Marvin R. Shanken and Wine Spectator: A Look Back
On the occasion of Wine Spectator’s 40th anniversary in 2016, editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken spoke with executive editor Thomas Matthews about the publication’s history and its role in the development of American wine culture.
Thomas Matthews: Can you remember the first time you saw The Wine Spectator? What was your first impression?
Marvin R. Shanken: I saw The Wine Spectator shortly after it was first published in April of 1976. It was a tabloid newspaper and the first time I laid eyes on it I loved it. It was simple, unpretentious and contrary to most of what was published at the time. Wine publications then were either highly technical or elitist, a turnoff to consumers who were interested in learning more about wine. In fact, most of the publications of the day haven't survived.
TM: At the time, what was your relationship with the world of wine?
MRS: I was a small publisher in the wine and spirits trade, with Impact newsletter. I was a very enthusiastic wine consumer. I loved wine, and I was very interested in learning as much as I possibly could about it.
TM: What led you to actually take over the publication in 1979?
MRS: When I saw the newspaper, I fell madly in love with it for its simplicity and its truthfulness, and I called up Bob Morrisey, who created it, to congratulate him. He and I became telephone pals for two years, and eventually, in 1978, he called me and said that he was having great difficulty financially maintaining the publication, and he recommended that I buy it.
At the time, I was pretty busy staying alive in New York with my small publishing company and not in a position to even seriously entertain his suggestion, but I did agree to go to California and spend a few days with him to try and help him.
He went on publishing. And then in the early summer of 1979, he called me up and said I had to buy Wine Spectator or he would have to fold it. He flew to New York, we met and somehow he got me to agree. I think the only reason I agreed to do it is that I didn't want Wine Spectator to die.
TM: What were your visions for the magazine?
MRS: Although I loved the publication, I thought it could be better. It focused almost exclusively on California wines, for example, and I wanted to cover the whole wine world. Also, I thought Wine Spectator should be more authoritative and more opinionated. It was too dependent on freelance writers, who saved their best efforts, I thought, for the publications they worked for full-time.
A key part of my dream was to build a team of full-time professional journalists who were, first and foremost, talented and dedicated writers and, secondly, knowledgeable about wine. The idea was to upgrade the quality of our commentary and our research and our tasting reports to the journalistic level of non-wine publications I admired, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
STORY CONTINUED BELOW
TM: Circulation was about 5,000 when you purchased the magazine. In the 1980s, you made some drastic changes. You moved the editorial office from San Diego to San Francisco in 1982, became editor as well as publisher in 1983, redesigned the magazine in 1984 and again in 1987, began scoring wines on the 100-point scale in 1985. By 1988, when the publication’s circulation was first audited, it had reached 76,000, according to an interview you gave the New York Times. How would you judge your progress during that time?
MRS: We were growing but struggling. Every year the circulation went up; every year the ad revenues went up. But because we were investing so much in the publication, Wine Spectator kept losing more and more money. It became an enormous drain on my trade-publishing business in New York, which during this period was going through enormous growth.
Nevertheless, I started flying from New York to San Francisco every other week to put each issue to bed. I wanted Wine Spectator to be more exciting and more serious. We were going to say what needed to be said. Not what the wineries wanted to hear, but what our readers needed to know. During the mid-1980s, our editorial staff came together as a team. Those were some of the best times of my life.
We gambled more than once. In 1983, we added a controversial "Not Recommended" category to our wine reviews. We knew we were going to lose friends at the wineries, but we believed it would give us greater credibility with our readers. We redesigned the magazine twice, which changed Wine Spectator from a newspaper to a magazine.
Then, in 1993, we made the most critical decision: To redefine the whole mission of Wine Spectator to a lifestyle magazine for people who love wine.
I thought that this was what was needed to sustain and increase the growth of the audience of Wine Spectator. Wine was, is and will always be the core editorial subject. But I thought that wine, in and of itself, was too narrow. If you add the components of dining, cooking, travel and collecting, among others, then you really are inside the mind, the heart and soul of a typical wine lover who wants to enjoy many of the pleasures of life.
The response was terrific. Advertising Age named us as one of the five best consumer magazines of 1994, and the same year Wine Spectator was a finalist in the National Magazine Awards Special Interest category. Our audited paid circulation jumped from 122,000 in June 1993 (just before the redesign) to 159,000 in June 1995.
TM: Today, Wine Spectator has an audited paid circulation of about 400,000, with a global readership independently estimated at 3.5 million people; it’s the most widely read wine publication in the world. It has also expanded successfully into digital media, with WineSpectator.com and multiple apps. What is the foundation of this success?
MRS: We have built trust with our reader. The two pillars are integrity and expertise.
Expertise depends on experience. Wine Spectator’s 10 senior editors have collectively worked with the publication for more than 230 years; several joined the staff in the 1980s. In all, Wine Spectator counts more than 40 people on its editorial team. Our writers and critics have traveled to wine regions around the globe, visited thousands of wineries, and tasted hundreds of thousands of wines.
Integrity is built on two principles. First, editors uphold the highest standards of journalism—a commitment to truth and accuracy, and an avoidance of conflicts of interest. Second, all wine reviews are the result of blind tastings, the only methodology that can avoid bias and guarantee every wine a fair and equal opportunity to show its best.
We take a very strong and independent view. So we're not perceived to be the voice of the wine trade, but instead the gatekeeper and guide for the wine consumer.
Watch video: Why we taste blind
A Biography of Marvin R. Shanken
Marvin R. Shanken has turned his passions into a successful publishing business. His company, M. Shanken Communications, Inc., guides sophisticated readers around the world to the best in wine, food, cigars, dining out and traveling far and wide.
Shanken, 73, grew up in New Haven, Conn., where his parents owned a small jewelry store. He graduated with a business degree from the University of Miami, then earned an MBA at American University in Washington, D.C. He began his career in real estate and investment banking, but was bitten by the wine bug while putting together deals for California vineyards in the early 1970s and soon turned in new directions.
His publishing venture started in 1972 when he paid $5,000, borrowed from his sister, for a struggling spirits-industry newsletter called Impact. Today, in addition to Wine Spectator, the company’s roster of publications includes Cigar Aficionado, Whisky Advocate, Market Watch, Shanken News Daily and Shanken’s Impact Newsletter.
The company also runs the successful annual Wine Experience events, which bring the world’s top vintners and passionate consumers together for weekend tastings and seminars each year—and which have raised more than $20 million as of 2016 for the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation. Major grants have gone to the University of California at Davis, Sonoma State University, Florida International University, the Culinary Institute of America and more.
Shanken divides his time between his New York corporate headquarters, a bureau in Napa Valley and events in cities as far-flung as Los Angeles, Miami, London and Bordeaux. He makes his home in Manhattan with his wife, Hazel. He has three daughters: Samantha, Allison and Jessica, who joined the company as vice president, business development, in 2015.
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