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.