Thursday, March 10, 2016

The HoseMaster of Wine™ at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium: Part Two


Badgering Hugh Johnson Photo by John Lenart, Thanks Again, John!

Inviting the HoseMaster of Wine™ to speak at the opening night’s gathering was intended, I was informed, to send the message that wine writers shouldn’t take themselves too seriously. This is a little like telling the Miss America contestants not to worry about their hair. They just can’t help it. I spoke for my twenty minutes, and for the rest of the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood (just the damned title smells of taking yourself too seriously) I was free to attend any or all of the seminars and speeches. I went to almost all of them. It was a very interesting couple of days, but not at all what I expected.

I didn’t take any notes. I’m not a journalist, I’m a self-styled satirist with a wine blog. Many of the symposium fellows were wildly taking notes on their laptops, while I just tried to pay attention to what was being said, and the manner in which it was being said. In truth, I was the proverbial fish out of water, the black sheep of the wine writing family, the pubic hair on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ can of Coke. No one knows what I was doing there, but most felt a certain level of disgust.

I didn’t take any notes, but neither, apparently, did Guy Woodward, former editor of Decanter magazine. In a column for Harper’s UK found here, Woodward writes, “By contrast, Johnson’s fellow keynote speaker at the symposium was American novelist Jay McInerney, who observed there at two types of wine writers: writers who had decided to write about wine and wine buffs who had decided they could write.”

That McInerney is pretty smart. Unfortunately, that was my observation at my fireside chat, not McInerney’s in his keynote address. Lovely to see one of the faculty observing only the highest standards of wine journalism. I believe Woodward also attributed the aphorism, “Wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy” to Henny Youngman. But, I guess, I make shit up all the time, so I have it coming.

For some strange reason, I thought that the symposium would be more about the craft of writing. In hindsight, I can see how that was silly on my part. What the symposium was about was networking, and pitching. As they say in baseball, you can never have enough pitching. There was some talk about the actual craft of writing, but not much. The advice I heard over and over and over again was for wine writers to “find the story.” Once you “find the story” it’s easy from there. Now this might be sage advice to someone in the sixth grade, but it’s hardly insightful to a working wine journalist. It’s the oldest advice in writing. “Find the story.”

“Hey, Shakespeare, find the damned story. You know, pick up some history books or something, then just tell the story.” Yup, all there is to it.

I was lucky enough to have a couple of brief conversations with Neil Beckett. What a charming and eloquent man. Neil is the editor of World of Fine Wine magazine, and, as such, edits the likes of Terry Theise, David Schildknecht, and Neal Martin. How in the world do you cure that amount of logorrhea? Neil radiates kindness and brains, and we spoke a bit about wine writing, and satire in particular. He told me that the one thing World of Fine Wine hasn’t done well at all is wine humor. Well, I told him, that makes two of us.

Indeed, when Neil sat next to me on the shuttle back to Meadowood from the C.I.A. I remarked to him that not once in the two days that I attended wine writing seminars and speeches did any of the speakers mention humor as a tool for making wine writing more interesting, even more marketable. It never once came up. I found this discouraging, especially considering I’m in a room filled with some of the most powerful editors in the wine writing business, but completely unsurprising.

However, when writing about a subject so fundamentally trivial, and essentially about joy, it would seem to me that humor is appropriate, if not necessary. I don’t mean the brand of raunchy and tasteless humor I employ here, obviously. I mean humor, lightheartedness, a voice that understands that what we’re talking about is wine, not the reason for living. I see occasional doses of wit in wine writing, but, in general, much of it takes itself far too seriously for my taste. Too much wine writing seems aimed at elevating the self-esteem of the person writing it. A tribute to their own insight and wine knowledge. Or it reads like marketing material. When you find the story, when you profile yet another of the 50,000 winemakers walking the planet, do you then have to make it read like you work for the guy? Everything someone like R.H. Drexel writes reads like this to me. (What’s annoying is that she’s such a good writer, but wastes her gifts  with such a transparent marketing style. That’s not being a wine critic, or a wine writer, that’s shilling.) Am I the only one who thinks this? Wine writing is getting to be like watching the Academy Awards. Yes, we are important! Just look at how important we are. We make movies! Do not laugh at us. Which is why they need a Chris Rock. Wine writing needs more Rocks, fewer papers, and a lot of scissors. 

