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

Picking up from part one of this two-part series, Wine Enthusiast magazine has an opportunity to capitalize on the confluence of circumstance that exists in the world of wine, an opportunity that requires the resources, leadership and wherewithal of a professional publishing organization, an opportunity that is currently lying fallow.

At no point in time has there ever been more growth, confusion, special interest and turmoil around the world of wine.  And, while online wine media would like to think that the future of wine content is in consumer generated bytes, the reality is that wine is the only consumer packaged good that desperately needs its mainstream media arm to act as a guiding voice, an arbiter of reason and a leader in divining order out of chaos, as the online wine world sub-divides into niche interest areas.

Unfortunately, the mainstream wine media approaches their work as an elite lifestyle choice (Spectator, Wine News, QRW), a vehicle for ratings (Parker), or a smart vehicle that skews towards trade interest (Wine & Spirits, Sommelier Journal).

While Wine Enthusiast probably likes to believe that they cover the wide swath of ground in between the “wine interested” and Wine Spectator and Wine & Spirits, the reality is that the magazine, editorially speaking, addresses the “wine interested” more so than the “wine enthusiast.” It’s exactly this “silent majority” of wine enthusiasts encompassed in the name of the magazine that I would like to see Wine Enthusiast focus on, as opposed to the current common denominator.

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The impetus behind this review is two-fold – a recent quote from a wine writer for Wine Enthusiast lamenting the fact that Wine Enthusiast is infrequently (ever?) included in the same conversation as Robert Parker, Jr. and Wine Spectator, describing that dominance of influence as “hegemony.” This is coupled with the current Editor’s Letter in the November issue of Wine Enthusiast in which Publisher Adam Strum says, “Our goal at Wine Enthusiast Magazine is to encourage America’s wine culture, which has been thriving for the last decade, to continue to flourish.”

The problem is that the lament of the wine writer compared against the stated goal of Wine Enthusiast Magazine encapsulates the disconnect and frustration that is felt in the market.  Parker, Spectator and Enthusiast are subject to significant vitriol by segments of the wine audience who feel vastly underserved by their media.  In regards to the “hegemony,” the notion that there is an unfair regime in charge of influence is an astute point, but misguided.  Enthusiast wants to be considered elite, but appeal to the masses at the same time.  As Jack Welch (former CEO of GE) always noted, if you can’t be #1 or #2 in your market, then you should choose another market.  It’s exactly that notion of finding another market, the true wine enthusiast, that I think Wine Enthusiast the magazine needs to focus on.  In doing so, they’ll be asking their “wine interested” audience to ratchet up their engagement, which is far less egregious than asking a core audience who has long felt ignored to suffer a ratcheting down.  As any teacher knows, the bright kids in class suffer the most when you build your lesson plans for the weakest link.

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Here are 10 suggestions for Wine Enthusiast to carve out their own market and create a category of one addressing the “silent majority.”

10) Redesign the magazine to appeal to the future of wine, those under the age of 40, with a contemporary, worldly sensibility.  The current design says, “Suburban Soccer Mom and Old Navy Dad.”  Look at Imbibe, Fast Company, and others that get “accessible and urbane.”

9)  Represent a lifestyle that actually exists – people that are passionate about wine, but more in line with the Trader Joe’s demographic of, “over-educated and underpaid.”  This isn’t to say “poor,” just household incomes that look more like a Toyota and less like a Lexus.

8) Ramp up a cultural aspect that resonates – music, food, a life well-lived, not necessarily a clichéd affluent wine lifestyle.  Three of the biggest bands in the world – U2, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews have lead singers that are really into wine.  Why are these mentions relegated to a surface-level one-pager at the back of the magazine, if that?

7) Ditch the wide net that includes beer and spirits.  You can’t be all things to all people.  If I want reviews for Tequila, I’ll buy a Tequila affinity magazine, or look online.

6) Expand the “Enth degree” with more general interest tidbits and factoids.  People like “fast food” content that is interesting and conversational fodder.

5) Expand the number of op-ed pieces and incorporate more opinion journalism.  Simply, include more columns from a wider array of voices.  There’s a reason both Newsweek and Time have redesigned this year to incorporate more op-ed—it’s because it’s interesting and it sells.  Take stands on the issues of the day in the wine world and help shape thought.

