h1

Marvin Shanken, Editor & Publisher, Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado & Whisky Advocate In A Rare & Exclusive Mr. Magazine™ Interview: “I Consider Myself More Of An Editor Than Anything Else. It’s No Accident That Our Magazines Are Great.”

January 27, 2020

“The experience is an extension of the magazine to feed and reward people that have a passion for wine, whisky and cigars.” Marvin Shanken on being an experience maker in addition to a content provider

People think of me as a businessman or an entrepreneur, I’m really an editor. I spend more time thinking about, planning and working with my editors to execute each issue, in terms of everything from selecting the cover topic to the content, shaping the stories, to getting the photography, to making sure it’s right. That’s where my fingerprint is, but nobody necessarily knows that. I consider myself more of an editor than anything else. It’s no accident that our magazines are great.”… Marvin Shanken

One of the mavericks of publishing, that rare breed of individual who hasn’t sold out to the larger companies and has kept his own vision and business strategies in place for over 40 years, Marvin Shanken has three admitted passions: wine, cigars and whisky. And that trio has carried him successfully throughout his professional career. From print to digital to events, Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, & Whisky Advocate have become the manifestations of Marvin’s passions.

I spoke with Marvin recently and we talked about his humble beginnings back in 1972 all the way until his present successes, opportunities and honors today. The MPA: Association of Magazine Media named Marvin the 2019 recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor that was well-deserved. And he has also taken his brands into a new direction, the WS New York, a private dinner club in Hudson Yards, where his passions can have full rein. Along with two other partners, Marvin is tackling this new endeavor like he does with everything: positively and determinedly.

And while many people think of Marvin as a very astute businessman and bold entrepreneur, that’s not how he sees himself, “ I’m really an editor. I spend more time thinking about, planning and working with my editors to execute each issue…” he told me.

And now for this very special exclusive Mr. Magazine™ interview with the man who rarely gives interviews, Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher, Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, & Whisky Advocate.

But first the sound-bites:

On being among that rare breed of independent publisher who started their own magazine media company and why there aren’t more entrepreneurs such as him today: When I started publishing, it was around 1972. I didn’t know what I was doing; I didn’t have any experience, but I was passionate about wine. All the rest came many years later. I would say that the first five years I starved to death and the next five years I began to make a living, but not a very good living, and then things kept progressing. The reason there are so few individual publishing entrepreneurs left is pretty obvious, the lifespan of individuals, the temptation to cash out and sell, the efficiencies of being part of a bigger company to bring down your costs, the pressure in the last decade to be very profitable, family issues; it’s endless and the industry, for the most part, has been struggling.

On his daughter assuming more responsibilities in the company: She is a vice president and involved in business development. She’s also involved in the digital and social areas. When I’m gone, it’s really my wife and my daughter, it’s going to be theirs. And they know my wishes, but it’s really going to be how they feel about it. I don’t necessarily know if my daughter is the heir apparent, she just had her first son and she’s going to raise a family. She’s a great daughter, very smart and very hardworking, but it’s an awful lot of pressure to have the kind of responsibility I have. I’m not sure that she wants it; I’m not sure that I want it for her, but we have a great team in the company. I’m not around all the time, the winters I’m in Florida and the summers I’m in The Hamptons, so we have a great team of people, what you’d call professional management, who can certainly carry on.

On publishing in both the B to B world and the consumer world: I started B to B. Before Wine Spectator, my first publication was a trade newsletter called “Impact,” which is research and analysis for executives in the wine/spirits industry and I still have that and it’s read all over the world. And that’s the one the sponsors the Impact seminar, which we’ve been doing for 44 years. One thing you can say about the company is it’s a little unique in the publishing world in that it’s so diversified. And it has been for most of its history. I started with a trade newsletter, then did a trade seminar; eventually moved into consumer with the Wine Spectator and that grew and then other things after that. So, I have a portfolio of trade newsletters and magazines in the trade division, and then I have the consumer division, which is Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, Whisky Advocate, and that provides a nucleus. And then we do a lot of events and a lot of digital and new products.

