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Wednesday Warblings
The Real Inside Story Behind The S. F. Chronicle Scandal

By Charles Olken

It would be great theater if it were not so sad. The leaked story of the hometown newspaper’s cut back of its Wine and Food Section, as reported in the New York Times, has generated more buzz in the wine blogs than anything since the many Robert Parker scandals and shenanigans. You can barely turn around without running into a story on Steve Heimoff, on Tom Wark’s Fermentation, on Blake Gray’s The Gray Market Report.

And now here. We have the inside poop. Of course, with everybody and his brother running around interviewing anything and anybody who will talk, and with Blake Gray, who worked at the Chron for years, telling his version of the story, there are not many angles left uncovered. So, our poop may be authentic but it is not new.

So, go read Blake’s report,, because I can’t top it anyhow, and there is no need to repeat it all when Blake has done such an admirable job. But, here’s the thing. He does not know exactly what the future will bring because nobody on the Wine and Food staff knows, or at least is not talking. After the story leaked in the New York Times, reprisals were threatened, which is a joke, of course, because the story had begun to dribble out anyhow and this is not the kind of situation that can be contained. Truth will out, and people in the newspaper business should know that.

Be that as it may, the Wine and Food Section apparently will be no more. But, the staff has been promised that the topics will not go away. Whether the current staff will all survive in the long run is anybody’s guess. There are a lot of experienced, highly competent writers on that staff, and that means that there are a lot of expensive writers.

Here, for what it is worth, are a few guesses, and they could be called poop, since I am making them up based on my personal reactions to the Chron’s current wine and food coverage.

-- The Chronicle is caught in the same bind that troubles all print publications except those few who can survive on subscriber revenues alone. Subscriber revenues have a hard time paying the bills for newspapers, always have had, and it has been advertising that made up the difference. The Chron may find a way to get more advertising for its new lifestyle section into which wine and food will go, but if it does, it will have to attract customers that have been abandoning all newspapers.

-- Restaurant reviews are always popular because San Francisco is an eater’s paradise, and Michael Bauer and company do a good job of reviewing new places and tracking who is going where. It is an open secret that the Chron’s restaurant reviews are one of its most often read sections on the Internet.

-- I get a surprising amount of private email from my peers and from winery folks complaining about the wine coverage in the Chronicle. Too narrow. Too esoteric. Too much geared to a single philosophy of what is right and wrong and not nearly enough concerned with what the typical wine section readers (not the wine geeks) want from their daily newspaper. For some years, I wrote columns in the Los Angeles Times and the Oakland Tribune. It was clear that the editors in those papers wanted accessible, actionable winewriting for a broad audience.

-- I am sure that the Chronicle does not offer that kind of wine writing at present, but I am not at all sure that the style of winewriting has chased any advertisers away. And if it has not, and the Chron keeps its winewriting staff intact, then not much is going to change on that front.

-- And finally, we all are reporting this story from behind. By the time, the story had leaked to the NYT, it was not only well known to the staff but had hit the streets here. Yet, aside from Blake Gray’s semi-insider comments (he has not worked there for several years), we are all working off hearsay and guesswork. The whole story is yet to unfold, and I, as a reader of the Chron for decades now, am going to keep on reading and keeping my fingers crossed that the folks who run the newspaper in this town in the middle of wine country, in this foodie paradise, will be wise enough to know that wine and food cannot be abandoned.

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No Subject
by gabe
Posted on:12/2/2013 7:12:17 PM

The decline in print jouralism reminds me of the demise of the music industry that was supposed to have occured a decade ago. The same millenials that only wanted free music from the internet are now buying brand new (and used, and re-released) vinyl, which has basically single-handedly saved music from going completely digital.

My guess (aren't we all just guessing?) is that online wine writing means less quantity of printed wine writing, and more support for quality wine writing.  At least I hope that is true

Wine Journalism
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:12/2/2013 7:54:45 PM


There are certainly more wine journalists than ever before. And their voices are far more diverse than we ever saw in the old print-only days. There would not have been a place for such unfettered journalism as The Hosemaster of Wine or Samantha Sans Dosage.

What is less seen is the kind of journalism that serves the non-geek wine drinker who is looking for generalized information. That area is not my specialty, but is done better by newspapers than by bloggers in my view.



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