Don't blink. You read that headline correctly. The San Francisco Chronicle, paper of record for legions of Bay Area diners and their unwieldy opinions on food, will close its longstanding Food & Wine section and merge it with the paper's home section to create a new lifestyle section tentatively titled "Artisan." [Update: The Chronicle's response is below.]
The Food & Wine section, headed up by esteemed and not-so-anonymous critic Michael Bauer, has been well known as more than just a reviews machine. Even as the Hearst Corp. paper has downsized in recent years, the food and wine staffers had their own building (lovingly nicknamed the Tower of Bauer) which included a wine cellar, a test kitchen and their own rooftop honey bee farm. As the paper switches to the new "Artisan" section, which would have all the by-name credibility of a DiGiorno Pizza, no one will get laid off, but they will move back in with the rest of the paper's staff and lose their test kitchen.
The New York Times learned of the changes from a few anonymous Chron staffers who feared the scoop would get them in trouble with the management. According to those inside the four-time James Beard Award winning department, newspaper president Joanne Bradford told the staff last month that their section was, unlike the rooftop honey, not "sustainable" — although the staffers also maintain that they've never seen any market research on that. Last year, the Washington Post called Bauer's kitchen, "an envy of the newspaper industry" that cost about $1,500 per month just to test recipes.
Bradford, for her part, is actually leaving the paper at the end of the year to join Pinterest, where we assume she'll just be hard at work pinning recipes and nice pictures of pie. She will remain at the Chronicle as an adviser.
Update: Chronicle managing editor Audrey Cooper has responded to the New York Times' claim, saying the Grey Lady needs to get her facts straight. "It's impossible to separate food, restaurants and the culture of farm-to-table living from the San Francisco experience," Cooper begins, before accusing the New York Times of trying to discredit their West Coast competitor. She goes on to vaguely reassert the paper's commitment to Northern California food while giving us the newspaper version of a call to "eat local":
We are reinvesting in this coverage, exploring ways to have it more deeply permeate the entire newspaper while making all newspaper sections even more modern and relevant. We are undergoing a newspaper-wide section-by-section review with the idea that we need to reimagine sections to more intuitive cultural topics that are more aligned with how Northern Californians think and live.
We are exploring several opportunities, testing them with readers and conducting independent research to make sure we're delivering what our customers need and want. Once we decide on a path, we will make sure to celebrate it — just as we celebrate the amazing Northern California food culture.
I'd love to tell everyone right now what we're going to do. The truth is that we haven't decided it yet. But I can tell everyone unequivocally that our top priority is to continue doing the nation's best coverage of Northern California food and wine.