Château 'New York Times'?

Times Co. Digital to court wine-swilling cultural elite

You can almost hear the corks popping at Times Company Digital (TCD), a subsidiary formed by The New York Times Company in May to consolidate all its Internet holdings. Last week, even as Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was promising his entire staff that they might get the chance to buy TCD stock at the insiders' rate before it goes public, Press Clips learned that the Times is pouring money into a Web site that aims to be the number one wine portal on the Internet.

So is the Times getting into the wine business? Not exactly. The site, winetoday.com, offers consumer and industry news, a national events calendar and, most important, wine reviews. The idea came from a Times-owned newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, in the heart of northern California wine country. Executive editor Bruce Kyse thought the paper's wine reviews could attract global interest if they went online. He pitched the idea to the Times, which launched the site quietly in July 1998.

A year later, WineToday attracts about 130,000 unique visits and 700,000 page views per month. The selling point for its affluent, swill-every-night audience is Cyber Sommelier, a search engine that allows them to find wines they like by typing in key words such as "spicy" and "pinot noir." WineToday aims to compete with Wine Spectator, a leading trade magazine that also distributes its reviews online. At winespectator.com, you can get about 15,000 reviews for free, or pay $29.95 for access to about 77,000 reviews compiled over the last 20 years. The other competition is Robert Parker's newsletter, which sells for $50 a year.

Brendan Vaughan, manager of new media content for Wine Spectator, said the site is "quite popular," but would not provide data on traffic or demographics. The site runs breaking stories as well as content recycled from the magazine. By contrast, WineToday aims to produce daily original, "objective" journalism, says managing editor Tim Fish, formerly the food and wine editor at the Press Democrat.

For now, WineToday offers 3000 reviews of California wines. But in the next few months the site will expand to cover the Pacific Northwest, New York State, and Europe, adding new hires in editorial, marketing, and technology. "We're in discussions with some prominent wine names," Fish says, "and when those names come out, the industry will be stunned."

Fish says the Times has given WineToday a "very healthy budget" and is not being "uptight" about revenues. By doing so, he says, the Times "becomes the first major corporation to invest heavily in wine journalism." But why? Says one New York City wine distributor, "Most of the people who drink wine don't want to read about it," let alone go online to buy it. By this logic, wine snobs are too small a market to attract meaningful ad sales online.

But the view of the vineyard looks different to Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of Times Company Digital, which projects revenues of about $25 million this year. Nisenholtz believes WineToday will generate revenues in advertising, e-commerce, and listings, adding that the site fits an overall plan to market content via e-mail to the 8 million people who read NYTimes.com.

Out of those 8 million, the Times is seeking to create a new cultural elite. "We're focused on building relationships with a like-minded audience online," he says. "These are people who travel a lot and are culturally aware and have a certain educational background. It would be a stretch to say I have hard data to suggest that the like-minded audience is a wine-drinking audience, but it seems logical."

TCD is also working on GolfDigest.com, an Internet spin-off of Golf Digest magazine, which is owned by the Times. The beta version is expected to launch in October. "Golf appeals to a psychographic that is very much part of our set," says Nisenholtz. "It's just like wine. They're going to make a very nice pair."


Starr Struck, Bush Whacked

Two big stories defied conservative spin last week: Ken Starr's attempt to skate out of office and George W.'s drug dodge. On Thursday, all the papers reported that the judges who oversee Starr have decided, two to one, that his probe can go on. The Times had the most specific details— that Starr wants to go back to his old law firm as soon as October, although the firm has not yet announced his return. Several papers noted that Starr's team hasn't said when it will issue its final report, except that it will be sometime before the 2000 elections (just in time to trip up Hillary, right?).

By Friday, both the Times and The Washington Post called on Starr to stick around and see the thing through. The Post said that if the independent counsel cannot tell the judges what's left to investigate, he should close up shop now. The Times noted that if Starr drags it out until the elections, he will be shooting himself in the foot. The Sunday Daily News quipped, "Rats are the first to leave a sinking ship." For evidence that Starr's image is indelibly tainted, consider the silence of the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal, whose editorialists were either on vacation last week or have tired of defending him altogether.

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