In truth, the symposium covers a lot of ground in a short period of time, and it’s a great event. There are wine tastings that feature many of Napa’s best wines. There were seminars not just on wine writing, but also on self-publishing, on photography, on creating wine lists, on aspects of winemaking and, of course, on selling your work to publishers. That’s a lot of ground to cover in just two days, and it’s gracefully and tirelessly done. I met an amazing array of people, and left on the final day extremely grateful to have been invited. My complaints and peccadilloes are my own, and undoubtedly based almost entirely on my own shortcomings. I’ve been looking around at the websites of others who attended but, aside from what amount to summations of speeches and seminars, I have yet to find anyone else writing about their personal experiences at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, about what they learned. I’d be interested to see how much their story would vary from mine.

Of course, one of the rules of attending the symposium is to not talk about what happens outside of the seminars and lectures, not write about any extracurricular foolishness you might witness. I intend to honor that. “Off the record” is a useful status to observe in a situation like the Wine Writers Symposium. It encourages candor and liveliness. It’s enough that people worry they’re talking to the damned HoseMaster, not also have to worry that I’ll write about their moral trespasses. Though why they worry about me, I cannot understand. I’m just so damned convivial.

It has been a very long time since I spent so much time in the company of a large group of writers. We are an odd family. That we have chosen wine as our primary subject (with the exceptions of Jay McInerney, who is foremost a novelist, and Hugh Johnson, who is as famous among gardeners as he is among wine lovers) makes us even odder. Writing is a solitary task. Sequestered in front of a keyboard, we search for just the right words, for something interesting to say, and for a way to say it so that it doesn’t appear to be as much of an almighty struggle as it is. I think, deep down, all of us hate the struggle. Most of us read our own words and only see fault, wonder why anyone is the least bit interested in what we have to say. Which is, of course, why we need a story. I have always found that writers are very often profoundly insecure. And they either wear that insecurity on their face and in their conversation, or they try to hide it behind bravado, or machismo, or truly impressive drinking. I learned early in life to develop a very thick skin and wield humor as a weapon, making my insecurity and fear impenetrable to any outsider. I like to think it works for me, but the older I get the more I see that as a mask for insecurity and low self-esteem, it’s pathetically transparent. Like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the symposium was filled with odders. It felt like a place filled with people who felt out of place.

The last evening of the symposium there’s a farewell dinner. It’s quite the feast, and Meadowood more than lived up to its Three Michelin Star reputation. The seating is assigned, and I was a bit nervous about who might be sitting next to me. For once in my life, I was hoping for a seat at the kids’ table. There were plenty of people there I would have been nervous to be seated next to, people I have lampooned over the years who made it a point over the three days of the symposium to avoid speaking to me. Though I always think of my work as “all in good fun,” there are a lot of Georg Riedels in the world. It comes with the territory.

It turns out I could not have been luckier in my seating assignment. I sat between Virginie Boone and Lana Bortolot, and across from Eric Asimov. When I finally found my seat (the dinner guests numbered around 80, I’d guess), my place card had writing all over it. The scribbling, which looked rather foreboding from a distance, turned out to be the signatures of all the Master Sommeliers in attendance, who had been invited to choose wines for each course. From Geoff Kruth MS, Sur Lucero MS, Gillian Balance MS, all the way up to Doug Frost MW MS, nearly all of them at the dinner signed my place card. I don’t know whose idea it was, but thank you. I saved it. It was a lovely gesture, a comic sign of respect for the HoseMaster, and an unexpected honor. It was the most welcome I felt the entire week.

Virginie and Lana made the evening even more memorable. Virginie and I have met on occasion at wine competitions, but never really spoken much. She has a winning sense of humor, a refreshing outlook on her wine scoring occupation, and I felt drawn to her warmth and intelligence immediately. Lana Bortolot snuck up on me. I had seen her at the symposium, but knew nothing about her, aside from having read her work in many wine publications and in Wall Street Journal. I don’t believe we had even said as much as hello to one another for the entire three days. I was initially scared that she was someone who didn’t like my work. But after a few minutes of chatting with her, I felt in the company of a loved one. By the end of the dinner, I was downright angry I hadn’t made her acquaintance the first day. Lana is one of those people whose smarts and easy wit register immediately. She has a rare human warmth, great beauty and strength of character. We seemed to share a lot of the same impressions of the people and events at the symposium. It ended up being a difficult night because I wanted to spend the entire evening talking to both of them individually. Thank you, Virginie and Lana. What a lovely evening.

