When I took over this column in October 2008, I began by proclaiming “Month of regional wine”. It was a gimmick I conjured up with my friend Jeff Siegel, who blogs as The Wine Cretinto urge other wine writers to focus on “the wine from here, wherever it is here”.
Wine Enthusiast drops to cover emerging regions but adds hard seltzer
Jeff and I were frustrated that what he called the “winestream media” was ignoring the quality revolution taking place in states not normally associated with quality wine. Virginia and Maryland, where I am, and Texas, where Jeff is, are just three such examples. But also other states. We called on bloggers with serious winestream media aspirations as well as enthusiasts recounting their weekend explorations to sing the virtues of their local wines.
Our effort grew into a formal organization called Drink Local Wine, and for five years we brought aspiring and established writers to Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Colorado, and Maryland. A tasting at our final conference, in 2013 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, showcased the debut of Old Westminster Cellarwhich now has a national following.
winestream media took note. Wine Enthusiast magazine, which I contributed to, had been ahead of the curve – although they wouldn’t let me write about wines from Virginia or Maryland, they had an article I wrote about food of the Chesapeake Bay, in which I could mention local wines. Virginia and other states began to appear in travel articles, focusing on tourism. For a time, Wine Enthusiast even commissioned a tasting editor to focus on emerging wine regions and published short articles on wines from Maryland, North Carolina and other states. Magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate followed suit, reviewing wines from Virginia, Michigan and other states.
While I like to think Drink Local Wine helped move the needle, credit goes to the winemakers who prove year after year that top-notch wine doesn’t just come from the West Coast. Quality cannot be ignored.
So it was as if the rug had been pulled under local wine when Wine Enthusiast announced in July that it would no longer review wines from states other than California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Virginia. . Other countries have also been excluded: wines from Eastern Europe, North Africa, Switzerland and elsewhere will no longer be evaluated. To add insult to injury for local wine lovers, the magazine said it would start reviewing hard seltzers.
The reaction was immediate. A winemaker emailed me saying that Wine Enthusiast had “gave the middle finger” to local wine. My friend Lenn Thompson, author of the Cork Report website and Newsletter Fraction Press on Substack, followed the magazine with critical social media memes. My contacts in Virginia were cautious — glad their wines were still being reviewed, but sensitive to the feelings of colleagues in other states.
Wine Enthusiast spokesperson Bonnary Lek told me via email that the “business decision” to limit reviews to these five states was to focus on “wines available in the marketplace for our readers.” Not that wines from Pennsylvania, Texas or elsewhere are inferior, but hard to find. The publication will continue to write about other regions in articles about travel, food or even wine, Lek said, but those wines will no longer be reviewed.
It seems dishonest if the magazine is targeting dedicated wine lovers who might subscribe to a glossy monthly and seek out exciting wines from anywhere, increasingly available by direct purchase from wineries. Perhaps those dedicated hard copy subscribers—those with temperature-controlled cellars stocked with rare vintages—are no longer the target audience. Lek said the publication reaches 4.1 million readers “across multiple platforms,” including the print magazine, the winemag.com website and social networks.
Wine Enthusiast, like all media, is shifting from a print to an online focus. The audience – their demands and attention spans – are different. Thompson denounces the “influencer stuff,” citing a recent Wine Enthusiast infographic posted on his website outlining the best wines to pair with different potato chip flavors. Far from the vintage reports of Bordeaux primeurs. Is it the absurdity of writing wine? Or is it a reflection of the way we really drink wine, as opposed to the ambitious luxury that ideal wine magazines usually give us?
And what about those wines from emerging regions that will no longer be commented on in Wine Enthusiast?
“I’ve moved on,” Bryan Ulbrich, winemaker at Left foot hi-hat in Traverse City, Michigan, told me over email. “The initial news was like another bully hitting our books all over the hallway. But I’ve been on the road to work the market and have yet to find a single buyer who bases their buying decisions on Wine Enthusiast reviews. Young and energetic sommeliers and buyers are eager to taste wines from outlying regions and share them with their customers,” he added. “It’s our job to be there and put the wine in their glass.”
Andrew Stover, portfolio manager for Siema Wines of Springfield, Va., issued a similar note. Stover almost single-handedly brought wines from Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Michigan to the Washington, DC-area market. He called the magazine’s new policy a “slap in the face for emerging regions seeking major media exposure.”
But he said the market is changing. “I used to have a lot of retailers asking for rated wines. Now I am rarely asked,” he said. Young consumers are more concerned with stories about winemakers or how the grapes were grown, he added. “They look at the scores and think, ‘OK Boomer.'”
The wines from here, wherever they are, are here to stay. And we know how to find them – but not anymore in Wine Enthusiast.