Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Part I of a Conversation with Sarah Kemp, Publishing Director, Decanter

Decanter is the UKs foremost wine magazine and one of the most respected across the globe.  With a 90-country subscriber base, Decanter commands the attention of the world's major fine wine producers as they seek to get their message heard above the clamor that is the world wine industry.   Its mix of news, interviews, and wine/wine-region reviews keeps its subscriber base informed  on industry happenings and aids purchasing decisions.  Its eclectic mix of world-renowned contributors, its online offshoot, and a newly minted education initiative all contribute to making Decanter readers some of the best-informed wine consumers in the world. 

Sarah Kemp is the Publishing Director of Decanter and the founder of  I sat with her to gain some insight into the magazine's view of the issues confronting the wine industry today and will report on that conversation in this and two subsequent posts.

I first met Sarah at the Decanter-organized Bordeaux d'Yquem Weekend and was favorably impressed by this fun-loving, story-telling bon vivant who exhibited a deep knowledge of, and connection with, the Bordelaise.  At the time I asked her if I could interview her for my blog at some future date and she responded in the affirmative.  Once it was determined that I was going to be in London for the Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion tasting, we agreed to meet on Friday, February 4th  for our conversation.

I arrived at the Blue Fin Building in London's Southwark district in good time for our 11:00 am meeting and took the elevator to the ninth floor.  I was met at the elevator by Shreena, a TA in the Events organization, and led through a warren of desks and magazines and industrious-looking young people to Sarah's office where I was welcomed with a warm hug (We do not stand on formality here.).  I had not seen Sarah since the evening of the dinner at Chateau d'Yquem so we spent some time catching up and reminiscing.  It was a blast; and then we turned to the business at hand.  I told Sarah that I wanted the conversation to focus on three broad areas: How she got into the business (wine and publishing); Decanter's role and positioning vis a vis its readers; and the key issues facing the wine industry.  She said "let's go."  And we went.

Based on Sarah's telling, where she is today is totally attributable to a number of key influencers in her life.  Her grandfather loved wine while her father had no palate.  When she attained her 16th birthday, her grandfather gave her a copy of Hugh Johnson's Wine Companion (2nd edition) and the lovely drawings and vignettes in the book sparked her imagination.  This initial flame was fanned by two early relationships.  First, a boyfriend whose father was an avid oenophile (and a subscriber to Decanter no less) and, second, a girlfriend who took her to many a wine tasting.  Her father did not have a palate but he was a journalist and from a young age Sarah was surrounded by writing, publishing, and media-related issues.

Sarah's first publishing job was with the magazine Field which, ironically, is just down the hall from where she sits today.  When an opportunity to work for Decanter presented itself, she leapt at it and, after 25 years, with the magazine remains excited about where she works and its prospects.

Even though she has this senior position at Decanter, Sarah does not view herself as a wine expert a la Jancis Robinson (She subscribes to the adage that the more you learn about wine, the more you find out how much you don't know.).  Rather, Sarah views herself as a passionate wine drinker and wine lover;  akin to a Decanter reader.  Bordeaux wines are her first love but she also has an appreciation for wines from the Stag's Leap District of Napa, Washington State, and South America.

She finds the wine industry eminently fascinating with family-owned businesses sitting side-by-side with corporate titans and drama and soap operas, especially in Bordeaux, being the order of the day.

This post covered Sarah's introduction to wine and the magazine industry and her perspective of her positioning within that environment today.  In subsequent posts the conversation will cover Decanter and its readers and wine-industry issues.

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