4) Lose the puff pieces on Ripasso and Cava.  Nobody cares.  Make these stories about people and personalities with Ripasso and Cava as the tableau.

3) Dramatically cut down on the number of pages dedicated to ratings.  These are fine for online, for the iPhone app., and other areas, but having 1/3 of the magazine as tasting notes leads me to skim, at best, when I actually want to be reading something interesting (see people, personalities, stories).

2) Reinvent the genre of ratings.  If you can’t be #1 or #2 in the influence sphere, it’s because you haven’t differentiated enough with authority.  Everyone acknowledges that points aren’t going away, so how can Wine Enthusiast reinvent the ratings genre to something unique, a category of one?  Consider aligning with CellarTracker or something that is crowdsourced and acknowledge that people are valued contributors to the wine scene, now and in the future.  Own this by complementing the crowdsourcing with the experienced palate/critic in a way that fosters collaboration and not empirical correctness.

1) Migrate the Wine Star awards to something that popular opinion values more than as a stroke fest for wine companies to advertise with the magazine.  I’ll eat my hat if Gary Vaynerchuk doesn’t win the “Innovator of the Year” award and the public perception will be that it’s a naked grab at his daily 80,000 strong audience.  Just saying …

Bonus 1A)  Demystify, debunk, and create thought-leadership around the culture of wine – the way it exists, quite imperfectly, not the way the industry would like it represented in their minds eye.

In summary, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that wine media provide content for wine enthusiasts, in a manner that they find valuable.  Too often these days, the most ardent, interested and active audience in wine isn’t being reliably serviced with content that matters.  It’s a disservice, and one that can be fixed.  By addressing this “silent majority” not only does Wine Enthusiast create their own category, but they also create consumers that advocate for them creating a vehicle in Strum’s words, that “encourage(s) America’s wine culture, which has been thriving for the last decade, to continue to flourish.”



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Posted in, The Week in Wine. Permalink | Comments (36) |


Comments

On 10/13, Paul Gregutt wrote:

Thank you for a well thought out critique – I am sure the magazine’s editors and publisher will take a good long look at these ideas.

On 10/13, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

Interesting list, Jeff.

May I add the following:

Some of the things that wine writers put into print or online proves—at least to me—that they generally have little contact with the general state of the wine retail world.

To truly know the people in your audience, you need to be among them.

On 10/13, Katie wrote:

Oh how I wish that #5 in particular were so. I’ve had the opportunity to write a couple of op-ed pieces for perhaps-up-and-coming Mutineer Magazine and can’t understand why these wine rags don’t open themselves up to more of that. Have we forgotten that wine is, after everything is said and done, an extremely subjective topic? The “voices” of wine columnists have been all but hit with the mute button.

On 10/13, Hardy Wallace wrote:

Jeff- 

Great points.  For any wine pub- Ditch the ratings section all together (put that content online)  and use the remaining space for unique content.

Things are tough, time to get creative.

On 10/13, Richard wrote:

I will second the issue of needing to differentiate themselves from WS and WA.  To that end, I would suggest they completely drop the 100-point scale, and move to something more in tune with the everyman they are trying to attract.  Get rid of the flowery tasting notes, include some technical data, and still score the wine, just not on a 100-point scale.  If they stick with the point scale, people are still going to compare them to WS and WA, and you haven’t solved anything.

If they really want to reinvent themselves, it might be in their best interest to be with the public, rather than above them preaching from upon high.  There’s a very limited number of people who are drinking 1982 Bordeaux, but there are probably millions that are drinking Spanish reds.  If you can crack that audience, you could be well on your way to grabbing what is the silent majority of wine drinkers.  Do pieces on the wine bars in the local neighborhoods, the restaurants with great and affordable wine lists, and the retailers that truly care about the wine drinking public.  Still cover the destination places for wine drinkers, but leave the fluff pieces on the reservation only restaurants to the other publications.

On 10/13, jeff wrote:

Thanks for the comments, all. I appreciate it.  Katie, lovely to have you swing by!

Paul, thanks for reading, as well.  I think WE has a pregnant opportunity in front of it, particularly given this moment in place and time with the wine world.

Thomas—as always, I appreciate your insight and thoughts!

Richard—agreed 100%

Hardy—you da man and thanks for the shout out at Fermentation yesterday!

