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September 2006 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Dare We Critique The Critics? Why Not?

 
by W.R. Tish
 
 
    HIGHLIGHTS
     

     
  • Wine Spectator's real power base lies in the culture of ratings it has created. The potency of the 100-point scale is reinforced by countless retailers and marketers who regurgitate the scores.
     
  • Wine Enthusiast's strengths include nonwine coverage and sharp contemporary design. It seems more intent on pleasing the wine industry than its readers.
     
  • Wine & Spirits taps expert contributors as opposed to staff writers to do stories with both an intellectual bent and literary flair. Its profile in the wine trade remains relatively slight.
Part I of my analysis of three major "glossy" wine magazines in the U.S. arena (July 2006) focused on their buying guides and stuck close to the nuts and bolts--how the wines actually get tasted, numbers of wines reviewed, the ratings systems the critics employ, the promotional nature of label reproductions, what's stated by the magazines and what's not. For Part II, I'm going a little more freestyle.

I suppose it would be possible for someone to do a "blind reading" of the magazines--Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine & Spirits--but why bother? The magazines themselves have become brands, and their brand equity is not simply a matter of their stories and mastheads, but also the positions they have staked out within the wine industry. [Note of disclosure: I was employed at Wine Enthusiast from 1988-1998; I freelanced for Wine & Spirits prior to 2000 and I have been ranting about Wine Spectator in my own e-mailed newsletter (even though I wished I worked there in the 1990s). This column represents my professional opinion; as with wine tasting, it reflects a personal viewpoint.]

What fascinates me about the current state of the glossy magazines is not so much what they cover, but how they cover it. It's a relevant topic for vintners whose products are discussed in these publications, and who might consider advertising in them. Anyone can pick up the magazines, read the columns, departments and features and decide for himself which specific parts he likes/dislikes. Yes, content counts, but I also care about the way each magazine orients itself toward the product it purports to love (and loves to critique) and in turn, the distinct role each assumes within the wine industry.

Fittingly, let's start with three rated reviews:

Wine Spectator
Wine Spectator
My rating: 88
Circulation: 381,444
Ad page rate: $30,925

Broad, deep and influential far beyond its actual pages, WS positions itself as the wine magazine of record. Editorial strengths--to my tastes--include industry news, selected commentary (Matt Kramer), consistent cult/ collectible wine coverage, special-theme issues (such as last year's Food Encyclopedia issue) and cover stories whose analysis rewards fans of particular regions (e.g., the recent Chateauneuf-du-Pape report).

But WS's real power base sits squarely in the culture of ratings it has created. A tight core of "beat" experts produces reams of rated reviews with authority, uniformity and impunity. The potency of the "Wine Spectator 100-point scale" is reinforced by constant references within the articles (XX points, $XX), sheer volume of circulation (381,444 in a Dec. 2005 Audit Bureau of Circulations audit; readership of 2.25 million according to Mediamark Research, Inc.); and especially the allegiance of countless retailers and marketers who regurgitate the scores. With its relentless emphasis on scores, WS has managed to flop the very notion of wine quality: A wine is considered worthy if it has been "highly rated," not vice versa. Perhaps more importantly, by structuring its wine coverage around carefully demarcated "beats," WS has managed to insulate its particular view of the world from alternative viewpoints.

Wine Enthusiast
Wine Enthusiast
My Rating: 79
Circulation: 81,266
Ad page rate: $9,895

WE gains much of its editorial identity from aping Wine Spectator. Consider its tabloid size, buying-guide format and special issues (Top 100; Restaurant Awards) right through to its reliance on in-house "beat" critics, frequency of ratings-driven features and blissful ignorance of critics beyond its own pages. Editorial strengths include nonwine coverage (where freelancers write outside the ratings-conscious box) and sharp contemporary design.

More self-important than important (ask any retailer whose scores move wine--it's Robert Parker and WS), the Enthusiast seems at least as intent on pleasing the wine industry as it is subscribers (qualified circulation was 81,266 in a December 2005 report by BPAWorldwide). How else to explain a recent cove r story decrying an alarming rise in alcohol levels without naming a single perpetrator of the allegedly dangerous trend? In a similar vein, the fact that WE's annual "Wine Star" awards are preceded by an issue announcing "nominees" with no explication whatsoever strikes me as a pure attempt to stroke specific producers and wine agencies. With tactics as transparent as that, it comes as little surprise that a July "Joy of Barbecue" cover story that made only a minor reference to wine featured five big-brand wines in the photography.

