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By now many of you will have heard that Sommelier Journal is ceasing publication.
The news came to me via SJ editor David Vogels, who several days ago issued an email to those writers who had contracted work with the magazine. I happen to be one of those writers, having only weeks ago completed a featured story / regional overview on Crete, an article that was to appear in SJ’s November issue. Here’s what Vogels wrote in the email:
“I regret to inform you that Sommelier Journal has suspended publication. We are currently negotiating with a group that hopes to purchase the title and resume publishing the magazine at some point within the next year. In the meantime, we have arranged with Wine & Spirits Magazine to complete the terms of our current paid subscribers with the same number of issues they have remaining (whether in print or online-only).”
The news is sad for several reasons. Sommelier Journal was a bright light among wine publications over the last six years, as any long-time 1WD reader is already well aware. It was probably the only publication that catered specifically to sommeliers, beverage directors, and others in a similar vinous vein who actually cared deeply about building a taste profile for their clientele.
But among the reasons for why the shuttering of SJ’s glossy covers totally sucks, the reason vying for number one in line for the suck-a-thon as far as I’m concerned is the fact that I’m now not going to be paid for the article I wrote for them. That’s work I sweated and bled, based on a journey I took to the region under the auspice that I was on assignment (I’ve reached out to World of Fine Wine about taking it up, but they seem to move pretty slowly, unless they have something they’d like me to promote to you, of course!).
I’d like to say that this development is probably a fluke, but I think it’s actually indicative of a larger issue, which is that paid content in any form is a tough sell, period. Paid content for a niche is even tougher. And as a result, building wealth by writing content about a niche topic like wine is a bit like talking about unicorns or the Easter bunny (or about Easter bunnies riding unicorns): fun to discuss, but ultimately a figment of our collective, wine-soaked imagination…
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During one of my many recent Left Coast jaunts, I had a rather disturbing conversation with a California winemaker over dinner. It’s a conversation that haunted me for weeks afterward, until I could catch up with that particular winemaker (who needs to remain anonymous for reasons that should become obvious very quickly) and get more detailed information on the topic that we’d discussed.
The short version of the story is that the winemaker with whom I spoke referenced a matrix he’d developed that set qualitative and quantitative targets – for color, extraction, sugar levels, tannin, taste profiles, etc. – for achieving specific scores from specific U.S. wine critics.
Not a wide ranges of scores, but in some cases, targeted score ranges that were quite narrow (between three or four points).
While the matrices began innocuously enough – as reference points for achieving certain styles or quality levels of wines more quantitatively – in some cases they morphed into tools meant to target specific scores from certain critics for marketing purposes. And this winemaker hinted that such matrices / formulas were and are fairly common tools in terms of fine winemaking in California.
Apparently, certain characteristics are almost guaranteed to get you a better chance at a particular score from particular critics. There are companies that will do similar analysis and – for a fee that is apparently not unsubstantial – will tell you when (harvest timing, etc.) and how (extraction, manipulations, etc.) to make your wine, based on that analysis, complete with target score ranges in major wine publications…
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[ WARNING: following is one of my lengthy diatribes. If you’re the
lazy and impatient busy type, skip to the summary! ]
Do you believe that fine wines are multi-faceted?
What I mean is, do fine wines change over time, present different shades and complexities of aromas and flavors?
If you agree that fine wines are complex beasts, then I’m about to show you why it should logically follow that wine experts may not provide the best reviews of those wines.
Because if you also happen to believe in the truth-enlightening powers of scientific and statistically relevant data, then you cannot continue to hold onto the stubborn belief that traditional wine expert opinion always offers a superior summation of a wine to that provided by aggregate reviews in outlets such as CellarTracker.com. At least, you can’t do it without being Spock-raising-a-quizzical-eyebrow-at-you illogical. By the way, if you don’t believe in those truth-enlightening powers, then I’ve got some creationist “textbooks” to sell you, but let’s not get off track, okay?
Anyway… evidence actually supports the view that individual wine expert opinion is inferior to the wisdom of crowds when it comes to reviewing wines. It’s not that single-shot expert opinion in this field is somehow irrelevant or useless, but that it is less valuable than the opinion offered by an educated, engaged, passionate, and diverse group of people (which may or may not contain experts in their ranks).
Don’t believe me? Well, then, put down that copy of Wine Spectator for a second and hear me out. Because while the view that crowd-sourced wine reviews have merit has been called “propaganda” by wine writers as celebrated as Matt Kramer, looking less passionately and more logically at the act of reviewing suggests that it is the Kramers of the wine world who are spouting the propaganda when it comes to dismissing the wisdom of the crowd…
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