Wine & Short-Sighted Editors
Wine writing is not an easy career to sustain. The pay is generally pretty bad. Plus, there are any number of folk out there who are willing to do it for free or next to nothing because wine is their passion and they fancy themselves writers.
So, when a person is able to sustain a career or a column in a major newspaper for twenty years you can assume they are doing something right. And when that column is syndicated too, well, that means that editors across the country, those people who are paid to uncover good writers and good writing, have placed a blessing upon the column.
This was the case with Fredric Koeppel.
Fredric began writing a wine column for the Memphis Commercial Appeal in 1984. He left a job as a college English teacher to pursue a career as a journalist. Not only did he write about wine, but he also wrote features for the paper. It wasn’t long before Scripps Howard News Service picked up his column on wine and begun distributing it to newspapers across the nation. Not a bad gig.
In 2003, with a new editor at the helm of the Commercial Appeal, Koeppel’s column was cut from a darned good sized 45 column inches down to 12 to 18 column inches. In January 2004 the new editor at the Commercial Appeal abruptly canceled Koeppel’s column, along with his $1,800 a year stipend for purchasing wine.
It was the view of the new editor that the readership wasn’t interested in nor needed a wine column. This despite the fact that Memphis is home to Fed Ex, International Paper, AutoZone, a healthy legal community and a large medical community–just the kind of audience that keeps a column going for 20 years. The cancellation of the column was also reflective of the editors’ understanding of the region as being provincial and religious. According to Koeppel, at least one member of higher management at the paper thought the readership would question the morality of even having wine in the newspaper’s headquarters (wine writers of Koeppel’s standing receive a huge amount of unsolicited samples). There were also questions raised as to what Koeppel did with all the samples he didn’t taste, a very distasteful question indeed. Koeppel, as most writers do, gives unused samples to charitable organizations for their events.
All this raises the question: what use is a wine column at a daily newspaper? Clearly there are readership issues. Does your readership want such information? Then there are advertising issues. Can the local business community support the column through advertising near it from retailers, restaurateurs and related businesses?
But I would argue that a newspaper, and any publication’s editors for that matter, first asks what kind of information they think best serves their community and readership. If the answer is that a wine column does not do this then moving on to other questions such as advertising just isn’t relevant.
The editors at the Commercial Appeal clearly believe that wine is an elitist subject of little value to a readership they see as provincial and uninterested. It’s equally useless to point out in detail the condescension in this view as it is to point out the lack of perspective that the editors clearly possess in coming to this view. As for the religious motivations behind this view, well, we should leave that topic for another post.
The good news is that Fredric Koeppel remains full time at the Commercial Appeal as the visual arts writer and reviewer, the columnist on books, writing about houses and remodeling for the Home & Garden section and writing general features and reviews on restaurants every two weeks.
Koeppel has also kept his hand in the wine writing business by launching his own website: KoeppelOnWine. At his website he’s able to offer in-depth reviews, regular features and his own unique and experienced view on wines and the wine industry that appeals particularly to consumers, whether experienced drinkers or novices.
Koeppel on Wine
Tom Wark at Fermentations has a nice write-up about a new website by Frederic Koeppel…
Great piece. Interesting read. As a wine writer who regularly gets work, but gets paid little to nothing, I know whereof you speak. I’ve subsidized my wine writing with ag writing and other kinds of writing in general–as I was a writer before I got passionate about wine. That’s been my saving grace, I guess. I am as passionate about writing as I am about wine and so I’m happy to write about whatever I can.