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12.27.2009

Yet Another Wine Column Casualty in the Newspaper Business

Wall Street Journal wine columnists John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter have quietly announced their departure. Their Christmas Day column, the 579th piece they have jointly penned together, will be their last at the Journal.

This unannounced departure of the unique husband and wife wine journalists represents yet another brick falling from the crumbling wall of professional wine journalism. The word on the street suggests that while the Journal has no intention of discontinuing its wine gaiter_brecher.pngcoverage, this was a layoff along the lines of so many that have occurred in the last 18 months. In short, the Journal wants to pay only a single salary instead of two very expensive ones.

It's not hard to understand the priorities of the business, especially in an environment of increasing desertification of print advertising. But if the paper can't be criticized for this cost cutting measure, we can certainly bemoan the circumstances that led to it, as well as the loss of two unique voices in the world of wine criticism.

While I must admit that I often wondered at the seeming mismatch between Dottie and John's style of wine criticism in contrast with the Journal's more staid and precise tone, I adore the duo's philosophy when it comes to wine drinking, which they quite beautifully summed up in their final column.

The wine world still suffers from too much stuffiness, and Dottie and John cut through that in many ways, from their steadfast use of their personal rating scale (from Yuck to Delicious!) to their concept of Open That Bottle Night, where readers were encouraged to stop saving that "special bottle" for an occasion that never comes.

More than anything, Dottie and John achieved a rare feat in journalism, at once holding the roles of critics, yet remaining perfectly accessible to and empathetic with their readers. Their columns were quite personal in ways that few columns of any kind are, in or out of the wine world. Their joint memoir Love by the Glass, which I've reviewed here on Vinography, provided even more of the same.

I've spoken more than once on panels with titles that were some variation on "The Future of Wine Writing" but I don't have any powerful answers for where things are going. All I know is that things are changing fundamentally, and that the future won't look anything like the past.

Here's hoping that future has room for voices like Dottie's and John's, else they and many others will be missed.

Comments (42)

Isaac wrote:
12.27.09 at 10:49 PM

I just read the article from WSJ web page. I have heard their names and the reputation about their book but I haven't had the chance to read it. After reading the article, I felt really sorry not to meet them earlier. I passionately agree with their perspective about the taste of wine. Sometime I study and analyze wine but we do not taste wine to analyze and to study but taste wine to anticipate and love. There may be some objective standards in the world of wine. However I think that we need them
only to feel wines we taste fully, not to be bound to them.
Anyhow, as you said that I also hope that" future has room for voices like Dottie's and John's."

jason wrote:
12.28.09 at 12:32 AM

A tragic loss, I was drawn to them in my much more formidable days when accessibility is what I needed to be drawn deeper into this world of appreciation which I now so thoroughly enjoy! In honor of celebrating the spirit of their writing I will be opening a "special" bottle tomorrow night and looking forward to the next "Open That Bottle Night" which is my favorite holiday of the year...

Louise Hurren wrote:
12.28.09 at 2:14 AM

Anyone have any idea who will get to take up the torch? Who will be writing about wine for the WSJ now?

12.28.09 at 6:54 AM

Anyone looking for inspiring year end reading will enjoy searching the WSJ archives for Dottie and John's year end thoughts on finding new wines in the coming year.

Check out the columns that appeared in the last week of December over the last five years.

Mike Veseth wrote:
12.28.09 at 7:10 AM

The WSJ has been pushing its wine club pretty hard recently. I will be interested to see if the new wine column is connected in some way to that effort.

I agree with Tom that Dottie and John brought a unique perspective to wine writing and I think they played an important part in building the U.S. wine culture. They will be missed. I hope they resurface somewhere soon. If they are looking for suggestions, I'd propose a cable TV series.

Mike Veseth

TerroirNY wrote:
12.28.09 at 8:21 AM

2 civilized voices of wine journalism-they disarmed pretension & jargon with ease in their column. I don't care what the WSJ/Murdoch does next, what will Dottie & John do next?!

Corie Brown wrote:
12.28.09 at 8:41 AM

I'm stunned.

