At the Wine Writers Symposium

February 18th, 2010

To leave North Carolina in the snow (after weeks of uncharacteristic cold), fly through Dallas in more snow, then to land in San Francisco and walk out to fresh warm air, then to drive to friends’ upright Victorian where they greet us with a house full of flowers and a dinner of Dungeness crab spritzed with lime–what a shock to the winterized mind.  Ed and I drove up to Napa the next morning. I came out to give the keynote welcome to the Wine Writers’ Symposium, organized by Jim Gordon, the team at Meadowood Inn, the Napa Vintners and Culinary Institute of America.  En route, more shock. The wild bright yellow mustard is blooming in the vineyards and rains have turned all the hills green, green, green.  Some vineyards are carpeted with golden poppies.  This forms a menace because people slam on brakes at a particularly gorgeous scene and someone leaps out of the car to take a picture. I, too, snap one from the car window but my phone camera is not up to capturing such glory.

Meadowood’s cottages scatter over hills studded with twisted oaks, madrone and mossy rocks.  Ours has a tree-house feel and a porch, a fireplace and a windowseat where I would like to sit and read all day.  Ed insists that we hike, even though there are signs warning of mountain lions.  He wants to swim and go to the spa and work-out room. I have a facial and can’t wait for it to be over. He has a massage and glows.  We dine on the grounds at  The Restaurant, which has been awarded two Michelin stars.  The food is quite conceptualized and very tasty. Each morsel arrives solo, to be admired visually then slowly savored.  There’s wit, too.  Four tiny radishes with their leaves arrive in a little square bowl of whey (or was it a grain?) and they look as though they are planted in sand. We both order golden tortellini. I loved the suckling pig in four guises, especially the bite of crusty confit.  Ed ordered the squid. If this sounds like a hearty meal–no.  The servings are quite restrained.

Many of the participants at the conference are in transition or just in the process of creating writing opportunities for themselves.  As everyone knows, a lot of print has dried up and boundless as the internet is, making actual money there is hard.  At the symposium, there’s a focus on improving writing skills through one-to-one coaching with editors.   There’s also a lot of meeting / greeting and wine tasting.  There are dinners at wine country hot spots–so  many to choose from.  This is a far, far cry from the academic conferences I used to attend!  There we had jug wine and potato chips.  Here, they’re passing the lobster fritters and pouring the finest.

We slip away to have dinner with the Rothfelds.  Steven is the photographer I work with on my Chronicle Books yearly agenda and we did Bringing Tuscany Home together.  Since we’re always together in Italy, it’s a treat to dine at his home with his family.  Ah, Dungeness crab! It’s the season.

Write about what you know, teachers always said.  Italy is what I know and I’m talking to the group about how the sensibilty around food and wine differs from anywhere else on the planet. In Italy, wine is food.  Wine is not usually a thing in itself but always served with food. In Tuscany, when we go to a vineyard for tasting, a very full lunch is served. And the Italians are surprisingly moderate–they drink as much water as wine.  I spoke about the difficulty of describing taste.  Some of this I write about in my book that’s about to come out, Every Day in Tuscany.

Although I’m not on the writing staff here, I do have a little advice.  To get over writer’s block, go back and read something you’ve written before, something you like.  This helps reconnect with your own best voice.  And, to me, voice means more than anything else in making your writing distinctive.  My other hint: words, words, words, as Shakespeare said.  Collect words, keep a work notebook, scroll around the the dictionary.  Take what you’ve written and substitute a synonym for every noun, verb, adjective and adverb.  Then go back to the original and take into it, some of the fresher, more surprising language from your exercise.  I could go on and on.  I did teach poetry writing for 23 years! A lot of exercises actually do improve your work.

The afternoon session adjourns and we move to a reception with more Napa wines to taste.  Many are taking notes.  Then, a really fun time for me.  My new book has arrived–two weeks before actual pub date– and the publisher gives one to each participant.  In signing them, I get to meet so many bright and talented people.  New friends, old friends, a buzzing atmosphere, good food and wine—California dreamin’.

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18 Responses to “At the Wine Writers Symposium”

  1. Marcie Byers-Gunkel says:

    Your entry makes me envious, I have not been to Napa in years. Looking forward to your new book. Going to open a bottle of wine, make some bruchetta with the last of Tuscan Sun Olive Oil, and pray it doesn’t snow tomorrow. Thanks for the dreams, memories and inspiration! Give our best to Ed….Marcie and Rick

  2. Kathleen Fischer says:

    I was so happy to find your blog. For years I’ve enjoyed listening to you read your books, usually as I drove to and from work.I listen to them during the dreay winter months; they boost my spirits. As my husband and I planned our retirement, I always held your example in my mind–on a much smaller scale. We bought land in Arkansas (with a beautiful view) and worked with an architect. We planned to retire from university teaching (me:history, my husband: economics) next year.
    Then a daughter with six little children became divorced and is not receiving any child support. Our lives changed; we became financially responsible for seven people. I retired early and now spend much of my time caring for my grandchildren. People over 60 were not meant to get down on the floor many times a day! Soon my daughter will complete a graduate degree and find a job. We have begun to think once again about our retirement although the dream home with the view will probably not become reality. We are not sure we want it any more anyway.
    I have been wondering why you bought a second house in Italy, why you built in North Carolina, how you made those decisions. I’m hoping your new book answers some of my questions. And I’m saving that new CD for a week when I really need an escape.
    Thanks for all the hours of enjoyment you have given me.

