New Wine Magazine Arrives

I’m constantly watching for the emergence of new wine-related media. In particular I’m partial to publications that don’t cater to the average wine drinker, but rather try to fill that smaller niche of sophisticated wine folks. Basically I’m greedy.

Such a publication has emerged and based on the first issue I recommend it highly.

The Sommelier Journal is new and focuses most of its attention of publishing for sommeliers and wine professionals. Yet, any one with a higher level of wine knowledge will appreciate the magazine. The editor of Sommelier Journal is David Vogels, and experienced publisher in other markets but who for years has had a very keen interest in wine. As he describes below in this interview, David came to the conclusion that  restaurant wine professionals in particular were a group that might benefit most from a niche publication aimed at them. The Sommelier Journal was born.

Below is an interview I conducted with David via e-mail.

TOM: Sommelier Journal seems to be aimed directly at wine professionals in restaurants and other members of the wine industry. Given this focus, how is the content of SJ different than what might be found in the Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits Magazine or another consumer oriented wine publications

DAVID: You’re correct that we consider Sommelier Journal’s primary audience to be industry professionals. With that in mind, we assume a higher level of wine knowledge among our readers than would be assumed by a consumer magazine. I tell our writers to imagine that they’re addressing a sommelier who might be working toward the Advanced level exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers. We try not to be didactic, but we don’t want to underestimate the sophistication of our readers. On the other hand, I also hear from wine connoisseurs who are not working in the industry that they have found a good deal of valuable information in our pages.

TOM: In your first Tasting Panel Report on the status of the 1994 California Cabernets, you created a panel of palates made up primarily of Sommeliers and restaurant buyers. Would you expect a panel of this kind of composition to come to different general conclusions about wines than a panel made up of all retail buyers or a panel made up of professional critics? And if so, why?

Since that first panel, I’ve conducted three more of similar composition in different parts of the country. I do find that these restaurant professionals have a different approach from that of wine critics. Both groups certainly appreciate good wines, but I believe our panelists are more focused on structure and balance than on power and weight. They’re always thinking about how the wines will pair with food, and that subject comes up frequently in our discussions.

TOM: Explain the philosophy behind the presentation of your wine evaluations, which use not only the 20 point scale, but also focuses on statistical norms and deviations among the panelist. And while you are at it, what are you thoughts on the 100 point wine rating scale and why not use this much more familiar and influential system to rate wines.

DAVID: The whole subject of wine ratings is going to be addressed in our June issue. I don’t want to denigrate the 100-point scale–it definitely has its place, especially among consumers and collectors. But we have found in our research and conversations that sommeliers simply aren’t that interested in ratings. They’ll take suggestions, but then they want to taste for themselves and trust their own palates. So most of our wine reviews take the form of recommendations from a wide variety of qualified tasters, with detailed notes that will help the reader decide whether to try the wines.

We also want our tasting panels to represent a broad range of experts from all over the United States. I thought about not publishing any scores at all, but we decided we needed some basis of comparison if we were going to discuss a flight of wines from a certain vintage or appellation. So we chose a 20-point scale because it’s more precise than four or five stars, but more flexible than the 100-point scale. On a 100-point scale, people are reluctant to award anything less than 75 or 80; I find that with the 20-point scale, panelists will often go below 10 if they are really disappointed in a wine.

Then we had to decide how to present the scores. If we just gave the averages, a producer might say, for instance, "Our wine was rated 18.1 out of 20 by Sommelier Journal," and I didn’t want people to be able to separate the score from the discussion. So with the help of a statistician, we came up with this "boxplot," which is a statistical analysis designed to show a consensus of a small group where they may be a wide range of opinion. It’s almost intentionally obscure, but it does provide what we call a "Snapshot" of the group’s evaluation. If anyone wants a really detailed explanation of how this "box and whiskers" analysis works, there’s one on our website with graphic examples.

TOM: What is your overall impression of the state of wine information publishing in America? Do you see robust competition for readers and solid reporting, or are you more sanguine about the state of this industry?

DAVID: The industry as a whole–both wine and restaurants–is growing exponentially, despite the current economy and exchange rates. Obviously, there are quite a few wine publications out there already, covering everything from winemaking to wine collecting. With Sommelier Journal, we believe we have found a niche that was previously almost empty, so we don’t feel that we’re directly competing with anyone. I think there’s a wealth of information on wine available from many sources. There are also many fine wine writers, some of whom appear in our magazine. I don’t believe there’s as much good editing, and I think that’s something we can provide to our audience.

