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Thoughts on the demise of Gourmet Magazine

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So many people commented yesterday on my breaking news that Condé Nast announced they’re closing Gourmet. I suspect that most of those saddened by the news are older, because Gourmet really hit its heyday in the 1970s through the 1990s, so today’s Millennials wouldn’t remember it, unless it was on their mom’s kitchen counter. (And dad’s, too, once men realized it’s okay to don an apron and cook without being considered, uhh, suspect.)

Gourmet was born or should I say “plated” way back in 1940 (I’m indebted to Wikipedia for this and some of the following information, and as I write this, on Oct. 5, I see that the Wikipedia article says “On October 5, 2009 Condé Nast announced that Gourmet will cease monthly publication,” so somebody out there is really keeping it up-to-date!). Gourmet really launched the modern era of glossy, colorful cooking magazines, and it also had the distinction of being one of the first American cooking magazines to emphasize the role of wine at the table. Gourmet truly could be called the Julia Child of food magazines.

I myself never subcribed to Gourmet, although I easily could have. I subscribed at one point to Bon Appetit and I don’t remember why I chose it over its competitor. I liked reading Andy Blue’s column in Bon Appetit, but I think Andy will readily concede that, when it came to wine writing, he was not in Gerald Asher’s league. Gerald was quite simply a tour de force of English language wine writing in the last quarter of the 20th century. Gourmet happily gave him room to write spacious articles that seemingly ran as long as Gerald wanted them to be, but no matter how wordy they were, it was Gerald’s literary genius that you never tired of reading them. (I call him Gerald here, but on the occasions when I met him, it was always Mr. Asher.)

If you want to get a taste of great wine writing, I suggest you buy “Gerald Asher On Wine,” which was published in paperback in 1986 by Vintage Books, an imprint of Random House. The book reproduces many of his Gourmet articles. In the Introduction, Elizabeth David reminds us that “discovery…was the very essence” of Gerald Asher. This, in the sense that, while he had access to the great Burgundies, Bordeaux, etc. by virtue of his position, it was “what Gerald himself calls ‘other wines’” that excited him. This accounts for the chapters on Trocken wines, on Sancerre, on the little known wines of Baden, and Bandol, and on California Cabernet Sauvignon (which is the only one of the articles not to have originally appeared in Gourmet. It was published in The University of California/Sotheby Book of California Wine, and it’s too bad U.C. Press won’t, or can’t afford to,  put out a new edition of that remarkable book).

That chapter on Cabernet may well be the single greatest on California Cabernet Sauvignon ever written. Certainly nothing has happened in the 35 or so years since he wrote it to warrant un-saying a single word. That was Gerald Asher for you, and it also is a testament to Gourmet that they had the wisdom and fortitude to hire him in the first place and then let him do his thing for so long.

In lamenting Gourmet we also may be saddened by a loss symbolic of something far weightier than a mere magazine. Gerald Asher represented the peak of the era of the amateur wine writer who, absent funds of his own, was underwritten by a publisher to travel the world and do the greatest wine writing possible. (I don’t know for 100 percent that Gourmet sent him on all those journeys but I always thought they did, and if I’m wrong, I’ll fess up.) Magazines such as Wine Enthusiast still maintain, at some cost to their publishers, bureaus in Rome, Bordeaux, Seattle, San Francisco, etc., and where we don’t have bureaus we send our writers; but this seems to be the culmination of the practice of a Gourmet Magazine, a tailing-off of that period of a strong dollar, solid advertising and subscriptions, and a willingness to invest money where it is needed so that the reporting could be the best anywhere. This sad fact, of course, applies not only to wine magazines but to newspapers, whose overseas bureaus are being reduced or cancelled outright.

