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Rx for what ails ya: My prescription for wine magazines

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I’m a wine magazine guy—a product of that environment. I put 25 years of my life into writing about and reviewing wines for Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. I did pretty well, so I think I can say I “get” the culture. I was there in the 1980s, and I was there until earlier this year. What I’m about to point out, therefore, is based on experience, on a keen understanding of where wine magazines are at today, and on love.

First, what wine magazines are doing right. Their publishers and editors might regret it, but I think we can all agree that the primary focus of a wine magazine—from the public’s point of view, anyway—is the wine review. When all is said and done, it’s the reviews that people turn to first. And today’s consumer wine magazines continue to do a great job at it. Critics are, for the most part, honorable and sincere, and they pride themselves on being fearlessly independent of the advertising side of their companies. This independence is a credit to them, and to their publishers, who must occasionally cringe when an advertiser gets a lousy review. So a big thumbs up to magazines and critics for a job well done.

Now, I have to get onto what wine magazines could do better. I’m talking about what the trade calls the editorial side: the articles. If the reviews are the nervous system of the magazine, the articles are the flesh. They fill the pages; they provide the content (to use the word currently popular). The articles are what publishers and editors hope the public will actually read, after they’ve finished scrutinizing the reviews. But here, IMHO, wine magazines are letting the public down. Things could simply be better.

Twenty five and thirty years ago, the nascent American wine magazine was the most exciting thing a budding wine lover could lay his hands on. (Well, almost ; >) Wine writers, like consumers, were busily and happily discovering wine. Their articles brimmed with the joy of discovery, excitement and passion. There was a sense of shared adventure: writers invited readers to come along with them on the voyage, and readers eagerly participated.

We writers were young then, and our brains were ablaze. I remember my first winery profile. My first winemaker Q&A. My first interview with a collector, my first regional piece, my first wine-and-food pairing story, my first vintage report. And my first published review! It was like having sex for the first time. I was super-jazzed to write it all, and was able to transmute my joy into the written word, thanks to a God-given talent I was born with. So were the other writers with whom I was contemporaneous. Together, we invented a new type of wine writing. It was distinctly American: not too high-brow, but serious, enthusiastic, without guile or malice (common then in Europe), sincere, sunny, chatty. The world had never seen wine writing like that.

Most of the magazines of that era are still around; the wine magazine has proven to be (to quote Woody Allen) a resilient little muscle. For that, we may be thankful.

And yet…

Do you ever get the feeling, when you read an article in a wine magazine, that you’ve read the same article 25 times before in the same magazine? Sure, the names and places may change, but the template is the same. You see the same “Vintage Report on California Zinfandel” (or whatever) repeated every few years, with the same predictable phrases (“a new, more balanced style”) as you read in the magazine’s 2009, 2005 or 1999 articles. The same routine lists of “winemakers to watch” who turn out to be, in many cases, winemakers who weren’t worth watching; but the wine writer is expected to turn these articles out every year or so. Ditto for regional pieces and the entire gamut of topics the wine writer is expected to cover.

When I read today’s wine magazines—and I read most of them regularly—I can’t help feeling a sense of ennui, of déja vu. I think I know the reason: today’s senior wine writers have been writing the same stuff for 20 years or more. They’re in their 50s and 60s now; it’s hard for them to conjure up the same sense of wonder they felt in 1994. They try their best, but they’re only human; the heart sinks when it realizes it has to write yet another “pairing wine with food at the Thanksgiving table”column for the zillionth time.

The American wine magazine is in a rut, but the way forward (or out) isn’t readily apparent. I think wine magazines have to come up with new ways of writing about wine that are inspired by social media: they have to be more transparent, more participatory, and more human. What do I mean by that? I mean that the writers can no longer be a distant, aloof “voice of God.” Readers don’t want that anymore, especially younger ones. They don’t want to be talked down to, they want to be invited to join a conversation.

