School for magazine success is taught by 'Wine Spectator'

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School for magazine success is taught by 'Wine Spectator' The relaunch of a transmogrified Details has set magazine junkies speculating anew about the future of the men's rag marketplace. The "whithering" assessments always end with the same query: "So which magazine do you read?" My answer has long been the same: Wine Spectator. I humbly submit there are lessons in its success for all periodicals people, whether their metier be men, women or hermaphrodites.

Wine Spectator is the antithesis of the men's lifestyle magazine, as proffered by Conde Nast, Wenner, Maxim and others. It is not flashy. It is not celebrity-obsessed. Its personnel don't inhabit the gossip columns. It has never, to my knowledge, come close to exposing a breast, other than those on chickens and ducks. In tone and substance, it is as dry as the Pomerols it celebrates. Its advertising is sold not by a flashy Florio or a glamorous Galotti, but by a hard-working, no-name crew gathered by one Marvin Shanken, a bearded epicure whose day job, the last I checked, was running a marketing data company.

Yet among its affluent audience, WS induces the kind of obsessive devotion and consumption (of the stories, their subjects, and advertisers' products) that most magazines only dream about.

I speak from experience. When WS declared R.H. Phillips' Toasted Head chardonnay the best value among California chards, the inexpensive white suddenly became unavailable at all my regular suppliers. Without question, WS' cumbersomely named "Best of Award of Excellence" has nationalized, even globalized, the restaurant game, challenging even The New York Times' legendary power in the gustatory world. If you doubt me, just try to get a reservation at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, the French Laundry in Napa or Veritas in Manhattan.

I came to WS after a miserable year in London, a city so cuisine-challenged that supermarkets proudly trumpet the arrival of "rock hard salad tomatoes." Unable to find a decent bite in my neighborhood, my wife and I took to eating in, soothing our abused palates with a bottle of wine each night. (The English once owned Bordeaux, and their capital remains a spectacular wine town.)

I remained ignorant of what I was drinking, though, until I came across a copy of "A Village in the Vineyards," a little gem of a memoir about a year spent by a young American and his girlfriend in a Bordeaux wine town. The blurb identified author Thomas Matthews as a writer for Wine Spectator. Charmed by his prose and wanting to learn more about his subject, I subscribed.

Fast forward six years. Mr. Matthews is now executive editor of WS. I have developed a taste memory of southern Rhones and Alsatian vendange tardives. And WS' writers are celebrities in my fantasy life: the good-natured curmudgeon Matt Kramer; the elegant Europe-trotting Per-Henrik Mansson; the suave Westerner James Laube; et al; at "ah."

Certainly my admiration for WS derives in no small part from the simple fact of aging and the attendant appreciation for life's finer things. But I've also learned a lot about magazines from reading it.

First, real passion communicates. WS' editors and writers love wine, and they live it. That can't be faked, no matter how good the reporter, no matter how stylish the author.

Second, there's no need for spin. In WS, no one tries to emulate Tom Wolfe; there are no first-person interior monologues (unless tasting notes count), and the only hybrid characters grow on vines. The magazine's stories are straightforward and informational. Yet they manage to rivet the reader, even of traditional magazine forms; a recent cover profile of luxury goods mogul Bernard Arnault was as good as anything I've read in The New York Times Magazine.

Third, don't apologize for making readers stretch. When I began reading WS, its language seemed opaque. But the magazine never pandered. Instead, it forced me to grow into it, thereby gaining a sense of accomplishment and belonging. Today, I'm a proud member of its "club." So are thousands of others.

Fourth, familiarity breeds content--and content. Instead of chasing the latest fashions among subjects and writers, WS has stuck to its knitting and knitters. Its columnists have pedigrees with the magazine stretching back a decade-plus. And they weigh in on the same subjects, year in and year out. Instead of the neurotic's search for novelty, WS satisfies the aficionado's appreciation for nuance.

Finally, aspiration is a powerful but subtle tool. WS doesn't confront me with the inadequacies of my measly little life, the way 27-year-old male models prancing around in $3,000 Gucci suits at parties thrown for Ben Affleck and covered by GQ do. It simply reminds me that Opus One is something I can both dream about--and drink. Wine Spectator has made me a consumer--and oh, do I feel good about that.

Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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