Dismantling The Wine Culture…One Source at a Time

sffoodandwineThe San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine Section, following in the foot steps of its Wine Section, is being discontinued. It’s further evidence that anyone even considering starting a print publication that requires a large circulation to survive is a wild-eyed dreamer likely with more money than sense. The printed newspaper is dead. What we are watching is a slow burial ceremony.

I am one of those people who for years looked forward to the arrival of the weekly SF Chronicle Food/Wine Section arriving at my door in the morning. First on Wednesdays, then Thursdays then on Sunday, the first thing I’d do is dig down into the buried sections of the folded sheets and dig out the section. I’d unfurl it by letting all its tempting glory drop down from behind the folded up front page of the section and excitedly discover what the editors had decided was most important this week.

What was significant about the SF Chronicle’s food/wine section was not that it has been so well done all these years (which of course it had been) but that thousands of other people were reading the same thing I was reading, and most of them within the same time frame as I was. It represented a cultural touchstone for the region’s food and wine lovers. It’s things like this, things that touch your neighbor and neighbor’s neighbor, that create a culture…a community.

So with the demise of large circulation print, what are the remaining cultural touchstones for the wine community?

I don’t mean to ask, “what are the sources of information that promote a sameness of thought and opinion?” I mean COVERto ask, what institutions (regional or national) exists around which a large community of wine lovers can gather in order to share exposure to ideas? And incidentally, I’m not willing to entertain the idea that having a large number of wine lovers exposed to the same sources of information isn’t a good idea. It simply is.

It’s tempting to identify Social Media as the venue where wine lovers gather to be exposed to ideas and to knock them around and to explore them. But Social Media has yet to prove it can be a source for original content. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Delectable are not sources of wine information that attract large audiences. They are tools for disseminating ideas of content creators. They are the paperboys of the digital era.

We still have the Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and Wine & Spirits Magazine. Like the SF Chronicle’s Food/Wine Sections, these magazines (still published in print) are the sources of original information and ideas that spark conversation among wine lovers, provoke debate, and provide important sources of original reporting about the wine world. But as so many have pointed out over the past few years, these publications, though more authoritative than most,  no longer hold the power to be a key driver of conversations about wine simply because they now compete with so many other equally accessible sources of ideas and information on wine.

teagueThen there is Eric Asimov of the New York Times and Will Lyons and Lettie Teague of the Wall Street Journal. Millions of wine lovers are exposed to the wine writing published by these writers weekly. And because millions are exposed to them weekly, what they have to say about wine becomes very important in driving conversations about wine drinking, the wine industry and the wines we drink. Like the wine magazines, these three writers at these two publications compete for the attention of wine drinkers with so many other new (mainly digital) information sources. The New York Times wine writer and the Wall Street Journal wine writers do not command the power their predecessors did. But they still, due to their relatively enormous readership, retain a great deal of responsibility for the national (and international) conversation about wine.

It’s important to note that cultural touchstones like the SF Chronicle Fojon_bonneod/Wine Section, Eric Asimov, Lettie Teague and Will Lyons don’t, due to their position, have he power to tell us what IS or what OUGHT to be. What they do is provide millions of people with the same conversation starter. Common culture revolves around people agreeing about the subject of conversation. This is why these folks are enormously important.

One thing is clear, the most important content creators will always be those with the largest audience. The question for the wine world to ponder is where will the largest number of wine-soaked eyeballs direct their attention in the future?

The San Francisco Chronicle Food and Wine Section is not going away entirely. Wine Editor Jon Bonne will, thankfully, remain at this information source, but in a new weekly section apparently called “Artisan”. The wine information will be rolled into this section that includes information and articles on subjects far beyond food and wine.

This is a good thing. But its symbolism can’t be dismissed. It’s not symbolic of food and wine holding less value for people. It’s symbolic of way culture and communities are changing.

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12 Responses

  1. Charlie Olken - November 14, 2013

    And another one bites the dust.

    I have felt for a long-time that the Chron wine section did not serve its readers very well. It is not the Mr. Bonne is a poor or uninteresting writer but that he has a very narrow band of interest in a community that has very broad and deep interests in wine.

    When he said the other day that Kosta Browne Pinot Noir was only for novices, he essentially said that all of us who read the Chronicle are dunces unless we agree with him. Now, there is nothing wrong with strong opinions, but a daily newspaper has a very different remit than a wine journal.

    And it is my opinion, unproven, untested but my opinion nonetheless, that the winewriting in the Chronicle has pissed off the broad wine community in northern California and scared off advertisers in the bargain. One need only feel the anger in wine country to see that the wineries broadly feel alienated from the Chronicle.

    Newspapers are not supposed to be cheerleaders, but they do need to serve their coummunity and I believe that the Chron’s demise as the voice of wine in the midst of wine country has been hastened by Mr. Bonne.

  2. Cyril Penn - November 14, 2013

    gotta disagree with you on this one Charlie – I think Jon Bonne’ has done an outstanding job – even if his writing goes over many people’s heads.

  3. Howard G. Goldberg - November 14, 2013

    By what quantitative or qualitative — other other — measurement do you provably anchor your assertion that “The New York Times wine writer and the Wall Street Journal wine writers do not command the power their predecessors did.” How can you measure whatever “power” is under Eric Asimov and was under Frank J. Prial?
    And, with contrary evidence so demonstrably available on the East Coast, what underpins your assertion that the ” printed newspaper is dead”?