Wine & Spirits
Wine & Spirits
My Rating: 91
Circulation: 86,507
Ad page rate: $8,195

To my eye, Wine & Spirits stands as the most complex and potentially rewarding magazine for wine lovers who actually like to read and learn. Credit here goes to the magazine's propensity to tap expert contributors (as opposed to staff writers) to do stories with both an intellectual bent and literary flair. Fiona Morrison MW on Bordeaux; David Schildknecht on Germany; David Darling-ton on Zinfandel; Rod Smith on anything California. W&S can be utterly geeky (terroir in Muscadet--who knew?!) as well as hip (the "Fined & Filtered" recommendations ring of insider savvy). Its "Pig" issue from early 2006 straddled both extremes. And the tasting notes--exhibiting a vivid sense of the reviewers' voices--suggest that even though W&S plays with numbers just like WS and WE, it aims for and achieves far greater depth in its overall wine coverage.

Despite all these positives, I can't help but also notice that W&S's profile in the trade remains relatively slight. I'd chalk this up to lack of self-promotion. Wine & Spirits strikes me as not unlike the bookworm/aesthete who sits quietly in the back of class and yet every month turns in work that drops the teacher's jaw. Has anyone noticed? Apparently so: Paid circulation (as quoted for Standard Rate & Data Service, October 2005) is 86,507, up from 54,133 10 years prior.

Circulation & Ad Rates Compared
  Circulation Ad Rate
Full Page
Ad Rate
1/3 Page
CPM: Ad Cost
Per Thousand Circulation*
Wine Spectator 381,444 $30,925 $14,950 $81
Wine Enthusiast 81,266 $9,895 $4,495 $122
Wine & Spirits 86,507 $8,195 $3,555 $95
*Calculated from the latest circulation audits available at press time and current ad rates for full-page 4-color, one-time insertions as quoted in the magazines' media kits.


Beyond The Pages


It's important to remember that the identities of these magazines stem not only from their literal contents, but also how they orient themselves to other parts of the Big Wine Picture. For instance, think about how each glossy treats restaurants. WS--powerful, well-oiled machine that it is--bestows highly publicized Restaurant Awards each year (3,772 in the 2006 vintage), which generate as much prestige for the magazine as for the restaurants.

WE--adept at following WS's precedent--takes a similar tack, doling out its own awards, albeit on a lesser scale, and occasionally covering restaurant types/ trends in feature pieces. W&S takes a very serious and pointed approach, spotlighting dining destinations for wine lovers throughout the year, and publishing a trend-catching survey of restaurant wine pros every April.

Consider each magazine's approach to events. Wine Spectator stages its famous Wine Experiences, where ratings are used as the main criteria by which wineries are invited; then it literally approves which (highly rated) wines can be poured at the Grand Tastings. The net result: the events are more about WS than ab out the wines.

Wine Enthusiast hosts grand affairs of its own, with the welcome distinction of not dictating who comes and what they pour; the result is far more pleasing to participating wineries. Wine & Spirits takes a less grandiose, more organic approach; its Top 100 Tasting and "Hot Picks" Tasting stem directly from critics' picks in the magazine; the latter event, Aug. 23 in Seattle, was priced remarkably at just $25.

And then there are the retailers. To Wine Spectator, retailers are vital partners in the ratings game; that's why they send scores out to retailers in advance of publication, and why every issue has a tear-out "Shopping List." In Wine & Spirits, "where to find…" sidebars identifying specific retailers and their specialties are tailored to help readers find the certain types of wine covered in each issue; this strikes me as an incredibly valuable service to subscribers and producers alike.

As for Wine Enthusiast, I still can't figure out its take on retailers. After all, Wine Enthusiast Companies also owns and operates wineexpress.com, an online retailer with a penchant for using "WEX" ratings (always 90 points or higher) to promote little-known imports, private labels and off-vintage wines. Not only does Wine Express put Wine Enthusiast as a corporate entity in competition with bricks-and-mortar retailers, the fact that this website also sells recognized brands like Veuve Clicquot, K-J and Robert Mondavi also puts them in cahoots with--or competition with--potential advertisers. Perhaps most curious of all, Wine Express advertises online--not on wine sites I've seen, but rather on The Drudge Report.

Bottom line, as with the varied buying guides, there is more to wine magazines than what's on the page. Perhaps a fitting way to conclude would be to compare each of the big three glossies to a wine. Wine & Spirits might be a Grüner Veltliner--chic in an esoteric way, and now bidding for wider recognition to match its appreciation among retail/restaurant savants. Wine Spectator seems to fit the mold of a 2000 Bordeaux classified growth… established, revered, providing satisfaction to those who have it in their cellar, so to speak, envied by those who don't have access to such lofty rank. Wine Enthusiast seems to fit the persona of White Mare 2003 California Cabernet Sauvignon--basic juice, nicely packaged.

(W. R. Tish, former editor of Wine Enthusiast, now develops private, corporate and trade tastings through his website wineforall.com. He also publishes an e-newsletter called WineFlash. Tish's approach to gastronomy: "I drink, therefore I am. I eat, therefore I am more." Contact him through edit@winesandvines.com.)
 
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