Thursday, August 23, 2012

Eric Asimov Q&A, part II

Eric Asimov. Nice spectacles. Too bad they aren't red.
This is Part II of a Q&A with New York Times Wine Critic Eric Asimov. Part I is here.

You were a New York Times guy before you were a wine guy. Does the Times culture affect how you think about wine?

That's a hard question to answer. I've been at the Times more than half of my lifetime, so I've absorbed most of its culture. Of course, its culture has changed a lot in the last 10 years, more than in the previous few decades.

As a Times person, you have to be aware of the reach of the newspaper and of being a representative of that paper. We have very well thought-out rules about ethics and about proper rules for journalism. You have to adhere to those rules. I think I can do that instinctively. But we're all constantly reminded of them.
I believe in the Times' rules and I think they give us a lot of credibility.

What are the Times' rules?

We don't accept free rides. Any restaurant we go to, I pay the bill. I buy the wine that I taste for our wine panel. Every trip that we take, we pay for.

In one sense, I miss out because I'm never going to go on the junkets to Georgia. I haven't been to Australia and Georgia and Chile because I need to come up with a journalistic rationale that fits in our budget and I haven't done it yet.

More than that, you can't just say things that have no basis in fact. I see a lot of blogs with no responsibility to back up what they're saying. At the Times, we're bound to.

How often do you get to travel?

I don't know that I can quantify it. There's no set number. It depends on the budget.

How do you decide where to travel?

There are certain stories that you can't do unless you've visited a region. I've been writing about Sherry for years but until May and June of this year I hadn't been there. I had another story about Sherry that I wanted to do that I thought would really benefit from going there and visiting the place and talking to the people. So I did it.

For some stories you don't need to travel. I can sit at my desk and write a column about what Champagnes to buy for New Year's Eve.

When I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, we had stories we had to write, both seasonal, such as pink wines for summer, and also about areas. We had to review Napa Cabernets, or Russian River Chardonnays. What responsibility to readers and seasons do you have in choosing stories?

I don't have any sort of regional responsibility. I have no booster responsibility. I don't have to talk up any wine region or any types of wines. I think there are certain reader expectations that can get tedious from time to time; the ever-popular Thanksgiving column for example.

In food journalism, yes, you need to seek out what's new and different and up and coming, but you also need to find ways to repeat old truths. I don't see that as tedious as much as an interesting challenge. While I may be bound seasonally, I like to stretch the conventional by writing about why it may be interesting to drink rosés in winter.

Or I can write about wines that people haven't paid much attention to, like Lambrusco. I've written about wines that were little-known but have become better-known, like from the Jura.

If you're a film critic at the Times and "The Avengers" comes out, somebody has to write about it. Is there any wine you have to write about?

Not really. I don't see my role as rating every wine that comes out. I'm the only person on staff writing about wine. Movies don't come out in nearly the quantity that wines do. I think I can safely pick and choose and do larger cross-sections.

Are there stories you don't like to write?

I find it an enjoyable challenge to find new and different ways of saying essentially the same thing. In one sense it's tedious and it's tedious to a certain group of readers. What would be some other examples of that? Anything that is dutiful. The end-of-the-year sparkling wine story. The request to review kosher wines around Passover time.

Are there any types of wine stories or wine issues that you think, "No, I'm not going to do that?"

There's a lot of them. I'm not going to write about wines that I find supremely uninteresting.

Many years ago when I was first reviewing inexpensive restaurants for the Times, the executive editor wanted me to go to a half-dozen different McDonald's and rate them. I told him that this was a terrible idea, that the point of McDonald's was to be the same as each other. Moreover, I was philosophically opposed to McDonald's and didn't want to give them that much coverage.

I'm not going to pretend that Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail and a host of other manufactured wines belong in the same column as wines that have a long history. I'm glad nobody has asked me to do that, because I wouldn't.

It doesn't mean I'm against inexpensive wines. I've written about boxed wines and other inexpensive wines.

