Thoughts on the demise of Gourmet Magazine
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.