On the event business, which is fairly new to most publishers, yet his company has been doing it for over 40 years: This year we celebrated our 40th anniversary of the New York Wine Experience, which is a weekend where we have 6,000 people come to taste hundreds and hundreds of wines and have sit-down seminars for a thousand, and so forth. The Impact Marketing seminar is in its 44th year. We do these Big Smokes, this year we did our annual one in Vegas, we had 4,000 in attendance who love cigars. We do Whisky Fests all over America, where we get 1,500 to 2,000 in each city.

On being more than just a content provider, on being an experience maker: It wasn’t by design. The categories that I chose to go into are areas in which I have  a passion for, so it’s very easy for me to want to do wine-tasting events for readers who share their love and interest in discovering wine like I do. Events became a natural extension. The experience is an extension of the magazine to feed and reward people that have a passion for wine, whisky and cigars.

On his assessment of the future of print magazines and magazine media: The future of magazines… this is a hard topic because most magazines depend on newsstand for their circulation, but we don’t. A dominant portion of our circulation has always been subscribers, so while you enjoy newsstand, it’s expensive, because a lot of them demand a fee to go in and then what you don’t sell you have to eat from a production standpoint. But it’s very clean when you have a subscriber, he pays you up front, you deliver the product and everybody is happy. I don’t want to say the percentage, but a very large percentage of what we do is subscribers. That makes the pressure on us from a circulation standpoint to be fairly negligible.

On whether or not he’s thinking of launching a cannabis newsletter: We did. I have a product called Shanken News Daily for the wine and spirits industry, which I started about five years ago. It’s a very successful trade newsletter that goes out daily. So, wanting to gain experience in cannabis, but not wanting to make a full commitment, we started a cannabis edition, which comes out once a week and is free to our subscribers. So, we’re gaining a lot of knowledge; we’re covering the industry and we’re waiting to see what happens with the federal government, in terms of whether or not they legalize it. If and when the industry becomes legalized on a national basis, we will then consider the next step in covering cannabis.

On anything he’d like to add: There are a number of new efforts in various stages of development. One thing that is fairly significant to us, but not something we’ve broadcast, is after three or four years of development we launched, in a partnership, a private club in New York in conjunction with a restaurant open to the public. It’s really two separate enterprises. This is a new direction for us that is very unique. For those that may be curious, there’s a development in New York City called Hudson Yard, which is the largest private development in the world, $26 billion. And it’s millions and millions of sq. ft. of office space for major companies; all the great luxury retailers; a lot of condominiums; it’s the first Neiman Marcus in the city; 25 or so restaurants of different levels.

On the biggest misconception he thinks people have about him: People think of me as a businessman or an entrepreneur, I’m really an editor. I spend more time thinking about, planning and working with my editors to execute each issue, in terms of everything from selecting the cover topic to the content, shaping the stories, to getting the photography to making sure it’s right. That’s where my fingerprint is, but nobody necessarily knows that. I consider myself more of an editor than anything else. It’s no accident that our magazines are great.

On what keeps him up at night: You hit a sore point because I haven’t slept through a night in probably 30 years. I think it’s part of the Shanken biology. But what keeps me up at night is I can’t turn off my brain. I’m constantly thinking about what I need to do tomorrow; what I didn’t do today; what I should have done today to keep the peanut rolling forward, keeping my brain calendar up to date.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Marvin Shanken, editor & publisher, Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado and Whisky Advocate.

Samir Husni: Jann Wenner from Rolling Stone, Larry Burke from Outside, Hugh Hefner, and yourself were and are a rare breed of independent publisher who started magazine media companies on their own and continued on their own throughout the years. Why do you think that kind of publishing entrepreneur is hard to find these days?

