Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Wine Spectator takes step toward younger audience

Talia Baiocchi, from winespectator.com
In danger of becoming increasingly irrelevant, Wine Spectator took a step toward attracting younger readers this week by hiring Talia Baiocchi to write blog posts and Katherine Cole to write features on a freelance basis.

(Update: Cole emailed me to clarify that she has no specified relationship with Spectator, unlike Baiocchi, who will be blogging regularly.)

It's an interesting move for the Spectator, which has maintained a nearly constant staff of critics for the last two decades even as the wine world has changed immensely. Philosophically, it's a huge shift, as Baiocchi -- also the national wine editor for the Eater website -- is young and represents the new Brooklyn aesthetic, whereas the Spectator has calcified over the years into a gated retirement community aesthetic. 

Let's not overstate its importance: Baiocchi will be writing blog posts, not replacing James Laube as California wine critic. That would be huge; this is tentative.

At least Wine Spectator has noticed that 20-somethings are drinking wine and they're not paying much attention to the magazine. It's a competitive move and more will be needed, but perhaps publisher Marvin Shanken, famously fierce about the sharp divide between insiders and outsiders, isn't ready to go further yet.

He'll have to, though. The Wine Advocate got younger in a more significant way last year with Antonio Galloni replacing Robert Parker as chief California critic. Galloni so far is actually a more generous grader than Parker, as well as more open to the press. The positive notices he has received by higher ratings for some terroir-driven wines has invigorated interest in Advocate scores from many cynical areas of the wine trade. And wineries are excited about opportunities to meet the new guy. Whether or not that matters to the public I can't say, but it does matter to the Advocate.

Wine Spectator, in contrast, has an air of same-old same-old among the trade. I spoke to a few people who went to its big Experience events recently and all described them as tired, an obligation they didn't enjoy. James Suckling stole a surprising amount of Spectator's thunder when he left to go independent. Many people laughed at his arrogance, but Suckling has a personality and without him, it's hard to say if Spectator does.

Wine Spectator has come to represent an old set of values: pro-oak, pro-blockbuster, pro- intervention; anti-idiosyncrasy, anti-acidity and anti-terroir. It's not a magazine you read to find out about the latest indigenous varieties from Greece or the Canary Islands. It's where you go to find out whose multi-region Cab-Merlot-Shiraz blend is smoothest and richest.

Of course, Spectator might change Baiocchi more than she changes the magazine. Her first post isn't about Ribeira Sacra or Madeira or Virginia Bordeaux blends; it's about how she used to think Napa was for old people -- but now she thinks differently. She seems to suggest a second-label line of $65-$80 wines from Napa is reasonably priced. This is not the Talia Baiocchi that Eater readers are accustomed to. But hey, I write for money too; you do what editors want so that they send you a check. You can be fiercely independent only so much as you are financially independent. A foot in the door matters.

Cole, unlike Baiocchi, comes from writing regular newspaper columns so her first piece for Spectator, a Q&A, shows a familiar kind of neutrality, reminiscent of her interesting book on biodynamics. (Update: Cole is taking a sabbatical from the Oregonian to work on a book for World of Fine Wine. Gambatte!)

Is it significant that they're both young women? Maybe. Cole tweeted "Girl Power" earlier today. Spectator has had other female staffers and has MaryAnn Worobiec and Alison Napjus now (update: and Jennifer Fiedler, Cole's editor). The main critics have always been men, though. But a new main critic has to come from somewhere.

Again, let's not overstate the importance of these hires. Other writers have come and gone as secondary critics for Spectator over the years, frustrated that they never reached the inner circle, where their opinion (like Laube's, and previously Suckling's) would actually have tremendous power in the wine world.

Baiocchi may not have the power (yet) to give earthy, complex, non-blockbuster wines 92 points. But she might be able to get them on the Wine Spectator website without mockery, and that in itself is a significant change for the gated-retirement-community of wine magazines.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

25 comments:

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Meh.. she's writing just like an old lady in "linen".

As you said, you need to write what the folks paying you want, but I would think she would stick more to her style instead of their style.

SiduriWines said...

Blake,

So are you choosing to ignore Jennifer Fiedler and Ben O'Donnell (both of who have been writing blogs for Wine Spectator for a few months now) for any particular reason?

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: Because I didn't know about their blogs.

Interesting -- Spectator hasn't been promoting its new bloggers. It does make the step seem more tentative.

SiduriWines said...

Hmm...let's see Spectator has put the new bloggers on the flash page and on the front page of their blog...just like Talia. They've tweeted about their new blog and about each blog post they've written, just like Talia. In fact, there has been absolutely no difference between how they've promoted all of the new blogs.

And, as opposed to making the step seem more tentative, it makes it seem like they are truly promoting more and different viewpoints than they had previously. That's not more tentative, that's more definitive.

You just didn't notice, Blake.

