Talking About My Generation: Wine Spectator Turns 40

WS111516_CoverUS.indd“Don’t look back,” Satchel Paige said, “something might be gaining on you.” That’s probably good advice in most circumstances, but sometimes it pays to glance over your shoulder to get some perspective on the present and inspiration for what’s ahead.

That’s what Wine Spectator magazine has done in their November 15, 2016 issue, which celebrates their 40th year. The very first issue was dated April 1-15, 1976.  A lot has changed since then. The magazine has changed, the wine world has changed, and we have all changed, too.

Start at the Beginning

The editors confront all this change in many interesting ways. Several illustrated features that look back at memorable wine world events and trends in each decade and provide interesting profiles of the important personalities who shaped the industry and our perception of it.

Publisher Marvin Shanken and the senior editors provide personal reflections and a gallery of covers captures the dynamic wine world through colorful images. Harvey Steiman’s contribution is an intriguing essay on “The Future of Wine.”

Although I appreciate all the essays and features, I admit that my favorite part of this issue is the reproduction of the very first Wine Spectator that is included with the magazine.  It is impossible to resist the temptation to compare the 288-page current Wine Spectator with its 11-page ancestor. A lot of the change in wine can be seen dramatically just be looking at these two publications side-by-side.

1976 and All Thatwinespectatordebutissue

Many of my friends read Wine Spectator for its wine reviews and ratings — they start at the back of the magazine, not the front — but the 1976 issue provides very little in the way of consumer guidance. It was more of a wine trade publication, filled with news and features not wines and scores. The page one headline, for example, was “Hearings set to define ‘estate bottled’ wines,” something of more interest to industry readers than consumers.

“California wines win high awards” is the lead article on page 10 and, since it was 1976, the year of the Judgement of Paris, I expected to read about the now legendary triumph of California wines over their more famous French rivals. But the Paris tasting was on May 24, 1976 — more than a month in the future when this issue hit the streets.

The awards that Wine Spectator reported here were those given at the Oenological Institute’s International Wine Awards in London and the big California winners were Inglenook and Italian Swiss Colony, both then owned by the United Vintners. The 1972 Inglenook Petite Sirah received the highest mark of any American wine while several Italian Swiss Colony wines were awarded silver medals. Italian Swiss made no vintage-dated wines at the time, according to the article, something that set them apart from most of the wines judged in this international tasting.

It’s a Corker!

Wine Spectator today is filled with advertisements — especially the 40th anniversary issue, which features many colorful full-page tributes by industry supporters. Not many ads in the 1976 issue by comparison. My favorite is “It’s a Corker! from Paul Masson,” which highlights the real cork stopper in the “new generic magnums” of Burgundy, Chabils, and Sauterne.

Other ads promoted Concannon’s Muscat Blanc, Ambassador’s Colombard Rosé, Voltaire’s Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc (Voltaire was a Geyser Peak Winery brand), B&G, Sebastiani, and Llords & Elwood (“makers of ultra-premium, award winning champagne, table wines, sherries and port”).

Wine Spectator today features both more advertisements and very different ones. Wine ads dominate, but you will also find those bought by non-wine companies that seek to promote their lifestyle products to the affluent readership base.

Back to the Future

A lot has changed since Wine Spectator #1 and Harvey Steiman’s essay sums it up very well. Back in the day when Steiman first discovered his interest in wine the world was much simpler. Baby boomers understood that Old World trumped New World and pretty much nothing could beat France (Bordeaux for reds, Steiman writes, and Burgundy for whites).

The boomers’ challenge has been to broaden their understanding of wine (more countries and regions) and to deepen it, too, learning about more varieties and styles. We have come a long way, but Steiman thinks there is still a long way to go for us to fully appreciate,  embrace and enjoy the wonder and diversity that wine promises.

Talking About Generations

He is optimistic about the future, pinning his hopes in part on the Millennials, who are undisciplined in good ways and more open to new places, faces, and experiences. Starting from 2016 instead of 1976 and with Millennial attitudes, the sky could be the limit. Fingers crossed.

I think Steiman is right about this, but it is important to appreciate (as I am sure he does) that the generational shift is not the whole story. Generational categories sometimes hide as much as they reveal. We think of baby boomers as driving the wine boom in the U.S., for example, but don’t forget that most boomers don’t drink wine and a great many of them consume no alcohol at all. Sometimes the changing patterns within and across generational groups are as important as the differences between them.

It is important to put wine in context. The world of wine in 1976, as represented by that first issue, was pretty closed. If you look at recent Wine Spectator issues, on the other hand, you can see that it is not just wine that has changed but our idea of wine and how we relate to it, which I believe reflects changing social patterns generally, and not just about wine. For readers of Wine Spectator, wine is not just a drink but part of a sophisticated lifestyle, which is why food and travel are featured so prominently in the magazine and celebrities make frequent appearances, too.

Congratulations on Your (and Our) Success

Wine has been a success in the United States because it has become more and more relevant to the way that consumers live their lives now. As the cultural context continues to change, wine will need to find its meaning and its place. The fact, which Steiman highlights, that wine is not one thing but a great many, gives us confidence that the best days are still to come.

Congratulations to everyone at Wine Spectator for a great 40 years of telling wine’s tale. Looking forward to the next chapter in your (and our) story.

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2 responses

    • Thanks Dave. There is a nice line in Eric Asimov’s profile of Hugh Johnson in today’s NYT — Johnson notes that those great wines used to be for the worthy, now they are just for the wealthy!

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