I blogged last April that Gourmet magazine, which Condé Nast shut down in Oct., 2009, might spring back to life, not just as an online publication but even in some newsstand format.
Now, it’s actually happened. “Condé Nast has announced that it will indeed bring back Gourmet in print form,” says this article in the online zine, FishbowlNY.
It’s worth reading between the lines to see if we can infer any lessons to be learned in (a) why print publications die, (b) how they can continue online and (c) if they can actually pull a Lazarus and return to print form after they’re dead.
In my April blog, I wrote that, if Gourmet did return to print, it might do so as an advertiser-driven publication, one that straddled the tenuous border between “straight” journalism and what’s called, in the trade, an “advertorial.” So, I wrote, the new Gourmet “would be ‘Gourmet by Kraft.’ Could we expect to see recipes based on Oscar Mayer bologna, Oreo cookies and Philadelphia Cream Cheese?”
Such information as is available on the new Gourmet is scant, to say the least. What we know from the early reports is that the first issue is called Gourmet Quick Kitchen,
it will be 128 pages long, contain 81 “fast and easy recipes,” and will hit newsstands Sept. 7, at a cost of $11 — which seems pricey for a magazine.
But that’s about all Condé Nast has told the world. What we don’t know is whether the magazine really will be advertiser-driven, or whether it will be pure.
We also know, via the New York Times, that all of the recipes in Gourmet Quick Kitchen “were published in Gourmet before its demise,” and the first issue “has no paid advertisements…”. That’s pretty interesting, but before you come to any conclusions, the Times article also said that “future editions might” contain advertisers. You can only conclude that, when the Times reporter was given access to the Condé Nast P.R. person who broke the news, the P.R. person wouldn’t rule out the possibility of future advertising.
Knowing how advertising works, I suspect that potential advertisers are holding off for now, waiting to see if the new magazine actually sells.
What else is part of Condé Nast’s plans for Gourmet? The magazine “will see another iteration on the iPad and other tablets later this year with the launch of Gourmet Live,” reports min online. What is Gourmet Live? Condé Nast’s president and CEO announced it in an online press release last June 22. He called Gourmet Live “an entirely new digital content product” that will offer readers “articles, menus, photos, videos and more,” while bringing “monetization structures new to Condé Nast.” It’s not clear whether Gourmet Live will carry advertising. The company made a YouTube promo for it, but there’s no clue about advertising, or what those new “monetization structures” will be.
So it looks like Condé Nast is taking a multi-platform approach that incorporates print, newsstands, online, social media in all its aspects (there are also a Facebook and Twitter pages), and creating buzz through giving “insider” access to selected media, like the Times. Which is pretty much about all any publisher can do in these uncertain times.
Reaction, by the way, to the new Gourmet by old Gourmet Magazine fans has been less than enthusiastic. Here are some typical reader comments to the Times article:
Eleven dollars (plus tax) for a magazine? I would hope they wouldn’t have advertising at that price. You could almost buy a book for that.
Gourmet Quick! sounds like they’ve taken all of the quality out and left us with a Rachel Ray look alike.
I miss the old Gourmet…I’m not looking for quick recipes from Gourmet. I can find a 100 of the same thing on the shelf already.
Seems like cashing in on a well-loved name…Rerunning old recipes with new photos? I can go to Epicurious if I want to find old recipes.
It’s so sad to see a repackaging of old content and dare to say they are “bringing Gourmet back”.
Anyway (this is Steve again), it seems to me that Gourmet has a long, hard road ahead, and believe me, I wish them well. They’re one of the more conspicuous victims of the recession and the online revolution, but they’re hardly alone. It will be educational to watch Gourmet and see how they navigate the treacherous waters ahead.
I’ve always been skeptical when a high-end winery turns out a lower-priced line of ordinary wine it then tries to burnish with the halo effect of its own prestige.
This happened most famously, of course, with Mouton-Rothschild, whose Mouton-Cadet, an indifferent wine, patently trades on the Mouton sheen. In California the best known instance was at Robert Mondavi, and helped ultimately to cause the family to lose control to Constellation. Sometimes, upscale wineries that decide to play the low-price game do so under a different brand. Learning from the Mondavi debacle, they hide the visible connection between the original, prestigious parent brand and the cheap new bastard child.
