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Wine is a conversation and every voice counts


…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
— John Dunne

The shocking news, revealed on its own front page, that the San Francisco Chronicle might shut down offers a frightening glimpse into a future in which nobody is reporting the news, because there’s nowhere for it to be reported.


I’ve always been a big newspaper fan. When I was a kid in New York my parents subscribed to three newspapers: the Post (today infamously owned by News Corp. but back then a liberal paper), the Hearst-owned Journal-American (which ceased publication in 1966) and the New York Times (which is rumored to be edging toward bankruptcy). Ever since I’ve lived in California I’ve subscribed to the Chronicle. It’s become part of my morning ritual, as near and dear to me as that cup of coffee.

The Chronicle, catering to its wine-interested readers, had one of the first and best wine sections of any American newspaper. They did a great job over the years, hiring wine-smart writers and, occasionally, leading trends. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of readers learned about wines, wineries, and wine and food pairing, and about the issues impacting the wine industry, from its pages. That’s far more than any wine magazine ever had or ever will.

If the Chron goes under, it will not be good news to California’s wineries or wine lovers. (Hearst Corp., the owner, is floating trial balloons to see if readers are willing to pay more money to subscribe.) Local wineries will have lost a major platform from which to speak to the public. The letters to the wine editor and the paper’s wine blog will similarly disappear. And there will be fewer working journalists to tell the stories, big and little, that are so important to be told. As the Chronicle’s conservative political columnist (with whom I seldom agree about anything), Debra J. Saunders, writes, “If newspapers die, reliable information dries up.” Blogs, as much as I like them, simply do not have the resources to unearth reliable information the way a working reporter can.

Wine is a conversation between the people who make and sell it and the people who buy it. Like art, music, literature and politics, wine is a part of the culture, where everyone has a point of view, and feels a shared stake in the outcome. It’s not at all like widgits, where you may use an item every day but feel utterly no connection to it or the people who made it. The Chronicle offers readers a window into the personalities and concepts of the wine industry, and reminds us that the men and women who make our local wines are our friends and neighbors. Ripple effects: a more informed, caring consumer demands better wines, and a wine industry driven by competition improves its best practices. So the Chronicle has had a strong impact on the California wine industry in ways not so obvious.

It is so disheartening that the Chronicle is teetering on the edge. The Bay Area, the portal to Northern California’s wine industry, may no longer hear its authoritative and collective voice, may no longer communicate among ourselves on a day to day basis. Are we now supposed to Twitter? If the Chron dies, that voice will have been strangled, and the wine industry, for whom the bell in this nasty recession already is tolling, will be that much more diminished.

P.S.Breaking news

No new wine excise tax in California. Wine Institute is reporting via email the new state budget agreement “did not include the proposed 640% excise tax increase on wine…”.

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  1. Denver is now down to 1 paper, NYT is hanging on by a Carlos Slim $270 mil thread, and the Chronicle is about kaput. Like your article earlier this past week or so, Steve, maybe bloggers
    (experienced bloggers) may not be able to make a living yet as experts in their fields, but if newspapers keep disappearing at the present rate, readers will have no choice BUT to read good blogs. News is online, experts are online, papers, sadly are going offline.

  2. Steve–

    Print is in trouble, and newspapers that have tried to be all thngs to all people are suddenly finding themselves overextended. But, I am betting that the NYT and the SFChron have plenty of life left in them. They will have to change, and as we have already seen, the Chron’s large, free-standing wine section has been brought back into the Food Section with greatly decreased line counts.

    This is not the place to talk at length about what the newspaper business will look like five or ten years from now, but, the salient point for this space is what does the diminution of print news do to wine writing.

    Here is my bet. Just as some print publications enjoy wider readership than others, so too will those who write on the Internet. Some are already making money. One hears throught the grapevine that the leading bloggers have ads and other revenues for speaking engagements that net them five figure incomes. Maybe they are not getting rich but they are beginning to be recognized for the quality of their writing and are able to earn at least some level of compensation.