Marvin Shanken: When I started publishing, it was around 1972. I didn’t know what I was doing; I didn’t have any experience, but I was passionate about wine. All the rest came many years later. I would say that the first five years I starved to death and the next five years I began to make a living, but not a very good living, and then things kept progressing. The reason there are so few individual publishing entrepreneurs left is pretty obvious, the lifespan of individuals, the temptation to cash out and sell, the efficiencies of being part of a bigger company to bring down your costs, the pressure in the last decade to be very profitable, family issues; it’s endless and the industry, for the most part, has been struggling.

And you have to really love what you’re doing to resist the temptation to sell out when offers come along. Personally, I have never sat down with a buyer and I get calls and letters all the time. That doesn’t mean forever, but one of the things I realized is whoever buys my company, if I were to sell it, one of the first things they would do is look at my overhead, look at what I pay my people, and probably make some decisions to cut a significant part of the organization’s staff, because I have a lot of people that have been with me their whole life. I view the company as a family and the family may be ruined with a new owner who’s looking at it strictly as a business.

I also know that I’m not going to live forever and I will probably leave that decision up to my family when I leave.

Samir Husni: Your daughter, Jessica, has been assuming a lot of responsibilities in the company, correct?

Marvin Shanken: She is a vice president and involved in business development. She’s also involved in the digital and social areas. When I’m gone, it’s really my wife and my daughter, it’s going to be theirs. And they know my wishes, but it’s really going to be how they feel about it. I don’t necessarily know if my daughter is the heir apparent, she just had her first son and she’s going to raise a family. She’s a great daughter, very smart and very hardworking, but it’s an awful lot of pressure to have the kind of responsibility I have. I’m not sure that she wants it; I’m not sure that I want it for her, but we have a great team in the company. I’m not around all the time, the winters I’m in Florida and the summers I’m in The Hamptons, so we have a great team of people, what you’d call professional management, who can certainly carry on.

Samir Husni: You manage to publish both for consumers and for the business side. In fact, it seems you wear several hats, publishing between B to B and the consumers. How are you able to juggle between the two spaces?

Marvin Shanken: I started B to B. Before Wine Spectator, my first publication was a trade newsletter called “Impact,” which is research and analysis for executives in the wine/spirits industry and I still have that and it’s read all over the world. And that’s the one the sponsors the Impact seminar, which we’ve been doing for 44 years. One thing you can say about the company is it’s a little unique in the publishing world in that it’s so diversified. And it has been for most of its history. I started with a trade newsletter, then did a trade seminar; eventually moved into consumer with the Wine Spectator and that grew and then other things after that. So, I have a portfolio of trade newsletters and magazines in the trade division, and then I have the consumer division, which is Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado, Whisky Advocate, and that provides a nucleus. And then we do a lot of events and a lot of digital and new products.

We have faced the challenges of the new economy, which everyone predicted would happen and has happened, but we still operate fairly successfully because of the diversity of our portfolio, in terms of products and services. There are a lot of things that we do that people don’t even know about because there are layers and layers that are niche products for different groups, without going into great detail, which would be much too much. Our event business has been going on now for 44 years.

Samir Husni: Almost all the CEO’s, everyone that I have been interviewing lately are discovering the event business, they are saying that magazine media has to be in the event business, they have to do events. And you’ve been doing them for 44 years. What’s your secret sauce?

Marvin Shanken: This year we celebrated our 40th anniversary of the New York Wine Experience, which is a weekend where we have 6,000 people come to taste hundreds and hundreds of wines and have sit-down seminars for a thousand, and so forth. The Impact Marketing seminar is in its 44th year. We do these Big Smokes, this year we did our annual one in Vegas, we had 4,000 in attendance who love cigars. We do Whisky Fests all over America, where we get 1,500 to 2,000 in each city.

We’re trying something new in Florida in April; we’re doing our first Whisky Fest meets Big Smoke, where we’re combining two events to see if one + one equals three. Everybody who smokes cigars loves whisky and a lot of people who love whisky smoke cigars, not everybody, but a lot. So, we’re putting then all together at Hard Rock Casino & Hotel in the Ft. Lauderdale area in early April.

