Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book review: Eric Asimov's "How to Love Wine"

Eric Asimov
Robert Parker taught Americans, and eventually the world, a new way to think about, talk about, and drink wine.

Few wine critics since have been so ambitious. Most try to do what Parker does, only different.

Next month, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov delivers a slim book with a goal as ambitious as Parker's.

"How to Love Wine" didn't win me over at first. Like a wine that Asimov would love, it starts off tight, acidic and brooding. When he writes that he doesn't believe California vintners prove anything by holding blind tastings of their wines against the best of France, I resist. How does a new region get on the map? Asimov doesn't much care about new regions or developments; he's besotted by wines with long histories.

I could easily take some points of Asimov's philosophy like that one and attack them, and I expect some people will. Though Asimov is not an aggressive writer,  the book can be discomforting because it challenges many of the norms of the way we think about wine today.

Asimov, who once edited the features section for the best newspaper in the world, has 260 pages to explain his philosophy of wine. I'm going to try to distill it into a long paragraph. (Deep breath.)

Asimov believes the experience of wine for ordinary consumers has been distorted by an obsession with thinking about wine as a professional would. He believes the industry as a whole, including wine "educators" and writers like myself, mistakenly tell civilians that they need to identify wines blind, choose flavors from the Aroma Wheel, name the grapes of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and otherwise master a sommelier's skills in order to appreciate a glass. He believes people should drink more wine and obsess about it less. He would rather drink something weird than something boring. Despite his own preferences, he doesn't believe people should take sides about wine: if you like only Two Buck Chuck or unsulphured orange wines, keep drinking what you enjoy.


Then there's Asimov's philosophy of writing about wine. No critic I know of in any field is able to call his own shots as fully as Asimov. Even Parker has obliged himself to thoroughly cover entire regions. As I said in the Q&A interview I did with Asimov, when "The Avengers" comes out, some Times film critic has to cover it. Asimov's editors don't know or care about wine and he has few assignments.

So his philosophy of covering wine is also fully developed and separate from his philosophy of drinking. It's easier to summarize:

Asimov is only interested in telling stories. He feels no obligation to cover or even learn how wine is made or sold. He's not interested in writing about mass-market wines, which he calls the equivalent of fast food.

And his favorite kind of wine? Past the halfway point, he sums it up thus: "This combination of textural lightness and flavor intensity, I came to see, is a hallmark of a great wine. I have pursued these qualities ever since."

It's a personal story, not an encyclopedia or teaching book, and at the beginning I noticed where I disagreed with it. My focus changed with a simple sentence that I strongly believe, but few other wine professionals seem to:

"I have a great deal of difficulty recommending wines that I don't care for myself."

From that point on, what struck me was how much my personal beliefs and experiences with wine are similar to Asimov's. I don't know if it's because we actually do have similar backgrounds -- I was also a newspaper guy -- or he's just that inclusive a writer.

Asimov didn't study wine, and his parents didn't drink it at dinner. He discovered on a trip to Europe that he liked drinking simple red wines with dinner. When he went to college, he drank what he could afford, mostly red, usually under $10. And mostly, because he liked the labels, European.

His first big purchase of a wine, a 1955 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion ($185) for his parents' 30th wedding anniversary, filled him with doubt and dread. He loved it for "how great the wine smelled," but he took no tasting notes. He became more interested in Bordeaux and, as someone who obsesses on things he likes, began reading up on it, which meant reading Parker and Wine Spectator.

He decided to take a wine education course, which consisted of being presented with 6 white wines blind and being taught to identify them by the aromas and flavors. Asimov thought this was silly; why would he ever need to identify a wine? Couldn't he just look at the label?

This is the biggest revelation of the book. He's absolutely right. There's never a situation, even for a master sommelier, when you actually need to identify a wine blind.  Yet it's the foundation of wine education in this country and is the source of many people's anxiety about wine. Thank you, Asimov, for pointing that out.

Won over by this insight, I began to consider others, even ones I disagree with. Asimov talks of a massive vineyard he saw on the Central Coast of Californa, so large that a worker sent to prune it might disappear for days. He says there's no way a wine from that vineyard could be interesting to him. It would be made for competence and commercial viability, but he would have no reason to drink it.

This is snobbery -- but it's not wine snobbery, it's urban snobbery. Asimov lives in Manhattan, shops in fantastic wine stores and eats either in cutting edge restaurants or ethnic joints where he can BYOB. Plus, he has only lived in hip places. He's from New York City, went to school in Austin, Texas and worked in Chicago before moving back home. If he had ever lived in Lakeland, Florida, he might understand not only the reason to drink competently made industrial wines, but also that readers might want advice on which ones to choose.

Yet I found his purity of focus invigorating. He's not trying to be all things for all people. He cedes to others the Consumer Reports responsibility of judging Gallo's $7 wines vs. Constellation's $7 wines. That needs to be done, but he's going to do something else.

The worst thing I can say about "How to Love Wine" is you won't learn anything from it. The best thing I can say is, it might cause you to reconsider what you already know.