Serious wine bloggers in particular ought to seek out Gerald’s books (he has more than one, as a Google search will show), in order to appreciate what really good, lasting wine writing looks like. There’s a tendency among some bloggers (repeat: some. Re-repeat: some. Not all. No broad brushes allowed in this blog!) to think that their wine writing is sui generis, but it isn’t and can’t be and shouldn’t be. There is in fact a torch that is handed down from generation to generation of wine writers, and Gerald Asher, courtesy of Gourmet, held that torch proudly and ran the good race with it. (This is beginning to sound like a Gerald Asher obituary, which of course it isn’t, as he’s still very much with us so far as I know.)

Anyway, lots of people will miss Gourmet Magazine. I wish them, editor Ruth Reichl and all the staff good luck.

  1. Dennis Schaefer says:

    Right Steve; that’s the thing about Gourmet. Their stories, as you note about Gerald Asher, were almost literary in nature. Not about the latest trend or factoid, but rather about one writer’s journey or discovery of wine/food. With Gourmet gone, where will that emphatic prose find the reader’s light of day?

  2. Bingo. A blog entry by someone about which I can agree 100%. ;)

    When I first read Asher a thousand years ago, I knew there was hope.

  3. Thank you for the book recommendation – I will order it asap. I will greatly miss Gourmet, as there is nothing better than curling up with a food and wine magazine and a nice glass of wine. Reading on the internet just doesn’t even come close.

  4. I think it was for its 50th anniversary that Gourmet looked back on its history. As I recall there was a strong ‘manly’ component it its early days. Thanks for reminding us of Gerald Asher’s contribution to wine culture. Erudition but so effortlessly delivered. Gourmet was important in lots of ways –I especially look forward to a look at its restaurant reviews as a mirror of America’s transformation from the era described by Calvin Triillin as that of the Maison de la Casa House period. (See his ‘Alice, Let’s Eat’ for a real treat and a fuller explanation.)

  5. I despair over the demise of Gourmet. It has always been a favorite of mine.

    However, I wonder if it is not a sign of the times for all print magazines, regardless of what topic they cover, as they have to compete with the internet and television. I realize that as ad revenue falls the magazines feel the need to cut back on content and coverage, but that is precisely the time they need to expand coverage. So that people will take them more seriously and want to buy their magazine thus raising raising the circulation and making advertising in it more valuable.

    The publications have started a vicious downward cycle. Not making ad revenues? Raise the price and cut content and the staff. Then the execs wonder why circulation decreases and they can’t fill their ad space. What to do when are losing money? One exec goes ‘I know! Cut the content and staff to save money’. etc.etc.etc. until it goes belly up and then the execs say “We did all we could do to save it don’t cut my bonus!”

    Another example of foolishness on the part of publications is to branch out into areas that are not related in any way shape or form to their publication. Case in point. Today I received from a major wine publication, that I don’t care to name, a slick glossy catalog of paraphernalia that they are attempting to sell directly to their circulation list. I thought this publications was supposed to write about wine, wine-trends, wine regions and people that are in someway related to to wine. Why are they turning into Sears and Roebuck? Is that really going to be saving them or would it be wiser to put the money that was spent on it into increasing content germane to the publication? Also, as you like to point out Steve, is this a totally transparent thing to do? Are they getting a percentage of the sales? Does that bias the magazine? If they truly feel that this is the way only or best way to make money, can they at least put a name other than the the publication on the catalog? I don’t want to knock the publication as I like it, but why don’t they stick to what they do best? i.e. publish a wine magazine?

    To wrap up my small diatribe, I want to say that the people I truly feel for are the unnamed ‘little’ people at Gourmet and it’s loyal readers. They are the ones hurt by this. Not the publishers. And while I feel for Ruth Riechl, I think she will be okay as the television shows, one of which she is to host, and the webside of Gourmet are not closing down.

  6. Thanks for highlighting the gift of Gerald Asher’s wine columns in Gourmet. I have piles of Gourmet Magazines in a box in my garage (mostly from the 1970s and early 80s), mainly to save his articles so I could go back and read them. This was before access to the Internet, but even now I have never had the heart to throw them away. Also, I always loved the Christmas issues. It was truly one of the great magazines.

