Wine Books: Eric Asimov
Eric Asimov discovered the joy of wine and dining over a meal in Paris as a teenager. His new-found passion took him, through work as an editor, to a role as restaurant reviewer, and ultimately chief wine critic, for the New York Times. As newspaper wine columns go, Eric's is one of the best.
There has been something of a flurry of vinous semi-autobiographies in the past year or two. First we had (or at least it was the first I read) Thierry Theise and Reading between the Wines, in which he recounted a number of semi-ecclesiastical experiences with Riesling and confessed to a communion with a dead German winemaker high on the slopes above the Mosel. And he told us of his wine philosophies too, of course. Next came Alice Feiring with Naked Wine, a tale of her efforts to understand 'natural' wine, through which we learn that its origins seem to lie with a group of French vignerons who wanted to be able to drink themselves into oblivion without the worry of a sulphur dioxide-induced headache the following morning. And, of course, we were treated to a touch of Feiring's view of the wine world along the way. In each case, the tale was part memoir, part manifesto; there was a journal-like intimacy to the writing, but the ultimate aim was not to focus on the author's life, but was in fact to transmit a set of wine philosophies. Now, in the same format (it must be - it says so in the title), we have New York Times wine correspondent Eric Asimov with How to Love Wine.
There is something slightly heart-warming about reading other people's stories of how they grew and developed into the character they are today. I find it instils a sense of privilege, a notion that we are being permitted entry into a private world; as I have alluded above, a glimpse into their private journal, maybe? It is perhaps also reassuring to see that the lives of those who have enjoyed success - Eric having worked his way up to one of the most privileged jobs to exist in the sphere of wine writing - are perhaps not that different to our own. In other words, that could be me. Eric's wine education was not the result of some grand plan, or of some privileged beginning in life. It was a chance encounter with a great meal that sparked his interest in food, and this preceded his love of wine, the appreciation of which came later. The realisation that when a suitable wine accompanies dinner the pleasure can be lifted to new heights was the stimulus here. Eric was no points chaser; although he admits to learning from Parker and company, for him it was always more about the dining experience, food and wine together in synchrony, rather than obsessing over the latest 100-point blockbuster. His wining-dining expertise first led him to a post reviewing good-value restaurants for the New York Times, and many years passed before he took on the role of chief wine critic (chief of a team, as he discloses in the book, in which he is the only member).
Some personal wine 'events', little glances of Eric and how his life and wine became intertwined, help enhance the charm found within the book as well as set the scene for his philosophies. The celebration of his parents' wedding anniversary with a very fine bottle of 1955 La Mission Haut Brion, dinner with a girlfriend - at his editor's expense - at Carbonne's in Hartford, poolside parties with buckets of garlic-infused shrimp and wine alongside, and so on. But ultimately these vignettes are really background scenery, because the heart of the matter here is Eric's philosophy of wine, as he recounts the successes and failures of his own wine education, and the construction of what can only be described as a set of wine beliefs, a wine mantra perhaps. It is not really my intention to recount every one in this short review, mainly because I could not do them justice even if I tried. Nevertheless, it is worth exploring one or two because, for me, these insights into the Asimov philosophy are the raison d'être of this book.
Some of the most pointed words are reserved for the tasting note, and all that is wrong with it. Overly flowery reams of fruit aromas and flavours are useless to Eric, and I think - despite my continued use of the tasting note - that I would have to agree with him on this. Comments on how a wine is composed (in terms of texture, tannin and acidity), how it works with food, or maybe just how the wine makes you feel, are perhaps more valid. Some critics receive a taste of their own medicine from Eric, as notes from Stephen Tanzer, James Molesworth and Jay Miller are presented for comparison and an assessment of their likely usefulness. Molesworth receives more particular attention than the others, specifically looking at his excessive use of the term "maduro tobacco", as does Gary Vaynerchuk, whose tasting notes are drawn from a well "perhaps spiked with a hallucinogen" says Eric. Few come in for any praise in this rare moment of unbridled criticism, the principal good guy in this tale being Hugh Johnson, who wins praise for talking about wine "using language that can easily be understood".
Other aspects of Eric's wine philosophy to be served up for us include his take on wine tasting classes (Eric has attended one or two in his time), wine scores (well, we would be disappointed if they weren't lined up for the firing squad, wouldn't we), blind tasting (the old Harry Waugh "not since lunch" anecdote receives an outing), modernism versus tradition in winemaking and more. I enjoyed Eric's opinions (and where appropriate, assassinations) on these topics. And having exorcised these demons Eric finishes up with some practical advice on how to learn about wine. Or rather, how to love wine. He advises exploration through a good wine merchant, a mantra I would happily repeat. I always had far more fun, and learnt much more about wine, through buying and drinking half a dozen bottles of Chianti (or whatever the latest region to be investigated was) than I would ever have had poring over score-rich publications just so I could make sure I was drinking the 'best'. Or rather, what somebody else thought was the 'best'. It's about growing and developing your own palate, rather than installing a clone of someone else's. If that all sounds a little obscure, I can only recommend you read Eric's book. It will explain all. And it comes with my thorough endorsement. (1/11/12)