    Existing publications will have a leg up in this regard, just as brick and mortar winesellers had a leg up when it came to online wine sales. But, new voices have begun to emerge and others will join them.

    At the same time, not every blogger is going to become “professional”, and, frankly, that is a good thing. It is not the bloggers that are killing “Print” but the Internet and Cable. In wine, which is such a highly differentiated product that both Dan Berger with his high acid/low pH preferences and Robert Parker, whose palate is relatively the mirror opposite of Dan’s, are going to find audiences because their voices are smart and authoritative.

    All of which brings me back to the Chron. I find that it sits out in my driveway unless I have a reason to go out. If I am writing, I have already caught up with the news on TV and on the computer. I am an old dog, and I really have not tried to learn new tricks, but reality is reality. Newspapers no longer perform the same full functions for me that they used to because I do not need them to perform those functions.

    The loss of wine journalism that goes with the diminution of the print role is, as you have said, very sad, but it is not fatal. Folks like you are filling the void faster than it is being created.

  3. Morton Leslie says:

    I have never associated the SF Chronicle with “reliable information.” Jon Carroll was worth reading, Datebook sometimes useful, but for news it never had my respect. And the Wine and Food page? Gimme a break! Well, maybe if you enjoy wine and food fiction.

    It will die because people now have options they didn’t have a decade or two ago. We just don’t need to be filling our landfills with second rate journalism printed on good paper pulp.

  4. Morton, you’re too mean. Yes, the wine section was oriented toward, what shall we call it, marketing concerns. But the writers were and are good and serious, and their loss, if it happens, will cause a void in Northern California’s collective conversation about wine.

  5. Morton Leslie says:

    Sorry, I wasn’t trying to be mean, but brutally honest. The only thing that would make me mean is being forced to listen to another numbskull making a big ado about a fictional art of wine and food pairing.

    I switched to the NY Times and the WSJ years ago after getting put off by the errata and shallow or biased reporting. You brought up conservative writer Debra Saunders. That’s my point…compare her to David Brooks. Multply that times a whole newspaper. We would not miss Saunders, but losing Brooks would be a tragedy.

    That’s why the Chron will not remain in it’s current form. It has to change or disappear.

  6. Morton, I totally agree about Saunders. I don’t mind a thoughtful, smart conservative opinionator — George Will and Pat Buchanan come to mind. But Saunders is shallow and unintelligent. The day she disappears the Chronicle will have vastly improved.

  7. It is economics 101. Print things people want to read and you will sell papers. If people are not finding value in the paper the first thing that needs to be done is for the paper to evaluate what it writes abouts.

    Buggy Whips dissappeared, steel mills have gone away, what makes news papers pushing information that people wish not to read so different than the former industries? Times change, if any business should be aware it seems it should be a comapny that prints how things are changing.

    I am not surprised all of the papers others have listed are having problems. Hmmmm…what do they all have in common?

  8. I am a wine person who thought very highly of the wine section. It was unique, and not perfect, but very good to have a whole section dedicated to the wine arena. And criticizing the nature of the wine section, well, what does Morton want from a food & wine section. The Chron did interviews, did new & upcoming trends, the old & the new, wineries, regiohns outside the US, etc. From a journalistic view, I think the food & wine sections were competent and professional. Unlike page 1 and . . .

    Having said that, here comes the blood: I am polit. conservative, and I think the reason newspapers are in trouble is because they view the world from liberal eyes, and treat us conservatives as if we are trivial, un-important, and almost non-existent. Yet, the country is nearly 50-50 split conservative / liberal, or Repub. / Deme. To ignore that reality is to ignore half or more of your potential customer base.

    You will note that the audience is very large on radio for conservatives. Radio stations that carry Rush Limbaugh and other conservatives are profitable, big audiences and willing sponsors with advert. $. The audiences for news is alive but the newspapers are ignoring too many people.