What prompted these thoughts was a recent article in the online journal, Luxist. They interviewed Prince Robert of Luxembourg, the managing director of Domaine Clarence Dillon (DCD), which owns the Bordeaux chateaux Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion. DCD has launched a new brand, Clarendelle, which makes red, rosé and white wines from Bordeaux that retail here in the States for just north or south of $20. Production seems to be between 60,000-65,000 cases. The grapes are bought from producers throughout Bordeaux.
In the interview, the Luxist reporter was very flattering to her subject, the Prince. She told him, “It will be nice for customers to walk into a wine store and find $20 to $25 bottle of wine with a name on it like yours that represents quality. Who wouldn’t want to buy it?” The Prince did not demur, nor did the reporter press Prince Robert when, in response to her question of how Clarendelle is blended, he replied, “We are doing the same exercise we do when we make Chateau Haut-Brion every year,” as if there were qualitative parallels between Clarendelle and Haut-Brion, a Bordeaux First Growth. Nor did the reporter follow up when Prince Robert said his goal is “to create a super premium brand from Bordeaux that goes beyond the chateaux.” This suggests, to the average reader, that a negociant brand, made from leftover grapes in Bordeaux not good enough to go into top crus, can be as “super premium” as the wines from “chateaux,” a nonsensical statement on its face. Any Bordeaux producer can call himself a “chateau,” but most consumers will assume, quite mistakenly, that the word “chateau” applies only to the Lafites, Latours, Moutons and, yes, Haut-Brions of Bordeaux.
The Prince has been hitting the streets promoting Clarendelle. There’s a story in this Japanese magazine, “Lisa Your Family Magazine,” that calls Clarendelle “a trendy wine” (that’s what the link on Clarendelle’s website says). The Prince recently told the Chinese publication, Beijing Youth Daily (BYD), that “Clarendelle has incorporated the balance, elegance and spirit of Haut-Brion,” and in the course of that Q&A, the following howler occurred:
BYD: If you compare Clarendelle with other class-one wines from Bordeaux area like Mouton Cadet, how do you think Clarendelle differs from all other wines?
PRL: Please don’t make comparison between our wine and others…Clarendelle does have a very limited production…and it is super premium.”
Limited though the production may be, Clarendelle is sold in at least 18 countries, and is served in Conrad Hilton Hotels and on Swiss Air Lines.
Prince Robert also went to Moscow to promote Clarendelle. The article in Passport Moscow says “Clarendelle is a super premium class wine and is the new project of Prince Robert,” which words sound right out of Prince Robert’s mouth. Then the Prince is quoted as saying, “We trust, that connoisseurs of wine search for names which they trust and which represents alternatives to existing brands. Creating Clarendelle, the team of our wine makers aspires to find and make the best of the potential of Bordeaux terroir and from the from centuries of knowledge which this region possesses”. The typos and other mistakes are no doubt due to translation or language difficulties, but the underlying gibberish is clear.
Is Clarendelle wine any good? I haven’t had it, but my colleague, Wine Enthusiast’s European editor, Roger Voss, has. He scored it between 83 points and 87 points. He called the 2005 red “awkward [and] stalky” and said it left “bitterness” in the finish. But then, Roger is an accomplished wine taster, impossible to fool with associations with “chateaux,” and not likely to believe a wine is trendy because it says so in a magazine. Nor is Roger the type to describe Mouton-Cadet as a “class-one” wine.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on the Prince. A guy’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, especially these harsh days when First Growth Bordeaux is a hard sell to everyone except Asian billionaires. Still, it rubs me the wrong way when people like the Prince — who is basically a P.R. guy in an expensive suit — take advantage of the gullibility of naive people by telling them falsities, such as Clarendelle is like Haut-Brion because it’s made from the same grape varieties. Wide-eyed reporters in Moscow and Beijing actually believe that kind of thing. Then they write it up, and their even more credulous readers believe it, go and out seek the wine, tell their friends, and there you go: A trend is born. Clarendelle ends up being a “class-one” super-premium wine, even though it’s just another supermarket brand.
