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End of an Era for Newspaper Wine Columns

Wall Street Journal wine writers are the latest to depart
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 29, 2009 2:52pm ET

It's the end of a year, arguably the end of a decade, and for wine writers it might feel like the end of an era.

The past year's recession, coupled with the challenges facing traditional print media, have effectively shut down publications such as Gourmet, terminated wine columns and eliminated a significant number of wine writer jobs, mostly through attrition and staff reductions. It doesn't matter what you call them—firings, layoffs or a rational reaction to the high cost of covering wine. But it seems as though publishers are facing a stark reality that maybe writing about wine in mainstream publications just isn't as important as it once seemed.

Wall Street Journal wine columnists John Brecher and Dorothy J. Gaiter are the latest to go. A unique husband-and-wife team, they wrote a weekly wine column for 12 years, but quietly announced last week that their Dec. 26 column would be their final communiqué. It ended a string of 579 articles that touched on a wide-ranging mix of wine topics, from blind tastings to stemware, books, trends, underdog wines and how-to pieces, such as advice on ordering wine in restaurants.

I enjoyed their columns and read nearly every single one. I liked their friendly, conversational tone, shared at times through John's voice or Dorothy's, and their professionalism. Covering the whole wine world is one huge beat and they picked it apart in clusters, reminiscing about their introduction to wines or grapes or regions to bargain hunting. I even liked their "Yuck to Delicious" rating scale.

Their "Open That Bottle Night," encouraging readers to uncork old vinous treasures, special bottles or curiosities and then share the results, took what many wine writers advocate to a new level: Wine is meant for drinking—don't sit on old bottles, share them with friends on special occasions, or create a special occasion.

The Journal purchased all the wines their columnists reviewed (accepting no samples) and for the most part they tasted blind, knowing that that process gives each wine the same chance to shine and that the knowledge of price and label are heady influences even for the most disciplined tasters.

I was disappointed though, when they wrote about tasting the first-growth Bordeauxs one year. They didn't taste those expensive wines blind but, as I recall, took one home each night and drank it over dinner. That's a great way to savor a $500 Lafite or Mouton. But it proved just how influential price and reputation are to wine assessment and appreciation.

I couldn't reach Dottie or John or their editors, so it's unclear why they left, where they're going and whether they'll be replaced and by whom. But they seized an opportunity, made the most of their platform and celebrated what's unique about most wine writers and their attachment to wine.

There was a time years ago when only a few newspapers covered wine, and then it seemed as if most papers had a wine column or two. Having a wine column in the WSJ validated the importance of wine as part of our culture, be it appreciated as food or art. That era is quickly drawing to an abrupt end, leaving many of us wondering what the future holds for wine writing in the mainstream media.

John C Winkelmann
Cincinnai —  December 29, 2009 5:53pm ET
Thanks for your public lament over the demise over Gaiter and Brecher's WSJ wine column. They gave us a weekly delight that was folksy, informative, entertaining, and passionate. Their love of wine was infectious, mainly because they often shared deeply personal experiences with wine that illustrated the many levels on which wine can touch us.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 29, 2009 6:01pm ET
I have known Dottie and John since we all worked together at the Miami Herald in the 1970s. John was the page one editor at the Journal, so one can hope that they're not jobless.

They certainly had a unique and personal approach to wine writing. I enjoyed their work too.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  December 29, 2009 6:48pm ET
Jim;

Great blog! Most always read their articles. They had a great ability to mix humor in with their notes and experiences. Always a reminder for us not to take life, and wine, so seriously, and just enjoy!

Wish them the best of luck!
Richard Robertson
Charleston, SC —  December 29, 2009 8:05pm ET
Deeply saddened by this news, since I travel a fair amount they were the only reason I would even purchase the WSJ at the airport on many trips. I believe the writing may have been on the wall when their column was moved from their normal publishing date to the weekend journal. Loved their style and recommendations. I'm confident with their talent and following they will emerge stronger and more successful than ever. Just another sad reminder of how we have changed the way we seek information, the successful ones will embrace the digital age as the print age has been declining for basic news with the decline in print advertising investments leading the demise especially during a rough economy.
Brad Paulsen
Saratoga, CA —  December 29, 2009 9:04pm ET
James,

I was both surprised and saddened when I read the brief salutation at the end of this past Saturday's column. John and Dorothy’s writing was one of the major reasons I subscribed to the Journal. I do hope their departure was not a harbinger of things to come now that dear Mr. Murdoch is firmly in control. Newspapers are going away all over but the WSJ has bucked that trend, and mainly due to fine writing which was a cornerstone to John and Dorothy’s weekly feature. Their fun and insightful videos were also a joy.