JB - I think that WE rumor is pretty much a rumor.  I’m a Notre Dame fan and everybody says our football coach is a jerk, but there’s not a single person on record that will say how or why he’s a jerk, just that he is.  Instead, I want to focus on the opportunity that WE has to really address an audience with leadership and content that moves the wine conversation forward.

Thanks again all and thanks for reading!

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

TWE should drop the pretense of subjective wine reviews.  They are, like BevMo, in the wine selling business (WineExpress.com).  Just as I don’t take Wilford Wong at his word, I can’t take the magazine’s at theirs.

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

Keen observations with brilliant business suggestions.  You should get paid out for this one.  But great advise is only great if it’s taken.

On 10/14, Paul Gregutt wrote:

jb’s unfounded, libelous, and absolutely false assertion –“Actually, I think the problem is that WE is known for accepting payment in return for coverage, and that most serious wine people- who in turn influence their less-serious “wine-interested” friends- therefore eschew WE as a source of significant wine journalism…” – should be pulled from this Comment board. I’ve been on the magazine’s Tasting Panel for over a decade and there has never been a single instance where a review of mine was asked for or altered in any way. The editors and reviewers operate entirely independently from sales and always have.

On 10/14, Tim Moriarty wrote:

Jeff, thank you for your suggestions, and the feedback provided by the commenters. They have stirred interesting discussions here. However, two comments deserve rebuttal:

In the ten years that I have been managing editor of this magazine, we have never taken payment in return for coverage. Never. No magazine could survive for long if its credibility were that tarnished.

Although WineExpress.com is a part of Wine Enthusiast Companies, there is no connection between the staff of WineExpress and the staff of Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Magazine reviewers have no knowledge what items are being sold or considered for sale by WineExpress.

Tim Moriarty
Managing Editor
Wine Enthusiast Magazine

On 10/14, Steve Heimoff wrote:

Dear Jeff, since I’m the Wine Enthusiast critic whose name you dare not speak, I figured I’d chime in with my 2 cents. You’re always free to offer advice to our magazine, but in allowing the slanderous and false allegation of this “JB” I think you missed the ethical bus. On my blog, on 2 or 3 occasions, I have deleted comments that were malicious and made unproven allegations against individuals and companies. In this instance, I think you should not have allowed JB’s comment to be published. I’m grateful you replied that it was a “rumor,” and I can’t tell you how to run your blog. But I would not have allowed someone to make a libelous comment about another magazine on my blog.

On 10/14, larry schaffer wrote:

Jeff,

Great blog as usual - and plenty of food for thought . . .

A couple of quick comments before getting back to punchding down some boxes:

Ratings
What in the heck is wrong with ratings?!?!? I really do not get it. It is up to the CONSUMER to ultimately decide whether or not to believe these SUBJECTIVE ratings.

So you want to move to the Ebert ratings system? 3 thumbs up or thumbs down? Or perhaps to the ‘best/better/okay/not good / bad?!?!?!

As long as consumers simply blindly trust ratings, NO system will be acceptable to many - or all.

Op Ed Pieces
Now wait a mimute here . . .do we like these or not?!?!?!? What happens if you DISAGREE with the op ed piece?!?!?!??

Just joking . . . sort of . . .

I truly think this is an interesting discussion - and one that should illicit a lot of responses . . .

Back at ya later . . .

Cheers!

On 10/14, Katie wrote:

@Larry…I’d like to think that there will inevitably be people that disagree with OpEd pieces….that’s their point, isn’t it? To make people think? To start conversations/discussions? It’s food…err, I mean wine…for thought. Ratings/reviews can’t do that. What the hell are you gonna say, “No, I don’t GET any plums. I get blackberries. You’re totally off base.” LOL.

On 10/14, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Great piece Jeff.  I work in the wine industry, and am also a member of this “silent majority,” and I certainly wish that there were a publication that appealed to consumers and the way that they actually think about wine.  There are many people who love wine and enjoy it regularly, but our media makes it unnecessarily intimidating, confusing, and elitist.  We can really do our industry a service if we represent wine for what it is: fun, interesting, and a beloved component of enjoying a meal with family and friends.  Focusing on the real wine lifestyle and consumers’ genuine interest in practical wine education will meet a large unmet need in the media landscape.