Are wealthy Chinese wine buyers “opening [Bordeaux] with their friends, rather than just using them as an investment,” as the Bordeaux Wine Council attested last week, or are “Speculators, not drinkers…likely to be the biggest Chinese buyers of Bordeaux,” as a Decanter survey, also released last week, just found?
The two statements can’t both be true.
I can understand why the Bordeaux Wine Council, a P.R. arm of the Bordeaux wine industry, would want to convince itself, and the world, that the Chinese are actually drinking their Bordeaux, and not using it like poker chips. [Disclosure: this blog has the honor of being on the Council’s blogroll, one of only nine to make the cut.] It doesn’t do Bordeaux’s image any good to be associated with rampant speculation.
The Council also is sensitive to the rather severe hit the Bordeaux market in China suffered earlier this month, when media around the world revealed that the “unprecedented speculation” is now giving rise to “fears of fraud…among the super-rich in China” concerning fake wine, as was reported, for instance, by The Telegraph.
The article reported unbelievably obtuse demand among China’s nouveau-rich for 2009 Bordeaux, and quoted a Hong Kong broker as saying people were “coming in with blank chequebooks saying, ‘Just tell me the number I need to write’.” That kind of blind madness naturally greatly increases “the opportunities for fraud,” the article said.
The proximate cause of the madness was (who else?) Parker’s pronouncement that “2009 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have tasted in 32 years of covering Bordeaux.” [Of course, if the '09s are duds, Parker can always say, "Well, I said may...".] If that sounds familiar, it’s because it uncannily resembles what he wrote of the 2005s: “One thing I am sure of after twenty-eight years of tasting Bordeaux wines every March is that 2005 can not be compared to any previous vintage in my experience.”
The Man does know how to turn a phrase! (And if anybody can come up with “greatest vintage ever” statements from Parker for other vintages, you win a free subscription to this blog.)
It’s obviously not in Bordeaux’s or in Parker’s interests for anyone to think the Chinese are just a bunch of fools buying up fake “Lafitte” from unscrupulous con men.
Fine wine must avoid the taint of fraud like an STD. Bordeaux has done a pretty good job keeping its hem out of the mud for centuries, but then, there’s never been a market as unsophisticated, gullible — and rich — as China. Although only about 14 million of its population of 1.3 billion currently buys wine, they do show an alarming naivete, and China’s potential down the road, as it gets richer, is clearly staggering. The Bordelais, with a centuries-old eye to emerging markets (Russia, Britain in the early 1800s, America in the 20th) know it. Mouton Cadet just opened their first wine bar in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, where they will pour, not only their plonkish basic Bordeaux (which my great colleague, Wine Enthusiast’s French editor Roger Voss, gives fairly dreadful reviews to), but d’Armailhac, Clerc Milon and, yes, Mouton itself. Never mind that falsely-labeled Mouton Cadet already has made its appearance in China. Can Mouton Rothschild be far behind?
Bordeaux and Parker are so intertwined, it’s almost like they co-brand each other. Parker essentially brought Bordeaux back from the dead with his 1982 declaration of the vintage, and France in turn returned the favor, with former President Jacques Chirac awarding him the Legion of Honor.
The Western world, where both Bordeaux and Parker made their reputations, is one of law, orderly commerce [usually] and a go-for-the-jugular Fourth Estate dedicated to fraud-busting. China is a whole other ballgame. If fake Bordeaux — and fake Rhône and California wines, which Parker also reviews — become a significant problem in China, that could mar everybody’s reputation. And you can bet it’s already happening. “California wineries also face a threat common to many industries in China — copycats,” reported this article from the San Jose Mercury News just two weeks ago. It quoted Wu Jianxin, owner of a Beijing wine club, as saying, “There are a lot of fakes and the government has one eye open and one eye closed…The fake wine industry will employ a lot of people.”
Wineries stand to lose more, in the way of reputation, than does Parker, whose personal integrity is undoubted. Still, the partnership between Parker and the Bordeaux wine trade in China now has a third seat at the table: crooks. How will they both handle it?
“It takes a lot more than good cooking to make a restaurant a success,” said the president of Emeril Lagasse’s corporation, in this Associated Press profile of the celebrity chef, who was basically bought out by Martha Stewart and now works for her Omnimedia empire (no disrespect intended. Everybody has a buyout price).
