Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Fond Adieu to Richard Elia and QRW

On Thursday, I received an email from Richard Elia, publisher of Quarterly Review of Wines, informing me that he was retiring and that the current Autumn issue would be the final one after 35 years of publication.

I have been writing for the past thirteen years for QRW; in this post, I would like to let my readers know how much I've enjoyed working for Richard during this time frame. 

He gave me my first assignment back in 1998, which I'll always remember, as I was an unknown entity at the time. I had only been writing wine articles for little over a year (I began life as a freelancer with the Chicago Tribune the year before) and had not yet written an article for a national publication. My piece on Cuvaison winery in Napa Valley for QRW was my first in this vein and I took great pride in this work. Richard commented on the closing paragraph, which he thought was a bit over the top; I admit to being a bit defensive at the time and argued with him. Of course, he was right and after my initial reply, I realized I had some things to learn about writing and dealing with editors.

His comment on that first piece was one of the few he ever sent along; I can only recall two other articles I wrote for the magazine in which Richard said anything. One time he told me that he cut one paragraph as it was repetitive and in the other instance, he told me that he wanted me to make certain that I took my time writing articles. That was it - three comments (all helpful) from a total of more than 30 articles. I certainly can't complain about that, especially given a few editors I wrote for that nitpicked my work (and the work of others). 

Most of my articles in fact, were published exactly as I wrote them. Not a paragraph was moved around, nor a sentence changed or even a word deleted. What more could a writer ask for? Richard clearly respected my work and in one email he even told me, "We only hire excellent writers," explaining why most articles were published without any major changes. He was telling me how much he enjoyed my writing - how nice was that and what a boost to my ego and career!

It was always an easy process getting an assignment at QRW. I would send along an email with two or three suggestions and he would reply (always in a prompt fashion, mind you) that Randy Sheahan, the editor, liked my idea for a piece on a particular subject. All I had to do was write it and have it in by the deadline, that was it. There were no suggestions from Richard about covering any particular subjects in my piece - he gave me the freedom to write what I wanted.

Another great thing about Richard was the way he paid his writers. Most publications pay upon publication, which can mean anywhere from two to four weeks after the issue is released. But Richard paid before the issue was published. I knew that if I had an article in the Spring issue, which would be released in March, I could expect a check slightly after February 1. And sure enough, I'd receive it on the 3rd or 4th. As a freelance writer, I loved that - who wouldn't?

Those are a few thoughts about our business relationship. I also need to emphasize the quality of QRW. In an era where sound bites - that is, scores - were what most people remembered about any number of wine magazines, QRW never used a point scale for wines. Most articles in the magazine featured tasting notes and once in a while, a writer might use a star rating or classify a wine as "very good", "excellent" or "outstanding", but that was it. No need to worry if a wine received 92 or 93 points (what exactly is the difference between those two scores anyway?) - you read the magazine for the articles, and in the process, learned about the great - and sometimes everyday - wines of the world and the people who made them in the old fashioned way. This was a magazine about feature articles and if you truly loved wine, you had to respect that.

Richard hated the 100 point system and often wrote about this, even in the latest Autumn issue. Here is an excerpt of what he wrote about numerical scores for wines:

"Ratings have killed wine education: consumers give themselves over to rating not reading... What numbers can't do that words can do is excite the imagination. But consumers believe this less and less and worship more and more."

Strong words, words that I am in total agreement with - I couldn't have said it better myself.

Later on in this essay, Richard shared his thoughts on other wines, sharing his lack of enthusiasm for Beaujolais ("one of the most uneventful wines in the world") as well as commenting on the outlandish prices of today's Bordeaux wines. Mentioning that this was the first Autumn issue in which the magazine did not cover the new Bordeaux vintage, he wrote:

"Why do it? Who beside the very wealthy can afford them? What have we done to deserve the current prices of Bordeaux?"

Clearly Bordeaux lovers will take exception to this, but Richard wrote what he - and a lot of wine drinkers- believe. You have to respect him for that.

It's a sad day for myself, as I'll no longer write for QRW, but life will go on for me, as I have a few other publications I'll continue to write for (although how long that will last is anybody's guess). An unfortunate sign of the times is the decline in interest in wine magazines  - and many other industry publications as well. I hope that changes soon.

But it's truly a sad day for wine lovers everywhere as a classy magazine is going out of business after 35 years. I'm sure my fellow writers at Quarterly Review of Wines share my feelings. There weren't many other wine publications out there that covered wine with as much insight - as well as common sense - as this one.

Richard, thank you for your support over the past thirteen years. You made me a better writer and for that I'll always be grateful.

I'll end this post with the words of Richard Elia from his essay in the current Autumn issue - the final issue of his beloved Quarterly Review of Wines:

"I detest mundane toasts... I shall remember to toast myself, if for no other reason than having survived wine publishing for 35 years."

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