Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Eric Asimov Q&A, part one

Eric Asimov
Eric Asimov graciously spent an hour on the phone with me talking about his role as the New York Times wine critic. The interview is very long so I'm going to break it into two parts, plus save a little space I would usually use to introduce him by directing you to his Wikipedia page for his background.

Asimov has some very interesting things to say: he hates blind tasting, tasting notes, and the "culture wars" of wine, and says it's not his role to assess what's in the glass. After listening to him for an hour, it's easy to see why he's a great writer; he's thoughtful and eloquent even when I'm keeping him from his dinner. Without further ado, here's the Q&A.

What do you see your role as as the NYT wine critic?
I'm not sure I can sum it up as one role. It's not like I'm constantly thinking of what the role of the critic is.

The New York Times is a general-interest newspaper. It's not a dedicated wine publication like the Spectator or the Wine Advocate. We have a really broad readership that stretches from the novice person looking for basic consumer advice like, "What should I buy on my way home for dinner tonight?" all the way to dedicated wine lovers who spend a lot of their waking hours thinking about wine.

With the Times audience, I am constantly trying to come up with subjects that will be of sufficient interest to attract the general readers, but also thoughtful enough to be interesting to people who spend a lot of time thinking about wine. Sometimes this can happen in the same column. Sometimes it's a question of shifting subject from week to week.

My role, more of a responsibility, is to speak my mind about wines. To offer an honest opinion about wines, the people, the culture, the politics, in an effort to illuminate what's most wonderful and what's interesting about wine.

 I don't see my role as to assess what's in the glass, but to place wine in a cultural context. In a broad way, I'm making the case for people that wine is a very large part of our culture. By making that case I hope I inspire different ways of thinking about wine, and different ways of approaching it that go beyond simply saying what the beverage tastes like.

My role is partly consumer advocate, partly inspirational, and partly cautionary.

At the other publications you mention, a critic's role seems often to be just to say what the beverage tastes like. Is that lacking something?

Now you get into a debate about what a critic means. My background at the Times gives it a very specific meaning. It's one who is allowed to offer opinions as opposed to just doing reporting.

Up until I was named Wine Critic, there was no such thing as a New York Times wine critic. We had a columnist, Frank Prial, who acted as a critic in every possible way, but was never awarded that title by the Times. It's not a result of anything that I have done. It's just how our culture has evolved, that we now look at wine as part of culture, like theatre, film, arts or dance.

I think that restricting oneself to evaluating wine in an isolated way, cut off from where it comes from and what its history is, does it a disservice and doesn't really recognize what's wonderful about it. I don't presume to tell other critics what to write, but that's not what interests me.

I like reading old movie reviews and I see a lot of reviews from the Times online, some of which seem frankly to have missed the point of movies of the day. Do you ever worry about how people will read your columns in years to come? Are you cognizant of writing for history?

To be honest, I've never really thought that I've ever written anything but fishwrapping. Obviously with the Internet, it's different now. But I don't feel like I'm writing for future generations. I'm devoted to the reader of the moment.

I've certainly read old columns of Frank Prial. When you read 40 years of writing about wine, you see how our nation's wine culture has grown, just by virtue of what you needed to explain at all times in the past compared to now.

Let's talk about Robert Parker. He does focus mainly on what's in the glass. Is that approach still as influential as it used to be?

I don't think it's possible to be more influential than Robert Parker. He was influential on me when I was getting into wine. His way of writing about wine and scoring wine, whether he was the first person to do it in that way, has become the method that has been adopted. Sometimes people can't see that there's any other way to do it other than the way Parker does it.

When Bob started writing about wine, a lot of the issues that he took up as important absolutely were important. Big-name producers coasting. High yields. Wines that relied too much on technology. A lot of the things that he pushed when he started out and has pushed throughout the years have become very important to people who would never imagine they could be on the same side as Parker. If you were to look at some of the things that are important to the natural wine people, they have more in common with Parker than they would imagine.

Parker and Alice Feiring would find very little overlap in a Venn diagram these days, but there's probably a lot that was important to Bob that led to somebody like Alice.

What are the issues that are important to you today?

One of the things that's important to me is for people to start thinking of wine more like the way we think of food. I don't just mean wine is something that belongs on the table. The way we look at food is a lot more nuanced than the way we look at wine.

We take for granted that the fine dining experience exists in a different world than the fast food experience or the franchise restaurant experience. But when it comes to wine, we lump the whole world in one. That leads to holding up Two Buck Chuck and Yellow Tail and mass-produced commodity wines right next to wines that have been produced on small estates by families for hundreds of years. I think they're very different and it's important to recognize that. I'd like to see a more fine calibration when we look at wine, rather than lumping it all together.

I'd like to see people talking about wine in different ways. The tyranny of tasting notes is such that people can't find anything else to talk about. I don't see how saying what types of fruit you taste in wine tells you anything about the wine. I'll have a lot more to say about that in a book ["How To Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto"] I have coming out in October.

It's funny to be saying this after the whole wine list thing, but I'd like to see us move on from the culture wars. Those get tedious after a time.

What do you mean by "culture wars?"

Wine has been involved in a culture battle for the last decade or so. Speaking very roughly, it's an old guard, old way of looking at wine, a 20th century sense of connoisseurship, against a wider way of looking at the world. More inclusive of more wines from more areas. Paying more attention to different areas of the world. Re-evaluating our hierarchy of wines. Part of that is happening out of necessity. The most venerated wines of the 20th century are beyond most people's means these days.

The other part of the culture wars has to do with the extremities of the pendulum. When the dominant voices in wine were Parker and the Spectator, they tended to reserve their highest praise for wines of a particular style. Many producers tried to emulate that style. Now more voices are being heard, and producers realize they don't have to try to make wine just for this style.

What do you think of the fuss about natural wines?

It's only an issue because it makes people defensive and people turn it into a rant against natural winemaking. To me, it's just ridiculous. The sliver of wines that are made in that style is so small that it shouldn't threaten anybody. And yet, people do feel threatened and respond in an over-the-top way, whether it's Steve Cuozzo or Parker or Tom Wark or others. The choices are so many that to have just a few writers talking about natural wines, I can't see it as anything but a good thing. The uproar is out of control.

Is that a major issue? I think it falls under the major heading of the culture wars. I have portrayed the natural winemakers as a vanguard who will have trickle-down influence in different ways. I don't believe everybody has to meet the standard of some guy in the Loire Valley who doesn't use sulfur in his wines. I don't recommend that and it's not important to me in wines.

Next: The responsibilities of working for the Times, why Asimov hates blind tasting, and what he would do if he were King of the World. Read it here.

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Nicolas said...


Very nice post. Mr Asimov is one of those elusive/quasi impossible wine personality to meet (Robert Parker would be right up there as well). I found the concept of culture clash very interesting - a bit like Chateau Latour meets Cupcake winery. Thanks for the good post.

Bodegas Castro Martin said...

I visited the Wikipedia link out of curiosity to try to discover Mr Asimov's professional wine qualifications prior to becoming a wine critic in 2004. Apart from writing restaurant guides and reviews I could not see any.....
Perhaps someone can enlighten me as to his professional wine experience?

Unknown said...

I follow Mr Asimov columns regularly, he is always interesting to read, which is not common in the Wine media world. I believe he is one of the most popular and followed wine writers worldwide, isn't it a valid qualification by itself?