My first impression, upon reading of the Symposium, was that it was a brilliant, deep-pocketed way of co-opting wine writers by feting them at a fabulous resort. That whiff of corruption was part of the event’s appeal; I figured I was in for an easy week of tasting and indulgence.
My final impression is that my first impression was comically wrong. The people hosting the event worked hard to make it challenging and valuable to the writers present, and seemed honestly committed to the improvement of American wine writing. More than that, they seemed to really like and respect writers — which, take it from me, isn’t an easy thing to do.
I was impressed by the caliber of the attendees. Sure, there were self-important divas — male and female — but that’s going to happen in any group, and more often with writers than other professions. Anyone who’s ever seen the White House press corps in action knows what I’m talking about. In general, the writers I met at the Symposium were serious, passionate and hard-working. I was clearly the least knowledgeable person on the premises, kitchen help included. During the week, I was witness to and participant in conversations so well informed that they almost literally took my breath away.
As for my imagined week of indulgence, the days started at 7:30 in the morning and ran almost without break until 9 or 10 at night. Joke about it if you like, but facing a blind tasting of 60 wines at 9:30 in the morning is hard work.
The amount of preparation that went into the Symposium is impressive and obvious. The commitment of those involved — the Napa Valley Vintners, the Culinary Institute of America, Wines & Vines editor Jim Gordon, Meadowood and the rest — was unrestrained. Not only did serious people come in to give speeches and sit on panels, but those people stayed around the whole week as casual participants and peers. Conversations started in large groups continued in small. I had a running debate with Bruce Shoenfeld, Travel & Leisure’s food and wine editor, that lasted the better part of two days. Not once did he visibly cringe when I approached to make another painfully obvious point.
My own sponsor, Plumpjack Winery, dispatched general manager John Conover to answer any and all of my questions. Conover treated me as if I were something other than a middle-aged man feeling his way through a midlife crisis, engaging fully in a conversation that had to seem sophomoric, or maybe even freshmanic, if there’s such a word. I, personally, would have milked the “so, you’re a wine writer from Kentucky” material for an evening of cheap laughs; he acted as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
I went to the Symposium with a number of people to meet, things to learn and questions to ask. My main goal was to figure out how I fit into the ecosystem of wine writers. I understand now that there is a certain kind of wine writer I will never be, but that there is a place for the kind of writer that I am. I understand I can hold my own in a serious group, particularly if I keep my mouth shut and nod a lot. I know I can go to the center of the American wine business and not make a fool of myself, and that is all I ask of any situation. Indemnify me from the worst-case scenario, and I can gut-out the rest.
The Symposium is largely the creation of Toni Allegra, a writer of considerable achievement and generosity. On my first, uncomfortable night at the Symposium, feeling as much an outsider as I ever feel, surrounded by people who had long known each other, she crossed the room to ask me about myself and make a stranger feel at home. The conversation was a gift, and in large measure because of that single act I accomplished everything I set out to accomplish at the meeting.
I’m going to do my damnedest to return next year.