Adam Lee
Siduri Winees

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: I'll stipulate to that. You read Wine Spectator more closely than I do.

Talia and Katherine caught my attention because I already know who they are.

I am hoping Thomas Matthews contacts me; I'll do a Q&A with him about Spectator's personnel moves if he consents to it. Usually he would comment but their offices are in NYC. Hope they're all OK.

SiduriWines said...

Hmm...I certainly won't claim to speak for Tom...but in one blog post you call Wine Spectator, "irrelevant, calcified, tired, pro-oak,pro-blockbuster, pro-intervention, anti-acidity, ant-terroir." And then, after these harsly critical (and, in my opinion, largely unsubstantiated) claims, you expect Tom to come by and explain the new hires to you. I'd say good luck with that....

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Robert Cartwright said...

Gees Adam!
Do you have stock in Spectator? It's okay to disagree with Blake but your writing seems overly angry. It's his opinion so I don't think you need to rip him a new one for missing a few item from the magazine. Actually it seems you are pretty harsh on all of your comments when it comes to Blake. Not that I know him, but simma da na.

Santo Roman said...

Could adam be so harsh because he needs ws to sell his wines? Personally none of my customers care what ws does when it comes to ratings or new ideas, but when i heard of talia's blog i checked it out. Okay i looked and it seems like the normal ws bs as usual. I don't see any of my clients running in to ask if i have any wines from napa that are around that price range, then again we don't carry any wines from California.

SiduriWines said...

Wow....still dealing with grapes coming in (last fruit in yesterday and the day before), so no flowery prose from me and I can banged for being harsh and angry. You guys are rough....

Is it necessary for me to point out that I wasn't the one that used words like "irrelevant" and "anti-terroir" -- to me that's rough...and not really backed up by any facts that I know of. And is it overly harsh to point out that Wine Spectator has promoted their other new bloggers in exactly the same manner? I think that's simply a statement of fact.

I think the best argument that Wine Spectator isn't irrelevant comes from the arguments that both Robert and Santo are making. If WS is irrelevant how could I need them to sell my wines? If they are irrelevant why would you say that I have stock in them? Make no sense and contradicts the first thing Blake said about them in his blog.

That's it guys....not trying to be overly harsh...just trying to point out the facts, question the other statements, and do so while getting up at 3am to check ferments.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines



ColoradoWinePress said...

I also wrote a Wine Talk feature for Spectator - http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/47167. Seems to me that Katherine's piece is in the same vein as my one-off piece. Talia is now a regular contributor.

And if WS is irrelevant, why are you writing about them? Adam is correct, they have been promoting the articles of the new writers (more so than the new writers themselves).

W. Blake Gray said...

Reading comprehension point: Please reread the first phrase of the post. Adam, you've been up 'til 3 a.m., you get a pass this time. But please reread before re-commenting. Thanks.

SiduriWines said...

Blake,

I usually am pretty good with reading comprehension....and grammar as well... and realize that "increasingly" as used in your opening phrase indicates advancement in amount or intensity of irrelevance...but still implies that irrelevance already exists.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: Wow, we can micro-debate this.

I don't want to write "in danger of becoming irrelevant" because that sounds like relevance is binary. It's a scale.

What I want to say is that Wine Spectator has been relevant for years but it has been more relevant in the past, and is in danger of losing even more of its relevance than it already has. But that just takes so long.

May I add, as I know you are a wide-ranging reader of the Internet, that I am always willing to defend my actual words here or admit, hopefully gracefully, when I'm wrong. However, I am not alone in being plagued by writers in other media who exaggerate what I wrote and then attack me based on the exaggeration. So I like to bring the focus back to the actual words. If I'm wrong, I'm wrong, but I can't defend something I didn't write.

rapopoda said...

Are they though? I mean, they are not relevant to me and the crowd that I drink in. However, is your assertion one of perception or is it fact-based? Are their subscription and ad numbers down?

I wonder, though they might be irrelevant to a certain sub-set of the wine drinking public, if they have maintained their "relevancy" by capturing audiences elsewhere

SiduriWines said...

Blake,

So, would you agree that given the dissemination of information, there isn't a single source of information (about wine at least...and about most other things) that retains the relevancy that it once did? If that is all that your point is, then I am in full agreement.

But if you want to say that the Wine Spectator is specifically less relevant than it was because of some specific viewpoint it has taken, or direction it has gone, I'd love to see some evidence of it that isn't simply anecdotal.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Rapo: That's basically the point. They need to capture new audiences and they haven't been a youth-friendly publication. This isn't unique to wine media; newspapers have had this problem for years.

Adam: Unless Marvin is willing to share circulation numbers with me, all my evidence is anecdotal. See rapopoda's comment, for example. But there's a lottttt of anecdotal evidence. If you'd care to present anecdotal evidence for the other side, I'm here.

SiduriWines said...