How important when you're evaluating a wine is the price?

We're tasting blind, so it's kind of irrelevant. Sometimes you can taste money in wines. But in the final consideration, it's very important. As a consumer, that's how I started reading Parker and Spectator. There are an overwhelming number of wines out there, and you need some basis to choose.

How did you come up with the star system you use for rating wins in the Times?

The whole blind tasting method is a little bit of compromise. I'm against blind tasting. I wish we didn't have to do it. But I haven't tried super hard to put an end to it, which I may do at some point.

The star system that we use is a rough way of assigning value to the wine, hierarchy to the wine, without being inordinately incremental about it. We're also doing it in each genre rather than on an overall scale. It's equally possible for there to be a 4-star Beaujolais and a 4-star Grand Cru Burgundy. There aren't those limitations that there are in the 100-point scale.

Why are you against blind tasting?

I think it's infantilizing. It gives consumers the illusion of a level playing ground. I think we're all very open to the idea that because we're Americans and we're democrats with a small d, aristocracy is a fiction and if everybody is given the same opportunity, then everybody can shine equally. I think there's a lot more to it than that. I think that's a dumbed down way of looking at wine.

I think for evaluating wine, there's a great deal to be learned by knowing what you're dealing with, the history, past performance, past experiences. It seems silly to me that only wine critics are asked to shut their eyes to that.

That's only the beginning of my objections.

Why should wine evaluators be asked to taste blind when nobody else is? There are a lot of good educational reasons to taste a wine blind. But I don't think it's a good way to evaluate wine.

Let's say you were made dictator of the wine world, and you get to make one change. What change is it?

I could go in so many directions. Like a chicken in every pot, I would say every wine lover should have the opportunity to taste the very best of every genre. Everybody should have the pleasure and educational opportunity to taste some great wines of their choosing.

I would like to ban tasting notes for a year to force us all to find different ways to talk about wine. That's something I've said before, but I believe it.

What wines do you think people drink too much of, and what wine do they not drink enough of?

I would never try to dictate in that way. I would never tell people not to drink what they enjoy.

Read part I of the interview here. 

You can pre-order Asimov's upcoming book here.

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


Mike Dunne said...

Thanks for doing this, Blake. While Eric Asimov's rejection of blind tasting likely will generate the most contentious remarks, I'm more bothered by this comment: "I was philosophically opposed to McDonald's and didn't want to give them that much coverage.

"I'm not going to pretend that Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail and a host of other manufactured wines belong in the same column as wines that have a long history. I'm glad nobody has asked me to do that, because I wouldn't." Granted, the McDonald's proposed story was lame, but why balk at doing an article because of your own philosophical bias? Isn't that a limiting policy for a newspaper that strives to be not only fair and aware but comprehensive?

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: Actually it's a mystery to me that, while plenty of people are reading this (I've seen the numbers), Asimov's opinions aren't generating many comments at all. He has taken some positions in both parts of the Q&A that are not commonly espoused.

Re your question: It's clear that Asimov has much greater leeway than most newspaper staffers, or most people in any job. Few people can tell their bosses they won't do an assignment. That is a privilege in being officially named critic, something he touches on in part one.

Michael Donohue said...

Blind tasting is a most humbling experience and is the only way to prevent one's prejudices (pro and con)from getting in the way. As someone who has blindly mistaken Chateau Margaux for an inferior Italian cabernet (not that I have deep experience in either), I must say it's highly suspicious when the 90+ point notes (from multiple critics) contain many of the same descriptors and details on the blend. Sell sheet anyone?

Unknown said...

About blind tasting, I'd love to ask Eric how he thinks the Paris Tasting of 1976 would have been different without it.

W. Blake Gray said...

Timothy: In his book, Asimov essentially says the Judgment of Paris tasting proves nothing. He says nobody who owns those Bordeaux bottles would trade them for the California wines that beat them.

I would be that freak. I would drive a long way and pay some coin to try the California wines that won the day.