Friday, December 30, 2011

Wine Writing Draws A Fresh Crop Of Talent

I'm back. More importantly, I like to think, this here blog is back. I've been in Thailand; the blog has been in Blogger limbo. As I packed for my trip I forgot to renew the annual fee for my domain name. When the due date arrived, Google was quick to disable it. And very slow to straighten out the issue and get the blog back online when I returned. Fortunately, a real-live Google support person in Canada worked diligently and patiently to help correct the issue, which proved much more complicated than it should have been.

On the up side, the interruption gave me a chance to catch up on some of my reading. A big chunk of that involved going over the submissions of 41 applicants seeking 10 fellowships for the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood in Napa Valley. For several years now I've been one of three judges who review their writing and pick the 10 we feel are the most deserving candidates. Each submits two examples of something about wine they have been written. Many have been published in newspapers or magazines. Some are raw manuscripts. They can be feature articles, scripts for podcasts, blog postings, essays and the like. We don't know who wrote them or where they might have been published. We are to judge them primarily for writing quality, knowledge of wine, how informative, entertaining and inspirational their approach is, and their potential.

In the past, the packet that symposium director Jim Gordon dispatched to the judges has left me more disappointed than uplifted. Much of the writing was uninspired and trite. Candidates too often returned to the same tired topics; they rarely took risks. This year, however, the writing, by and large, was a pleasant surprise. Rather than write of Napa Valley and Bordeaux, they addressed such underappreciated regions as Madeira and the Languedoc. Rather than cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, they wrote of moscato, marsala and even scuppernong. Here's how I put it to Jim when I turned in my scores:

"Wow! What happened this past year? This batch of fellowship candidates is the strongest ever, to judge by their writing examples. Almost without exception, the reporting and writing is smarter, clearer and more balanced and compelling. Several examples are fresh and daring in subject matter and approach. Their subjects are more diverse, and their articles, scripts and posts show more personality, more timeliness, more details and more color, with a much firmer grip on the topic at hand. A more professional attitude runs through the stack of material, but without sacrificing the enthusiasm that wine generates. Wine writing clearly is attracting people well grounded in related topics - science, travel, food - and for that the future of the craft is looking pretty bright this morning. In short, the screening was tougher than ever. On my tally sheet, six of the 41 writers scored in the 90s, 21 in the 80s. Only one was below 70. Sure, there were some organizational shortcomings, and some over-writing, but these generally were with raw manuscripts, not published works, and a competent editor could help rectify those."

I've a hunch why the material overall was more professional this year: Word has gotten around about the strength of the program that Jim coordinates. This year's program, for example, includes presentations by Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of The New York Times; Guy Woodward, editor of Decanter magazine in London; Joshua Greene, editor of Wine & Spirits magazine in New York City; Michael Gelb, author of "How To Think Like Leonardo da Vinci"; and Antonia Allegra, a culinary and writing coach who several years ago founded the symposium.

This year's symposium will be at the posh Napa Valley resort Meadowood Feb. 21-24. For more information, check out the symposium's website. Incidentally, I've no vested interest in the gathering; my involvement is voluntary. I've never attended, but Jim has extended an invitation to do so, and I hope to one of these years.


  1. Wine is probably one of the hardest niche to write about. You are not just expected to have the words, your palate is also your weapon. It's great to hear that there are great budding wine writers out there.

  2. I'm a little jealous of my buddies like Wink Lorch who get to attend this event while I toil away in Vinisud. :)