Writing as Writers

selfishly stolen from Michael Alberty who no doubt selfishly thieved it from someone elseLast week wine writers and editors from around the world flew to Napa Valley for the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium to learn together how to better our work as writers.

We were urged by Dave McIntrye, wine writer of the The Washington Post, to remember that wine is the adjective that modifies the noun writer. Our job first is to write well.

Will Lyons of the Wall Street Journal urged, “If you want to keep your writing fresh, you need to read widely.” Then, continuing, he chided lightly, “keep your writing fresh, enthusiastic, and bright, but that will only get you so far. You also have to research.”

Writing About Wine

Turning specifically to our work as writers of wine, S. Irene Virbila, food critic and wine reviewer of The Los Angeles Times, pushed into the personal, advising us, “find a way to go back to that emotional core when you first discovered wine. Give people that experience somehow.”

For Virbila, one way to accomplish that is to consider that we “have a relationship with wine. It is not the same with every sip.” (Cathy Huyghe explores this idea in her review of a fictitious good wine below.)

As lovers of wine, that relationship is no small piece. Our love of wine pulls us back again and again, elongating those moments of our nose in the glass. We can deliver that intimacy to our readers but go too far and our work becomes too precious.

Considering her work writing for a general audience in a daily newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, Virbila reminded us to “never forget how many people never think about wine.” In a position like that of a newspaper wine writer, she explained that we are asked to “convince a wider audience why they should even be interested in wine.”

Remembering Relevance

Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, reminded us at the end of his keynote speech that for writing about wine to be accessible to that broader audience we must remove it from its privileged lifestyle.

Wine becomes relevant when we take it out of the wealth and comfort of the finest wine country, and return it to the tables of any home.

To explicate, Collins (half joking) pointed to the most relevant of writing, the obituary. “I know obituaries very well,” he said, “better than wine.” His point, ultimately, “break that circle. Reach a non specialist audience.”

The Billy Collins Writing Challenge

Finally, Collins presented the Napa Valley Wine Writer Symposium with a writing challenge. The point was to generate quality writing while also making fun of our own conventions.

The assignment? He invited every attendee (there were 50 of us, along with 20 or so speakers and coaches) to write an over-the-top wine review for an imaginary wine in one or both of two categories.

(1) A good review for a wine that gives “spiritual transcendence,” is “orgasmic,” and “life transforming.”

(2) A bad review for “an absolutely damning” wine “demeaning to your spirit”

At the end of the week he selected both a 1st and 2nd place winner for each category. Here they are.

Over the Top Wine Reviews

Billy Collins Writing Challenge Bad Asseswinners of the Billy Collins Writing Challenge
from left: me, Fred Swan, Billy Collins, Kort van Bronkhorst, Cathy Huyghe

Second Place: the Good Wine, Cathy Huyghe

In the glass, there is a nuance of color. On the nose, it evolves as time passes. It’s meant to. It’s meant to breathe, and expand and contract, and stretch its legs. There is something on the nose that rings a bell in my memory. In the mouth, it has something to say. It takes a stand. It has an opinion, and it is not afraid to say it. Sometimes it wants the spotlight — it earns it, and deserves it. But, over time, it takes a step back too, to self-deprecate, to tease, to hide, to beguile, to make me want to come back for more. And every time I do come back, every sip, is different. That too is how it’s meant to be. It leaves me with a taste in my mouth of, “Oh.” And “Oh. Yes, I get it.”

Second Place: the Bad Wine, Elaine Chukan Brown

Reeper Vineyards 2013 “Chariot” Sauvignon Blanc – pungent presentation of sea cucumber, grandma’s feet, and the dust from Shakespeare’s first edition. 14.5% $120

First Place: the Bad Wine, Fred Swan

It starts with a cringe-inducing, sphincter-puckering screech of rusty iron on rusty iron. Then comes impact: a sudden, heavy blow to the mouth. There’s the taste of blood and gravel, the feel of shattered glass on the tongue. Burning diesel, overturned soil and the pungent earthiness of one hundred pairs of pants filled by panic assault the nose. One’s throat burns and, eye’s watering, victims drag themselves along the floor looking for safety and water. The 2009 Chateau de Plonk is a a Bordelaise train wreck. 65 points.

First Place: the Good Wine, Kort van Bronkhorst

Toasted Head Cannabis Sauvignon

Oh Em Gee. This is a mind-blowing wine! Wooooooo! In the glass, it’s like a magenta kaleidoscope of shimmering, uh, wineness. On the nose, it reeks (and I mean that in a good way) of stoned fruits and wet earth. And if ever a wine was herbaceous, it’s this one. In the mouth, it turned my tongue into Playland at the Beach. Especially the Fun House. Yeah. Wow. Look at my head in that mirror! And Dudes, you really must pair this wine with food. Lots and lots of food. Like especially Taquitos, and Cheese Puffs, and that Munchie Pack that Jack in the Box serves after 11pm. Awright awright awright! Best of all, it’s only $4.20 a bottle, but I highly recommend getting a magnum so you can pass it around at your next party.


Thank you to Cathy, Fred, and Kort for letting me share their pieces here.

Funny thing. It occurs to me only now that Kort and I both wrote about Sauvignon though with entirely opposite reactions. Cheers!

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to