I was in Charlotte last weekend for the Specialty Coffee Association of America 2006 conference and one of the cool things I picked up there is the premiere issue of the new magazine Imbibe. The bimonthly is devoted exclusively to drinks as their own culinary realm, not limiting itself to any one beverage. This first issue includes articles about third wave coffee, the drinks of Oaxaca, introductions to the seven Trappist ale producers, a look at organic wine, and quite a few recipes, profiles of people in the beverage business, and bar recommendations. The layout is stylish and dominated by content, not ads.
One interesting bit I learned from the issue is that in Utah, consumers’ wine choices are selected by pretty much just one guy. Direct shipping is illegal and wine sales are limited to state-run liquor stores, only one of which specializes in wine. Thus wine sold in the state must pass the approval of the “wine czar:”
Utah has a wine czar. Yep, a state employee named Brett Clifford officially works as the “wine coordinator,” but his eminence better fits the “czar” moniker. Since 1979, when the state opened its first wine specialty store, Clifford has tasted nearly every wine that has been sold in Utah; it’s his job to choose which bottles end up on store shelves and restaurant wine lists. “I believe that Utah has perhaps the only extensive wine tasting and buying program of just about any retailer in the United States,” Clifford says. “Most everyone else buys on reputation, publication, and sales record, and pricing incentives. We are very proud to serve the Utah consumer.”
Today, he and other state-employed tasters sample about 500 wines a month. On Thursday afternoons, you’ll find Clifford and two members of his sampling team evaluating various bottles in an official room used for wine tasting only. All arriving samples are immediately logged into the computer and tracked until the bottles are empty. The samples are stored under lock in a temperature-controlled room next to the tasting room, and both rooms are under constant video surveillance. After all, not even the wine czar imbibes without oversite of the state.”
That’s a hell of a nice job. Though poking fun at the position a bit, Imbibe is ultimately sanguine about the czar’s power, noting that he keeps a lot of bad wines off the shelves. Not mentioned is how many good wines are kept out of consumers’ hands by Clifford and the state’s illiberal wine laws. For a magazine devoted to celebrating drinks in all their variety, I would have expected a little more criticism.
Actually, a hint of credulity could be the one flaw in an otherwise consistently good magazine. The article on organic wine, for example, includes a sidebar on biodynamic wines. While noting the “inherently spiritual” nature of biodynamic practices, the sidebar treats them as positive step beyond organic farming without mentioning the well-deserved skepticism many hold for their benefits. While I can understand why the editors would want the first issue to be especially genial, I hope they will develop a slightly more critical edge over time.
Those complaints aside, it’s a great beginning for this magazine. And for just $15.95 for a charter subscription, I’m definitely willing to take the risk on subsequent issues being just as good. Sign up for a year or two’s worth here.
[Update 4/17/06: I didn't notice it until Slashfood pointed it out, but the Imbibe website has a very neat Flash preview of the magazine. It's like virtually flipping through the issue to the lead pages of all the major stories; useful and just fun to play with.]