Jim Caudill wrote:
12.28.09 at 8:47 AM

Truly among the very nicest people I had the privilege of working with over the past many years, always willing to listen and learn, even as they maintained high standards in the mechanics of the relationship. Here's hoping their singular style finds a home, no matter the format or medium.

12.28.09 at 9:18 AM

Sorry to see a good column discontinued.
But as for the last article, not sure I agree completely.

They wrote: "for heaven's sake, if you think you've heard the best symphony performance ever, seen the greatest work of art or tasted the greatest wine ever, why is that not true—at least for you?"

Certainly, our enjoyment of wine very much is influenced by the situation, however, I do believe that the message of the article (and that same message I hear from others, like Gary Vee) is that it's your taste, so you know best. That, in my opinion, is pandering to the uneducated and uninformed. Yes, once someone reaches a certain level of knowledge, skill, sophistication, they are free to express their opinions and in that case I absolutely agree - our tastes and perception can and will differ, and that is OK. But when someone doesn't know anything about wine except their 10 experiences, and from that pedestal they proclaim the greatest judgments on earth (just look at the wine-searcher group on facebook!), that is the same as someone saying they have the best idea in the world for something and feeling happy about that, and the rest of us saying "Oh, that must be true for you, therefore it's true". No, a certain level of credibility must be attained before one can declare things like this, or else one must be ready to argue their claim logically and objectively. I don't see why it must be different in matters of taste. Now of course, if ignorance and obliviousness are bliss, then by all means, enjoy, don't worry, be happy!

Alder wrote:
12.28.09 at 10:32 AM

Gary,

I think you're misreading, or misunderstanding the column, though it could be you have a fundamental philosophical difference of opinion. The height of your experience is always the height of your experience. Until you taste/see/hear something much better, the best is simply the best you've experienced. You may be ignorant of something better, but the point is, all you have to go on is your experience. It does you no good to read that DRC is the best wine in the world if you've never tasted it and never will. That's purely academic. For the ordinary wine drinker who just wants to enjoy some nice wine, and not become an expert, the advice they offer is spot on. Find what you enjoy and celebrate it. Experiment and explore, but trust your own taste to guide you. Drink what you think is delicious, not what someone else tells you is "great wine." That's not pandering, that's the way everyone should approach wine.

They are NOT saying that your own personal experience is the true measure of wine (please see the paragraph that begins "Our situation is a bit different, of course"), only that trying to make such semi-objective, relative judgements is for critics or those who play critic in their own minds, which is a very different world than most wine lovers live in. And they certainly wouldn't suggest that their readers go around proclaiming that the wine they think is most delicious is actually the most delicious wine in the world in any objective sense.

It's not about some sort of namby pamby relativism. It's about personal enjoyment without fear of the "established school of thought." Which is what the wine world still needs a lot more of.

Jo Diaz wrote:
12.28.09 at 11:11 AM

As stunning as this may seem, and as much as a "brick falling from the wall" as this may also seem, take it from me (wine PR for the last 17 years), this is and has been a constant since the beginning of time. It's called the glass ceiling of success. Once you've hit the top, there will always be someone younger and willing to take less money for what those highly accomplished do.

My data base is full of edits, deletions, and additions.

It's less stunning the more seasoned you become in any given field. If we live long enough, we get the jist.

They'll be sorely missed, and will now be looking for a publisher. (Yes! they have so much to offer.) I know they got another book to write!

12.28.09 at 11:12 AM

We too will miss their distinctive and informative wine writing. They "came of age" v/v wine when we did and we've felt a shared bond. We've enjoyed reading and learing from their observations.

DaveMD wrote:
12.28.09 at 11:34 AM

Very sad...my Saturday mornings were full of excitement in anticipation of reading the column...thank you John and Dorothy....

Dan Riley wrote:
12.28.09 at 12:15 PM

Why is this bad news? Are you people still living in a print-only world? Dorothy and John can easily start their own blog or web site. They can publish daily if they want. They can take video of their trips and post it all. They can start a forum that could rival all other wine forums. They can sell wine products, take advertising. Sell books. Why give all that business to Rupert Murdock? I just don't get the comments here. This is the best thing that could happen to them. They will now have the opportunity to own their own lives and future. They will have a bigger audience than ever if they want.