On 10/14, Hardy Wallace wrote:

Karen-
Just to expand on your comments. I don’t think it is just publications that make wine esoteric, but bloggers do too.

To be honest, I could care less if it is made to seem complicated, elitist, or not—- just as long as it is fun and interesting—which to most of us,  wine is.

On 10/14, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

I appreciate Tim Moriarty’s rebuttal (especially regarding the unfair accusation of influence peddling), but as long as his magazine’s reviews (let alone the reviews of WineExpress’s own critic) appear alongside the wines that are being sold by WineExpress, the conflict of interest speaks for itself.  It becomes PR and not journalism—just so many shelf talkers from an online wine store. It doesn’t smell right.

On 10/14, Alan Kropf wrote:

Actually responding to the post.

Can Wine Enthusiast woo the silent majority?

HELL NO. Nope. Not gonna happen.  Doubtful.

Why? Because if they were going to, they would’ve by now.  They’re doing it the wrong way for the wrong reasons. What are the answers?  I can’t say that!  That’s what I’m trying to do with Mutineer!  I can say that the number of people out there that are “getting it” is growing…quickly, as evidenced by this blog post and some of the outstanding comments on this post.  I’m pumped for what the future holds…

On 10/14, Meg Houston Maker wrote:

I’m actually wondering whether a print mag is still a sound premise. Many of your good suggestions are driven by the same ethic that drives the engine of the web, viz. the wisdom of crowds, populist aesthetics, a trust of the conversation, and a disdain for elitism. This suggests perhaps another, more radical round of thinking may be in order, one in that results in the whole enterprise moving online.

On 10/14, jeff wrote:

All,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I have closed and removed the speculative comment from the comment string.  A couple of words on this because I’ve never deleted a comment before.  My comments are unmoderated and post live as they are given.  I have a ‘live and let live’ policy on this that is more focused on ‘do no harm’ to a specific person.  However, because the commenter in question was anonymous, I decided that if somebody wants to make an unsubstantiated assertion then they should attach their name to it—anonymity is far more dangerous than rumor, in my book.

Steve, while I appreciate “missing the ethical bus” it was far more benign then that.

Thanks again for reading.  I appreciate it.

Jeff

On 10/14, Tish wrote:

Jeff, you’ve poked quite a nerve here apparently. Your advice, for which you deserve a Consulting check, rings quite true—but I would say more so for ANY magazine or (agreeing with Meg) website, not necessarily for WE. Echoing Alan Kropf’s point: if WE were able to tap that silent majority, they would have done so already, having used the wine boom to surpass WS, <redacted>Thomas nailed it too: the mag is out of touch with real wine drinkers, period; chalk that up to years of chasing advertisers and elusive industry cachet at the expense of editorial veracity. Wine Star Award, anyone? (Full disclosure: I worked at WE from 1988-98, before these smelly pieces of hardware were invented.)

Speaking of veracity, it is nice to see Tim Moriarty defend the integrity of the magazine vis a vis the retail arm Wine Express. Fact remains however, even if he and the WE “critics” have nothing to do with the Express division, as JNA points out, the mere existence of that company (which is as separate as the pockets in Adam Strum’s pants) presents a conflict of interest. Most offensive is not just the selling of advertisers’ wines (among others), but rather the completely dopey system of relying on WS, RP and their home-cooked WEX ratings to sell the stuff (not to mention including Wine Advocate “vintage ratings”). The picture is clear and it ain’t pretty: Wine Express’s marketing M.O. shows that its parent business has a fundamental disrespect for American wine consumers. As I have detailed on my blog, conscious if less overt shadiness is seen in the magazine as well, in the way the “buying guide” features portray paid-for label repros as pure editorial; and on the website, where “featured” wines are not flagged as editorial, and where the state-sponsored blogs generate less buzz than cowpies in Carneros. Until WE can muster up some authentic authenticity, as opposed to unaudited circulation and chest-thumping, nobody is going to care.

I think the bigger question here is the degree to which the silent majority actually wants to READ about wine.—and what they want to read about. I think we are in for a real tidal shift in wine information over the next decade, with most of it shifting happily to the Web and real life.

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, WE

On 10/15, jeff wrote:

All,

Tish’s comment regarding the unaudited circulation has been redacted—a term that is relatively new to my vernacular.

Before anybody accuses me of censorship or for “pulling punches” please let me say that I don’t throw people under the bus when fairness, logic, reason and constructive criticism works just as well.

