At some point, the way we think about wine got all messed up. Or so it seems to Eric Asimov, the wine critic for The New York Times. He says people come up to him and share their wine worries, like wondering why they can’t taste the candied chestnut or pencil lead in wine or whether you have to spend a lot to get a good bottle.
In his new book How to Love Wine: A Memoir and a Manifesto (William Morrow, $25), Asimov attempts to cut through all the pretension — the crazy-detailed tasting notes with descriptors like maduro tobacco and fig sauce, the slavish attention to wine scores, and obsession with perfect food pairings. He hopes we can all relax and get back to enjoying the fruit of the grape. And maybe thinking about it in a different way, too.
Along the journey, he shares his personal evolution as a wine lover and a journalist. After an early start as a beer reviewer for his high school newspaper, Asimov writes that a meal with his father at Allard in Paris, France, impressed upon him the link between good food and wine. He recalls how, as a grad student, BERINGER White Zinfandel made a dinner of shrimp scampi sing or how discovering a GIACOMO CONTERNO Barbera d’Alba led him to explore the region. And there was the life-changing 30-year-old bottle of CHATEAU LA MISSION HAUT-BRION; Asimov spent $185 on it for his parents’ anniversary. His mother still cherishes the empty bottle because of the memories it brings.
Wine is neither as simple nor as complicated as people make it out to be, Asimov writes. Wine is what it is: a beverage that’s meant to add enjoyment to our everyday lives. Great wines are the ones that ask questions (to paraphrase English writer Hugh Johnson); wines that engage our minds, as well as our palates.
TDS: So how do you help someone love wine?
EA: Well, I don’t really take it on myself to persuade anybody they ought to love wine. I imagine they're saying something like that for a good reason. I have a family friend who refuses to drink anything but white zinfandel, and when she comes over, I try to make sure she gets her white zin. That's what she thinks she likes. I don't want to be a scold or to tell her she's wrong. It's far easier to get people who are open to try new things.
TDS: Assuming they did want to start getting into wine, what would you pour?
EA: If I wanted to turn somebody on to wine and they were not very experienced, I would want to give them wines that are maybe not demanding; wines that are not incredibly tannic, and that do not have very unusual flavors. But they might enjoy a good beaujolais or pinot noir or good chablis.
TDS: Is it OK to be one of those people who loves sweet wines?
EA: I love sweet rieslings, I like demi-sec vouvrays, and there are all sorts of off-dry wines that can be very good as long as they're balanced. Well, generally, there will be sufficient acidity to compensate for the sweetness to make what could possibly be a cloying wine into a refreshing wine by giving it some zip.
TDS: In the book, you praise the concise wine descriptions by writers like A.J. Liebling. How do we make wine-tasting notes more meaningful?
EA: I hate to say it because it drives some wine writers crazy, but the more general the info, the more useful it is. If you tell me it's a sweet, fruity wine, that tells me a lot more than telling me which manifestations of fruit are there. Or, if you tell me it's a savory wine ... or if you say it’s fresh and lively or tannic. Those things all tell me something important, rather than breaking it down into specific esoteric fruits, flowers and baked goods.
TDS: So why are there so many awful wine descriptions?
EA: I think we're all accustomed to thinking that's the way you talk about wine. It's a way of owning that wine. If you are the critic and you can nail down every characteristic of the wine, it shows your own skill and power and you're in charge of the wine. That may be a more psychological interpretation than some people would like, but I think it's true.
TDS: What wines excite you right now?
EA: I'm excited about wines from many different part of the world, but Sicily has been particularly on my mind recently. It's something that has happened very quickly in the past 20 years and in my mind, the best wines of Sicily are very much expressions of Sicilian culture, not homogenized, international styles. They're beautiful wines; very distinctive and refreshing yet complex.
TDS: What's the take-away from your book?
EA: My ultimate goal is if you're somebody who has experienced a feeling of anxiety over wine, I hope to help you feel more at ease. But it's also for people who are deeply immersed in wine. For those people, I'd like them (I hope) to step back from our established wine culture, and if they've never done so before, ask questions about wine. Is this really the way things should be, or are there better ways to think and talk and teach about wine?