This is difficult when we’re dealing with the printed page. One might suggest that’s why print is in trouble—because it cannot be immediate and participatory, due to the nature of the publication process. Yet I would argue that this isn’t a fundamental weakness of print magazines, but a fundamental challenge: wine magazines need to take their authority and use it to overcome the temptations of utter predictability and repetiveness.

One thing that can to done to make wine magazines more relevant is for younger writers to come onboard, and this is, of course, happening even as we speak. But just because a writer is younger doesn’t protect her from falling into the same old templates that older writers have been practicing for decades. After all, younger wine writers shouldn’t strive to be mere iterations of older wine writers. They should develop their own styles, even if that means challenging assumptions at the magazines that hired them. The problem with that is that the younger wine writer is usually low man (or woman) on the totem pole, and also is answerable to publishers who are as old as, if not older than, their longtime writers. Thus, the younger writers may not feel emboldened enough to shake things up—and the wine magazine remains in the doldrums.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but as I began this post, let me repeat that I’m a child of the wine magazine. I love wine magazines, I believe they play an incredibly important role in educating the public, and I believe they’ll be around for a long time. I just think that some re-imagining and reinvention are in order if they’re to remain relevant.

  1. TomHill says:

    Well….no & yes.

    It certainly seems like with today’s wine magazines the focus is the wine reviews. ‘Tis sad, but true. But I totally disagree that it’s the wine reviews that the readers turn to first. At least in the circle of wine friends that I have. I think the wine magazine publishers and editors are deluding themselves to think that people are buying their magazines for the reviews and then going out, lemming-like, and buying those top-rated wines.
    I admit to reading (a cursory read, I might add) the WS reviews. But not to find out what wines I should buy. But to see who’s released what. “Oh…Unti has released a Fiano..I’d like to try that”. The score has zero relevance on my buying that wine.
    But you are certainly dead-on when you decry the lack of editorial content of today’s wine magazines. The quality of the writing in most of todays wine magazines is positively abysmal. That’s why JoshGreene’s Wines&Spirits stands heads & shoulders above today’s crowd. They have some very skilled writers (like PatrickComiskey and DavidDarlington) that write articles that have some original ideas & content. They are articles that I can actually learn something NEW from, not just give me yet another tired list of wine reviews and scores (“drinking from the firehose of wine scores” as one writer aptly termend it.
    To me, I subscribe to wine magazines so I can learn something new and expand my knowledge and horizons. Reading that Rombauer Carneros Chard ’12 received a 93 is not something I need to learn.
    For those who think today’s wine magazines are what wine journalism is all about, I would suggest you dig up some of those early copies of Vintage, Wine World, BonApetit, WineSpectator (when it was a quality tabloid newspaper out of SanDiego…not the current lifestyle magazine). You will find plenty of articles that are interesting, well-written, and informative. And virtually zero in the way of wine reviews. Articles by BobThompson, HankRubin, NormRoby, DanBerger, JasonBrandtLewis, RobertLawrenceBalzer..people who could write intelligently and with a passion. It was exciting each month when those magazines would show up in my mailbox (which, then, was a steel box mounted on a post in front of my house) and I would drop everything and sit down and read it. When this month’s issue of WS shows up in my mailbox (yup..it’s still out there), it’ll be a week afore I bother to read it (takes all of 10-15 minutes). And I assure you it’s not the wine reviews I turn to first.
    There is still room for that kind of wine journalism in today’s world….magazines w/ some actual editorial content. RHDrexel’s LoamBaby is one such example. Alas…it’s not editorial content that draws in the advertising $$’s, it’s the reviews. Which is probably why today’s wine journalism is such a sad state of affairs.
    End of rant.
    Tom

  2. amen

  3. The sustaining value that wine mags provide today is a number, roughly in the 85-100 range. The other trappings (wine reviews, long-form content) may be necessary, but how many of us can remember the lilt associated with any particular wine? These numbers are the lubricant for the entire industry and since there really is almost no information *readily* available to consumers when they are making their buying decisions, incumbents still have a big advantage. But they are squandering it.

