Monday, April 8, 2013

Loving Wine The Asimov Way

After 278 pages, Eric Asimov's advice to nascent wine enthusiasts in his book "How to Love Wine" can be summed up in one word: Relax. Don't get hung up on wines with high scores from this or that critic, don't get sidetracked by attempts for the perfect pairing of wine and food, don't try to find all the scents and flavors that someone else found in a wine: Just take the glass, taste the wine in it and then figure out why it gives you pleasure, or not.

"As much as we learn about it, as much as we know, (wine) is at its heart a mystery," Asimov says early on, pretty much setting us up for more questions than answers. "With wine, sometimes it's better to feel it than to try to own it," he adds about midway through. "Mastery is not the goal; ease is what we're after," he concludes.

In between this Zen-like counseling, Asimov addresses several topics that wine writers traditionally have tackled, but in a contrarian manner. The typical tasting note, for one, is so overdrawn and arcane that it obscures more than illuminates, he suggests. The wine writer who really wants to help readers to a better understanding of what awaits them in the glass should be talking more in terms of intensity, volume, texture, size and mass, Asimov indicates. Similarly, the popular practice of anointing a wine with 97 points or 91 points or whatever "can interfere with consumers developing their own standards and preferences," he argues.

Asimov subtitled his book "A Memoir and Manifesto." The chapters more or less alternate accordingly. In all of them, however, Asimov, the chief wine critic of The New York Times - as he wryly notes, there are no other wine critics at the paper - writes with a voice quietly personable, level-headed, experienced and candid. In recalling his call to journalism and his rise to being the nation's most influential and esteemed wine critic, he's warm and funny. And in writing his manifesto, he isn't really any more hot-headed; as declarations of independence go, "How to Love Wine" is gentle and reasonable.

His approach is to be more philosophical than practical. Not until late in the book, for example, did I find myself jotting down the names of specific wines that have particularly excited him and which I will be seeking. (For the record: Jacques Selosse Champagnes, Gianfranco Soldera Brunellos di Montalcino, Henri Bonneau of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Anna Maria Abbona's Dolcetto di Dogliani, and several producers of Beaujolais and Muscadet.)

His premise is the same one that has inspired countless other wine books: People are intimidated by wine and need an encouraging hand on the back as they approach wine list and wine bin. Given the rise in wine sales in the United States over the past few decades, and the clear willingness of so many consumers to embrace even obscure and experiemental wines, that's a shaky premise, though it apparently still is persuasive among book publishers. In reality, people may be overwhelmed by the extent of choices in front of them, and eager to accept advice, but the old view that they are frightened by the array of prospects is sounding more and more dated. Perhaps Asimov sensed this, thus his patient, easy-going voice in helping calm buyer anxiety.

At the outset, he warns readers that his manifesto isn't without ambiguity and contradiction. Nowhere is this conflict more apparent than in his dismissal of the blind tasting of wine, whereby tasters generally don't know the identify of the wines beyond their varietal or style. Such an approach is a staple of wine competitions and wine criticism. The wines are evaluated solely by what's in the glass. It's democratic, it's fair, but Asimov leaps from the potential shortcomings in such methodology - too many wines at a sitting, lack of planning in arranging wines from lighter to heavier - to the conclusion that judges best can consider a wine only within a frame of reference. When fortified with information about a wine's background, they can understand where it is now and how it will evolve over its lifetime. He has a point, though no matter how much data a critic is given about a wine's breeding and history he won't be able predict accurately what it will be like 5 or 10 or 20 years from that moment. Too many variables are at work, from ever-developing changes in winemaking to how the finished wine will be handled once it is released from the winery. More to the point, any wine criticism is ephemeral, an attempt to grab the essence of a wine at a given moment. It isn't objective, and it isn't fixed, as both the judged and the judge are ever changing. And while Asimov criticizes blind tastings, he nonetheless apparently continues to see some value in them. "Despite my misgivings about blind tastings, I still engage in them. Half of the columns I write each year for the New York Times are the result of blind tastings," he notes.

The book does little to counter the perspective that Asimov is largely Euro-centric in his view of the wine world, that he spends too little time exploring and writing of New World wine regions. The tone of much of the book is that Europe is where you go to look for wines of individual craftsmanship and "honesty," while New World wine areas like California and Chile primarily produce cookie-cutter industrial wines. That he may be out of touch with what's happening in California is evident when he accuses the New World of simply mimicking the Old World by focusing mostly on what is considered the best grape varieities - cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot. Yes, there's a lot of truth in that, but he ignores that for many decades in several California wine regions growers and vintners have been making wines with less-celebrated grapes, and doing quite well by them. Furthermore, he seems not to have noticed that in several of the Old World wine regions where he looks for wines of character and distinction that cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and their ilk are taking root where they haven't necessarily been cultivated traditionally.

At the same time, it needs to be said, Asimov is clear that much enlightenment and joy is to be found in wines that aren't necessarily from Bordeaux or Burgundy, nor do wines need to be expensive to have something to say and to be even profound. Bottom line: Look for wines in which you can sense a culture and a place, wines that provoke questions, and then share them.

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