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Tip of the Cap to Wine Spectator

Normally in this spot, on the second Wednesday of the month or thereabouts, I would participate in Wine Blogging Wednesday, a communal exercise in online wine drinking around a theme.  This month the featured theme from our gracious hosts, Catavino, is Portuguese wine. 

However, unfortunately, sitting in the land of milk and honey, Napa, California, traveling for business, I’m coming up dry on Portuguese wine.  Two stops in these parts yielded nada, so, alas, I’m sending good vibes in lieu of an actual wine review.

But, the good news about the trip out to CA this week is I got caught up on a bunch of reading on the flight out, including a couple of October issues of Wine Spectator.  This marks the third time in the last three weeks that I have referenced Wine Spectator, easily a record here, the magazine receiving only grudging acknowledgement in the past.

As an inveterate consumer of wine information, it has been easy for me to take shots at Wine Spectator in the past—the content frequently seemed aimed at a fictitious, stereotypical demographic—the fifty-something male with more money than actual knowledge and a proclivity for buying wines by the point.  Some of the articles bordered on the insipid explaining things that would seem to be a base level of knowledge for any wine enthusiast; the sole redeeming value being Matt Kramer’s always smart columns.

But, something positive has happened in the last year or so—the Wine Spectator’s editorial coverage seems to have changed.  Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think so.  The writing is sharper, more insightful and SMARTER.  And, it’s smarter at a greater level of accessibility, if that makes sense.  It’s not smarter by virtue of casting a wider net to appeal to more people; it’s smarter by virtue of better insight and analysis for people that already “get it.” 

More or less, Wine Spectator is more appealing to me, and since I’m my own baseline, I’m assuming it’s the magazine that has changed and I haven’t gotten dumber (or smarter) in the intervening 12 months.

So, to Wine Spectator, I offer up thanks for creating a more relevant magazine and competing against the intelligence and verve that Wine & Spirits magazine serves up.

A couple of notes and things that provoked thought from the October 15th and October 31st issues:

1)  In an October 15th article on Napa wineries selling, including Stag’s Leap, there was a quote from Gladys Horiuchi, manager of communications for the Wine Institute.  The following quote, in context, is related to the number of wineries that have sold since 2000 (50).  She says, “These California wineries are finding they’re not competing against single companies abroad, but whole countries.” 

Keep that quote in mind over the course of the next several years as California wine prices and consumption increases create demand fulfillment challenges that will be filled by high QPR Int’l wines at much lower price points.  It’s a very prescient quote from Horiuchi, in my opinion.

2) Somewhat obscurely noted in the opening editorial by Marvin Shaken and Thomas Matthews, WS Executive Editor, is the mention that they have added new team members to the tasting team, noting, amongst other team members, that James Laube is getting some company in California tasting with the addition of two new reviewers who are now allowed to sign their initials to their notes.  What does this mean?  One could speculate about hegemony and house style in tasting, but it probably simply means that Laube needs some help tasting through the ever increasing pile of wine that shows up everyday.  From the editorial:

In order to bring you comprehensive coverage, we train new tasters.  It’s a lengthy process.  They taste with our senior editors for three to five years, learning to write tasting notes and give accurate, consistent scores.  They undergo blind tasting evaluations in our New York office.  When they meet our rigorous standards for expertise and reliability, they are authorized to sign their initials to their reviews.

… joining Laube is Napa-based tasting coordinator MaryAnn Worobiec and associate editor Tim Fish.

3) One of the things that Wine Spectator HAS NOT done is back down from the point’s adornment to cult cabs.  It’s another year and notch on the belt for many of these untouchable brands.  From the October 15th issue comes ratings for the following:  Harlan Estate – 97 points; Bryant Family – 96 points; Colgin – 95 points; Dalla Valle – 94 points; Paul Hobbs – 94 points; Joseph Phelps Insignia – 94 points; Araujo – 95 points; … let the games begin for those inclined to buy wines at $225 a bottle and up …

