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On Passion, Presciousness and Fenugreek
By Linda Murphy
Feb 26, 2013
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At the recent Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley -- yes, there is such a thing, and it’s been going on for nine years -- there were numerous panels, presentations and discussions about how those who write about wine, and those who want to, can improve their skills, market themselves and find paying work in trying times.

The conference rooms were filled with people who write about wine, beer, spirits, food and travel.  They included traditional print journalists, bloggers of all ages, retailers/sommeliers wanting to branch out into writing, and other career changers.  It was a healthy mix of wanna-be’s, hope-to’s, will-do’s and have-done’s.

The symposium is a great event, thanks in large part to the generosity and organization of the sponsors -- Napa Valley Vintners, Meadowood Napa Valley and the Culinary Institute of America -- but it’s also reliant on candid conversations between “faculty” (experienced wine and lifestyle writers) and “students,” some of whom are already immersed in writing about wine and other alcoholic beverages. 

Faculty members share experiences and strategies for successful scribing, and every year the joke is told that the teachers are training others to steal their jobs and story commissions.  Yet as a faculty member, I get more from the symposium than I give -- and last week, I gave the equivalent of a pint of blood, after I verbally sliced myself open during a panel session on entrepreneurship, describing how difficult it has become for me to make a living as a wine writer.

In another panel, James Conaway opened himself up in a much different way.  Conaway, the author of the New York Times bestselling book “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” and its follow-up, “The Far Side of Eden,” raised some hackles in Twitterdom when he said during the symposium that bloggers are the ones who write passionately about wine.  His comment was one of many he made in a lengthy, humorous Q&A with Bloomberg.com wine columnist Elin McCoy, and I didn’t take offense to his sound bite on bloggers.  Others did, as evidenced by their tweets.

I translated Conaway’s use of the word “passion” to my own lexicon of “purpose” and “drive.”  Passion is an emotion felt, and difficult to put into words, especially when it comes to wine.  Am I passionate about this wine?  Was the winemaker passionate about producing it?  Were consumers passionate about acquiring it? Moot points, all.

Drive, purpose and service to consumers motivate the wine journalists I know and respect, whether they be bloggers or print traditionalists.  Those of us committed to the craft seek truth, unearth facts and report our findings to our readers, via any route possible.  Opinion is heartily welcome.  I don’t respect everyone in my profession, as some are motivated by advertising dollars and/or narcissism about their endeavors.  Yet most of us -- print and blog -- are motivated to speak to our audiences about the wines we like and the people who produce them.  Professionalism, pride and drive trump the notion of passion any day. 

And don’t get me started on the wine writers symposium panel discussion titled “Write Memorable Wine Reviews.”  That’s a whole other topic, and I will address it one day.  All one needs to know for now is that a speaker explained that if his readers didn’t understand the word “fenugreek” in his tasting notes, said readers should not complain about not being familiar with the term, but rather visit an Indian foods market to experience the aroma and flavor of this herb.

This isn’t passion in wine writing, it’s preciousness.  Many of us writers/bloggers are guilty of it at times, but fenugreek?  Give me a break.