The Influence of the ordinary: WSJ wine column has clout

The Influence of the ordinary: WSJ wine column has clout – Wall Street Journal

Anne Louise Bannon

It was literally judgement day at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds, and I was certainly in a judgement day mood. While I’d been looking forward to meeting wine critics John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter, I’d had a lousy morning.

Brecher and Gaiter were at the Pomona, Calif., Fairplex facility as judges of the L.A. County Fair’s wine competition–a very convenient opportunity for yours truly to run over and snap some photos of the authors of the Wall Street Journal’s weekly “Tastings” column.

And while Gaiter and I waited for Brecher to take a short break so I could catch the two of them together, Gaiter quickly shoved a glass under my nose.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” she asked.

It was. The rich scent of raspberry tickled my nostrils. Gaiter insisted I try a sip, which I did. The wine–St. James Spirits Raspberry Regale–was thick and sweet and light all at the same time, a celebration of fruit in a glass.

And my mood lifted. My lousy morning suddenly ceased to be an issue. Whatever was in that glass put everything back into perspective in a single instant of tasting.

Which is exactly the point behind “Tastings,” which appears every Friday in the Weekend Journal section.

“Wine is good for world peace,” Gaiter told me later. “It slows down your meal, and when you slow down, it promotes conversation. We talk. We get connected to those things that are important.”

“We always say that our wine column isn’t a wine column,” Brecher said. “It’s a lifestyle column. We really write about enjoying life in our times. We maybe enjoy our lives a little bit more because wine is a part of it. We feel we’re giving people permission to enjoy life.”

That broad-based attitude is exactly what makes the “Tastings” column so very popular. Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications in Napa, which specializes in public relations for various wineries, said that he’s had distributors in the Midwest tell him that the “Tastings” column is the most influential column in the country. And Wagner said it’s pretty easy to figure out why.

“I think (Brecher and Gaiter) do a pretty good job of understanding the middle cut of wine consumers,” he said. “They don’t really speak to the cult wine collectors, and they don’t really speak to the jug wine consumer.”

The middle cut is where the biggest audience is. (Emphasis mine–Ed.)

“I think we can overdo it in terms of just being a little bit too precious and intimidating about wine,” said Wayne Donaldson, winemaker at Domaine Chandon. “When you get something that’s very user friendly, that puts it into a more quality area, but it’s more mainstream. So, therefore, it’s good for the wine industry. It makes it accessible to a broader base of people.”

Not that Gaiter or Brecher intended anything like this should happen. The two have spent most of their careers as serious “hard news” journalists, with several Pulitzer Prize nominations between them.

“We actually never wanted to write about wine,” Brecher said. “It’s always been a personal passion, something between us.”

The two have been married since 1979, although they’ve been together pretty much since they met each other at the Miami Herald in 1973. The two were fresh out of college and bent on changing the world.

Although both had been born in the Northeast–Brecher in New York City and Gaiter in Redbank, N.J.–both families left that part of the country for Florida when the two were toddlers. Gaiter’s family settled in Tallahassee, and Brecher’s in Jacksonville. Both knew they wanted to be journalists at a young age, and each selected a top journalism school when it came time for college, with Gaiter getting a bachelor of journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and Brecher picking up his bachelor of arts in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.

Their first date was to a U-Pick vegetable patch, after which they shared their first bottle of wine, a bottle of Andre Cold Duck that Brecher’s parents had given him when he moved to Miami.

The two courted between deadlines while reading the Signet “Book of Wines,” which Brecher had somehow picked up leaving college.

“The book was just so interesting,” Brecher said. “So we started going and buying wine. Neither of us comes from families that drank wine.”

After four years in New York City during the early 1980s, the couple returned to the Herald in 1984, after racial rioting had torn the city apart.

“The idea was that the two of us together would bring the city together,” Brecher said.

“John was the youngest city editor and I was the first black woman to write for the editorial board,” Gaiter said.

In 1989, their daughter, Media, was born, and in 1990, just when they found out that their second daughter, Zoe, was on the way, they decided to move back to New York, which meant going back to where Brecher had interned while at Columbia, the Wall Street Journal. Brecher started there as a Page One editor, while Gaiter reported on urban affairs and race relations.

And that’s pretty much how things would have stayed, except that their colleague Joanne Lippman had just been made editor of a new section that the Journal was going to produce and, knowing the couple’s passion for wine, asked them to write a wine column.

“We thought, sure, it would be a fun little diversion,” Brecher said.

“It basically ate up our lives, so we couldn’t do our serious jobs,” Gaiter added.

Which feels a little odd to the pair of ’60s idealists, and yet, it feels right.

“We’re both turning 50 this summer” Brecher said. “We’ve been doing this (serious journalism) our whole lives. Doing something different is fun. There are so many in the wine industry who had kind of mid-life correction and to some extent, we have, too.”

“But it is odd,” Gaiter said.

“It’s an unexpected turn,” Brecher finished.

They follow a lot of the basics of good journalism, which is one of the reasons they don’t talk to producers. They don’t want to play favorites. They do blind tastings of between six and 10 bottles almost every night. One of the reasons they focus on wines that they buy off the shelf is that they didn’t want to duplicate an experience they had as readers: reading a fabulous review of a wine only to find there were only 50 cases made and it was largely unavailable.

“They are very good journalists,” Wagner said. “As a PR person, they make it very easy to work with them. They cannot be bought. They are always hungry for new information, and, frankly, that makes them very credible in my mind.”

Oddly enough, Brecher said that the actual writing of the column is the easy part.

“To some extent, the column’s already written in our heads and in our notes,” he said. “We just talk about what the column should say. I, in effect, transcribe the notes, then hand it over to Dottie and she puts in the charm and life.”

But that only happens after easily between 20 to 30 hours of research on that one column alone. They also have to plan columns, usually weeks in advance, collect the wines, plus read and answer the volumes of mail they get.

“One of the things that we’re surprised about is that our current job is harder than what we did,” Brecher said.

But there is one additional pay-off: mail from readers.

“We’ve gotten literally thousands of e-mails and letters and phone calls,” Brecher said. “And so many from people who say, ‘I’m enjoying life more.’ That’s really nice. It’s just something that means a lot to us.”

“We never got mail like that when I was writing about race,” Gaiter said.

Wagner said that the only criticism he has heard about the “Tastings” columns is from the high-end, cult collectors who appear to be miffed that Brecher and Gaiter have simplified things too much.

“That tells me they’re hitting the mark,” Wagner said. “Because if they were writing exclusively for the high-end wine collector, they wouldn’t have an audience. There aren’t enough of those people.”

And the “Tastings” column’s broad-based appeal, along with other national columns, such as the one in USA Today, brings joy to Wagner’s heart.

“Across the board, it means that people are accepting wine as an important part of a cultured lifestyle, and that’s the most important thing to the wine industry these days,” Wagner said. “I’m not sure it necessarily translates to more sales, but it translates to better sales.”

(Anne Louise Bannon is based in Altadena, Calif

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