I’m of many minds as to why the closure of Wine & Spirits print magazine didn’t get more attention than it did.

I feel like people didn’t read past the headlines and assumed that they’re just shifting to be fully online as many publications have done in the last few years. That would be a fair assumption but, in reading the whole announcement, they sound like they’re largely closing up shop and things for the near future, are quite dire.

It almost feels like the general populace is so jaded at this point in legacy publications closing there was something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah. Right. You were still here?” and then they went back to waiting in line for an $8 soy latte to-go.

Admittedly, I was rather unsurprised when I heard this announcement myself but not due to the jaded bit–at least not that specific jaded bit. I’d written a piece on Priorat for Wine & Spirits some time back and payment for it took nearly a year. I won’t quote the whole email, but just the key part:

If there is a gross insolvency of the publication that doesn’t allow payment of $650, then that needs to be communicated.

It was this line that I think made them pay ultimately, but it was a tremendous amount of work that it shouldn’t have been. The editor who commissioned the piece (and has since moved on to much greener pastures) told me, “It might take awhile to get paid, but you will get paid.” Apparently it took a very snippy email to make that last part happen. But it’s the case that they’re not the only publication with this kind of payment issue.

I wrote for a very nice magazine called Alquimie in Australia who did run my piece, but never paid at all as it ran in their very last issue. That one I almost don’t mind as it was something of a publishing experiment we were all part of and it just didn’t work out. It’s the danger of working for startups and I was more sad to see it cease publishing than anything else as I really enjoyed reading it.

But why is it that Wine & Spirits had so many problems? Is it the changing times and the issue of ad revenue? In this case, I would posit that it’s simply because they never gained a “Wine Plus+”.

The Big Plus+

What’s a Wine Plus+? This is what has come to be the added value needed to keep the mediasphere around wine viable these days. Wine Plus+ (and yes, the (+) is mandatory as it’s annoying) is all around you and perhaps like the frog in a slowly-boiling pot of water, maybe you haven’t realized what’s happened.

One of the largest examples of it is Decanter magazine which surely would have gone the way of Wine & Spirits a long time ago if it wasn’t for their Wine Plus+, the Decanter Awards. I’ve had several people from within the publication tell me the exact same thing that the awards comprise 50% of their revenue, the events (which are largely tied to the awards) are 30%, and then 20% is the magazine. It wouldn’t ultimately surprise me if the awards and events total wasn’t a good deal higher as when you have 18,000 wines being judged at 200€ a piece, that’s a large revenue stream that a wine publication has trouble competing with. The magazine mainly exists at this point to give a brand to the awards.

There are other Wine Plus+ to be found in publishing though. They might be “promotional” articles (aka advertorials), wine list competitions, or a number of other aspects that are on top of what was the original Wine Plus+ that has mostly ceased to lay eggs, old-fashioned advertising. It’s rather plain to see that wine media has essentially succumbed to the gig economy and is in need of side income to keep it going.

The Small Plus+

I think this has long been an open secret (which should really be without the ‘secret’ part) for those of us writing about wine as the freelancing world is a disaster and only getting worse. I met a woman on a press trip once who actually works selling air conditioning units. Another guy is a part time air traffic controller, which is actually pretty brilliant. And then there’s the wine columnist for a major US newspaper who actually works in a government job full time. And last but not least is the classic of having a spouse that earns real money.

I fully admit to having my own Wine Plus+ as while I do earn most of my income from those who have been supportive of this work and subscribe to the site, I additionally do some small amounts of freelance writing as well as the Three T’s of Talks, Tastings, & Tours. I consider myself fortunate in that somehow I’ve managed to keep all of my activities tied to wine, although that part time air traffic controller idea sounds pretty damned smart.

It’s definitely not easy out there despite the Wine Plus+ keeping many freelancers afloat. I personally know five people this year alone that have fully checked out of doing anything with wine media as it simply isn’t working as a profession.

The Odd Plus?

With that in mind, it makes me wonder a bit about a number of new publications that have emerged. I look at them and and wonder, what’s their Wine Plus+? Or is it the fact that the balance is largely kept afloat at the moment with freelancers while somehow attempting to amass enough $299 USD annual subscriptions to make it work? You know very well who these are as I’m sure you initially subscribed to their newsletters thinking, “Hey, a new place to write! Wait, how is this working?”

There’s even a site that was launched in 2013 which doesn’t have subscriptions, only moderate advertising and yet it seems to pay full time staff. It as well as another launched in the UK in 2016 remain the outliers to the Wine Plus+ concept, but in today’s world, wonders will never cease.

The key advice here is that if you’re just getting started in the wine media world, many would say, “don’t” but if you throw caution and sensibility to the wind, figure out very early on what your Wine Plus+ is whether you’re working as a writer or starting a publication.

It seems that if without a Wine Plus+ or mysterious benefactor who lives on an island surrounded by radioactive sharks with freakin laser beams, as shown by the Wine & Spirits news, one is truly doomed.