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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wine Enthusiast drops covering emerging regions but adds hard seltzer

A wine flight at Left Foot Charley Winery in Traverse City, Mich. (Christine Erlandson/ Left Foot Charley)

When I took over this column in October 2008, I began by proclaiming “Regional Wine Month.” It was a gimmick I conjured along with my friend Jeff Siegel, who blogs as The Wine Curmudgeon, to urge other wine writers to focus on “wine from around here, wherever here happens to be.”

Jeff and I were frustrated that what he called the “winestream media” were ignoring the quality revolution underway in states not normally associated with quality wine. Virginia and Maryland, where I am, and Texas, where Jeff is, are just three such examples. But also other states. We appealed to bloggers with serious winestream media aspirations as well as hobbyists chronicling their weekend explorations to sing the virtues of their local wines.

Our effort became a formal organization called Drink Local Wine, and over five years we brought aspiring and established writers to Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Colorado and Maryland. A tasting at our final conference, in 2013 at Camden Yards in Baltimore, featured the debut of Old Westminster Winery, which now has a national following.

The winestream media took notice. Wine Enthusiast magazine, to which I contributed, had been ahead of the curve — while they wouldn’t let me write about wines from Virginia or Maryland, they did publish an article I wrote about Chesapeake Bay cuisine, in which I was able to mention local wines. Virginia and other states began appearing in travel articles, concentrating on tourism. For a while, Wine Enthusiast even assigned a tasting editor to focus on emerging wine regions and published short pieces about wines from Maryland, North Carolina and other states. Magazines such as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate followed suit, reviewing wines from Virginia, Michigan and other states.

While I’d like to think Drink Local Wine helped move the needle, credit belongs to the winemakers who are proving year after year that top-notch wine doesn’t just come from the West Coast. Quality cannot be ignored.

So it felt like the rug was pulled out from under local wine when Wine Enthusiast announced in July that it would no longer review wines from states other than California, Oregon, Washington, New York and Virginia. Other countries were also excluded: Wines from Eastern Europe, North Africa, Switzerland and elsewhere will no longer be reviewed. To add insult to injury for local wine lovers, the magazine said it would begin reviewing hard seltzers.

Reaction was immediate. One winemaker emailed me that Wine Enthusiast had “given the middle finger” to local wine. My friend Lenn Thompson, author of the Cork Report website and Press Fraction newsletter on Substack, trolled the magazine with critical memes on social media. My Virginia contacts were circumspect — happy their wines will still be reviewed, but sensitive to the feelings of colleagues in other states.

Wine Enthusiast’s spokeswoman, Bonnary Lek, told me via email that the “business decision” to limit reviews to those five states was to focus on “wines that are available in the market to our readers.” Not that wines from Pennsylvania, Texas or elsewhere are inferior, but hard to find. The publication will continue to write about other regions in articles about travel, cuisine or even wine, Lek said, but those wines will no longer be reviewed.

This seems disingenuous if the magazine is targeting dedicated wine lovers who might subscribe to a glossy monthly and seek out exciting wines from anywhere, increasingly available through direct purchase from wineries. Maybe those dedicated hard-copy subscribers — the ones with temperature-controlled cellars stocked with rare vintages — are no longer the target audience. Lek said the publication reaches 4.1 million readers “across multiple platforms,” including the print magazine, the website and social media.

Wine Enthusiast, like all media, is shifting from print to an online focus. The audience — its demands and attention span — are different. Thompson decries the “influencer thing,” citing a recent infographic Wine Enthusiast published on its website describing the best wines to pair with different flavors of potato chips. A far cry from vintage reports of Bordeaux futures. Is this the dumbing down of wine writing? Or is it a reflection of how we really drink wine, as opposed to the aspirational luxury ideal wine magazines typically give us?

And what about those wines from emerging regions that will no longer be reviewed in Wine Enthusiast?

“I have moved on,” Bryan Ulbrich, winemaker at Left Foot Charley in Traverse City, Mich., told me via email. “The initial news was like another bully knocking our books all over the hallway. But I have been on the road working the market, and I have yet to find a single buyer who bases their purchasing decisions on Wine Enthusiast reviews. The young and energetic sommeliers and buyers are eager to try wines from fringe regions and share them with their customers,” he added. “It’s our job to be present and get the wine into their glass.”

Andrew Stover, portfolio manager for Siema Wines of Springfield, Va., sounded a similar note. Stover almost single-handedly has brought wines from Texas, Colorado, Arizona and Michigan to the Washington, D.C.-area market. He called the magazine’s new policy “a slap in the face of emerging regions seeking major media exposure.”

But he said the market is changing. “I used to have many retailers asking for scored wines. Now I rarely get asked,” he said. Younger consumers are more concerned with stories about the winemakers or how the grapes were grown, he added. “They look at scores and think, ‘OK Boomer.’”

Wines from around here, wherever here happens to be, are here to stay. And we know how to find them — just no longer in Wine Enthusiast.