    The biggest issue in wine today is context. Historically, the hard-core enthusiasts would get the latest WE, WS, WA, etc., jump to wine reviews, find the big points at reasonable cost, jot down some names and head off to the store. We call them point whores, but we all have some point whore in us. This includes distributors and retailers. We all know it’s way easier to sell a 92 point wine than an 89 point wine. But the difference today is that we now all have a new appendage in the form of a smart phone connected to unlimited information. Connecting our physical context (location and associated inventory), our preferences and a vast database of product information is a game-changer for everyone.

    The first evidence of this can be found in Vivino’s recent addition of 300 San Francisco restaurants’ wine inventory data to the app. What is the relative power of an app that has already ground through all of this information before I’ve even sat down and advises me on my purchase compared to a magazine article that I read a month ago and whose details I’ve completely forgotten. To be sure, Vivino’s current implementation has a lot to be desired, but it does point to a future where the winners are those that influence transaction-oriented decisions – and well over 90% of those occur when we’re walking around a store or sitting down at a restaurant. In this context, whether the score was from Robert Parker or from 100 schmoes is kind of lost on the buyer because it’s just a part of the overall advice model.

    I’m no fan of 100 schmoes and I really do believe that wine mags are the best-positioned entities to add authority to this contextual model. But as Woody Allen said, 80% of success is just showing up. If they don’t show up then they authority will be whisked away – not because there is a better approach to creating wine reviews, but because there is a better approach to solving the consumer’s problem.

  4. Whatever the value of qualitative review notations, whether in 100 points or 10 chopsticks, content and context are also important.

    Tom Hill may be right that one wine article sounds like another, but that is because one winery looks like another (OK, too broad a generalization) but not all that far off.

    It is not in the discussion of crushers or barrels, of organic or biodynamic, or soils or exposure that make any article unique and worth reading. It is the people behind all those elements–and the wines they make.

    While it is true that tasting notes are a major part of WS, it is context and content (advertising and nice pictures, as well) that separates it from the newsletters like Parker or Connoisseurs’ Guide.

    The wine consuming world is not monolithic, and their desires for information are not limited to tasting notes. I am in the tasting note business, and that is fine for me. But the writer I admire most is Gerald Asher because he brings the place and the people alive and that is a special talent–one which adds greatly to my understanding of the world in which I have happily made a living for some years now.

  5. Bill Haydon says:

    I think you’re seriously overestimating the value of scores these days. I haven’t been asked for a score in New York in Chicago for several years. The buyers simply don’t care anymore, and in many instances, attempting to “sell them” by dropping a WA or WS score is highly counter-productive. And while the situation is different among suburban retailers and secondary markets in surrounding states, one can see the influence of the larger–trend setting if you will–markets beginning to be seen there too.

    So, to quote Lenin, “what is to be done” if you’re a wine magazine. You can either take the WS route and be a lifestyle magazine and appeal primarily to that orthodontist in Omaha or you can take the Decanter route and actually focus on in-depth analysis and wine knowledge….as noted above “teach me something!” At the end of the day, the only magazine that I see having any real influence among buyers (you would call them gatekeepers) today is Decanter.

    As for a pure score driven magazine, I think even the new overlords at the WA might recognize its waning influence as evidenced in their attempt to out Spectator the Spectator with their ridiculous exercise in navel gazing the 1%, Hedonism.

  6. TomHill says:

    Charlie sez: “But the writer I admire most is Gerald Asher because he brings the place and the people alive and that is a special talent–one which adds greatly to my understanding of the world in which I have happily made a living for some years now.”

    Doh..whatta doofus. How could I forget GeraldAsher. One of the very best.

