Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Wine's Obituary

Unless you're in the business or were one of the remaining subscribers, you probably had no idea that the Quarterly Review of Wine recently ceased publication.  In fact, you probably didn't even know there was a Quarterly Review of Wine.  And you definitely didn't know that wine died some months ago.

Started in 1977, QRW was a faithful companion to wine lovers who valued the essence of wine.  The format, writing, and photography were all world class.  Substantive profiles of people and regions, and the periodic Best Of collections of wines stood in the stead of the seemingly standard 60% advertising and reams of numerical rankings that constitute much of today's mainstream print wine publications.  Even the fact that it was published seasonally was a welcome, more civilized alternative to monthly statistical barrages. In short, it was a great magazine.

So, why no more QRW?  As my friend Jim Hickey is fond of saying, our greatest strengths in their extreme are often our greatest weaknesses.  Advertising pays the bills; bills which grow with the quality of content.  My guess is that QRW had less of the former and plenty of the latter.  If that is the case, they are joining the ranks of many other publications that have gone the way of the mastodon and woolly mammoth.  But to read the publisher tell the story, they threw in the towel because wine - at least as he knows it - is dead.

Publisher Richard L. Elia's scathing indictment of the "soulless" industry's deliberate, capitalist strangulation of wine reads like the recounting of a ship's scuttling by a salty captain forced to watch it go down.  He lashes out at everyone and everything from Parker to technology to music. ("Nothing has contributed to wine’s romantic deterioration more than restaurant music.")  He decries the death of civility and culture along with that of wine.  He even takes a few swipes at sommeliers and educators.  Mostly, though, he's got a beef with modernity.  That, and he's pissed that his publication is no longer.

This rant - and it's not a stretch to call it that - reads like sour grapes (pardon the pun) from a bitter codger pining for the romance of a simpler time.  Understandable.  But if you look beyond the pith, Mr. Elia makes some pretty good points.  He's right that the demographic that once was wine's mainstay has exchanged romance over a bottle of wine for his and hers cell phones at the dinner table.  On this point there's a lot more to mourn over than just wine's decline. 

But what he's missing is that with wine's evolution, an entirely new population of younger, enthusiastic drinkers has been reached.  No, they don't demonstrate their passion in any way that Mr. Elia or his contemporaries can relate to, but they are no less passionate.  Moreover, within this younger demographic, the trend is away from using consolidated numerical rankings - something he laments - and towards trusting more personalized recommendations as the source for buying guidance.  This would not be possible without the proliferation of the same inexpert writers (no offense taken) he bemoans.  The playing field is also more level than it has ever been, allowing smaller regions and wineries better access to the global market than ever before.  These are very good things.

Maybe wine isn't dead, after all.Ten years or so from now the Millennial generation will be the bread and butter of every producer.  How they decide to experience wine is up to them.  As upset as Elia is, it is unfair to impose on others our own standards or judge what makes them smile.

Later this year QRW will publish a book of the Best Of The Best articles from the last 35 years.  In the meantime, QRW.comwill continue to publish the popular “Best of The Best Wine Tastings” of current vintages of major varietals.

3 comments:

  1. It's hard to say, after 35 years of doing the same thing over and over again, if the passion will remain, especially if there's no one who wants to inherit all of the work and debt that goes with running a company. I know that after my 20 years of being in wine, it's a lot harder to get me to go to wine events (for instance), because been there/done that, and won't even take the T-shirts anymore. Think of when you started writing about wine, and ask yourself, "Am I going to still have the same joie de vive at the end of 35 years?"

    Focus shifts in 35 years; trying to make payroll is a terrible stress (said she, having to make a lot of payrolls and taking out extensive loans in order to do it). We'll all be making this decision at some point in time, to be or not to be. For now, I'm thankful for all the great stories that came from QRW, and cutting Randy some slack, because I'm a lot closer to his dilemma and understand his thinking, as you will also be some day...

    You write that many new people to wine don't even know the magazine existed. There's still so much to learn for everyone new getting into wine, and now those new to wine are just finding out about a legend that helped to build the glorious business... One brick at a time, friends.

    To quote you: it is unfair to impose on others our own standards or judge what makes them smile.

    Aren't you doing that, but in reverse?

    It is unfair to impose on others our own standards or judge what makes them FROWN.

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  2. As always, thank you for your reasoned comments, Jo.

    Will I have the same joie de vivre in 35 years? Hell no. I've only been at this for 3 years and already my focus has wandered. But maybe that's just another way of phrasing evolution. Certainly consumers' focus has drifted, or evolved, too.

    And, yes, touché. You are so right: I am guilty of doing the same in reverse. The man's entitled to all the frowning and ranting and whatever else he wants without being judged. He is, after all, graveside saying good bye to an old friend.

    Thanks for your perspective.

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  3. My comments are probably more "seasoned" versus "reasoned."

    Just an objective observer, Steve. You'll see how it does wander over the years. What was once eyes wide open becomes a little more distant for things not fresh and new... It's just human nature in all things.

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