  4. Tom Wark - November 14, 2013

    Howard:

    Very legitimate question. In 1990, when I entered the wine business, the wine writers at the New York Times were at the top of the pile of a relatively small number of voices that reached a national audience. Their impact was HUGE. If you wanted weekly thoughts on wine from a reliable source, the NY times wine writers were among the few that offered it.

    Today, Eric remains probably the most influential wine writer in America. However, I never have to read Eric in order to find volumes and volumes and volumes of pretty well-informed commentary on wine.

    However, if I want to be a part of the community that ponders and discusses the same questions concerning wine, then I do need to read what others read at the NY Times.

    As for the issue of “power”, in the context of publishing, power = eyeballs. The more eyeballs a publication has, the more powerful it is.

    Regarding the death of the printed newspaper, your thought that I may have overstated the case is probably true. It would be more accurate to say that the printed newspaper, as we’ve known it, is on its deathbed. In 1991, 56% of Americans got their news from a newpaper. Today it’s 29%. Take a look at this: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/mediawire/189819/pew-tv-viewing-habit-grays-as-digital-news-consumption-tops-print-radio/

  5. Arnold Waldstein - November 14, 2013

    Lovely to say that we agree on this one Tom.

    Power and influence is a measure of popularity and eyeballs. Without a doubt true.

    I don’t lament the passage of the newspaper just like I don’t lament the power of the critic waning honestly.

    Things have changed–for the better. I agree that Eric A is the most influential wine writer in the country and his columns impact what is tasted and sold across the country. And picked up thematically by other blogs.

    That’s not what interesting though to me. Eric and others who are influencing online mostly are not critics as much as journalists, writing not about what is bad, but pointing out what is interesting and good.

    That change I can live with. And for me, I only read those who respect their influence over me by sharing in that way.

  6. Charlie Olken - November 14, 2013

    Cyril–Jon may be a fine writer, but there is an open question as to whether his writing goes over most people’s heads or is both irrelevant to them and dismissive of them.

    If the latter two as I contend, he is part of the problem at the Chronicle which is, after all, a newspaper, not a journal for wine geeks.

  7. Tom Wark - November 14, 2013

    Arnold,
    Thanks for commenting.

    Here’s something interesting regarding your comment about not wanting to read about what’s bad but what’s interesting.

    I just did a search at the Wine Spectator for all wines reviewed from the 2009 to 2012 vintage that got 74 points or less. Thousands of wines from those vintages have been reviewed from regions across the world. Only 49 wines were scored 74 points or less.

    None of the major wine review publications write much in the way of bad reviews any more. They used to however and they turned out to be kinda fun to read.

    Another search on all wines reviewed from the 1992 vintage showed 192 wines rated 74 points or less with the following reviews included:

    “Exaggerated vegetal and hard cider flavors make this wine difficult to swallow. Funky and acrid”

    “Weak, watery and simple. What flavor is there is green, thin and vegetal. No fun to drink. Not recommended.”

    “Bizarre flavors of milk and paste in a flat, dull structure. Unpleasant, though better than another bottle tasted. 25,000 cases made”

    In any case…Yes, we do seem to agree on this issue and that makes me happy.

  8. Pietro Buttitta - November 14, 2013

    It is unfortunate to see the newsprint whittling-down continue, and wrapping food and wine into into a lifestyle section called “Artisan” is truly barf-inducing. Though this was probably inevitable Mr. Olken is unfortunately quite right in that Jon Bonne is notoriously uninclusive and narrowly focused within the industry. I know of at least one wine/grape association that doesn’t even bother including him anymore because it is a waste of time trying to get him off of his few favorites and into the wider world of wine. Unfortunate way of operating in a troubled medium… To loose the food section is probably even more troubling in a larger sense. I have bought a paper for that alone.

  9. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Gemischter Satz - November 15, 2013

    […] less value for people. It’s symbolic of way culture and communities are changing.” Tom Wark comments on the news that the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine Section is being […]

  10. harvey posert - November 15, 2013

    when i traveled with harry serlis in the late l960′s, encouraging wine columns for editors and publishers, we promised that if they printed them, advertisers would come. they did not, and the lack of industry advertising support has now left the only wine section to my knowledge in the Napa Valley Register. for shame!

  11. Tom Wark - November 15, 2013

    Harvey,

    I’ve read about harry Serlis here and there. He sounded like a pretty interesting guy. You traveled with him when he was at the Wine Institute or Mondavi or elsewhere? And what were the results of your meetings with publishers?

  12. 1winedude - November 15, 2013

    Mostly I’m in agreement with this, but would add a couple of things to chew upon,

    - online sources are very much producing original wine content and breaking news; the events are what get debated, usually, and they’re coming via several sources. Example: Natalie MacLean’s alleged pay to play? That news broke in a windy response to one of my Facebook status updates about another story that broke online at Palate Press. The point is that online sources do sometimes perform the role that you’re saying they don’t ;-)

    - The sf chon news is bad news for anyone harbouring the delusion that they’ll one day get a gig like Asimov’s; they won’t, for the same reason that I can’t gift then a unicorn for Christmas (you cannot get what doesn’t exist :-)


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