    It is indeed as you say, Charlie: ” It is the people behind all those elements–and the wines they make.”
    That, too, is what makes a wine article worth reading.
    Tom

  7. susan wu says:

    Steve, I, among many others, adore you and read your blog faithfully for one undeniable talent of yours – the God-given gift and power of putting thoughts into words. But something is not feeling right after reading today’s post. It brought me back to this year’s Oscar moment when Matthew McConaughey made the acceptance speech for winning the best actor award. Well, he really deserved it for his extraordinary performance, but the SAN he demonstrated with what he said and how he said it was truly disturbing for a sound mind. Anyway, I’m the “oldie” who still love print media like the oversized and glossy covered WS. But it’s the lengthy pages of buying guide with score # at the end that I usually skip. Well, it’s good reference point especially for an ordinary consumer like me who gets specific price tag for each bottle and vintage.

    As an outsider of the business, I have access to insightful and update info on the industry, its insiders’ brain and fascinating stories about wine people. Imagine without getting a dose of the nitty-gritty of Brad Pitt’s Miraval from WS, how could I get interested in buying and try it simply because it has something to do with a big celebrity?!

    There’re a lot with regards to keeping content of vino magazines alive, relevant and intelligent that you yourself can do and contribute to. It was not too long ago when the short piece on your blog got folks agitated and losing manner. That’s the power of your writing. Plus, young writers need good mentoring and coaching to mature. You’re the ideal one for taking on that role. First sex is unforgettably exciting. But sex at a mature age is more of delicacy. You’re the right one to impact effectively.

  8. And, Tom, that is also why reading RH Drexel is mandatory these days for me and why I and my writing compartriot, Steve Eliot, laud that author’s efforts so loudly and longly.

    Scores probably do count a little more than Bill Haydon says they do, because even the top restaurants in NYC and Chicago (and I have recently been there) still want the best wines on their lists and they carefully choose bottles by what is in the bottle. The very best of them also taste as much as they can, but to suggest that they are no longer reading is simply not a universal fact of life.

  9. Bill Haydon says:

    I agree with you, Charlie, that those restaurants want the best wines for their list, but they’re no longer determining that based upon numerical ratings. As you say a few sentences later, they’re choosing based on what’s in the bottle.

    I would view the process as something similar to this. Somm reads an article in Decanter (or picks the knowledge up somewhere else) about the various different communes in Chianti Classico, how the soil changes from North to South in the region and how that different terroir translates into regional stylistic differences within the DOCG. Somm then proceeds to taste through several single commune (or even single estate) Classicos as a means of selecting the best examples to add to his list. The benediction of Parker no longer matters, and in fact might be viewed as a negative since he would be likely to tout wines in an overly ripe international style that have lost their regional typicity.

  10. Bill, I don’t understand the philosophical objection to points. Isn’t it really a function of the point-giver’s POV rather than a problem with the concept of a number itself. Why should I trust one somm’s recommendation vs. my favorite wine critic’s?

  11. Bill Haydon says:

    Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that buyers should rely on their own education and palates rather than chasing after scores. Wine merchants should be wine merchants rather than lazy bastards hoping a shelf talker with a number does their job for them. I don’t think scores will ever go away entirely, but I do view recent developments lessening their influence as a healthy and necessary correction to where things stood a decade ago. Better, more engaged on and off premise buyers are not a bad thing.

  12. TomHill says:

    Charlie sez: “And, Tom, that is also why reading RH Drexel is mandatory these days for me and why I and my writing compartriot, Steve Eliot, laud that author’s efforts so loudly and longly.”

    Yup..I was pretty impressed w/ his writings as well. It’s been a long time since Vol.III, but I hope he picks up his pen again and resumes.
    Tom

  13. Dear Susan Wu, thanks for the comment. I guess it just shows, different strokes for different folks! The only other thing I’d point out is that I’m better looking than McConaughey!

  14. Matt Mauldin says:

    @TomHill, nice observation on Wine & Spirits. It’s my favorite print magazine and the articles are very in-depth without being condescending to the reader. I’ve used Wine & Spirits more than any other magazine to plan my wine adventures. I also love how the reviews offer insight into the story of the wine as well.

