I am reliably informed that serious journalists, as opposed to we humor columnists, are distinguished by a deep knowledge of their subject matter and exhaustive verification of their facts. And while I never let a lack of knowledge stand in the way of my opinions, I try to harvest as many low-hanging facts as 20 minutes spent randomly surfing the Internet can produce. Enter Wikipedia, a collaborative online encyclopedia apparently founded on the principle that if millions of volunteers toss in information they read elsewhere, and this information is consumed and regurgitated to suggest a consensus, then Truth might accidentally emerge. I always assume that the bulk of any Wikipedia entry was lifted from the term-paper of the grad student who sat next to the contributor 30 years ago, that contributor now being a 50-year-old flabby former barista living with his parents and writing under the pseudonym Cindy4u. Still, Wikipedia’s definitions are much pithier than those of the fuddy-duddy dictionaries and far less likely to include the sort of complexity and nuance that might cloud the subject and cause my articles to exceed their 750-word limit.

To further bolster my journalistic bonafides, I attended last week’s annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood. This confluence of world-class wine journalists, bloggers, website floggers, magazine editors, former magazine editors, cookbook authors, book publishers, writing coaches, and new media gurus is co-sponsored by Meadowood Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Vintners. The best local events often involve the NVV, which is to wine enthusiasts what Steve Rubell and Studio 54 were to disco queens, although passage past their velvet rope must be based more upon pocketbook and palate than glamour, judging from some of its scruffy-whiskered winemaker members. Far from highfalutin, our hosts created an atmosphere of conviviality in which even the biggest stars were accessible and forthcoming, if occasionally formidable. Picture baseball camp for wine scribes, except that instead of practice pitching a curve ball with Goose Gossage, you practiced pitching a feature story to Decanter, Wine & Spirits and Uncorked.

Like most events where strangers gather, it resembled high school. The cool people immediately congealed, separating themselves from the rest of us like gourmet balsamic from off-brand olive oil. The usual types emerged: the ultra-driven strivers shoehorning themselves into conversations with editors, the popular darlings flitting about swapping business cards, the true believers burying their noses deep in spit cups to avoid eye contact, and the starstruck who couldn’t believe they were in the same room with both Eric Asimov and the Shafer 2003 Hillside Select Cabernet (and other rarities). Overall the group was enthusiastic, friendly and kind, and we soon relaxed into an easy camaraderie, remaining hopeful even as Symposium founder and nurturer-in-chief Toni Allegra reminded us that the average writer earns $9K per year.

It made me wonder: who becomes a wine writer, anyway? Were they born picky, their first words being: “Mother, I find this chocolate milk smooth on the palate, soft, full-bodied and rich, yet lacking maturity”? Were they finicky in high school, attending keg parties wearing smoking jackets and swilling Champagne? It appears they were always articulate observers, a tad on the sensitive side. These were not the bullies who shoved you into your locker and stole your lunch money — those guys became venture capitalists and bought wineries. These were good kids, super-smart achievers, with a bit of rebellion at the finish. They edited the yearbook or ran student government, but also drummed in rock bands or smoked pot behind the gym — until they discovered wine. One writer admitted that she had been in the color guard: “you know … not quite a cheerleader.” And while many had grown up to become respected and widely-published, few were able to support themselves through writing alone. Does this mean they are: “you know … not quite wine writers”?

According to Wikipedia: “a semi-professional athlete is one who is paid to play and thus is not an amateur, but for whom sport is not a full-time occupation, generally because the level of pay is too low to make a reasonable living based solely upon that source.” Broadly applying that definition, many of us would be considered semi-pro nowadays. Still the wine writers maintain a high level of professionalism, even if they seem a bit obsessive, fretting about botrytis and blithering on about tannins and acids and bouquets when any normal person would just say “yum.” Some don’t actually drink the wine, yet all are compelled to taste, evaluate and report, even if they can’t be entirely certain anyone is reading. In a world where everyone’s a critic, there is nothing amateur about them. And that’s a fact.

 (Laura Rafaty is the owner of PennalunaNapaValley.com, a resident of St. Helena, an attorney and former theatrical producer, and an author and columnist. Read more at laurarafaty.com)