How the San Francisco Chronicle covers the wine industry
Kitty Morgan is an assistant managing editor for lifestyle at the San Francisco Chronicle, which means she oversees the paper’s food, travel and wine coverage.
The Chronicle is unique in having a strong food department, including a full-time wine writer, Esther Mobley, covering wine country, as well as a travel department that specializes in local travel, including regular coverage of Napa and Sonoma as destinations.
That puts the newspaper in a position to cover the wine country fires like no one else, from wineries to restaurants to the general tourist economy.
The Chronicle also takes a cross-disciplinary, cross-medium approach to wine coverage. Food and wine stories go into the Business, Bay Area, and A sections regularly, as well as mixing with coverage on its websites, sfchronicle.com and sfgate.com.
The Chronicle also has a mobile app, The Press, for winery tours, which it had to rejigger in light of the fires.
Morgan has worked at some of the largest magazines in the country, including Better Homes and Gardens (where she was executive editor, and editorial director for print and digital content), Sunset (editor in chief), Oprah Magazine’s O at Home (executive editor) and Every Day with Rachael Ray (founding editor). She’s been a restaurant critic and travel editor at the Orange County Register.
Morgan spoke Tuesday afternoon with Talking Biz News about how it covers the wine industry, especially how it was covered during the recent wildfires that spread across the region. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did the paper come up with its strategy for covering Napa and the wine industry?
I am not a business editor. I am the editor for the lifestyle content here. Generally, that is food, wine, home, garden, style, travel and also about a year ago, cannabis coverage. So a lot of what we do is both produce our Sunday sections that are very visual and a big part of the Sunday paper. And part of what my team does is have a strong online presence.
So the wine and hospitality falls under me. My reporters tend to do more of the features coverage and not the business coverage. We won’t cover the travel industry as much as we cover destinations.
However, there are stories that rise occasionally that do have business implications. And because we have a dedicated wine writer and people who cover restaurants, and because it is so critical for the Chronicle, we do deeper business coverage in those areas. It’s just in our wheelhouse. Our audiences are very interested in these topics. We’re often coming from more of a consumer directed lens than one that is more interested in the business aspects.
How did the wildfires affect that coverage?
There was a ton of impact on the citizens and the economics of this region. We also took a really close look at how this would impact the wine industry, from the product and how it would affect the wineries that depend a lot on visitors from the Bay Area and around the world.
Esther Mobley is our wine writer, and she is fantastic and extremely knowledgeable about wine. She does a lot of criticism about wine, but is very steeped in the industry. She hears a lot of the business side about what is happening in the industry. Napa and Sonoma are important not just nationally but internationally.
We had built in some very strong reporters. Our restaurant reporter, Justin Phillips, does quickies on what’s opening and closing, and also has a deep understanding about how the restaurant industry ticks.
So we have a big base of knowledge, and that allowed us to do the minute-by-minute reporting, Esther spent several days during the fires just driving around in the smoke to really understand what was happening. Having Esther and couple of reporters going into the region and physically reporting was helpful. She had tons of relationships with people who trusted her and was able to talk to a lot of the winemakers, who had lost parts of their buildings.
How did that coverage resonate?
Our wine stories do extremely well online. There is a lot of interest. And the news we report on here is interesting beyond just the Bay area. We had a ready audience. Esther was able to tap into that and use social media quite a bit, on Twitter and to some extent Instagram, to communicate with the broader wine industry. That’s not usually what our reporters do.
At the height of the fires, how much content was being produced?
Less than a week into the fires, after they had calmed down, it was an estimated 500 stories There were a lot of micro stories too. A lot of what was going into print was aggregated. There were several fires, and they were hitting different regions in different ways. We were pumping the stuff out. The whole newsroom was involved.
This was a major disaster, so everybody is all in. And we had that expertise.
How did that affect any wine industry coverage plans?
This past Sunday we had a special section aimed at the wine country, and we had initially planned, in our yearly planning, a special travel section on Napa followed by one on Sonoma, to be published literally when the fires occurred. So we pulled those. There was no way we could run these sections at that time.
So we put them into a 48-page section that ran this Sunday. Some of it was existing content that was preplanned but re-reported. And we created some new content as well. It was a section that was aimed at coming out of the fires and how businesses are pleading for visitors to return. So we gave some guides to what was open, which was pretty much everything.
People think of Silicon Valley as the pre-eminent industry to cover in the Bay area, but how important is wine coverage?
It’s an enormous in dollars. It’s not just a product that is created there, numbers of bottles. There are almost 1,000 wineries in Napa and Sonoma. That’s huge. Some of them are tiny, and some of them are enormous, the Mondavis of the world. It’s our high end, quality premium product, so it represents a lot of dollars. And it’s a big tourist destination with the hospitality industry wrapped around it. It’s a major industry for this part of the country, north of the Bay area.
There is also an emotional aspect to northern California’s history. The idea that a century-old winery that represents something about our culture gets burned really hits our audiences pretty hard. And it’s a visible business. You drive through that area and you see it. It’s something that people can really relate too.
What are the typical types of stories that the paper covers about wine when there’s not a natural disaster to report about?
Esther’s done a lot of stories on vineyard workers. There’s a lot of immigrant workers, so we’ve recently done a story about generations of Mexican labor that has come to the region for this. It is very specialized and very high-paying. She does a lot on the personalities of the winemakers. There are a lot of different business models. There are small, cult wineries that sell bottles for hundreds of dollars. So she’s written about how they have created this sense of scarcity.
She also writes about hundred-year-old Zinfandal vines and a lot of explaining about what makes a wine good. She’s also looking at the “millenialization” of wine and how it’s finding ways to attract a younger audience. So she does a bunch of stuff. She always tries to put consumer information into these stories.
What do you see as some of the lingering business-related stories that the team will focus on now that the fires have stopped?
There’s been a lot of discussion and curiosity on social media about what the smoke did to the wines. Did it smoke taint? And did it affect the grapes that were still on the vines? What is that going to do to the market? There is a lot of speculation about what the smoke did to the soil. So there is a lot of debunking on her end. Esther’s recent stories have pointed out that these things are temporary, six months to a year, and that they probably won’t affect the prices.
Our travel writer, Spud Hilton, is continuing to follow the impact on the hospitality industry, which is very dependent on international visitors. While the Bay Area visitors are trickling back, what is going to be the impact six months from now? Did the visuals impact the industry permanently?
Have there been any wine-related stories that the team hasn’t been able to get to recently because of the fire? Or stories related to the fire just because of the volume of news happening?
We are all behind on everything. What it has affected is that when something like this happens, disasters or catastrophes, how do you do Thanksgiving stories without acknowledging it?
When you’re in the midst of it, it’s hard to do any other types of stories. We’ve put on the back burner some stories. Almost everybody in the Bay area knows somebody who knows somebody who lost their residence. It has affected so many people, so it is incumbent for the paper to be sensitive to that and address that.
I also oversee some magazines, and we’re doing a Year in Photos. And we’ve had to rethink what’s on the cover of the magazine and how much the fires play into it.
What has the coverage meant to the paper?
When these things happen, it’s an opportunity for a news organization to really cement its relationship with its community. And we’re here to be journalists and report what we see and to find out. But it’s also you realize how your audiences turn to you in this time. It was very gratifying.
In this area of fake news and our profession being doubted, to see our readers look to us to bring them the information, and that we have an obligation to do that, I think that is an opportunity. This was a roller coaster of emotion.