|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.