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Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The most interesting, imaginative and intelligent wine publication...

There are lots of wine publications floating around, both in paper and digital formats. Decanter, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Wine Advocate are probably considered the most influential and most dominant wine glossies aimed at consumers. Though they all contain articles about people, places and various lifestyle topics, their raison d'être is reviewing wine and distilling the wine down to a numerical shorthand (all now use the 100-point system) that supposedly corresponds to quality. The editors may claim that the score is secondary to the actual review, but those periodicals are most cited by consumers and retailers in connection with just the ratings, often times with the actual arbiter of the score detached from his or her decree.
Other publications such as Palate Press, Sommelier Journal and World of Fine Wine offer more in-depth approaches with longer and/or more offbeat features. Wine reviews and ratings take a backseat to the stories. And rather than cast a wide net for readers and push wine sales, they all do something a little differently than the traditional wine magazines. Palate Press is solely published online and seeks stories from a diverse group of writers (hell, they even let me write for them...). Sommelier Journal is geared toward industry professionals. World of Fine Wine is more of a cultural journal than a magazine you can just pick up and skim.

A handful of other wine publications, such as Touring & Tasting, Wine & Spirits, Wines & Vines and Food & Wine, fall somewhere between the more-focused journals and the glossy review machines in scope and influence. Of course I can't forget the plethora of wine blogs that are doing wonders democratizing wine. They may not be moving the needle on sales as much as their more established brethren, but I do think the rise of wine blogs has had a hand in making wine a bigger part of American culture in the past decade.

Despite the seemingly saturated market for wine magazines, a new publication might be the most interesting, imaginative and intelligent wine periodical you can find. Loam Baby is a new zine written and published by an anonymous author using the pen name R. H. Drexel. I know that I'm late in writing about Loam Baby, as the first issue came out over a year ago and issue 3 was just published, but after reading all three volumes I'm hooked. Drexel calls Loam Baby a "wine culture journal" and publishes it free online or sells hard copies on the website. Each issue is roughly 55-65 pages long, with quirky quotes from the likes of Dr. Seuss and Van Morrison, off-the-wall comics about nefarious wine board trolls and, most importantly, engaging interviews and profiles focused on one particular region. The inaugural issue got things started in Santa Barbara County. Volume 2 moved up the coast to the Santa Cruz Mountains. It took until the third issue for Drexel to finally focus on Napa Valley. It may surprise many wine aficionados, but the wine world does go beyond Napa. The focus on one region in each issue makes the reader feel like they actually are visiting the place Loam Baby investigates (especially if you grab a glass of wine from one of the regions).

Loam Baby will not be limited to just California. "Our focus will be on the many great growing regions in the United States: New York, Oregon, Washington, California, Texas, Louisiana, Virginia, New Mexico, and others," stated Drexel in the opening letter of the first issue. When have you ever heard all of those states mentioned in a single issue of any other wine publication? Rumor has it that Drexel will leave the borders of the California Republic for the next issue.

But Loam Baby is not just about embracing off-the- beaten-path wine producers. In the first three issues alone, Greg Brewer, Paul Lato, Paul Draper, Philippe Melka, and Jayson Woodbridge were all highlighted. That list might be more appropriate for one of the traditional glossies than in an ultra-hip zine. But each personality is presented in a totally different way than those major publications would. Loam Baby also brings insight from some more trendy names in the industry. Bradley Brown, Deborah Hall, Rick Longoria and Steve Matthiasson are names more likely to be found on the forums of WineBerserkers.com or a sommelier's wish list than on the cover of Wine Spectator. My point is that Loam Baby shouldn't be pigeon-holed into what is typical of any wine publication that came before it.

One thing I have yet to see in Loam Baby is a score attached to a review. Let me take that back. Actually, on page 5 of the Santa Cruz Mountains' issue is a 100-pt shelftalker that any winery can use. Other than that, all mentions of scores are in the context of Drexel's discussions with the people behind the wines. Though there are no reviews or scores, wine remains the focus of the writing, perhaps more so than in most other efforts. In Loam Baby, wines act as "viticultural and enological messengers that carry with them a multitude of stories, intentions and mysteries." The stories told by little-known and world-renowned winegrowers alike is what makes Loam Baby worth reading. I promise you'll learn at least one thing (most likely a lot more) in one issue of this nascent zine, more than you might in a year's worth of any I mentioned in the first paragraph.
Author's rendering of R.H. Drexel...

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