Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Education the goal of wine magazine

Gordon Kendall

Good Libations columnist Gordon Kendall

  • Gordon Kendall's column, "Good Libations," runs monthly in Extra. He welcomes readers' questions and comments about wine, beer or spirits.

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Numerous publications inform readers about the world of wine, but the most referenced publication is, without question, Wine Spectator. The glossy color magazine has more than 400,000 subscribers and 3.5 million readers.

Printed 15 times a year, Wine Spectator covers all aspects of wine and related subjects such as travel, vintner profiles, gastronomy, restaurant wine service and comprehensive studies of wine varieties and regions. The magazine was founded in 1976 and bought by current publisher Marvin Shanken in 1979.

The magazine features evocative photos and tasting notes on currently available wines. Its 100-point rating scale is well-respected in the wine industry. Ratings include Highly Recommended, Collectible and Smart Buy wines.

The Nov. 15 issue features an article about the great 2009 vintage of California cabernet sauvignon, a history of the popular Kendall-Jackson winery in California, an in-depth story about veteran Burgundy winemaker Jacques Lardiere and reviews of eateries around Boston. Readers may find its educational review of the 2010 vintage in Alsace informative. Another piece details why iconic Argentine winemaker Nicolas Catena was awarded Wine Spectator's Distinguished Service Award for 2012.

I recently interviewed Executive Editor Thomas Matthews, who joined the magazine staff in 1988. Matthews was working from home in Brooklyn when we spoke by phone because his New York office was inaccessible after Superstorm Sandy.

I asked how the editors determine the topics they are going to write about. He replied that most story ideas come from the numerous wine tastings that the magazine staff conducts. The staff tastes about 20,000 wines a year and they keep an eye out for new trends. If they see a great vintage emerging from a particular region or successful wineries or producers, they research and write stories about them. They often add interest by throwing in a travel article about the region.

I asked Matthews what he thinks is the most important development in the world of wine in the last 10 to 15 years.

"Wine drinkers today are more educated about wine, more conscious, more passionate, more engaged and more willing to integrate wine into their lifestyle than ever before," he said.

He said wine drinkers today are hungry for knowledge and that Wine Spectator is focused on education.

"Marvin Shanken, the publisher, likes to say, 'We are not in the publishing business. We are in the education business,'" he said.

I asked what developments are in store for wine in the near future. He said he expects to see more quality wine from around the world, including Virginia. He said that his tasting staff has reviewed more than 500 wines from Virginia and that he is impressed with the improving quality of Virginia wines.

Virginia now has more than 200 wineries. I asked Matthews if any Virginia wines had recently impressed him. He talked about the 2012 New World Wine Experience, a three-day event of tastings, seminars and awards in October that was hosted by Wine Spectator in Los Angeles. Matthews said that Rendezvous Red 2009, from Delaplane winery RdV Vineyards, was selected by noted Spanish chef Jose Andres to accompany an exotic mushroom dish prepared by chef Charlie Trotter.

Matthews moderated the event, which also featured chefs Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. The audience confirmed Andres' selection of the Bordeaux-style Virginia red wine. RdV Vineyards is the creation of Rutger de Vink, who shed a business suit in 2001 to apprentice under winemaker Jim Law at Virginia's Linden Vineyards.

Matthews praised Law for taking a strong approach in the vineyard. He observed that many emerging wineries focus on a marketing perspective, planting grapes and making wines they can sell locally. Or, they are hobbyists making wines they admire.

"Jim Law, in my opinion, has taken a more rigorous and more admirable approach," Matthews said. "He focused first on the terroir, the unique interplay of soil and climate, to determine what grapes might thrive. Then he made wines that he believed were transparent to that terroir, and then he tried to persuade his customers to buy them. This is the only basis for success in the long term, and for a wine region to truly understand itself."

I shared with Matthews my opinion that wine appreciation in this area is in its infancy and that many customers still prefer sweet "pop" style wines. I asked him what he would advise local wineries to do to encourage appreciation of fine wine.

He replied that a successful winery is in business to please its customers.

"If their customers like sweet wine, they should make the best darn sweet wine they can," he said."I don't look down on anyone drinking wine."

Because his dad lives in the Charlottesville area, Matthews said he likes to visit Virginia wineries when he is in the state. "I have all the best wishes for Virginia wines," he said.

If you are interested in learning more about the multifaceted world of wine, pick up a copy of Wine Spectator. You will be glad you did.

Gordon Kendall's column on wine and spirits runs monthly in Extra.