Blake,

Being a baseball fan, you know all about the East Coast bias of the media. I think the same type of thing exists when it comes to the wine media...believing that what happens in NYC or SF is representative of what is happening in the rest of the country. Go travel around the rest of the country as I do, where wine drinking had the greatest potential to grow (and has grown) and see what relevance the Wine Spectator has.

Of course, that too in anecdotal. What isn't anecdotal is that Talia's blog on Wine Spectator has 4x as many comments and 5x as many Facebook likes as her last blog on Eater.

What isn't anecdotal is the almost 70,000 Facebook likes and almost 70,000 Twitter followers (30x how many I have, 20x how many you have).

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

SiduriWines said...

Perhaps the greater question is why the need to attempt to tear down a publication, any publication, that promotes wine...wine you like, wine you don't like...to a large extent, who cares? There are always comments about how the United States simply isn't a wine-drinking culture...and yet when a publication promotes or a winery makes wines that don't fit into certain molds they must be criticized.

It seems to me that the United States sorely misses Robert Mondavi...who found that he could be successful personally while also promoting the success of California wine as a whole.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: I was wondering when you'd get to "they're more relevant than you are." I never said they weren't.

Maya Cat said...

"Perhaps the greater question is why the need to attempt to tear down a publication, any publication, that promotes wine...wine you like, wine you don't like...to a large extent, who cares?"

Adam, maybe look in the mirror, brother. Here you are defending the supposed "tearing down of a publication" that promotes all styles of wines, while you yourself had no qualms humiliating colleagues in public to make a point at WOPN. Grow up, dude.

Mark Andrew Sinnott said...

From WS website:

Wine Spectator magazine now reaches more than 2.58 million readers, the largest audience in its history, according to the fall 2008 study released by Mediamark Research Inc. (MRI), the leading U.S. supplier of audience research for the media.

Also for the first time, Wine Spectator has a greater number of female readers than male readers. Of the total audience, 52 percent are women and 48 percent are men.

The MRI report indicates that Wine Spectator attracts an affluent readership, with a median household income of $113,827—the sixth highest of the nearly 240 U.S. magazines, newspapers and publication groups measured in the audience study. The median age is 47. More than 56 percent have incomes above $100,000; of these, more than 75 percent have a college or higher-level degree, and 58 percent work in managerial or professional occupations.

Wine Spectator got its start in 1976 as a tabloid newspaper, with an initial circulation of less than 5,000. Today, Wine Spectator is the most widely-read wine magazine in the world

SiduriWines said...

Maya,

It is funny, no matter how long I say what really happened at that tasting, how often it gets told incorrectly.

As far as me being inconsistent, I am certain I am at sometimes. I try not to be. Oddly enough, I like Pinot Noirs from California made in widely divergent styles. In fact, my two biggest Pinot Noir purchases from California are Kosta-Browne and Rhys.

My point remains consistent (no matter what you think of me)....more wine drinkers in the United States would only bring us closer to the norm (per capita) in the Western Hemisphere....and as such Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, Burghound, Blake Gray, and on and on provide a valuable service...and ragging on any of them doesn't help any of them...or any of us.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: OK, I'm calling hypocrite at this point.

You write in here to rag me all the time! Which is fine, it's a lively comment interchange. But seriously, what am I supposed to do, only write praise? What do you think I am, a PR firm? Would even you keep reading me if I did that?

I cover Wine Spectator because I think Wine Spectator is important. You don't see me writing about -- I'm not gonna name them -- but the point is, I cover wine media because it's an aspect of writing about wine.

What kind of media analysis do you really want? "Oh, that was a nice story by nice people. I loved every word." Seriously?

I'm calling "hypocrite" on you.

SiduriWines said...

Blake

I certainly don't think you need to write only praise...but I also think there needs to be accuracy in what you write (I believe that for all wine publications). When Matt Kramer wrote a piece awhile back over at the Spectator that I didn't think was accurate, I commented and pointed that out. When you wrote that Wine Spectator just added new younger writers and they'd actually added a couple some time before that, I pointed that out as well. That's a question of factual accuracy.

Where I take issue and think that your blog goes from legitimate criticism to over-the-top ragging on the publication (and to the detriment of wine as a whole) is when you write, "Wine Spectator has come to represent an old set of values: pro-oak, pro-blockbuster, pro- intervention; anti-idiosyncrasy, anti-acidity and anti-terroir." First off, I don't find that be be particularly accurate across the board for the publication and for all of the descriptors. Second, I think that saying that there is an old set and a new set of values when it comes to wine is very much an isolated belief...held by certain wine writers on the east and west coast metropolitan areas and not representative of what the rest of the country expriences.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

szymanskiea said...

Adam, all you're doing is earning yourself a reputation as a hothead who cares more about ad hominem attacks than about creating and participating in a useful conversation. Take the not-so-subtle hint from the several folks in this comment thread (not to mention the past occasions on which something similar has occurred around your comments) and back down.