If any two people in the wine and food world understand the concept of branding, it’s Lagasse,TV’s most famous chef (what, you think it’s Rachel Ray?), and Stewart, the grande dame of lifestyle mavens. They’ve entered the pantheon of celebrities whose first names alone are instantly recognized by millions.
However cheesy you may think Emeril and Martha are, there’s no denying that both have been fabulously successful in their chosen careers. They have lessons to teach to two populations in particular whose thoughts tend to wander toward questions of branding: bloggers and wineries.
What Emeril and Martha understand — Steve Jobs, too — is that America is a brand-oriented consumer culture. People want and need to buy stuff, but they’re fundamentally insecure (especially in this awful economy), so they look for proven names they trust. That’s what famous brands depend on: America’s trust.
But trust isn’t forever, as Toyota is learning the hard way. If it was, Radio Shack would still make the most popular computers. Especially in turbulent times such as these, with the economy reshaping itself into who knows what, and the Internet shaking everything up, there are opportunities for wineries that are not yet brand names but would like to be. Every generation presents such chances, as Robert Mondavi understood in his bones. So what lessons do Martha and Emeril have to teach wannabe brands?
The first is that, in our American meritocracy, anyone can become branded. That doesn’t mean everyone can, or will. But if Emeril and Martha — two basically weird people — could, you can, too. They did it with a combination of chutzpah, talent in their skills (Martha personality, Emeril cooking), organizational talent and an innate understanding of P.R. that’s reflected in relentless self-promotion.
I started this post with the quote “It takes a lot more than good cooking to make a restaurant a success” for a reason. Lots of chefs cook well, but their restaurants will never be successes. And lots of people make good wine, but they will fail in the long run or even the medium-short. What then makes for success?
There’s also luck. Most people who have made it will tell you they were in the right place at the right time. But since luck is incapable of being managed, we can eliminate it from our playbook. Let’s look at this from a winery point of view. First of all, they have to be good at what they do, i.e. making wine. You’ll never build a successful winery if you’re turning out crap. This implies that you have to know the difference between “good” and “crap,” which isn’t so easy, to judge from what I taste out there.
It also helps to put a face on the winery. That’s another thing Robert Mondavi understood. Randall Grahm, too. Most successful wineries have a front man. It can be the winemaker (e.g., Bob Cabral at Williams Selyem) or the owner (Jess Jackson). The public likes faces; Kentucky Fried Chicken wouldn’t have made it without Colonel Sanders.
And the face needs to connect with the public. That’s a mysterious alchemy. Not everyone can connect. Hollywood directors can tell the difference between a face the camera loves, and one it doesn’t. Consumers can tell the difference between a face who cares about them, and one that’s just going through the motions. Colonel Sanders connects.
I mentioned Bob Cabral. He’s a great face for his winery. He’s interesting and friendly and funny. He connects in a human way. Granted, Williams Selyem was famous before Bob came onboard, which made his job easier; but he’s still a role model for itinerant winemakers who go on the road. Nothing cheesy or tacky about Bob Cabral. He can warm up an audience like a seasoned pol, and make them feel like he’s speaking personally to each and every one of them, heart to heart and mind to mind. Bloggers need this quality, too. The public will read blogs if they feel a face coming through, a real spirit behind the words. In the chaos and uncertainty that seem to be descending on American culture, people more than ever long for a personal connection with their leaders, and with the products they buy. Sarah Palin, too, understands this, even if it’s just about the only truth she does get.
I thought it was pretty clever for Wine Spectator to choose that Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which retails for $27, as their Wine of the Year.
The Spectator has gotten a heavy reputation over the years for being a snobby, rich man’s (emphasis on man’s) magazine that caters to collectors and puffed-up winemakers who want to sell to collectors at inflated prices. That reputation worked back in the old days (i.e. pre-Fourth Quarter 2008), when money was flowing and everybody wanted the latest cult wine. But it’s a lousy rep to have today, being totally inconsistent with the new national trend of modesty and inconspicuous consumption. I obviously have no way of knowing the internal workings at Wine Spectator, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the word hadn’t gone out to the effect that “Let there be something inexpensive this year.” And, lo and behold, there was something inexpensive, not to mention relatively accessible, and from a major commercial producer.
