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Aspen Times Weekly: The Book of Shanken

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon S.L.V.

In 1976, the year of the founding of Wine Spectator, a blind tasting was conducted in Paris of the great California and French Bordeaux style wines. This Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet, to the amazement of all in attendance, took the top spot in what became known as the Judgment of Paris. I have never tasted this wine, but I came across these notes from someone named javachip on a Wine Spectator forum. I hope they don’t mind my sharing.

“Top shoulder fill. Decanted gently and served immediately. Hazy blood-ruby color. Notes of tart red berries, cedar, leather and iron filings. Beautifully balanced, mellow, seamless, medium body, lingering finish. The winner of the famous 1976 Paris Tasting, still going strong at age 39.”

I remember, long ago, standing beside a crush pad during an early October harvest with a winery owner. As we watched a truck being emptied of its freshly picked clusters of grapes he said, with an odd combination of hope and resignation, “Let’s hope they’re good enough for

the Spectator.”

Whether left unspoken or said out loud that optimism, tempered by trepidation, is a familiar feeling to winemakers throughout the globe. A 90-point plus rating from Wine Spectator can make a vintage for many wineries. And one in the 80s can break it. Such is the power of

the press.

The Nov. 15 issue of Wine Spectator (on newsstands Oct. 18) commemorates the 40th anniversary of a publication that is to wine what Sports Illustrated is to fun and games and Rolling Stone is to rock ‘n’ roll. Since the publication of the first issue April 1, 1976, it has chronicled and arguably shaped the growth of an industry. This year, 40 years after Wine Spectator’s founding, the United States weighs in as the No. 1 wine market on earth.

Under the auspices of Marvin Shanken, and a part of the M. Shanken Communications empire, Wine Spectator has evolved to play myriad roles.

It is an arbiter of taste, literally, as it rates wines from around the world. It is a travel, life style and dining resource for well-heeled wine trekkers who long to find the next great place. It is the publication of record for documenting the comings and goings of key players in wine. And it also is a place for regular columnists such as Matt Kramer and James Laube, who have created devoted followings, to muse about all things wine.

But perhaps most importantly, it is an unapologetic promoter and cheerleader for an industry that has grown exponentially over the past four decades.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Back in April 1976 you could drive down Highway 29 in Napa Valley on a Saturday afternoon, slow to take a photo of the vineyards with your iPhone — um scratch that — with your Polaroid Pronto!, and there wouldn’t be anyone behind you to honk. Robert Parker was still practicing law two years before he took the plunge to start The Wine Advocate and his ubiquitous 100-point system. And the myth that only the French could produce fine wines would not be challenged until the “Judgment of Paris” wine competition took place three months later.

It was against this landscape that Bob Morrissey, an enterprising wine columnist for what was at the time the San Diego Evening Standard, determined that a publication focused on the then nascent California wine industry just might find a market. His inaugural issue was a 12-page tabloid newspaper that he, along with his wife Mary Jane, distributed by hand. Morrissey’s Wine Spectator soon found a small but passionate readership with a circulation of around 5,000.

Like so many ideas that are ahead of their times, Morrissey soon became overwhelmed by the financial commitment needed to continue publication. So he called Shanken, then a fledgling New York City based publisher of wine and spirits business newsletters. Shanken was a part of the aforementioned passionate following and he flew to San Diego to try to help Morrissey with his conundrum, but the burden was just too great. “If you don’t buy it, I’ll fold it,” Morrissey told Shanken in 1979 and so, with a choice of losing it for good or buying it, Shanken took ownership for an investment of just $40,000.

THE SHANKEN EFFECT

Sensing a change in the lifestyles of wine lovers and seeing a demographic that could provide advertiser value, Shanken spent the next decades reformulating Morrissey’s original vision. He moved offices to San Francisco, expanded the focus to include the entirety of the wine world, continually redesigned the publication to make it more digestible for consumers, and instituted the aforementioned 100-point wine rating scale.

Less than 10 years later Wine Spectator’s circulation ballooned to more than 75,000 and the magazine had become an important player. Both for the industry and for Shanken. Now based in New York City, circulation exceeds 400,000 and total readership is 3.5 million. There are sister publications including consumer magazines Cigar Aficionado, and the Whisky Advocate, as well as trade publications, in both print and digital editions including Market Watch, Shanken News Daily and Shanken’s Impact Newsletter. And then there are the Wine Experience events that bring wine and whisky lovers together with makers, generating millions in additional revenue.

Wine has been very good for Marvin Shanken. But there is little question that Marvin Shanken also has been very good for wine.

Happy Anniversary, Wine Spectator.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@aol.com.