Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Boom times for wine media! Now if only we have something to say

In many ways, wine writing is better now than ever. There are fewer paid newspaper columns than 20 years ago, and for writers that's a bad thing, but most of those columns were myopic like a blind man touching an elephant: look, I discovered Port! Hey, Sauvignon Blanc exists and New Zealand makes it, here's one I tried!

Writing on the Internet is better because it has to be. You don't need to know what your local wine importer/part-time columnist thinks about Spanish red wines because you can quickly search for the opinions of an expert, a passionate newcomer, a local, a blogger who got a press trip ... whatever. You, the reader, have options.

But we writers went through a bad period of nearly a decade where we haven't had many options, not if we wanted to get paid. In the past week, though, I have learned of THREE new publications about wine scheduled for the next year. Three! In a week! It's like a lawyer learning a busload of tourists just got rammed by a drunk truck driver outside his office. Surely there's more work to be had!

First, Wine Enthusiast is starting a new industry magazine called Beverage Industry Enthusiast. It appears to be an attempt to compete with Wine Business Monthly and to a lesser extent Beverage Media Journal, both of which I sometimes write for. But this sounds on the surface to be a slightly more consumer-oriented publication, with videos asking "5 Questions of Industry Leaders" and "A Day in the Life industry profiles."

Wine Enthusiast itself is an underestimated publication. It's more readable than Wine Spectator and less serious than Wine & Spirits; the latter is a good and bad thing. I'll be interested to see how it translates its short, snappy style to daily industry news.

Second, the San Francisco Chronicle is apparently launching a so-far unrevealed publication about touring Wine Country, hinted at by the end of a recent Chronicle wine piece. I worked for the long-dead Chronicle Wine section (sigh) and even back then, the publishers always dreamed of putting together a wine-touring publication, with tasting room reviews, restaurant reviews, etc. I hope they can pull it off: this would be a great service for people visiting wine country, with a very different angle than most food and wine writers take. I'm usually nonplussed by the very basic question my non-enophile friends ask: What wineries should I visit? I know who makes good wines, but I don't keep track of whose tasting fees are most egregious, etc. There's a place for this publication.

The third magazine I heard when I went to argue online with Rachel Signer, a Brooklyn-baseed writer, about the Bianca Bosker piece in the New York Times that has the wine commentariat's knickers in a twist. Signer, whose work I generally enjoy, is planning to put out a print magazine (!) called Terre about terroir in the fall. I'll read it if I can afford it.

Now about that Bosker piece ...

I'll say a variation here of what I said on Signer's blog: It was refreshing both to learn something -- I didn't know how Treasury manufactures supermarket wines to consumers' tastes -- and to read something about wine that wasn't written from one of the two most popular wine-media perspectives, which are:

1) Only the greatest wines are really great, and these wines I'm recommending are so awesome you should genuflect, or

2) These wines were made by letting the grapes fall in a bucket and ferment on their own. Anything more manipulated than that is just wrong.

Bosker was smart to include the words "natural wine" in a column that had nothing to do with it. We wine media are predictable like wind-up monkeys: without that phrase, I doubt anyone would have gotten emotional about a story that was essentially the vinous equivalent of "How candy corn is made."

I was surprised that so many intelligent writers I respect got sucked in by emotion without recognizing the essential journalism of the piece, and moreover, as I said to Signer, the neutrality. I can (and would!) read a story about "how candy corn is made" without needing to eat and enjoy candy corn, nor I would feel my own preferences in candy (dark chocolate with sea salt, please) impugned in the slightest. People have become so accustomed to every wine story being a polemic that we don't even recognize the dispassionate-observer style of journalism when we come across it.

We need more stories like Bosker's because it was interesting, and if we want the non-enophile public to care more about wine, the story needs to be unique and engaging. All the pieces you read about natural wine, pro and con: they're all pretty much the same. (Pro: It's honestly made and deliciously unpredictable! Con: It's flawed and unpredictably not delicious.) If somebody has read a new angle on natural wine, please post it in the comments. The savvy reader will note I'm not taking a position here on natural wine itself, just the boring stories about it. The public doesn't care while the wine commentariat fights inside a glass dome.

As a writer, I am really super delighted that there are three -- THREE! -- more wine publications becoming available in the months to come. More work for some writers means more possibilities of  work for all writers. (NOTE TO EDITORS: I'm open like a deli over here for more assignments.)

As a reader, I want to see more diverse subject matter in wine media. I want to read stories that make me say, "Well, that was interesting." More publications means more opportunities. I hope it's not more of the same.

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


  1. Great piece!
    As to this: " If somebody has read a new angle on natural wine, please post it in the comments."
    My angle is: You know, there's something between "natural wine" and industrial plonk. And it's usually made by small, dedicated vignerons.

  2. WE can add to the list Sonoma Media Investment's "Spirited"

  3. I'm really not a fan of Bianca's writing as I find pretty much everything to be superficial and smack of being hastily written and her book is no exception. Having read a review copy, I was very unimpressed and sadly, it's salted the earth for a more talented writing to come in and attack the topic properly.

    I was surprised to see so many professional writers get sucked in to such obvious click bait. As you said, toss "natural wine" in the discussion and all hell breaks loose.

    Your summary of the two media perspectives is exceedingly dead on by the way and the profile I summarily unfollow in my fee reader (yes, I'm that uncool that I still use RSS.)


  4. Unfortunately most "natural winemakers" in the US could care less how the grapes are grown, it is all about the "yeast(s)". This article you quote is written by someone who is misinformed. Lame: "Some winemakers I respect very much are not 100 percent organically farmed–but it’s not something they celebrate, as if they are proud to use chemicals." (bad syntax, too). The writer below is definitely a newbie; hence the problem with blogging. Fake news.

    "At the same time, the movement does deserve recognition, and it is a good thing that it’s growing and spreading. Because for every single hectare that’s farmed without dangerous herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides, the soil is healthier, and the ecosystem is better able to thrive and to resist climate change–and the people who live and work around that vineyard are grateful. I know people like to point out copper’s harmfulness, and I also know that organic is not everything–with or without certification. Some winemakers I respect very much are not 100 percent organically farmed–but it’s not something they celebrate, as if they are proud to use chemicals. It’s the reality of the challenges of farming in certain climates. But I’ve stood in organically or biodynamically farmed vineyards, and it’s quite obvious that life is thriving within them: cover crops, butterflies, birds, rich and healthy soils are present, whereas I’ve also stood in a massive plantation of conventionally farmed Chardonnay in Sicily, at an unnamed winery’s estate, and gazed in horror at the cracked, dry, ugly ground. The difference is really just so obvious to see, and you can’t ignore it if you care about nature or the planet. Meanwhile, it’s also important to mention that “organic” or even “biodynamic” doesn’t mean a wine is made naturally; it’s still possible for additives to come into the picture. It also doesn’t mean that a wine is necessarily good."

  5. GREAT perspective Gray! Thanks for sharing.

  6. I must be getting old. I remember when the dream was for wine to become a consumer product. Now it is -- and being treated like one -- and the alleged well informed are unhappy about it.

  7. Very well said, Blake. Your and Ester's comments ystrday are spot on.