Dismantling The Wine Culture…One Source at a Time
The 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 to 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.
Then 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 Food/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.