    @Bill Haydon, I agree that many, if not most (if not all), trendy urban restaurants are not making wine decision based on points. However I’d disagree that it’s always about the wine in the bottle. There are definitely other arbitrary tastemaking market forces in the wine world that influence that buyer profile.

  15. RE: RH DREXEL

    RH DREXEL emailed me, I guess because my email address is known and I like Loam Baby, with the following–and has asked me to post here.

    ” Hi Everybody,
    So sweet to hear nice comments about Loam Baby. Really warms my heart. Working right now on the Sonoma Coast issue which will be out this autumn. Each issue costs 10k of my own money to print, so sometimes I have to save a little in between issues. The Sonoma Coast issue should be going to print in August…out in September or October. Really looking forward to sharing some neat interviews and, if I may brag for a moment, I do think I took some pretty killer photos of Duncan and Nathan over at Arnot Roberts! Best, rh “

  16. TomHill says:

    Thanks, Charlie. Good to hear he’ll be back. I look forward to reading his (her?) take on the SonomaCoast.
    Tom

  17. An on-going concern for me regarding the magazines and the scores remains the criteria by which some scores only make it to the data base instead of appearing in print. For instance my 2010 Diamond Mountain Cabernet was given 96 points and designated a Cellar Selection by WE, but never made it to the printed magazine. Back in January I posted here asking for clarification of the criteria for deciding which reviews appeared in print. Adam Strum posted in response that all wine above a certain score appeared in print because is was important for readers to see them. We have yet to see the previously mentioned wine in the printed WE, and have to wonder if it was because we didn’t pay for having our label copy appear in the mag.

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Steve,

    Regarding . . .

    “One thing that can to done to make wine magazines more relevant is for younger writers to come onboard, and this is, of course, happening even as we speak. But just because a writer is younger doesn’t protect her from falling into the same old templates that older writers have been practicing for decades. . . . The problem with that is that the younger wine writer is usually low man (or woman) on the totem pole, and also is answerable to publishers who are as old as, if not older than, their longtime writers.”

    . . . let’s not let the editor(s) one level down from the publisher on the magazine’s food chain off the hook.

    Steve, tell us about WE’s “style guide” and who edited your pieces — and when you disagreed (on “tone” or “content”), how were those disagreements resolved at WE?

    As those late night cable TV ads of yore for a certain supermarket tabloid rag used to exclaim:

    “Enquiring minds want to know!”

    ~~ Bob

  19. Bob Henry says:

    Michael,

    Regarding . . .

    “The first evidence of this can be found in Vivino’s recent addition of 300 San Francisco restaurants’ wine inventory data to the app. What is the relative power of an app that has already ground through all of this information before I’ve even sat down and advises me on my purchase compared to a magazine article that I read a month ago and whose details I’ve completely forgotten. To be sure, Vivino’s current implementation has a lot to be desired, but it does point to a future where the winners are those that influence transaction-oriented decisions – and well over 90% of those occur when we’re walking around a store or sitting down at a restaurant.”

    . . . how much “utility” does this or any service provide, when the biggest knock against restaurant wine lists is the lack of specificity on WHICH vintage they stock?

    ~~ Bob

  20. Bob Henry says:

    Bill,

    Decanter has its place in our wine magazine diet, but from the perspective of this long-time reader, I find their coverage of the American wine scene and reviews of American wines to be narrow and shallow.

    Too often reviewing large production wines that get exported. (So-called “grocery store wines.”)

    How many “cult” wines ["crown jewels"] do you see mentioned or reviewed?

    The converse is not true.

    American wine magazine go out of their way to review even the most obscure European (and Australian) wines, that have “spotty” or even non-existent importation. A point of pride in serving as “blood hounds” sniffing out rarities and collectibles.

    ~~ Bob

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