I used to be so bummed when they took their summer hiatus in August and I'd look forward to their first column return in September. Now I guess I have to have my just own OTBN without living vicariously through others as well.

If you (or other readers) find out that they have started a blog or perhaps have moved to another publication please pass along the word on where to find them. With college tuition bills coming I wish them both the very best in the coming New Year.
Marianna Kump
New York —  December 29, 2009 9:58pm ET
James-
Thank you for acknowledging this sad news. I have been following John and Dorothy's column for many years and I have always thought them to be the kind of people with whom I would like to share a bottle of wine. They saved many a wine novice from being discouraged and intimidated by the snobs. Their pearls of wisdom encouraged me. Wine is for everyone who enjoys it. Any wine that you enjoy is the wine you should drink. You can turn an extra closet into a wine cellar. I wish them a blessed and bright future and hope to hear from them again soon!
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  December 30, 2009 2:44pm ET
Oh brother! The self-destruction of another great American newspaper institution continues apace. Gee, not having a wine column will bring in a lot more readers. Good thinking!

If Marvin has any sense he will try to pick up Dottie and John for this publication. OTBN is a wonderful tradition, one you guys should promote! There is a great big meteor speeding towards us through the void, one with all of our names written on it. No one should die with a full cellar. John and Dottie understood this and tried to help us all from clinging on to treasures too long. Their voices of reason will be missed.
Jim Mcclure
DFW, Texas —  December 30, 2009 3:05pm ET
James, thanks for covering this in your blog. I'm one of the many who've enjoyed their friendly, down to earth approach to wines. While it's fun to read about event tastings and crystal stemware filled events, it was enjoyable reading about their wines with dinner at home and the search for great daily stemware (which I put to use two weeks ago buying stemware for a party). Their column will be missed, but I hope they'll pop up somewhere else. Perhaps an independent blog?

-Jim
Eric Heinz
Philadelphia —  December 30, 2009 4:11pm ET
Hmmmm. They focused on mid-priced wines, so 50 bottles @ $25 per = $1,250 in product cost for an average column and they did not always conduct a tasting for their column, so 30 weeks x $1,250 = $37,500 annual product cost. Hard to believe that the WSJ could not afford that, so more likely due in some significant part to other factors.
Steven Glazer
Orinda —  December 31, 2009 12:57am ET
Dottie and John's column were always interesting and insightful They will be missed. Please post news on their next wine writing work. I hope they will only be missed temporarily. Thanks James for writing this terrific blog. Happy holiday!
Quek Li Fei
Singapore —  January 1, 2010 11:57pm ET
Sad development indeed. Sadder still that the axe falls on a column associated with interesting writing & a unique and sometimes cosy perspective on wine & wine related matters. Odd that a paper of the calibre of the WSJ would do or allow this to happen. Wishing John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter all the best and hopefully, their writings will find another deservedly wide forum. Thank goodness for FT and Jancis Robinson's wine column.
Gregory G Peron
Scottsdale, Arizona —  January 2, 2010 4:48pm ET
To be honest, they did not give the retail market it's just due. They never really tried to get consumers to get past the one-dimensional and upscale. Their wines were for the most part boring and uninspiring. To be honest, I am surprised they lasted as long as they did.
Time to move on.
Sherman Harns
Phoenix, AZ —  January 7, 2010 2:32pm ET
Well, since the move was a cost-cutting measure on the part of WSJ, it shouldn't surprise the editors when wine geeks like me do not renew their subscription to a periodical that now holds little interest for me. Seems I've just saved about $250 annually -- guess I'll go buy some decent wine and Open That Bottle tonight, toasting John & Dottie's influence.
Khourys Fine W & S
las vegas, nv —  January 20, 2010 1:19pm ET
I always enjoyed reading their column. They seemed to have really enjoy what they did when writing the reviews. I wish our local Newspaper Wine Critic in Las Vegas had such integrity, rather than push the 1998 Bulgarian Merlot the local warehouse discount store paid him to write about.

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