Each of the Master Sommeliers spoke briefly about his/her choice of wine to go with a course. Fred Dame MS was the final speaker. Fred was kind enough to single me out. “I’m glad to be here with all of you talented wine writers. Except for Ron.” He said it jokingly, and added that his wife had been upset that I had once compared Fred to a serial killer. She’s upset, Fred? You should have seen the letter I got from the Hillside Strangler! Fred went on to talk about how once a year he goes hunting and shoots a deer. I leaned across the table and asked Eric Asimov, “So how is that not being a serial killer?”

I left the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium with a lot of stories, most of which I can’t tell here. More than that, I left having made many new relationships that I hope will continue to grow. I was lucky to meet a few HoseMaster fans, and there are only a few, like John Lenart and Thomas Riley. I was able to visit with old friends like Alfonso Cevola , Deborah Parker Wong and Bill Ward. I met wine luminaries like Hugh Johnson, Karen MacNeil, Andrea Robinson MS, Ray Isle, Jamie Goode, Doug Frost MW MS, Neil Beckett, Elin McCoy and Eric Asimov. And, finally, and unexpectedly, I made the acquaintance of people I hope will become friends—Esther Mobley, Jane Anson, Virginie Boone, Lisa Perrotti Brown and Lana Bortolot. Doesn’t mean I won’t lampoon them, but they were the folks who made the symposium a wonderful experience for me. Not something I expected at all.

I also must thank the people in charge of the symposium: Jim Gordon, Linda Rieff, Julia Allenby, Patsy McGaughy, Ann Marie Conover and Traci Dutton. You all made me feel welcome. I always say that there needs to be a place for the satirist, the Fool, at the table. You allowed me that place, which took some courage. It was an experience I will never forget. Thank you.

My final words at my Fireside Chat were a quote that I love from Steve Martin. When asked by young comedians for advice, Steve would often say, “Just be so good, they can’t ignore you.”

To those who ignored me, Gosh, I hope one day I'm good enough.


22 comments:

George Gale said...

Humour? Used to slide a bit in back in the day when I was the wine guy for the Kansas City Start. Jeff Davies, Parker's buddy in Bordeaux, is clever, witty, and will drive you crazy with his puns. Get to know Dougie Frost--he has a *very* sly sense of humour. You're pretty funny yourself, you know. Sounds like you had a good time in Napa. Bien fait!
George Gale
Kansas City and Montréal
_Dying on the Vine_, U. Calif. Press

Ron Washam, HMW said...

George,
The focus of the event was wine writing, and humor never was a part of the conversation, especially when I was speaking. And then everyone wonders why people think wine is so stuffy and snooty. I was reading World of Fine Wine last night and was astounded at how dry and humorless the writing was, except for a piece by Jacqueline Friedrich which showed some wit.

There are funny people in the business. Jeffery Davies, to be certain, and Doug Frost. And there are great comic writers like Randall Grahm, when he's not hatching some crackpot scheme. But these famous editors and writers and writing coaches never talked about how humor can sell a piece, attract an audience, make an article stand out. It's fine, it's not that important, I was just amazed at the total absence of humor.

Though I shouldn't be.

Thanks, George, for being a common tater!

Thomas said...

Do they ever hold the symposium east of California? One day, I'd like to be able to attend, but unlike big name wine writers, unknowns like me neither are invited to speak nor have money to give to Delta Airlines...and I used to write for Jim Gordon. For shame.

Nice story, Ron. Glad it turned out better than expected for you.

Unknown said...

Ron, it seems the time has come for you to publish a compilation of your posts, show the world of professional wine writers & journalists that the grass is indeed greener on the other side. Just a thought, and perhaps the last thing you want to do but think of the service it would render to the other 99.999% currently being published...

Kind regards,
Lisa

Steve Osterholt said...

"...I hope one day to be good enough" If you get any gooder we'll have to turn down the hose! How thoughts emanate from within your mind is unknowable. How you flow from wine writing to Chris Rock to rock-paper-scissors is amazing...and beautiful. Very much appreciated, and we're always looking forward to the next hosing.

David Pierson said...