4) Another reason why Wine Spectator is becoming a better magazine has to do with more of a contemporary and culturally relevant take on things for people other then upper-middle class white guys that drive Mercedes.  Case in point is a blurb in the “Grapevine” sidebar written by Eric Arnold and Heather Morgan Shott where they mention backstage riders for celebrities.  Riders are the contracted demands for food and drink that needs to be furnished backstage in order to satisfy a performing celebrity.  The rock band Van Halen notoriously requested a bowl of only green M&M’s backstage after every concert leading to an urban myth that green M&M’s are an aphrodisiac, as an example.  Either Arnold or Shott went through web site to find out that several stars have fun wine related requests.  If you have some time to kill check out this link and search for Diana Krall, Amy Winehouse and others …

What do you think?  Wine Spectator is the pillar of wine editorial and that hasn’t changed?  Wine Spectator is improving their content and staying current, their blogs and online content is demonstration of that, in addition to the magazine?  Wine Spectator is dying the death of a thousand cuts by the rise of community journalism and wine blogging?


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (6) |


On 10/11, Mark wrote:

Jeff: Two points—no way is the Spectator “dying the death of a thousand cuts by the rise of community journalism and wine blogging”—one look at the magazine’s robust advertising puts that notion to rest. Second, I’m thrilled for Tim Fish and his additional tasting responsibilities for California wines. I worked with Tim at the Dayton Daily News in the early 1980s and have followed his career with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and with WineToday, the New York Times Co.-owned wine web site that was ahead of its time. Tim’s the real deal, and his added responsibilities will benefit the Spectator and its readers.

On 10/12, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Thanks for the kind words about Wine Spectator. We appreciate your close reading of the magazine: insightful responses from informed readers are a big help in our constant drive to improve. Our staff is composed of young and not-so-young men and women who are passionate about wine and about journalism. I don’t see any inherent conflict between Wine Spectator and the wine blogging community. We are all trying to expand and deepen the conversation about wine.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator

On 10/12, Jeff Lefevere wrote:

Mark and Tom,

Thanks to both of you guys for commenting.  Getting words read by professional wine journalists is a treat for me and I hope I serve justice to the opinions served up.

I do think WS is doing an increasingly good job (on a solid foundation, btw) of becoming more relevent to people like me—under 40 and still glancingly (emphasis on glancingly) hip.

Thanks again for stopping by gents.


On 10/13, el jefe wrote:

hi Jeff - Please forgive my contrary viewpoint… I can’t help but wonder if your opinion of the “relevance” of WS has changed because you now work for a Napa-based winery services company. The wines and wineries you are reading about are now wines you have tried, places you have been and perhaps clients that you work with every day.

(And BTW, green M&Ms; as an aphrodisiac was an urban myth even before Van Halen was just a garage band in Pasadena…;-)

On 10/13, Jeff Lefevere wrote:

El Jefe,

Thanks for the comment.  I would tend to agree with you were it not for the fact that I’ve been a subscriber to Wine Business Monthly since 2001 and Wines & Vines off and on in that same time period. 

I came to my employment just about as in tune with an industry as an outsider can get.

I do tend to think Wine Spectator is becoming more relevant.

Re:  Green M&M’s.  I completely defer to you on this.  My frame of reference obviously doesn’t go as far back as yours.  grin  Though, I would have liked to have seen Van Halen in the club gig days around Pasadena!

All the best,


On 10/17, Tish wrote:

Wine Spectator is still little more than an 800-pound gorilla in my book. They get away with pretending they are the only voice that matters. And they are so, so not. Granted, I am not completely unbiased (I used to work for an even lamer competitor, and was booted from the Spec blog boards, as you pointed out here), but what really irks me about the Spectator, as I continue to work in this great industry, is HOW LITTLE CREDIT THEY are willing to spread around. Praise in WS is basically reserved for “highly rated wines” and the winemakers/wineries that make them. PERIOD. 

With every passing month I am more and more amazed at how much energy, intelligence and passion embodied in the PEOPLE WHO SELL wine—in restaurants and fine wine shops, specifically. You can learn more from a conversation with an sharp wine mind, or following a pointed blog post and comment thread, than you can from a whole issue of wine spectator. But you will ne’er read about those people in Wine Spectator because covering wine from that viewpoint would undermine their point-driven power. In short, Wine Spec is still an Ivory Tower of pomposity and exclusivity.

They are also wittingly nudging the trend toward high-alcohol wines, too, in my estimation, but that’s another story….


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