Dean Tudor wrote:
12.28.09 at 2:05 PM

Yes, Dan Riley, that is so. I agree. And thanks for reminding us...

Alder wrote:
12.28.09 at 2:18 PM

Dan,

While you certainly are correct to remind us that this is not the end of the world, and that Dottie and John are entering a world that is very different than when they started their careers, the suggestion that the best thing that could happen to parents of two young girls is to both lose their jobs on the same day would be insensitive if it weren't so utterly ridiculous.

I don't know what universe you're living in, but getting a job after you've been laid off is no picnic, no matter how talented you are or what industry you're in. And if you're a journalist, well that's a whole other world of hurt. Just ask any of the wine writers that are out there beating the streets for work after their employers made similar decisions in the past year.

It's all well and good to talk about forums, blogs, etc. as those are certainly ways one can use up the empty hours in the day and "put one's talents to work" but take it from a guy who runs a wine blog by night and an internet strategy and design consulting business by day: there's no real money in it. Certainly not enough to support a family of four.

Chuck Byers wrote:
12.28.09 at 2:22 PM

Every time a magazine drops a wine column (or a writer) it somehow seems to reflect on the a growing disinterest in written wine columns.
Information now is available in many areas and traditional columns are no longer the main source of info to the general public.
In one way I feel sorry that this couple no longer has this column but in another I am sure that they will move into another area such as television or the "Net".
I still however bemoan the passing of yet another column as it reflects on the possibilities that this may happen to other writers.

Fred Tasker wrote:
12.28.09 at 2:23 PM

I hopefully agree with all the comments about how John and Dottie can rise from this to new heights -- books, blogs, websites, movies. These two are the nicest people writing about wine, and the most popular as well. We wine fans will not let them go away. Never!

jim fadden wrote:
12.28.09 at 4:44 PM

Dotie & John
Thank you for training us to be our own Wine Outliers!
Let's hope we see you soon on The Food Network, they so need a show with the two of you.
Keep OPEN THAT BOTTLE NIGHT going!

Dan Riley wrote:
12.28.09 at 5:28 PM

Alder,
I guess I should have first pointed out that I too know of the horror of losing your job and sympathize with their situation. I should have included this for a more balanced post, I agree. At the same time, do we really know what their situation is? I haven't seen any interviews with them about what happened. If you know of one, please let us know. BTW, I found your site today for the first time from a link on Gawker to your post about Dorothy & John. Regards, Dan

daniel cajigas wrote:
12.28.09 at 7:02 PM

Its a shame W S J looks for ups & downs and this one is a down one.

12.28.09 at 7:38 PM

Dottie and John were so lively, enthusiastic, and made you feel they were in the room with you. They got so many personal comments because they gave of themselves personally. They caught the essence of wine, without the technicalities. They will be missed.

12.29.09 at 9:04 AM

Leaving aside, for the moment, the loss of a unique set of wine voices, voices that were accessible, friendly, human, I have to agree that the real tragedy here is what this event does to them personally.

We don't know their circumstances, and maybe they have made enough money over the years to have a deep cushion of support. We can certainly hope so for their sake. I cannot see how they can start a blog, no matter how good it is, and come remotely close to what they were making in two salaries from the WSJ.

There is another side of this equation that needs exploring. That is the so-called democratizing of wine commentary. In an era in which everyone can become an instant expert, we have seen more than one wine writer move into that field based on their standings with their publisher. Dottie and John did just that, and they did it well. But, ultimately, they did it as amateurs who saw an opening. Good on 'em. That is how many of us move ahead professionally.

It also happens to have driven me out of the newspaper business as first the LA Times and then the Oakland Tribune turned to internal sources for winewriting. Folks with an interest in wine and a good pen became instant wine writers--in this case, a financial reporter at the Times and a social commentator at the Trib--although even she has been now partially replaced as that paper has gone through further consolidation. It happens all the time, and, from a financial standpoint, you can easily see how the WSJ would save tons of money by not paying two big salaries and giving the column to someone who would write it part-time for far less money. The days of the fully-salaried winewriter are narrowing down in the newspaper business, in very large part because of the very reasons that John and Dottie became winewriters. There is no cost of entry and there is an unending supply of wine lovers with something to say.