We all hate the ain't that the truth.. in my last comment I alluded to a scene with William Goldman and Irwin Shaw, didn't describe it, cause I don't like to go on and on.. but it relates to that point exactly.. Goldman said he got to have lunch with Shaw who was one of his literary heroes and he said it was a disaster, not on Shaw's part, he said he was tough, thoughtful, funny, everything he hoped, but he felt totally inferior, then on the sidewalk, he said too eagerly, hoping like all us writers, "It was easy for you wasn't it?" And Shaw sighed, "It was never easy..." And then Goldman really felt bad, I had insulted his art he wrote...
Shaw's The Girls In Their Summer Dresses, is my favorite short story... Shaw could never understand why people loved it so much, but I guess he was too close to it, because to me it captures all the joy, sadness, happiness, heartbreak and melancholy that is inherent in relationships and life in just a few short pages.
Bob Dylan makes no apology for the millions he makes, says people don't see the pool of sweat at the bottom of each song.. I know what he means, I said to my girl the other day, when I started writing I couldn't understand why I was exhausted after finishing a piece, it's not like I was digging a ditch, but yeah, don't let anyone tell you that writing is not damn hard work..

Kbell said...

Lana! The lovely Lana--she is one of my favorite wine people and of course you enjoyed the evening in her company. Lucky for both of you!
Cheers!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Thomas,
The key phrase is "at Meadowood." What a gorgeous venue, and, then they tie it to Napa Valley Premier Week. So maybe hitchhike? If it's good enough for John Waters...

Lisa,
I was going to, but then I went to that self-publishing seminar and Alderpated made me change my mind. Plus, I only want to do it if it weighs as much as Kelli White's grossly obese Napa book. Which, with my crap, it probably would.

Steve,
Thank you, very kind words. If I knew how my mind worked the way it does, I'd be pretty excited. It's a total mystery to me.

David,
And, as we know, it's making it NOT look like work that is the mark of great writing, except maybe for James Joyce, but he could write for World of Fine Wine and seem absolutely inarticulate and slow.

I love to meet writers, though it's often a strange experience. These lonely hours in front of blank page drive even the steadiest of us slightly wacky.

Kbell,
Not sure how lucky Lana was, but that kind of lucky fate only happens once in a long while.

Thomas said...

Ron:

I thought maybe they could call next year's the New Jersey Professional Wine Writers Symposium at the Meadowlands.

Mary Rocca said...

Ron,

I always feel that if I walk away with a few pearls from a conference, it has been worth attending. Sounds like you walked away with several - yay! I've had the pleasure of meeting Virginie too, and hope to someday have the opportunity to meet Lana after reading about your lovely evening.

Thanks for a fun read on the symposium... I do agree with you, it would be so nice if the wine world lightened up a bit!

Cheers!
Mary

Cris Carter said...

Hey Ron,

You touch on a great point here. All too often wine people take themselves so damn seriously, it just sucks the life out of the whole damn thing. From the fake chateaux in Napa, made of cinder blocks and drywall, to the bow-tied, pretentious little shit at the "hot" new restaurant, it's enough to make you queasy. This glorified, self-importance is rampant and needs to stop. I appreciate you trying to provide some needed levity. I wish more tried to carry your banner.

Wine is hard work and wasted time. It is earnest and also absurd. Like life, it is all of these things, and yet, just wine. When I used to train people in the cellar, on their first day I would pull them aside and say, "Remember, no one should die trying to make wine. All of this around you is just for fun. None of this really matters. Now, don't do something stupid like get yourself hurt."

Glad you had fun at the symposium (can't we just call it a conference?) We missed you at the World of Pinot Noir. Keep up the good fight.


Daniel said...

The lack of humor in wine, written or otherwise, is bizarre to say the least. It is, after all, a drink that is meant to be shared and enjoyed with others. And alcohol ("the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems"- Homer Simpson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hUVwR0rw5fk ) does make people do some pretty funny things. Things that we should talk about. Sure, the making of wine is a science that we like to call "Art", both very serious things. But people need humor in life to make it worth living. I always say I've learned more about wine, and the people and places that make it great, from the "Off the script" conversations. The things that aren't on the tour or the brochure and sell sheets. If wanted to work in a business without humor I would have become an accountant or sell copiers.
I think wine is funny, and the fact that people take it too seriously is even funnier. Long live humor!

geoff kruth said...

Ron,
Glad you enjoyed the card. I wanted to tie a hair to it, but I didn't want it to get in your chestnut soup – chiefly because I was providing the pairing.