While I appreciate that my commentary has inspired commentary, it’s much of this feedback that I want to channel to Wine Enthusiast to say that, “People care, have an opinion and for better or worse want a magazine that serves their needs.”

While others may disagree for any number of reasons, I believe Wine Enthusiast is best poised to capture this need in the market.

Thanks for the engagement on this post.

Jeff

On 10/15, Tish wrote:

Thanks for the update, Tim. I was basing my statement on Jeff’s “Part 1” post from yesterday. But I do stand by my point - that if WE were going to successfully “woo” wine lovers to subscribe, it would already have happened amid 15 years of growth in U.S. wine consumption. The “readership” (only auidted for a short time when I was there) was represented at a consistent 80K during the 1990s; Jeff wrote that it is now 100K, representing a nice, modest “upward trajectory.” The numbers are practically irrelevant; it is clear that only WS and RP among the major wine print media have clout these days.

While it is true that I am often critical of WE editorial and other business practices, in fact I never published any critiques of any aspect of WE for a full six years after I left in 1998; that is, until WE resurrected wineexpress.com and did so with a deliberate effort to hide the overlap in ownership and management with WE companies. Just because the 90-point-fueled Express is out of the closet now does not mean it is any more kosher. Let’s also keep in mind that I am a vehement critic of abuse of 100-point scale abuse and shady ethics elsewhere. 

Indeed, I do still list my experience at WE when promoting my editorial and event services. Why would I not? I was proud to be putting interesting editorial between two covers on a bare-bones budget, before the magazine became mostly a marketing guide for rated reviews.

One more point. To clairfy my orignal comment, I meant to point out that the WE mag website presnted “featured” wines without any indication that they are paid promotions, not editorial—another example of how lack of transparency and frequently blurred ad-edit lines remain high hurdles if the magazine is to take heed of Jeff’s advice in these two posts.

On 10/15, Steve Heimoff wrote:

Jeff, thank you for redacting both jb’s and tish’s false comments. I sincerely hope this leads to a new era in which bloggers take greater responsibility for approving comments that may be false and libelous. It’s a matter of common sense. If someone wrote in to my blog that “Wine Spectator charges wineries $100,000 to earn a perfect score,” I probably wouldn’t even approve it, but if I did, I would immediately follow up and ask, “What is your proof?” That doesn’t mean bloggers have to fact check every comment. But it does mean that when someone writes something as fabricated as jb’s and tish’s remarks, the blogger should not let it pass through unfiltered.

On 10/15, jeff wrote:

Thank you for the “teachable moment,” Steve.

Likewise, I hope you see the comments for what they are in context aside from what may be deemed as objectionable about them.

Jeff

On 10/17, Alan Kropf wrote:

Hey! Steve “Mr. Righteous” Heimoff, I just wanted to thank you, because your ideas completely validate everything I’m doing with Mutineer and fuels me that much more to reach my goals. To think that some people actually consider you a relevant voice in wine makes my soul hurt…I’m still waiting for you address the false comments you made about me on your blog over a year ago; I guess those don’t apply to your envisioned “new era” of blogger responsibility?  Keep fighting the good fight Steve…

On 10/19, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

This is a great piece.

As a guy whose had his foot in both the magazine/media and wine industries of late, it makes great sense to me.  Tim would do well to give it serious consideration.

I don’t know of a consumer magazine in America which isn’t in dire straits (or a trade publisher, for that matter).  The great failure of magazine publishers is that most are looking to short-term revenue alternatives which have failed to produce significant revenue (paid content, online ads, etc), while few are looking at the drastic content revisions necessary to survive.

WE has been given a thoughtful proposal for content review, which it would ignore at its peril.

I’d go further in one respect:  Scrap the entire review of wines by staff.  Pare that section back and turn it over to readers (perhaps subscribers, only).

If Wine Spectator and Parker dominate the ratings, leave that to them.  The blogs are proving that evaluations by consumers carry weight.  This section of WE could be a print answer to Yelp for the wine segment.

WE’s writers, then, could concentrate on the type of informational material recommended in the other 9 proposals.  That would preserve the magazine’s position as an authoritative source of insight while the consumer reviews would ad a dimension of responsiveness which WS and Parker neither have nor want—yet.

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