TOM: Tell me about how the idea for the Sommelier Journal arose and what persuaded you to go forward with it

DAVID: My family company has published a professional journal for more than 40 years. It happens to be for orthodontists, but we do think we’ve learned something over the years about putting out a monthly magazine for a professional audience. I got into wine as a consumer and collector, then started reading more about it, traveling to wine regions, and trying to learn everything I could. I decided to take classes for a few weeks in the wine program at the Culinary Institute of America at St. Helena, really just to improve my own knowledge, and passed the foundation level of the Certified Wine Professional exam. As a publisher, just talking to my classmates and seeing how many people were serious about wine education, I started to wonder whether these people had their own publication. We started looking around and doing some market research, and we found there really wasn’t a magazine that fit the profile we had in mind. Through our research and interviews, we confirmed that restaurant wine professionals saw a need for something like Sommelier Journal. Then it was a matter of putting together the staff, editorial material, and advertisers you need to publish a magazine.

TOM: Do you have an opinion about the world of Wine Blogs?

DAVID: I’m not into blogs as much as my son Phil, who’s our business manager. He keeps constant tabs on Fermentation and several others. From what I’ve seen, though, the blogs are a valuable source of good writing and informed opinion on wine. Some of the best tasters I know are bloggers. The other service that blogs provide is a mechanism for almost instantaneous feedback, with each blog attracting its own little universe of contributors. We’re going to try to emulate that networking capability to some extent on our own website, although we don’t have any immediate plans to produce blogs.

TOM: It seems that more than any other group in the wine industry, sommeliers would be among the most concerned with the issue of how the proliferation of high alcohol wines might affect the diners experience, if it does at all. What can you tell us about any concern you hear from sommeliers on this issue and how do you view the issue of high alcohol wine and food.

DAVID: As I mentioned earlier, I think our tasting panelists are primarily concerned with how the structure and balance of a wine will affect its performance with certain kinds of cuisine. I hear a lot of discussion about things like acidity, residual sugar, oak, and tannins. If the alcohol level seems to get in the way, sommeliers are sure to mention that. On the other hand, I don’t hear widespread condemnation of alcohol levels in general. The pendulum seems to be swinging the other way to some extent, at least in California.

TOM: Among the general wine buying public the job of the Sommelier seems to be least understood and maybe even least appreciated. Do you agree? And, can you comment on the current state of the relationship between the diner and the sommelier?

DAVID: To the sommelier, that relationship is almost a sacred trust. I think more and more diners are becoming aware of that, although obviously there are many who don’t know or care what a sommelier is. I find that the younger generation of drinkers, people in their 20s, are becoming increasingly sophisticated about wine, and that includes how to order it in a restaurant. So I think the position of sommelier is actually gaining credibility and exposure. In many restaurants, of course, there may not be a person who holds the title of sommelier, but someone–the owner, the manager, the bar supervisor–has the responsibility to communicate with the guests about wine. We’re here to help those people do their jobs better.

You can find PDF downloads of various articles in the first issue of the Sommelier Journal by CLICKING HERE. I recommend you do this if you want something a little beyond the ordinary.

You can subscribe to the Sommelier Journal BY CLICKING HERE. One year of 12 Issues is only $59. 

10 Responses

  1. Morton Leslie - April 9, 2008

    I met my first sommelier in 1970 when I took my new bride on our first vacation. We stopped in Portland and sprung for a room at the Benson. There was a Trader Vic’s downstairs, a good wine list, mostly French, and a sommelier. I picked a 1968 BV Private Reserve; it was under $10 on the list, I couldn’t afford a claret. When he brought it he stated to me that “in California they bottle Cabernet, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, virtually all their reds from the same tank. They’re the same wine.” Basically in one swipe he put a 23 year old diner down in front of his bride, slammed his wine selection, and put down all California wine. David might include a bit about etiquette and manners in his journal.

  2. john witherspoon - April 10, 2008

    Hey Tom
    I recieved a complimentary issue of this mag and really enjoyed it as well. Still deciding if I need another periodical to add to the stack in the house though! Too bad they don’t offer it in a PDF email.

  3. Dale Cruse - April 12, 2008

    Thanks for turning us on to this. Definitely one to check out!

  4. Rob - April 21, 2008

    I am constantly amazed at the lack of knowledge and sophistication of wait staff when it comes to wine. One expects a sommelier to know their stuff, although there are many masquerading under that title who do not.
    Any publication aimed at the serving end of the wine trade such as this should only help to improve the food and wine experience of people outside the trade. So it may be a “bank-shot”, but I view something like this as helping the public at large as well.
    Nice interview and thanks for highlighting this new publication.

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