We innovate a lot; we do a lot of trade events. For the most part, everything we do is profitable. We have a strong events team. Some of the things that we do, I would describe as small and uninteresting to a big company, but very interesting to us, because we’re not a big company. We have around 150 full-time people, with two main offices in New York and in Napa Valley. We continue to operate very profitably and we continue to face challenges, particularly in the area of advertising.

It just so happens that this year our consumer advertising is down a little bit, but our trade advertising was up. Sometimes consumer is up and trade is down. And it may hang on one or two companies. If one of your major advertisers cuts back, that has an impact. And vice versa. Someone that wasn’t a major advertiser becomes one, then that changes things too. We operate very long-term. And we don’t make decisions based on budgets for next year and things like that. And I take enormous pride in having such a great group of people, especially young people who have made our company their career, as opposed to people who come here for a job.

Samir Husni: From your humble beginnings in 1972 to today, until you were inducted into the MPA: The Association of Magazine Media’s Hall of Fame, you’ve provided much more than content. You’ve been more of the experience maker, engaging your audiences with experiences, rather than just content. Why do you think that’s also a rare occurrence today, being more than just a content provider?

Marvin Shanken: It wasn’t by design. The categories that I chose to go into are areas in which I have  a passion for, so it’s very easy for me to want to do wine-tasting events for readers who share their love and interest in discovering wine like I do. Events became a natural extension.

Same thing happened with cigars. And although it was very unpopular at the time when I did this cigar magazine; it has been a huge success. There was a time when we were doing 10 cities a year with the events. But the economics didn’t work, we would get a thousand people in Denver or in Boston or wherever, that sounds like a lot of people, but when it comes to making money, I realized that you can only do fewer events that are larger so that once you cover your costs, you really start to make serious money.

Now we do this one event in Vegas where we get 4,000 that is a huge success. It’s basically our readers coming out every year and we’ve been doing one in Florida. We used to do it in New York and a lot of other places, but in New York we used to do it at the Marriott, but they eliminated smoking. Then we did it at one of the piers over the Hudson River, but I didn’t like the accommodations, they weren’t upscale enough.

And of course, these whisky events, which are enormously successful because since I developed Whisky Advocate, the market for whisky has just skyrocketed. And every year, the industry is introducing many new blends, reserves, and vintages of whisky similar to the wine market, and consumers are dying to try it. So, we’ll do Whisky Fests and we’ll have 300 or 400 whiskies that consumers can try, they’re not going to be able to try them all, but they’re there if you want them.

The event experience is an extension of the magazine to feed and reward people that have a passion for wine, whisky and cigars. Most magazines don’t review consumable products, so to speak. It’s design or art or sports, this, that or the other thing. So, I’m in a very special area and if you were to go to any of my events and walk around and look at people’s faces, they think that they’re at Disneyland for adults when they go to a cigar dinner or whisky dinner or wine event. It’s like a fantasy. It’s making people happy. It’s very rewarding to us as well, seeing the people’s satisfaction of producing what we do.

Samir Husni: Recently, I interviewed the director of merchandising from Barnes & Noble, Krifka Steffey, and she said that printed magazines are becoming a luxury item and that’s how she’s treating them in her stores. And you have the luxury items. What is your assessment of the future of print magazines and magazine media as we move farther into this new decade?

Marvin Shanken: That’s very interesting. Barnes & Noble is a perfect example. When you go to a Barnes & Noble, I don’t believe there’s any location anywhere that offers the breadth of magazines for sale that they do, however, I don’t think they take advantage of it. They sell everything. I never knew there was so many magazines until you look at what they sell. Yet, they don’t promote that. They promote their books, but they could carve out a greater niche for themselves if they were to promote the fact that virtually any magazine you could ever want is at Barnes & Noble.