    • francesmayes says:

      Wow. Life has a way of pulling out the rug now and then. Six children. I know it’s deeply rewarding but must be completely exhausting as well. Great that your daughter was able to go to grad school–and that will make such a difference in the long run. Meanwhile, it’s interesting that your “dream house” desire might have shifted. We bought the second house in Italy because we are NUTS–but it is beautiful. Living in North Carolina was a good move for us. I’m back to my deepest roots. I also work down here on my furniture line at Drexel Heritage and was always coming here. Many reasons–I never thought I’d move South again but I’m happily here. Snatch those times of rest and practice deep breathing!!! Frances

  3. sharon Dart says:

    Hi Frances, I have enjoyed reading your blog and am looking forward to the new book. It will bring back wonderful memories of our past visits. Hoping to see you next October. Fondly, Sharon

  4. Terry Hall says:

    Thank you for joining us at the Symposium–your reading brought everyone in the room along with you on a journey filled with sights, sounds and tastes. We look forward to welcoming you on your return to Napa Valley as the residents of Cortona do each year–as a friend coming home. I hope you will continue to hold the images and experiences of your time here in Napa Valley as warm and fond memories for a long time–I know all of us who were able to spend time with you and Ed will.

    Safe Travels,
    Terry Hall-Napa Valley Vintners

    • francesmayes says:

      Terry–a real pleasure to meet you. California is a home of mine–so familiar that I could have just stayed. Especially at Meadowood! Thanks for all–Frances

  5. Aaron Highsmith says:

    Ms. Mayes,

    I’m an Army Reserve soldier from Brunswick, Georgia. I’m currently deployed to Kuwait. I’ve been wanting for a couple of months to get back into writing. I asked my Mom for some sort of creative writing book or guide for Christmas, but that was not counted among my many wonderful presents. I was at the PX (I’m not sure if you know what that is, but it’s sort of a military Wal-Mart) yesterday and was pleasantly surprised to find your book, ‘The Discovery of Poetry.’ I’ve always been drawn more to composition of poetry rather than fiction so your book was perfect.

    On the second page of your introduction you mention Sidney Lanier’s ‘The Marshes of Glynn.’ I read that poem when I was younger and cross the Sidney Lanier bridge every time I go to visit my mom, who lives south of the bridge. I’m a City of Brunswick fire fighter and we’ve ran across that bridge as part of training. I was so excited to see you mention his piece that so reminds me of home while I’m on the other side of the world; and to read that you went to those coastal marshes every summer. I spend almost every day on St. Simons Island and most of my best memories are there. Those coastal marshes are my home and as I read your field guide I will feel a deeper connection to you as the author, and what you have to say.

    I set the book down as soon as I got to that part to find your website and send you this message, so I’m obviously just getting started. I want you to know that I’m very excited to read your book and I look forward to the benefit that I will get from it. I’m not sure if you still visit coastal Georgia, but I would like to think that one day I may have the opportunity to meet you and to personally thank you.

    Aaron Highsmith

    • francesmayes says:

      Ciao Aaron, so glad my poetry text made its way to you in Kuwait. I love the poems in that book and hope they inspire you, as they do me. I wrote the book to help readers both read AND write poetry. I share your love of the Golden Isles and was back there last year. Hope you get back to that paradiso soon. I loved Jekyl as a child before it was developed. We rented houses on Sea Island and St. Simons. The marsh always seemed serene and primitive. All the best to you–Frances

  6. Alfonso Cevola says:

    Nice to meet you, Frances, and to hear your words. Great to have you on the blogosphere. Hope to see you in Italy in May.

    Alfonso Cevola
    On the Wine Trail in Italy

  7. Sydney Molare says:

    Wow! You definitely made me want to visit Italy AND Napa Valley…even if the portions are less than generous… 🙂

  8. Rebecca S. Cox says:

    Sounds like a beautiful place to work on writers block. Love to be in the hills in a nice little cottage myself.

  9. anne says:

    Definitely the best place to be. Love it there and so conducive.

  10. Jack Ripple says:

    Beautifully done – all the best to you, Frances.
    Jack Ripple

  11. Virginia C says:

    Good food, good wine, good fun. A golden California glow. Enviable!

  12. Laura says:

    I love your writing. It takes me from my small, rural town of Kentucky and transplants me into what you are writing about to make me feel as if I am right there beside you. I am currently working on my Masters in Literature and love to find new avenues to curb my appetite for reading and I am so glad I discovered your books.

  13. […] recently attended the Professional Wine Writer’s Symposium in Napa and had the pleasure to hear Frances Mayes, author of ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, […]

  14. 1WineDude says:

    Great meeting you at the Symposium. Having flown there from a (deeply) snowed-in Philadelphia, I shared in your feelings of shock at having been placed in Napa during such a gloriously mild week! Cheers!

  15. Cassandra says:

    Nicely done book.

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