  7. Gourmet has been a staple in the Olken household for decades. Perhaps that is the problem. We are old-fashioned and actually like to read recipes and think about possibilities.

    You can get all kinds of recipes on the Internet. Sometimes we do, but there has never been an issue of Gourmet that has not received cover to cover treatment when it arrives.

    As for Mr. Asher. No one writing in the English language brings the joy of wine to life better than Gerald Asher.

    But, all that said, I think something my wife offered yesterday by way of analysis rings true. She suggested that Gourmet had not found its way forward from old Gourmet to new Gourmet. There are now deeper, more precise and valuable magazines for foodies, and also better lifestyle food and food and wine magazines. Gourmet was sort of lost in the transition and really did not find a way to keep up.

    Still, if reports are true that it had a million subscribers, one wonders how Conde Nast could not have spent a little more time looking for a better way forward.

  8. You’re right, Steve. At 23, I’ve never had any personal connection to Gourmet Magazine, or many other magazines for that matter–I mostly go to websites and blogs. However, it’s still unfortunate for older friends; especially one who paid a five-year subscription to the magazine in advance.

  9. I remember in the late 1980′s or maybe right around 1990 Gerald Asher wrote an article on where most of the Chardonnay planted in California had originally been sourced from. It was a fascinating read and, as a winemaker at the time, gave me a great insight into some of the grapes I was working with.

  10. I subscribed to Gourmet, loved the Asher adventures as well as the sophistication of all other stories – they took us around the world.
    I cancelled years ago when I found the aritcles to be more about the writer then what and where they were taking us. Shallow reporting remains a real problem today as new writers forget that it’s the adventure the reader is hungry for.
    Maybe it’s the editors fault, they could edit out the snipets/whining about personal life/problems that don’t belong in the stories about restaurants, hotels, inn, foods & wines and all the great places we armchair travelers were taken with Mr. Asher.
    Listen up all writers – we readers are still thirsting for tales about
    food adventures. Do us a favor, leave out your personal life.

  11. Regina Lutz says:

    Thanks, Steve, for graciously remembering “Mr. Asher.” His colums in Gourmet were a treat to read and I still have a few copies of the magazine in my files…one in particular is a Thanksgiving issue from the 90s (I think); the menu and recipes for Thanksgiving dinner are still wonderful and the wine pairings by Gerald Asher are right on.

    I stopped reading Gourmet when Gerald Asher stopped writing for the magazine…

  12. Unfortunatley, what Tom says make a lot of sense. I say unfortunatley becauase I happen to be one of those people that still like to take the time to turn the pages on a magazine or newspaper. With the way things are going, it seems it is only a matter of time before other publications follow suit. Without advertisers spending money, it’s game over for these pubs. But still, I hate to see it happen!

  13. I was shocked when I heard about Gourmet going out to pasture. I began reading this magazine in my early teens and I am 50 plus now! For over 20 years I carted my old issues around from apartment to apartment in NY – they did not make the trip to Florida… Such a classic, wonderful stories about food, wine, travels. I went to Barnes and Noble today to get the November issue – all gone.
    We’ll miss you!

  14. Robert Pichette says:

    I kept my Gourmet mags from the 1990′s when I subscribed. The articles from that period were fantastic. Food wasn’t a fetish or obsession it appears to be in many magazines now, it was part of the total experiance, especially in the travel-food articles. If the article was a place my wife and I visited we could always recognize it. Writing ceased to be valued and fast paced presentations which require no attention span has been the replacement. This brings us to Mr. Asher who knew haw to write and truly enjoy wine. He could appreciate expensive rare wines as well as inexpensive table wines, as long as they were good and always for teh right reasons. Thanks.

  15. Robert, Mr. Asher was and is one of the greats.

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