Since becoming The New York Times Chief Wine Critic in 2004, Eric Asimov has been approached by publishers about writing books on ‘The Pinot Noir of California’ or ‘Great Wine Cellars,’ but felt detached from such subjects. Instead he waited for a topic to grow naturally out of his writing for the newspaper. Thus emerged How to Love Wine, a book that is part memoir and part manifesto. How to Love Wine chronicles Asimov’s rise from a high-school paper beer columnist to his current exalted post while casting a critical eye on the American wine experience. Throughout his book Asimov advocates the deceptively simple and provocative idea that when it comes to wine, ease is far more important that connoisseurship. We spoke about a range of topics, among them the importance of good wine shops, the new aficionados, the tyranny of the tasting note, and the difference between drinking and tasting.
What was the inspiration for How to Love Wine?
People like to tell me their wine stories and more often than not they have to do with contrasting feelings. They like wine but are afraid of it. They don’t understand the flavors and the aromas everyone talks about, which leads them to feel inadequate and anxious. I thought, “Why is it that we invest so much thought in trying to educate Americans about wine and yet they feel lost?” I realized that we convey to people that they need to know everything about wine, essentially be connoisseurs, before they can simply love it. This equation is backwards. If you want to develop an emotional relationship with wine, first fall in love with it and then go ahead and study if you want.
In the book you suggest that connoisseurship has become more egalitarian, how come?
A lot of the conventional wisdom about wine in the twenty-first century is governed by nineteenth century thinking. The benchmark wines that laid the foundation for so many collectors and sellers, and what we think is great about wine, have been priced out of most people’s reach. This is both sad and liberating. Connoisseurs today can’t merely be experts on Bordeaux and drink old vintages, they need to know about the wines of the Loire, Sicily, Barolo, Friuli, little corners of France and Spain and the Old World and, of course, parts of the New World, too.
Why are you more critical of tasting notes than points?
I understand why people are drawn to points; they are useful for those who like wine but have decided that they don’t want to make a commitment to learning about it. If you want to transcend the need for points, you do have to make a commitment. Tasting notes are just self-indulgent. I really don’t see any use for them except stoking an author’s ego or a publication’s collective ego.
How do you convey the experience of a wine without a tasting note?
It’s not that the effort to convey the experience is wrong, it’s the form it takes, the use of absurdly specific aromas and flavors presented with atrocious grammar. It feeds the misconception that through a two-minute taste and spit experience boiled down to a tasting note you can sum up a wine. Great wine is mysterious. It evolves. It is different one day to the next, one meal to the next, one hour to the next. It resists the efforts of humans to nail it down or control it. I prefer to capture a wine’s more general characteristics, the texture or whether it is fruity or herbal, rather than break it down to absurd lengths.
Why is uncertainty important in wine?
This comes back to the notion of ego and human control in wine. Our culture imposes on wine writers and wine experts a degree of precision that is both silly and absurd. I use an example in the book about how it is a right of passage for wine writers to tell stories about an experience where they were handed a glass of wine at a dinner party and asked to identify it blind, always very nervous of course they nail it. I believe people can do that, but they don’t as often as they do and moreover it doesn’t mean anything. Uncertainty means that you can say, “I don’t have to tell you precisely what you should taste in this wine or how many points it should score. There is something more ambiguous about this wine and I can’t really grasp it and I am okay with that.” I see this conflict not only in attempts to describe wine but also in attempts to make it. The sort of wines that I love are made by people who subscribe to the mystery of wine and are willing to cede control and accept what a vintage brings. Of course they want to make the best impression of each vintage, but it's a different product than what you get from someone who says, “This is how my wine is supposed to taste consistently no matter what I have to do, because it is what my customers expect.”
If you go to a wine class you are not taught how to enjoy wine, you are taught how to taste it. What is the purpose of that?
How did you convince your high school newspaper to let you have a beer column?
It was the seventies and the drinking age was eighteen, not twenty-one. The seventies were an anti-authoritarian or at least egalitarian period. You didn’t ask permission, you just did it and nobody complained, maybe nobody noticed. Nowadays, as a parent, I would be appalled.
What did you mean when you wrote, “Wine is for drinking, not for tasting?”
If you go to a wine class you are not taught how to enjoy wine, you are taught how to taste it. What is the purpose of that? The people who have to taste wine are generally professionals—wine buyers for a store or a restaurant who are confronted with dozens if not hundreds of wines they need to choose for their list. But that’s not the way people drink wine and that’s not the way for people to judge it. It goes back to how wine changes and evolves and interacts with a meal and the surroundings and the context in which you are drinking it. If you just taste wine, then you have bought into the idea that that is sufficient and that the purpose of wine is to write down some flavors and aromas and check off the mark in your wine notebook. Drinking wine is something completely different.
You say a good local wine shop is a great place to begin to learn about wine. What distinguishes a good shop?
If you walk down the street and in the storefront is a picture of a woman in a low-cut dress with a bottle of vodka it’s probably not a great wine shop, there emphasis is on uninteresting spirits. Beyond that, wine shops that post nationally distributed shelf talkers with comments by a critic and a score always put me off. It’s a complete abdication of the fun and responsibility of having a shop. I love shelf talkers that are personally written by the staff. It’s the sign of a place where people are passionate enough about wine to take the time to offer their own opinions rather than pass along received ones.
Are there any shops you recommend?
In New York City, we are experiencing a golden age of wine shops. It’s an outrageously good time for not just the big ones, but for small local neighborhood shops. The best are Chambers Street Wines, Astor Wines and a new one I just discovered that I love called Flatiron Wine & Spirits. Not every place in the country has a similar diversity of choices, but you can access these shops through the Internet. Then there are built for the Internet businesses like Garagiste.com. The Garagiste is a guy who is based in Seattle who travels the world, mostly Europe, and every day offers a new generally obscure wine. If you respond to the offer, the wine goes into your shopping bag, which is delivered twice a year during cool weather. It’s a way of giving people who live in underserved areas access to wines they might never have seen otherwise.
Why is ease with wine more important than mastery?
Ease is what allows you to explore and determine your own tastes and opinions, to think for yourself and eventually achieve wine independence. Once you are at ease with wine, you’ve eliminated many of the psychological obstacles that prevent people from enjoying its pleasures.
What’s the next wine destination on your list?
I am very much looking forward to a trip to North Carolina where there is a thriving wine culture in the research triangle near Raleigh Durham. We often think about wine as a bicoastal phenomenon, San Francisco and New York and a couple of isolated urban areas in between. But there are all sorts of hot pockets of wine fascination. I want to go down there and capture the spirit of what’s going on.
Are there your bottles you dream about having the opportunity to taste?
Every night I have a different fantasy about what I’d like to drink, many of these wines are quite accessible. But talking about wines I have no access to and have never actually tasted, I’d like to try the famous 1947 Cheval Blanc and the legendary 1928 Krug.
One of the wines you mention a lot in the book is R. López de Heredia, how come?
There’s any number of reasons to love the R. López de Heredia wines. They are beautiful, graceful, elegant and delicious. They are most definitely the expression of a family and a culture. They are made basically the same way Rioja wines were made a hundred years ago, a style that was hanging on by its fingernails for a long time. Because this style has achieved a semblance of popularity abroad, it is now being recognized as worthy in Spain and not just hopelessly old fashioned.