I'll close with a few of my favorite lines from the book:

"Can you imagine the social embarrassment that comes from not knowing the name of the leading goal scorer or principal ballerina? Unfortunately, too many people find it all too easy to feel this way regarding wine."

"Today, very little wine is spoiled. The challenge is to make wine that is not boring."

"Some people are simply interested in toting up great wines, and crossing them off some master checklist, like a birder's life list."

And perhaps my favorite, on an ever-popular topic:

"Such a small percentage of the people who enjoy Yellow Tail work their way up to falling in love with wine that you might as well make the argument that people who start on orange juice will one day be wine lovers."

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


Steven Mirassou said...

If Asimov is right about the non-progression of wine drinkers from simple to more complex, then there is less a need than we think to try to "de-mystify" wine. The natural inference from his contention is that wine lovers are born and not made...that there is an emotional attachment to the beverage that is far more important for the consumer AND the producer than any ordinary message of 'drink it because it tastes good' could ever convey.

His preference for wine stories rather than wine 'facts' also implies an emotional connection that suits wine - the product - beautifully. I don't know of any other object that provides such a wealth of connections or that allows one predisposed to fall down that wonderful rabbit hole of minutiae and sensation and mutability to come out the other end with a bottomless well of experiences yet before him. Dionysus before Apollo.

Unknown said...

"There's never a situation, even for a master sommelier, when you actually need to identify a wine blind"

YES, there IS: in a restaurant, when you order a glass of wine and the waiter brings you something you did not order.

W. Blake Gray said...

SUAMW: Interesting point. You don't actually have to identify the wine you were brought, though. You just have to say "this isn't Sauvignon Blanc." But yeah, that could happen.

Unknown said...

I have some intellectual/academic issues with Asimov's tenets here: "Don't taste wine, feel it. Don't identify wine, enjoy the story". That is, on an intellectual and cultural level, dangerous. Never mind, that by retelling the story rather than critically analyzing the wine makes the writer a PR mouthpiece of the company.

Wine is a product like any other, no mater if it was made in a dusty cellar after being grown on a two-acre plot or if it was made in a clean commercial facility after being machine harvested from a hundred-acre vineyard.

The characteristics of the product are what matter, not the story of the person who grew or made it. This is what Asimov himself argues: people are interested in the sensory attributes of a wine when acting on their preferences.

I don't buy a TV, a couch or a car because of the history of the company but because of the quality of the product, its features and its performance. The rags-to-riches-in-spite-of-Nazi-occupation story of the company is irrelevant to those things.

That is why being able to describe and identify the characteristics of a wine ARE crucial - especially for a critic/reviewer.

Asimov paints himself into a corner with his arguments. I say: articulate what makes the wine in the glass "interesting" - and talk about the wine, not the label, the history of the house or the winemaker's beliefs in metaphysical voodoo. To explain why the aromas, structure and flavors of the wine make it interesting, he HAS to use organoleptic descriptors.

Pinotgraves said...

In Terry Theise's "Between the Vines", he disdains blind tasting, and then basically states that "New World" wine is an impossible enterprise--that wine regions should use their own indigenous cultivars and by definition that means the New World is SOL. Catch-22, anyone?
Blind tasting can be a parlor trick, but it can also be damn useful in challenging assumptions. But a glass of wine (the good ones, anyway) almost always have been made from a point of view, and a history, which in one way can be viewed as an accumulation of choices over time.

Fred Swan, said...

I enjoyed your review, Blake, and am looking forward to the book.

A note on the blind tasting thing: I agree that, as stated, there's no real occasion on which it would be important to be able to taste a wine blind and identify it. However, there is a purpose to the exercise for sommeliers and others who communicate with consumers about wine. In order to be able to identify wines blind, you must know those wines very well and very specifically, as well as having a strong sense for the hallmarks of regions overall and their vintages. Therefore, when your restaurant or retail customer asks the difference between two vintages of the same wine or two different wines from the same region, you can characterize each wine precisely. Likewise, if they say they'd love something like a 2007 Clos de Whatever, you will be able to offer several excellent options.

W. Blake Gray said...

Pinotgraves: You have struck at the heart of why I don't like Terry Thiese's book, even though most people seem to. I refuse to accept that anybody who wasn't making wine 200 years ago should just give up and plant turnips.

jo6pac said...

I have some intellectual/academic issues with Asimov's tenets here: "Don't taste wine, feel it. Don't identify wine, enjoy the story". That is, on an intellectual and cultural level, dangerous. Never mind, that by retelling the story rather than critically analyzing the wine makes the writer a PR mouthpiece of the company.

Thank You and if you don't how wine is made how can you enjoy the story. Thanks WBG for reading the book so I don't have to and I'll stick to my bottles of wine in brown paper bags, blind tasting;)

DAPZ said...

I agree with What Fred Swan wrote about blind tasting and why they are important.
It's also important to note that blind tasting are not exactly the foundation of wine education. In order to obtain a Somm certification by the Court of Masters one has to pass 3 sections: theory, blind tasting and service.
The theory section is extremely difficult ( especially if you are going for the level 3 and so on). We are talking about studying 30 hours a week for a year to pass. Much more time consuming and demanding than the tasting section, in my opinion.