members of the Chappellet and Venge families, important threads in the fabric of the Napa Valley for three generations. We heard their stories and tasted some of their fine wines. Hands-on learning doesn’t get too much better. (Unfortunately, none of my photos of the speakers were uniformly flattering, and so I decided to let everyone retain their dignity.)
Several sessions focused on the changes in magazine publishing as the emphasis on digital content and delivery continues to grow. In this general audience presentation, moderated by Betsy Andrews of Departures.com, Joe Czerwinski, managing editor, Wine Enthusiast; Davina Baum, director of digital content, Afar.com; and, Kristin Tice Studeman, contributing editor, Style.com, all offered insights into their current practices and where they think digital publishing might be headed in coming years. One thing was clear: the genie of digital publishing is not going back in the bottle.
There’s quite a bit of wine consumed at this gathering. When morning comes around, and the going gets tough, the tough get going. And it’s almost always with a cup of coffee in hand.
Day Three was dedicated to career development and discernment, always an important topic in a field where making a living is never less than challenging. We started with a panel discussion led by Evan Goldstein, MS, who elicited pearls of experiential wisdom from three of the brightest stars in wine today: from left, Andrea Robinson, MS; Jancis Robinson, MW; and, Karen MacNeil. Together they gave their listeners plenty to think about.
Our day at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (CIA) is a special day for all attendees, year after year. Every element of service provided is exceptional, and some more than others. The set-ups for our large tastings are always impressive.
This tasting, “From Barrel to Bottle to Cellar — Exploring Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at Different Ages and Stages,” was both instructional and fun. Discussion of these wines was candid and energized. Led by Jancis Robinson, there was little consensus among attendees about the selected wines, proving once again that wine is, in the end, a truly personal experience.
The wines were, from left, Louis Martini, Chimney Rock, Araujo, and Staglin. Despite its common market status, the Martini (1995, 2005, 2013) held its own. The Chimney Rock (1996, 2005, 2013) was the most consistently structured and viable. The first two vintages of the Araujo (1993, 2000, 2012) were gone, with little value to be had; the 1993 split the room with some attendees trying unsuccessfully to defend the brown sludge most found in their glass. The final wine, Staglin (1996, 2003, 2013) was big and sturdy in the final two vintages; the ’96 was fading but still interesting and worth enjoying.
Will Lyons, a Londoner who writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal, led a tasting session, with Joe Czerwinski from Wine Enthusiast, on Napa Valley sauvignon blanc. Emphasis was placed on composition of various styles of tasting notes. The wines ranged from a simple $20 bottling all the way to a triple figure, complex, oak-aged production.
The job of the wine writer is to find something special to say without sounding exclusive or elitist. Also, simple analyses of several wines that taste confusingly similar does nothing for the reader. Making the wine come alive, by informing, entertaining, or educating, is the writer’s goal, and a constant challenge.
The highlight of the week is the Fellowship Dinner, which attendees share with local winemakers who have provided scholarships to both established and budding wine writers who have proven themselves worthy of the support. To start the celebration this year, sparkling wines from a number of Napa producers were poured. Predictably, the wines flowed freely.
Dining at Meadowood, whether a simple meal in the Grill or several gourmet courses at an event like the symposium, is always a special treat. Impeccable presentation and service are axiomatic. And, having fifteen wines from some of Napa’s finest producers to enjoy with the meal is a treat nonpareil.
The three whites offered, while tasty, didn’t really shine until the cheese course at the end of the meal. The middle row, as a unit, stole the show. Overall, not a clunker in the group, and most of the wines showed beautifully. My top wines were Seavey, Shafer, and Mondavi. But the contest was a close one all around. Okay, I’ll be honest — I really had no use for the Hourglass malbec. Just didn’t do it for me.
Until next year… Cheers!