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Can Wine Enthusiast Magazine Woo the ‘Silent Majority?’  Pt. I of II

The demise of Gourmet magazine has likely caused other lifestyle-oriented magazine editors across the industry to look under the proverbial table to make sure there isn’t another shoe ready to drop in a copycat bloodletting.

As far as wine magazines go, all seems normal, even if health is relative and despite there being significant room for improvement. 

No, there aren’t any wine magazines that deserve to die, but there are a couple that deserve to improve.

By way of background, a few interesting things have occurred over the last two weeks.  As mentioned, Gourmet magazine, the grand old dame of genteel food coverage, closed in an untimely death that wasn’t so much blunt force trauma (978K subscribers) as much as it was asphyxiation by pillow smother in the dark of night. 

I was saddened by Gourmet, as I always considered it to be a magazine that I had a relationship with—I enjoyed the magazine, I looked forward to every issue and I respected its combination of smart literary sensibility with food world refinement.  This is in contrast to several wine magazines for which I subscribe but hold a deep ambivalence towards.

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In addition to my Gourmet sadness, I recently read some eyebrow arching comments from a mainstream wine writer (who doubles as a wine blogger) regarding the landscape of influence in wine magazine publishing.  And, finally, I spent a recent afternoon reading Wine Spectator, Sommelier Journal, Wine & Spirits and Wine Enthusiast magazine with an eye towards critical analysis in comparison and contrast to each other.

Each of the mentioned magazines fills a slightly different niche for the wine world at-large.  Spectator is lifestyle and collector oriented, Sommelier Journal, the newest entrant, is trade-oriented, Wine & Spirits forsakes the lifestyle aspect for a straighter-edge focus on knowledge, assuming a baseline of competency from its readers, and Wine Enthusiast is populist-oriented.

Make no mistake, the stakes are high for wine magazines today and there has never been a better time for reinvention – wine consumption is increasing and getting younger by demographic, current mainstream critics are graying, the 100-point system is being assailed, and wine advertising and marketing is morphing as free content via the Internet puts downward pressure on business models.

Now is not the time for anybody to stand pat with their poker hand.

Regarding the aforementioned comments from the mainstream wine writer, the context isn’t as important as the actual message.  The writer, a critic for Wine Enthusiast, said:

Hell yes I am defensive about Parker and Spectator hegemony. Hell yes I want Enthusiast to be mentioned in the same context. I have fought against the hegemony for years now, because it’s wrong for those 2 to be so dominant and because I want to promote Enthusiast right up there beside them.

Let’s dispense with the facts first.  Wine Enthusiast has 100,000 subscribers while Wine Spectator has over 350,000. Robert Parker is the most influential critic in the world, bar none, and it’s an influence that far transcends the number of subscribers to Wine Advocate. If there is any “hegemony” with Parker and Spectator, it has been achieved through a meritocracy in the court of public opinion.

In fact, according to a New York Times wine article from 1994, much of the current wine publishing landscape (at least in between Enthusiast and Spectator) was foreshadowed years ago.

In the article written by Howard Goldberg some 15 years ago, the following excerpts could have just as easily been written last month:

(Referring to Wine Enthusiast Editor and Publisher Adam Strum) Mr. Strum … is gambling partly on readers’ disaffection about the Spectator’s new identity. Some wine purists complain that the Spectator, in redefining itself as a life-style magazine, has shed its old wine-and-food emphasis.

… In a leap from semipopulism, the Spectator has recently offered articles about Paris (with onion soups rated on a 100-point scale); the cuisine of Alain Ducasse, the Monte Carlo chef; the Norton Simon Museum of Art in Pasadena, Calif., and collectible Venetian glass—turning its back on wine lovers with thin wallets, its critics say.

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Mr. Strum said of the Spectator: “It has become elitist and narrow. It no longer meets the need to educate the consumer, to expand consumption.” He said his magazine would woo this “silent majority” with more news and practical advice.

Far less polished than the Spectator, the Enthusiast emphasizes only wine and food, with an editorial style that is a mix of sophistication and wide-eyed earnestness. Recent articles have focused on inexpensive California wines and Washington State wines but also on expensive and rare vintages of Krug Champagne.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Shanken said that “the Enthusiast is not a serious contender or threat.”

What has changed in the intervening years since the article was published?  Not much. 

In fact, in the Editor’s editorial in the current issue of Enthusiast (November 2009), Strum reiterates his magazines positioning when he says:

“Our goal at Wine Enthusiast Magazine is to encourage America’s wine culture, which has been flourishing for the last decade, to continue to flourish.”

Despite Strum’s consistency in messaging, Wine Spectator has grown to become the dominant force, making Shanken look positively Orwellian.

Unfortunately, Wine Enthusiast is persona non grata to most avid wine enthusiasts for a number of reasons that are self-inflicted, not to say that it has to be that way, though.

In my opinion, Wine Enthusiast magazine has the greatest opportunity, bar none, to transcend the current climate of wine magazine publishing to fulfill the vision of being a magazine that woos the silent majority, while truly competing with the so-called hegemony of other wine periodicals.

In part II of this post I’ll make specific recommendations for Enthusiast doing just that.

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Posted in, The Week in Wine. Permalink | Comments (38) |


Comments

On 10/13, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Knowledgeable insights, but it’s worth also noting that Adam’s business model is built not with the magazine in primacy, but with the catalog and related businesses as the core, and the magazine neatly integrated in to the mix.  To understand the magazine, I think you need to look at the whole package, not that it matters to the casual reader.  For them, the magazine has to stand on its own merits, and serve a truly useful purpose.  For most, I’d say it does, even as it evolves and accomodates the changing winescape.

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On 10/15, Tim Moriarty wrote:

William Tisherman, aka Tish, has posted a comment stating that Wine Enthusiast Magazine is an unaudited publication. It is of public record that our magazine circulation has been audited by the independent magazine auditing bureau BPA for many years. Tisherman, an ex-employee of the magazine, should know this, or is not interested in substantiating his public claims. Since his departure in 1998, Tisherman has been vocal in his criticisms of Wine Enthusiast, yet continues to prominently feature his prior position here (“former editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine) in promoting his editorial services. Regardless, the fact is that Wine Enthusiast has, since his departure, continued on a solid and upward trajectory, as our current BPA audit will attest.

Tim Moriarty
Managing Editor
Wine Enthusiast Magazine

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