(For the record, Wine Enthusiast on Dec. 2 reveals our Top 100 Wines of the Year.)
To some extent this reputation for Spectator snobbery has never been a fair one. The magazine always has value lists and value articles, and I don’t think their staff shies away from reviewing inexpensive wines. But perception is reality, as they say, and whether fair or not, the Spectator has been saddled as the publication of, by and for the cults and triple-digit wines. When I began at Wine Enthusiast, fresh off my stint at Wine Spectator, the decision already had been made by our management to be a (hopefully refreshing) alternative, which is to say a magazine dedicated to the average wine consumer, not merely the collector. That was a philosophy I could buy into, because I have always been an average wine consumer, if by “average” you mean someone who doesn’t have the means to buy lots of expensive bottles. And, I must confess, I had been rather put off by the collector types I met while at the Spectator, who seemed to exist on a plane that was hard for me to relate to.
I think Wine Enthusiast has accomplished our goal. People, both in the industry and “just” consumers, tell me all the time they think the Enthusiast “shares their values” more than the Spectator, which often puts me in the odd position of defending the Spectator, even though they’re “the competition.” I suppose people think if they say something anti-Spectator I’ll like it, but I don’t, not really. It makes me uncomfortable.
Does the selection of the Columbia Crest signifies a sea change at the Spectator — a re-orientation toward more popularly priced wines? Probably not. I’m sure there will be upcoming verticals of Mouton, or the latest $400 garragiste wine, etc. But for the time being the Columbia Crest award removes the elitist bull’s-eye from the Spectator’s tuchas.
Incidentally, Wine Enthusiast’s Pacific Northwest Editor, Paul Gregutt, reviewed the C.C. 2005 Reserve Cab and gave it 89 points, a very good but not great score. On the Seattle Yelp page, public reaction to the award seemed proud that Washington State was honored, but at the same time, bemused. One person called the wine “very flat [and] one dimensional.” Another called it “boring,” while still another said “the choice really has made me wonder what the criteria were.” You can wonder whatever you want to about the selection, but this is true: it created buzz, it got people talking, and it’s better to have people talking about you — even controversially — than not.
Just a quick post from here in my Napa hotel room before I hit the road for the rush hour commute, in the rain, for Oakland. Yesterday, I blind tasted 52 Cabs and Bordeaux blends at Napa Valley Vintners’ offices, in St. Helena. And as always happens, there were some real surprises.
My scores and reviews will be published in future editions of Wine Enthusiast so I can’t get into detail here, but I will say that some inexpensive wines beat out some very expensive ones. First, I went through all 52 in sequence, then narrowed down my top scorers into a final group of 12. I focused on that flight of a dozen very carefully, then made my ultimate scoring decisions. The entire tasting took more than 3 hours.
Fifty-two wines is more than I usually do in one sitting, but in this case it was very easy. The Vintners Association did a wonderful job setting everything up, which meant I didn’t have to, which freed my energies. I used a swivel chair to move up and down the table of bagged wines. There was water and Carr’s little crackers and spit cups, and that’s all I needed.
I should add that the particular wines I tasted were ones that don’t normally send me review bottles, which is why I traveled to Napa to taste them. I had the feeling that some wineries that never would have submitted to a group tasting did so because of the economy; just because you’re Napa Cab doesn’t mean you don’t have to get out there and market yourself. It was evident, right off the bat, that these were wines of great purity and grace. When you are at that quality, everything is good. It’s just a matter of splitting hairs. There were truly no bad wines; they all that that Napa Valley je ne sais qua. Under those circumstances you’re looking for nuances, not bold strokes, to make quality judgments.
So what does it mean than an inexpensive wine beats a super-pricy one? When you pay $100 or more for a bottle of wine, much of what you’re paying for is image. On the other hand, when you get something great for under $30, you’ve got a great value. I’ve spent most of my career trying to explain that great wine doesn’t have to cost a lot, and yesterday’s tasting proved that once again.
A final word about the handful of wineries I wish had submitted to the tasting, but didn’t. Why not? Fear? Pride? Because they don’t have to, or because they think they don’t have to? They know who they are.