While I find elements of your commentary too much for my palate, I couldn't agree more that wine writing is wanting for humor; I always find something here to enjoy, which is more than I can say for many somms' wine lists. Even so, like humor, we need more trained sommeliers – to spread the passion for wine and expand the professionalism of the trade.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,

As something of a final thought, it has always been the case that people in the wine business have proclaimed that the trade needs to take itself less seriously. And then, the next piece they write, they return to being sanctimonious and preachy and outright boring. I do not expect that to change, and certainly not because of what I write.

"Elements of my commentary," as Geoff puts it, are intended to offend, to insult, to lampoon and belittle. That is satire's job. I only wish I were better at it. I don't write to become famous, or to educate, or to change the world. I write because I like to write. There are a thousand people writing political satire, and satire about families and raising kids and, well, almost anything you can name. Wine satire seemed like a tiny niche that was pretty empty and that I could fill. That I have any audience, especially an industry audience, is some sort of proof that there's a yearning for this brand of tomfoolery. That wine continues to be a comic wasteland only reinforces its image of snobbery and elitism.

Comedy, and satire, about wine expresses as deep a passion for wine as Master Sommelier and Master of Wine programs do. It does not tear down wine, it tears down the pretension about wine, which most of us agree is inappropriate. But the pretension around wine is deep and abiding, and needs a sledgehammer to bring it down, not a wave of the hand. Too many of you wave a hand at it. I prefer the sledgehammer of irreverence, profanity, anger, and good old common sense.

Larry Anosmia, M.S. said...

Geez . . . Geoff Kruth MS, Sur Lucero MS, Gillian Balance MS, Andrea Robinson MS and Doug Frost MS MW were all in attendance . . . and I wasn't invited?

Fuhgettabout Geoff and his strand of hair. I would have put a fly in Hoser's chestnut soup!

(Sounds like you got co-opted . . .)

Clare Tooley said...

Ron, the problem is no one would ever be quite as hilarious as you - you've set the bar too high. Thank you! I snuck in to the Symposium just to hear Hugh. I have been privileged to work with him for many years. Be thankful to have felt merely like a fish out of water, the beached whale experience is a great deal more excruciating I can tell you. I had also really hoped to meet you - two of my favourite writers in one place at the same time and within handshaking, fan fainting reach, what an opportunity. But I left without finding you, far too awed. I hope for another time. You're right of course - there needs to be levity and a lot more joy. But we can't all write like you and Hugh and I am just so grateful to have you both to read and to adore.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Clare,
Thank you for such a sweet note. Far too kind, and I don't really belong in the same wine writing breath as Hugh Johnson, but I'll graciously accept it. I'm very sorry I didn't have the chance to meet you. I've seen your kind Tweets about me, and I appreciate your being such a loyal fan. (Funny how more women than men are fans of my raucous and blasphemous wine blog--wonder what that says.)

Easy to find my email in my About Me section if you'd like to share a glass of wine or a meal one day. It would be great fun to meet you. I rarely bite, though I routinely slobber.

Molly Hill said...

Ron!
A bit terrified to leave a comment here, but here goes. I realize you were just at a wine writer's conference, hence the focus here, but please do not leave out poking fun at winemakers, too. We are a just as insecure and serious bunch.
Molly

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Molly,
I haven't the foggiest idea why you're terrified, but thank you for sucking it up and being a common tater.

I suspect you're right about winemakers, and I've taken some shots at your kind over the years, but so much of what I know about most winemakers is filtered through wine writers and always smells like marketing departments (re: R.H. Drexel). Though I'm kicking around a parody of her rather fatuous work for Vinous. Stay tuned.

Charlie Olken said...

Dear Larry--

I can't imagine why you weren't invited--except possibly that you cannot tell the difference between natural wine and "feces and feet". Besides, it is well known that Hosemaster cannot be seen in the same room as you. It's kind of a Trump-avoidance kind of thing lest you sucker punch him.

Larry Anosmia, M.S. said...

Charlie,

I would NEVER sucker punch Hoser.

There have got to be rules in a fist fight:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPqhm36sjVE

~~ Larry

Larry Anosmia, M.S. said...

Charlie,

There's a reason why Hoser and I are never seen in the same room.

Same reason why Andy Kaufman and Tony Clifton are were never seen in the same room.

(Spoiler alert! Yes, Andy is still very much alive -- living in recluse Howard Hughes's former penthouse suite here in Lost Wages.)

We are ONE AND THE SAME people.

~~ Larry