Wednesday, July 18, 2012

South Africa showdown: Eric Asimov v. James Molesworth

Last week, normally cheerful New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov published one of the most negative pieces I've ever read from him, saying that South African Chenin Blanc isn't very good right now.

Over the weekend, James Molesworth, who covers South Africa for Wine Spectator, took exception to Asimov on Twitter.

They bickered for a while and it entertained those of us paying attention, because the wine writing world rarely has anything interesting to disagree about. We've got the 100-point scale, and alcohol levels ... and ... and ... frankly, that's it. Considering how interesting wine is, our discussions about it online are generally snooze-worthy. Seriously: who CARES that you liked the '06 better than the '07?

I think both of them have a point: that's why the debate was worth following. In San Francisco we rarely see South African wines on wine lists, and most of the ones I've had in the last few years would support Asimov's position.

I don't doubt that Molesworth, who is supposed to taste the entire country's output, could pinpoint some good wines. But can I buy them easily? As my recent experiences with South African wines has been more like Asimov's, should I put the effort into seeking them out? The De Morgenzon Chenin Blanc that Molesworth mentions is at K&L for $28.99. Maybe Molesworth's right, maybe he's not, but $29 is a lot to pay for a Chenin Blanc on faith when I don't currently have much.

As for Molesworth's point that 20 wines isn't a fair sample, how many wines does he think consumers sample? I read East Coast writers all the time who taste 4 or 5 California Chardonnays and make sweeping proclamations about the whole state. I'm going to defend Asimov on this point: 20 readily available wines are way more than most people, even most writers, would try.

I heard this from an unnamed source: South African vintners were outraged by Asimov's article, and were sending emails and faxes and making phone calls asking, essentially, "How can we fix this?" Complain to Asimov's boss? Contact Tony Soprano?

I wish the answer were simple. For some large wineries criticized by Asimov, it is simple: Make better wines.

For others, they have to realize that just getting their wines to Molesworth isn't enough anymore. The US is not England; South African wines are not considered mainstream here. Most US retail stores don't go outside the mainstream. Sommeliers are the ones who do, and they couldn't care less what Wine Spectator thinks.

If South African wineries are serious about growth in the US market, they need to get some high-quality, reasonably priced wines in front of sommeliers. Don't blame Asimov for a message you needed to hear.

And thanks to James Molesworth for giving us something interesting to discuss other than the 100-point scale. I give your tweets an 89.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Caroline said...

Beautiful last sentence.

Joe Roberts said...

I posted a twitpic of that "battle" a few mins. after it transpired, and was soooo tempted to write a similar post.

I thought both guys came out of it looking not-so-great, but I've still got mad respect for both of them.

McSnobbelier said...

That was quite enjoyable you are absolutely correct in promoting this little spat, the wine world needs more controversy not less to come to the surface.

Love Raats wines btw

Alana said...

I like Asimov's questions especially regarding the vintage and the use of air-emitting closures. He didn't dismiss S.A. Chenin Blanc, he wrote about ONE tasting and only 3 or 4 wines from a good vintage. I like that you and Joe Roberts enjoyed the spat part of it so much it inspired you to post. Obviously, now I want some S.A. Chenin Blanc reviews from you two. Try some '08's and '09''s, OK? I'll join you.

W. Blake Gray said...

Alana: Molesworth comes from a strong position, but he also essentially throws into question about 90% of all blog posts. Think about it: If tasting 20 wines isn't enough for someone to have an informed opinions, how many of us EVER have informed opinions?

StoopsMyAss said...

Asimov the tweeter (message-wise) doesn't really match up with Asimov the book author. I'm guessing the awkward tweets are more likely the real Asimov. I know very few wine drinkers who have the time and resources to drink it all in, so of course you find yourself relying on the Asimov's and Molesworth's to open it all up to you. If I had to rely on only one? I'm relying on the guy who thinks a sample of 20 is too small. I found Asimov very defensive, which is always revealing in a spat.