In the case of Dottie and John, however, we lose a unique and very welcome perspective. Very few of us who write about wine do so with a personal point of view that starts with a human touch. Let's hope they find a venue for their special way of making wine drinking fun while continuing to lead their audiences to lots of good bottles and fun experiences.

Amy Gardner wrote:
12.29.09 at 2:35 PM

Alder,
Thanks for this post. I read their delicious wines column and breezed over the news, and now am devastated. Thanks for your commentary on their writing. I have loved their column for years and remember reading their first one like it was just yesterday. They were always very informative while being personal and humorous. We could all use a little more of this in the wine world. While I enjoy their reviews, long ago I took their advice and try lots of different, new and unusual wines, with great results. I sent them a quick note to let them know how sad I am to hear they are leaving. I hope to find out they are back in the wine world soon.
Hope you are doing well, and have a wonderful new year!

loolie wrote:
12.29.09 at 6:05 PM

I initially subscribed to the WSJ many years ago for financial and business news. As the years passed, I found the only column I looked forward to reading was Dorothy and John's. Their column was informative and very well written. It often touched a personal chord. Their last column was special. Their leaving the WSJ will result in the cancellation of my subscription. I am hopeful they land on their feet and I supect they will!

Ed Thralls wrote:
12.31.09 at 6:02 AM

I really enjoyed their column and was one I had been reading for many years for many of the reasons you mentioned in your post. They were very open and honest and responded to my emails. Just great winelovers.

Dennis Schaefer wrote:
01.01.10 at 1:50 PM

As Mr. Riley says, we really don't know what happened to John and Dorothy, nor the circumstances. Did they leave by force or choice? So far as I am able to determine, they have not publicly commented on their departure. And while we all lament the outcome (myself included,)I am still curious about what the thought process was that led to their departure.

Alder wrote:
01.02.10 at 8:16 AM

Dennis,

I spoke with several WSJ writers about this, which was the basis for my post. They indicated the following:

1. This was indeed a layoff, not a voluntary retirement
2. The WSJ opted for this action because they want to pay one salary, not two
3. Dottie and John will be replaced, but a replacement has not been found.

Like you I look forward to their public comment on their departure.

Susan wrote:
01.02.10 at 6:14 PM

Saturday night with the WSJ and I'm finding out what the Weekend Edition is like without the Tastings Column by Dottie and John. Sadly lacking that little extra something! While admittedly not able to drink wine as frequently as I wish, I drank vicariously through their column- always educational, enjoyable and most importantly accessible. I learned much from their column and was very impressed by their total lack of pretension-something so frequently missing when one speaks with such knowledgeable oenophiles. I hope Dottie and John will continue to publish their wonderful commentary elsewhere.

maynardGkeynes wrote:
01.03.10 at 3:03 PM

"The WSJ opted for this action because they want to pay one salary, not two..."

My guess is that they wanted to pay zero salary and go with a freelancer for 1/5th the cost of two senior salaries. I think these two were were worth it, but newspaper editors have never been able to assess the quality of wine writing, which means they take the low bidder. It's amazing they lasted as long as they did give the cluelessness of newspaper editors.

msaid wrote:
01.03.10 at 10:24 PM

When I first read their column in the weekend journal, I felt like I had been given a present I hadn't expected. Not only did their columns contain interesting information, but it was written in a style that was personal and accessible. I have read and enjoyed all of their columns. So, it appears that News Corp. doesn't want to pay John and Dottie's salary for the best column in the paper. These are the same guys that reportedly wouldn't sign Mike Piazza to a multi-year contract when he was with the Dodgers, even though he was widely expected to be a future Hall of Famer. Gosh, I'll bet that john and Dottie were making a lot less than Mike was asking, and they provided joy to more people. They will be sorely missed.

maynardGkeynes wrote:
01.04.10 at 6:31 AM

I think it's nuts to fire two columnists with a huge following, even if it was costing WSJ $300,000 a year to keep them, which I doubt. But the thinking is probably that readers will be just as happy with some freelancer who they pay $50,000, or maybe even less. One never knows, as I'm sure there are some talented and hungry freelancers out there who will work for the minimum wage just to get the exposure. But the odds that the editors of the WSJ would recognize such a person if they fell on her are minuscule.They had a proven talent that was, as they say in the business pages, accretive to earnings, and it will prove a money-loser to have dropped them. Of course, WSJ will attribute the decline in its readership to other factors. They never get it, do they?