The future of magazines… this is a hard topic because most magazines depend on newsstand for their circulation, but we don’t. A dominant portion of our circulation has always been subscribers, so while you enjoy newsstand, it’s expensive, because a lot of them demand a fee to go in and then what you don’t sell you have to eat from a production standpoint. But it’s very clean when you have a subscriber, he pays you up front, you deliver the product and everybody is happy. I don’t want to say the percentage, but a very large percentage of what we do is subscribers. That makes the pressure on us from a circulation standpoint to be fairly negligible.

In the last 10 years, I don’t have to tell you what’s happening with magazines, but basically we charge a lot of money for a subscription and our ABC audited circulation numbers, in Wine Spectator they have been fairly flat, which is an achievement, Cigar Aficionado has been pretty flat, which is also an achievement, and Whisky Advocate has probably tripled in the last 10 years. And we’ve raised our prices, which hasn’t seemed to hurt. Wine Spectator is around 400,000 in circulation, not total audience. I think Cigar is around 250,000, and I know Whisky Advocate is over 100,000 and growing rapidly. And they all have extensions, both digitally and events and other things.

Samir Husni: During the Hall of Fame event, there was talk of you launching a cannabis newsletter; is that in the works?

Marvin Shanken: We did. I have a product called Shanken News Daily for the wine and spirits industry, which I started about five years ago. It’s a very successful trade newsletter that goes out daily. So, wanting to gain experience in cannabis, but not wanting to make a full commitment, we started a cannabis edition, which comes out once a week and is free to our subscribers. So, we’re gaining a lot of knowledge; we’re covering the industry and we’re waiting to see what happens with the federal government, in terms of whether or not they legalize it. If and when the industry becomes legalized on a national basis, we will then consider the next step in covering cannabis.

But right now we’re just in a holding pattern while my editors are gaining knowledge and experience and providing very specific news on cannabis to the wine and spirits industry, a number of which have invested in cannabis companies. And read by constellation the wine and spirits company, which made a four billion dollar investment in Canopy Growth Company, which is the largest cannabis company, and many others. So, we are dipping our toe and are on the sidelines ready to pounce when the time is right.

Samir Husni: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Marvin Shanken: There are a number of new efforts in various stages of development. One thing that is fairly significant to us, but not something we’ve broadcast, is after three or four years of development we launched, in a partnership, a private club in New York in conjunction with a restaurant open to the public. It’s really two separate enterprises. This is a new direction for us that is very unique. For those that may be curious, there’s a development in New York City called Hudson Yard, which is the largest private development in the world, $26 billion. And it’s millions and millions of sq. ft. of office space for major companies; all the great luxury retailers; a lot of condominiums; it’s the first Neiman Marcus in the city; 25 or so restaurants of different levels.

And the developer is a company called Related, which is Steve Ross, who also owns the Miami Dolphins, Equinox, SoulCycle and many other companies. He and I have been very close friends for years. He asked me to be involved with him with restaurants when he did the Time Warner Center 15 years ago. And I said no and he said why not. I said because I don’t want to do it. And he came back to me four years ago and asked me about Hudson Yards, which I had never heard of. And after he explained to me kind of what it was, I said no and he said why not. And I said the same reason as 15 years ago. And then he said something, which probably tells you a little bit about my personality, he said you’re 73 and I’m 76, let’s have fun before we die. And I thought about it and I said okay.

So, we have created this extraordinary private club that is above and beyond anything that most people have ever seen in their lives, designed by David Rockwell. Spectacular space, unbelievable food from a great chef who was the number two to Thomas Keller for more than a decade, incredible wine list, unbelievable whisky list. Every week there are events for the members with great chefs, great winemakers, great whisky makers, and cultural people. The club is called WS New York, which is short for Wine Spectator. It’s a collaboration between Steve, Ken Himmel, his partner, and myself.