  9. Don, the problem with conservatives is that you guys allied yourselves with some truly awful christian rightwing bigots and wingnuts like Falwell, Dobson, Gary Bauer, Robertson etc. etc. They shat all over the authentic parts of conservative philosophy and aligned your side with homophobes and religious fanatics who want to establish a taliban-style theocracy in the U.S. Conservatives would do a lot better to split from those hateful people and re-establish your bona fides with a progression libertarianism.

  10. Stever, uh, what does your blog have to do with newspapers? Or wine? Or wine journalism? Are you conservative? I don’t think you are on topic. I don’t think you have much grasp of the U.S. Constitution either, or what role Christianity played in founding the colonies opposed to the European kingdoms, the writing the Declaration or the Constitution. I think your view of conservatives and Christians might be poor because of newspapers and TV networks who, as I wrote, treat us as if we don’t matter and as if our views are crap. If you only listen to the critics of conservatives, you have little idea of what we stand for. It is like asking an atheist to explain why people of faith do believe in God. Would you like Obama’s Reverend Wright to be in the Cabinet?

  11. Oh, Don, I will pray for you!

  12. Don,

    Give me a break! Newsprint is not dying from liberal points of view even though you would love to believe this is the case. Technology killed the newspaper.

    Be honest, do you intentionally support advertisers that buy the Rush Limbaugh spots?

    I’ll pray for you, too.

  13. Hi Tannic. Doesn’t matter if I support those advertisers. Enough real people do with real money, the advertisers are there. (Sample size of one person is not how the real economy works.) I don’t know how big Gene Burns’ Dining Around Saturday (radio show on food & wine) audience is, but I bet it is pretty darn big too. And you can be sure they support his advertisers. Did the Chron ever advertise on his show? What a missed opportunity. I particularly enjoyed him interviewing Peter Mondavi Jr. who now runs Ch. Krug with his dad being semi-retired.

    I also do know from firsthand, working as I did full time as a wine salesman, that few people in the suburbs even knew that the Chron had a wine section. The Chron did not do a good job of reaching people who might have subsribed, could easily afford to, just to read the wine section.
    Imagine, guys that buy expensive Napa Cab or RRV Pinot noir by the case, women who pray at the altar of Rombaeur, who never saw a Chron wine section, never knew it existed.

    I find it interesting that the Chron can’t make money in the Bay area. Living in liberal land can be like living in a wine region and never tasting grapes from outside your region. I wonder how much time tannic and steve spend socializing and getting along nicely with people who hold opposing political views, versus only spending time talking to mirrors.

    And while I appreciate your prayers, I wonder: who are you praying to? And are you praying for some anonymous diety to convert me to being a non-believer? Or just praying that I drink more wine!!!

  14. Dear Don, I will continue to approve your comments because I don’t believe in censorship. But I must say you are the kind of person who I fear would take over this country and force it into your narrow political-theocratic beliefs. Where do you stand on gay rights? If your answer is biblically-based in the negative, then your theocratic ancestors likewise opposed women’s right to vote and equal rights for black people. History is bypassing haters like you, thank God.

  15. Don,

    I spend a lot of time running a winery, from production, sales, marketing, finance, legal, compliance and personnel. From this well-rounded point of view is where I come from when it comes to my opinion on the death of print news. Furthermore, my girlfriend used to be in broadcast news, which is also feeling the pinch of technology as evidenced by the numerous layoffs at local TV stations recently. Why subscribe to the Chron when you can read it online for free?

    My guess is that you worked for a distributor, in a specific territory, and look at your microcosm and expand your ideas to cover the rest of the market. The tens of people listening to Gene Burns are most likely going to no longer be consumers soon, if you get my drift.

    Finally, I pray for you only because you’re narrow-minded and use labels to categorize people, politics, wine and business. My only consolence is that you’re a Gene Burns demographic and not a difference-maker.

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