Anthony wrote:
01.04.10 at 6:40 AM

"Anyone have any idea who will get to take up the torch? Who will be writing about wine for the WSJ now?"

Respectfully - who cares? Who needs the WSJ as a wine source, when there are so many out there now?

And - "Why is this bad news?" EXACTLY! They should have started their own side blog or something else years ago. No one with a brain in their head can say they didn't see all these things coming. Alder says "All I know is that things are changing fundamentally" - it is true. But it isn't just newspapers, wine writing, etc. It is everything. This blog is full of thoughtful, intelligent commenters - everyone needs to reassess what they are doing for a living right now and plan for the next decade of change... Happy New Year!

Dean Tudor wrote:
01.04.10 at 2:13 PM

Ok, somebody clarify for me: the WSJ paid TWO full-time reporters to write jointly ONE column a week -- did they not have any other editorial duties? What else did they do at the WSJ?

We have a FULL-TIME reporter writing about TWO columns a week at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, plus wine pairings for most of the food columns, plus online videos for which he has to research and perform, and some travel notes about wines.

Sounds to me like he's been underpaid.

01.08.10 at 2:47 PM

Yeah, same here. For wine, I write two columns a month, one cover story plus recipes, blog. That's only about 40 percent of my job. I also cover food, health, and culture stories, which, incidentally, I think keeps a voice well-rounded, fresh, and universal when it's not focused on one subject.

Joseph Spellman wrote:
01.09.10 at 11:17 AM

Yes, journalistic wine writing is in deep trouble. Perhaps it's going from bad to worse with Lettie Teague jumping in on this weekend's WSJ! Fact-checkers and editors anyone?

mont dewitt wrote:
01.09.10 at 6:50 PM

I too will miss their column.I read their first column with surprise very early on a Friday morning.As one who reads 3 newspapers a day their departure was a surprise but not a shock. They knew how to present material without pretension. They made drinking along with eating fun. I knew about wine well before they were on the scene but they presented a series of options I never would have considered. Remember, anyone can buy a good $30.00 bottle of wine. Its finding that gem under $15.00 that is the true art form.Ironically I recently canceled my wsj subscription because the news presentation post Bancrofts was plonk.My decision to drop subscription was based on a benign article on climate change that couldn't stand the scrutiny of scientific inquiry or peer review. The sycophant I spoke with after cancellation tried to engage me adversarialy around the merits of the article and I suggested that the paper had turned into nothing more then a one page broadside. I enjoy reading alternative political views since I find them thought provoking.I my opinion the paper is no longer worthy of thoughtful and creative writing. To Dorothy and John best of luck for your future. In celebration of your departure tonight we had a wonderful Northern Italian dinner at home made from scratch with a fine bottle of Super Tuscan 2008. Salute

katherine miller wrote:
01.30.10 at 7:13 AM

John and Dorothy are sorely missed. I loved their approach and always found something new and interesting. They LOVE wine and make it fun. The replacements are not up to snuff.

Louise Hurren wrote:
02.10.10 at 11:18 AM

On the subject of wine writing in national newspapers, and the axing of columns/writers, you might like to check out the Save the Wine Column group on facebook

Rick Hotaling wrote:
03.03.10 at 8:52 AM

I own a small wineshop in NW Ct., where many folks from NYC have 2nd homes. For years I have followed their column and brought in different suggestions, with many doing very well. I always enjoyed their "open that bottle night" feature, and wish them nothing but success in the future, whatever it may bring....

AT wrote:
04.10.10 at 9:45 AM
Rick Boyle wrote:
04.12.10 at 7:06 AM

I have followed John and Dottie's writing since it's inception. I read Jay's article this weekend. No offense to Jay, but I was hoping for something more in line with today's economic situation. I can buy $60-80 bottles but why should I when Dottie and John found $6-8 bottles for me.
I know they had high salaries but I will miss their writing.
Hopefully, they will show up somewhere else.

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