And it’s very significant. There are over 150 people who work there, there are five sommeliers, it has a great art collection on the wall; it has fireplaces and bars. It’s an incredible space. It was set up as a place for friends of ours, the three of us, to go and friends of our friends. It has only been opened for two months and we have already gotten over 400 members and we think before the end of the year, we’ll be completely sold out.

The people who have joined are the Who’s Who of New York from all different walks of life, as well as people from around the country. And they have one thing in common: they all love food, wine, whisky and events. So, it’s really a culmination of all the things I’ve been doing  these past 45 years. My art collection is on the wall; you sit there and you pinch yourself because you can’t believe how breathtaking it is. There are private dining rooms where they do a lot of private events. And it’s just starting to live its life, because it opened November 6. It’s something that’s very exciting and I think this will complement and expand everything we’re doing in the publishing and event business because once again, I’m making my community bigger and offering more options to people who are interested in food and wine, whisky and cigars.

And it’s not as expensive as people might think. I won’t say what it is, but when one of the CEO’s of a major corporation saw the club and became a corporate member, he said, WS New York is the cherry on top of Hudson Yards. So, a lot of the companies that are there have joined; a lot of the luxury retailers, their CEOs have joined. Right now there’s a building under construction, three million square feet, it won’t be ready for about another year or so, a million and a half square feet was taken by BlackRock, the largest money managing firm in the world. And the other million and a half was taken by Facebook.

So, all the office space is all sold out. The only thing really left are the condominiums. The building I’m in, which is in the center, next to the Vessel, is a 100-story building where the first-ever Equinox Hotel is located. Then there are 150 condominiums.

This is a new direction for us. It’s been a Black Hole, in terms of sucking up a lot of my time, but it’s something that rewards me because all my passions are integrated into what we’re creating and this club will live a lot longer than I will. And it will be something where people can come and really enjoy themselves immensely.

Samir Husni: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you?

Marvin Shanken: I’m not really out there. Really, it’s all about my brands; my magazines and my events. So, I don’t think people really know that much about me, because I don’t show my hand very much. But those that see me probably, hopefully, think of me as a dedicated and successful businessman, entrepreneur. And I know that a lot of people respect the quality of my content and that’s really how I breathe. It’s all about making each issue better than the last.

People think of me as a businessman or an entrepreneur, I’m really an editor. I spend more time thinking about, planning and working with my editors to execute each issue, in terms of everything from selecting the cover topic to the content, shaping the stories, to getting the photography, to making sure it’s right. That’s where my fingerprint is, but nobody necessarily knows that. I consider myself more of an editor than anything else. It’s no accident that our magazines are great.

And we talk about it all the time. And we also talk about how we can guarantee that we never mislead our readers. That we maintain the objectivity and the truthfulness that has escaped from journalism to a very large degree in the world. And I’m constantly asking questions of my editors to make sure that our readers know that what they read is the truth.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Marvin Shanken: You hit a sore point because I haven’t slept through a night in probably 30 years. I think it’s part of the Shanken biology. But what keeps me up at night is I can’t turn off my brain. I’m constantly thinking about what I need to do tomorrow; what I didn’t do today; what I should have done today to keep the peanut rolling forward, keeping my brain calendar up to date.

In the early years, I’m sure I was worried about whether or not I could pay the rent or pay my people, but over the last 20 years that has been less of an issue. I’ve realized that I’m not going to live forever. That sounds a little poetic maybe, but I’ve had two serious health issues over the last five years, both of which I’ve successfully gotten through. I’m playing a lot of golf and I would never know I was sick, I feel great. But I realize that every life has a term. I still have a lot to do and I’m hoping that God allows me the time to finish my work.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

2 comments

  1. it’s an honor to meet you Sir!


  2. […] the stories, to getting the photography, to making sure it’s right,” Shanken said in a recent interview with Samir “Mr. Magazine” Husni. “That’s where my fingerprint is, but nobody necessarily knows that. I consider myself more of […]



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: