Monday, October 29, 2012

So, You Think You Can Write?

Ever wanted to know what it takes to write?  I mean, really write?  You could write a book, hope to find a publisher, and find out the hard way.  Or, if your favored subject matter is wine, you could enroll in the 2013 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley.  It might not be the easy way, but it certainly is the coddled way.

Taking place at the uber-luxe Meadowood resort, The Symposium is a down-to-earth gathering of accomplished and aspiring wine, food, and travel writers in a setting only accomplished captains of industry can normally afford.  What's special about this conference (besides the copious quantities of Napa's best wines flowing at every incredible meal and the four star accommodations) is the congenial atmosphere.  It's a small affair where the super-approachable faculty and attendees more than just rub elbows - there's a real spirit of helping one another here.  Budding friendships and lasting contacts are nourished over postprandial library wines.  And by the end of the week you'll have had enough wine to turn you into a beer drinker for the following month.

The registration fee of $575 not only gets you in for all the sessions and a one-on-one coaching session with a seasoned editor, but covers most of the food and wine, too!  To boot, there are fellowship opportunities that cover the registration fee and lodging!  But don't hesitate as they are due at the end of the week.

I wholeheartedly recommend this program to anyone with even an inkling of a desire to explore this business.  If that's not enough encouragement, check out what I wrote after attending the Symposium in 2010:
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It Only Costs A Little Extra To Go First Class

A colleague of mine makes pilgrimages to the world's finest golf resorts; Bandon Dunes, Pebble Beach, Olympia Fields, and others. These places are opulent, luxurious, and beyond the reach of many. He explains these extravagances away with the phrase, "It only costs a little extra to go first class."

My colleague doesn't limit his use of this mindset in justifying golf trips- no, no. It's used to rationalize nearly any tempting luxury: a guys' gambling weekend at the Ritz Carlton San Juan, a three bottle lunch at Per Se, even flying first class to get to these places. While my miserly (and jealous) tsk-tsk-ing might cast him as reprehensibly self-indulgent and occasionally irresponsible, this mindset was precisely what overcame me the moment I first entered the Meadowood resort.

Which is also exactly how and when I began to plot my return visit.

Traffic jams and sharp elbows in route 29 tasting rooms are an unfortunate price of fame in Napa.  The crowds and chaos pile tension and distraction on to what, for most, is supposed to be a relaxing vacation.  But safe harbor is not far from the chauffeur-driven pursuit of gastronomic hedonism.

Secluded in a hollow a short stroll off the Silverado Trail east of St. Helena, the entrance to Meadowood is hidden behind the Napa Valley Reserve's vineyard. A few steps takes you from neat rows of vines to moss-covered trees, fog-filled valleys, and subtle pockets of understated luxury. Even for the most cynical of tight wads, the transition from the hustle of Napa into an oasis of serenity and belonging is reason enough to raid the rainy day fund. Quieting that chatter in-between your ears comes quickly and naturally here.

Past the discrete guard shack, the heavily forested driveway meanders towards the resort compound, sunlight percolating through tall conifers in a soft, polite filter. Broad leafed deciduous trees with muscular, moss-stained branches and arthritic roots buckle the driveways. Ivies, deep green and thick, curtain tennis court fences. Flowering vines casually canopy entryways and the narrow passages that thread between buildings. Nature hasn’t quite taken over as much as accepted the resort as its guest.

Even the wildlife seems to be working hard to complete the peaceful scene; the wild turkey are only ever heard faintly in the distance and the deer keep an appropriate distance. After a while you wonder if the animals haven’t attended staff etiquette training.  Sure, there is a civility here that is too perfect not to be deliberate, yet it is so naturally draped over the geography that it's felt, more than seen, as a welling calm. Nothing at all feels contrived in this setting which feels closer to Yellowstone than Greystone.  There's something abstract about this place that you can't pay for at other resorts; a sense of well being.

Arguably Napa Valley's most remarkable property, Meadwood is a 250 acre luxury resort made up of cottages, lodges and suites nestled along the hillsides of the narrow valley, each cluster carefully distanced from others to preserve a sense of privacy and seclusion. Despite its relatively small size (85 rooms and suites), nothing here is done in half measures. The golf carts which ferry guests and their luggage to and fro are not golf carts at all, but R-Class Mercedes Benzes. The facilities, too, are all generously equipped, combining every convenience and amenity without forsaking the tranquility that permeates the place. Conference, spa, and swimming facilities dot the property - again, discretely - along with tennis courts, croquet, and - in keeping with the theme of harmony of mind, body, and nature - there's an indoor/outdoor workout facility hosting regular Pilates and yoga sessions. The lush nine hole walking golf course is so well hidden, I had wandered the property for a day and a half before discovering it. Finally, and what has become Meadwood's crowning jewel, The Restaurant at Meadwood recently earned its third Michelin star - an achievement shared by only one other Napa neighbor: The French Laundry.

All of these resources share a casual, but inexorable, tranquil unity with their setting in nature, and the docile presence of overwhelming, not overbearing, services. There's a tennis pro, a golf pro, a spa coordinator, and a wine pro. Wine pro? Yes, this is Napa Valley, after all, and the wine pro could be Meadowood’s most differentiating asset. Master Sommelier Gilles de Chambure, looking every bit the part, is an ascot-wearing Frenchman. Only laying eyes on him might lead you to the hasty conclusion that Meadowood has hired, aspiringly, to project its target clientele. But even the briefest of conversations with the charming and utterly affable Monsieur de Chaumbure will disabuse you of any such notion. Among the most educated wine-soaked souls on the planet, Gilles is as unpretentious as they come. He engages on the subject with curiosity and humility. Without hesitation or trace of self-consciousness, he refers to his handy pocket wine encyclopedia when talk turns to the esoteric. Even for someone steeped in the intricacies of California wine, an afternoon with Meadowood's Director of Wine Education promises to be a journey of discovery and fun. Forget tennis or golf, there's more sport to be had in drinking and learning with Gilles.

Whatever activities occupy your days, the guest rooms provide quiet refuge to regroup before dinner and for restful nights. Cozy and spacious, they combine a casual country style with refined comfort. Wood-burning fireplaces are set every evening in anticipation of warming the cool night air in romantic fashion. Fair warning: a fire burning in your room here ranks right up there on the romance scale with Santorini sunsets and languid evening strolls in Paris. Coming here alone is as frustrating as it is lonely.

In concept and location, Meadowood is the ideal base from which to explore Napa Valley. In practice, however, the attractions beyond the guard shack seem less and less alluring as you settle in to this sanctuary. It is, above all, a difficult place to leave.

So, does it only cost a little extra to go first class in Napa Valley? Let’s just say that Meadowood isn’t for those timid with their platinum cards – studio rooms here start at $575 nightly. But for those with the resources – or temerity – and an appetite for the very best, Meadwood belongs at the top of your list.

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