WARNING: This is a post for serious wine geeks only.
I’m not joking around. Here’s a test: If the concept of whether or not small doses of Brettanomyces should be considered a wine flaw or not doesn’t excite you, then you might want to skip out on this post.
Because I’m about to extol the virtues of a relatively new wine magazine that takes this stuff – wine – very seriously, because I am totally digging this mag. right now.
The background: A few weeks ago, I published a short article on wine mag. recommendations. Phil Vogels, Business Manager for the magazine Sommelier Journal, contacted me after he read that post, because he thought I might be interested in what SJ had to offer. After a bit of e-mail conversation, Phil sent me a few issues to glance through – no strings attached, of course… I wouldn’t want to offend any long-standing wine industry types (cough… steveheimoff… cough… tomwark… COUGH!) by violating any of ye olde silent and unwritten sacred oaths of journalistic integrity, for sooth I forswear, etc., etc., etc.
I asked Phil about SJ magazine’s backstory. “Our background is interesting. Our company has published a monthly Orthodontic journal for 40 years now, the Journal of Clinical Orthodontics, which was begun by an orthodontist with a journalism background.”
Uh… orthodontics? What?!!?? Braces don’t exactly strike me as interesting… NOT off to a good start….
“Our Editor has been the Managing Editor for many years of JCO, and started to get more and more into wine starting around ten years ago. In 2006 he took one of the intensive courses at the CIA in Napa, and while he was there, he realized that there are lot of people in the business who are very serious about their education. So he asked around and also realized that there was not a publication in this niche.”
Also not good. I didn’t have high hopes. Anyway, I’ve since devoured several issues of Sommelier Journal and as far as I’m concerned, I was way wrong on my initial assessment – SJ kicks the crap out many of the established, stodgy, dinasour wine mags. with snarky and negative senior editorial staff (cough… winespectator… cough… jamessuckling… COUGH!).
If it sounds like I have an agenda, it’s because I do. Personally, I think that subscribing to mags. like Wine Spectator, and then following their wine ratings religiously, for most wine lovers is a total waste of time and money. In fact, in my personal experience, giving too much weight to wine ratings and accepting the view that wine is a snobbish pursuit will set your wine learning back years. Wine was not meant to be rated to the point it is now – it’s approachable and is meant to be enjoyed.
Which is why I dig SJ – they actually write about wine. They assume a high level of wine knowledge, but in their accessible writing tone they absolutely do not care HOW you got that knowledge. Make no mistake, this is a trade mag. BUT… I think serious wine geeks who are NOT in the wine trade would also dig SJ. Why? Because the topics they cover simply ROCK – take for example, their series on wine faults. I love that kind of stuff, because I’m a total wine geek.
The best part is their view on ratings. This is how Phil put it: “We do not do ratings, as our research showed that they were not of interest to our core audience. However, I think many serious consumers also aren’t as interested in ratings, the in-depth tasting notes we provide give a good sense of the wine without attaching a numerical value to it. We take this seriously enough to deliberately obfuscate the one place in the magazine where wines are scored, the tasting panel, where our Snapshot graph is designed to give the group consensus on the wines without giving you numerical rankings. So we don’t do a large section in the back of the issue every month where we give a rundown of wines we have tasted, all of the notes are integrated into the articles, except for the Editorial Board Hot Picks which appear in the Notebook section each month.”
Are the reviews perfect? Of course not – especially when they get into “round table” tasting notes mode, where the uber-palated MWs wax philosophic about the wines they’re sipping. For me, if I’m not there participating, this puts me quickly into sleep mode (at some point, reading about wine tasting feels like learning how to french kiss by studying a diagram). I will give them recovery points for the tasting summaries of the wines, however, since these quickly capture the salient points without being dull. You won’t find any winery advertising in the mag (not yet anyway), and it hope it stays that way because it suggests a high credibility level in their reviews.
I also dig the creds. for their editorial board (imagine that… a wine mag. with actual Master Sommeliers and Masters of Wine on the editorial staff… why other mags. don’t do more of this I will never understand…), except for that slacker Alder Yarrow, who doesn’t have any official creds – apart from founding wine blogging in the first place! (Just kidding, Alder… who loves ya, babe!).
“A major advantage of our magazine is that it is heavily freelance based, which allows to use a variety of different writers,” adds Phil. “Our perspective is also a little different than the other wine magazines in what we try to communicate about the wines we cover. Since we are a trade magazine for the restaurant industry we take a more food oriented approach, frequently trying to communicate what the wine will be like with food and what foods it can pair with in our notes.”
With their board, you’d expect the focus to be squarely on wine, and you’d be right. “Our in-house editorial team is composed of journalists who know how to write and how to edit. This background gives us the flexibility to bring in the perspectives of non-professional writers who still have important things to contribute without sacrificing the quality of the publication. Unlike Wine Spectator, we don’t do lifestyle stories, so no travelogues, cooking advice, resort guides or car advertisements… no gimmicks, no content designed to widen our advertising base, just wine and industry knowledge and opinions,” says Phil.
Speaking of Wine Spectator, I asked Phil if he thought that, given their recent restaurant awards scandal, SJ was poised to kick WS in the jimmy, give it a wedge, and steal its lunch money & markey share (OK, maybe I didn’t use those exact words).
“We know that the restaurant awards program is designed to further the appreciation of wine in restaurants across the country, a goal with which we are happy to see someone attempting to achieve. Anything Wine Spectator can do to make their program the best it can be can only be beneficial to the restaurant wine community as a whole and we wish them continued success as they tweak their program in the future.“
I’ll take that as a “Yes“!
(images: sommelierjournal.com, galleryone.com)