Article By: Fred Bouchard
On book tour mid-January, Eric Asimov, the new york times’ “Chief Wine Critic”, made a whistle-stop at Harvard Coop in Cambridge to reading from his first full-length wine book, How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto.*
The book came about during Asimov’s current post as wine critic, held since 2OO4 when he succeeded Frank Prial. Previously he’d worked for the times in general reporting, starting his $25 and under witty, no-frills restaurant thumbnails in 1992, then took over the big-guns restaurant column from William Grimes. People always wanted to talk to him about wine, but they came on like he was a doctor or a shrink at a party, spewing out their troubles. He summed up their varied kvetches into a general plaint: “I read the wine reviews and I just don’t get what they say about all those flavors and aromas . . . is there something wrong with me?” Asimov has gradually come to the conclusion that there’s a lot wrong with the way we talk about and experience wine.
Following the book event, a celebratory dinner was hosted at nearby Upstairs on the Square by restaurateur Mary Catherine Diebel and sommelier Matt Reimer. Under friendly fire among the 3O companionable diners, Asimov confessed to Ms. Diebel – who was herself once the de facto wine buyer at Peasant Stock Restaurant back-in-the-day (1983) – that he’d long been fascinated by food and wine. As a surly teenager, his parents wrenched him away from his first girlfriend and spirited him off to France – quel horreur! But the wine bug for fine food and wine bit him at a zinc-bar bistro named Allard, the rest is ‘his story’.
He unfolds it in tantalizing chapters, paralleling easy-going, unprivileged autobiography with extensive comments of lucid but unassuming wisdom on topics like the subjectivity of olfactory perceptions, the fallibility of wine critics, the brassy illusion of certainty in most tasting notes – from “a waste of time” to downright “pernicious”. I felt that gleeful tingle of rediscovery as he limned the evolution of his teenage beverage experiences: Mountain Dew (The original), Ballantine India Pale Ale, Beringer White Zinfandel, Giacomo Conterno Barbara d’Alba . . .
Above all, Asimov invites us to stand in awe of the wondrous ambiguities of wine, its sublime pleasures, its nuanced development in a glass or in a decade, its deaf ear to fulsome praise and over-detailed descriptors. It’s a little as if Mother Nature, over time and circumstances, reinterprets each cuvee. At one point he blurts out passionately: “Wine is one of the coolest things in the world! To love it is a great joy. Why do we make it so hard?”
He’s ready to quote his peers when they speak wisely and well. He quotes Albert de Villane circumspectly on his Domaine Romanee Conti wines: “These wines are quite elusive. You grasp and lose, grasp and lose. They are like women.” Or Robert M. Parker, Jr.’s eight characteristics common to great wines. Or Hugh Johnson’s memorable: “Great wines don’t make statements, they pose questions.” (Understood: And who are we to answer them?)
Asimov’s quest for wine’s demystification – or rather, de-[can’t-think-of-it] – extends organically to his columns and comparative tastings. A recent “The Pour” entitled “Five Words Not To Fear” expounded lightly on “Bitter, Cold, Dark, Green, and Oak”. Tastings conducted in-house with Florence Fabricant and invited professionals are written up in a fair-minded manner in an equable tone, though Asimov readily admits he has a hard time recommending wines he himself does not like.
Appended here are some of Asimov’s comments before and between courses over dinner, many of which reflect ideas and stances touched on in his book. I’ve edited them for brevity and ideally, clarity.
We’re experiencing The Golden Age of Wine, internationally. This is the greatest time in history to be a wine lover. Today there’s a greater diversity of wines from more corners of the world than ever before available, from grapes nobody had ever heard of ten years ago. There’s a vast pool of pleasure awaiting people.
Yet somehow obstacles have been set up that make people anxious. I started to look at our wine culture, how we talk about aromas and flavors and obsessive and comical tasting notes.
Now many voices can be heard on high-speed internet. When wine lists began to notate Parker and wine spectator scores, [the sommeliers and restaurateurs are] abjuring their own responsibilities and deferring to ‘the experts’. Today many people are putting forth opinions. Wine merchants and sommeliers are the faces that wine drinkers most come in contact with . . . insecurity still has people looking up wines scores on their iPhone in restaurants instead of talking to the sommelier.
The scoring system rates wines on a rigid scale that doesn’t take into account context, mood, accompanying food, the wine’s age, how long it’s been open. In a misguided frenzy, they’re trying to nail one frozen moment.
We encourage people to take ‘wine appreciation classes’, a denatured term for something which should be full of guts and pleasure, but we turn it into an emblem of proper etiquette or socialization like Emily Post. We convey the message that simply to enjoy wine, we have to know everything about it . . .
The emotional element of developing a relationship with wine is totally missing. What were the reasons you fell in love with opera, wine, jazz, French literature? Because it was a passion, not an obligation. The literature of wine focuses less on poetry than on “1O Techniques To Not Embarrass Yourself In Front Of Your Boss”. We turn wine into something to fear, rather than a simple pleasurable beverage (at least on one level).
We isolate wine from its proper environment, by using the [failed] consumer reports method of evaluation in a clinical setting, [and attempting to assess] 1OO wines before lunch.
Wines are an expression of a people, culture and way of living and sever that, we’re simply looking at a beverage.
Asimov asserted that his analysis of wine culture is not meant to revolutionize the issue, but raise questions so that people might not accept conventional wisdom. He’s showing by his own example how he developed his relationship to wine: “I simply drank a lot of it and paid attention!”
He’s tackling the misconceptions about wine critics, as those who “can identify blind a wine from 1OO paces, our noses insured for millions of dollars. We know everything!” The myth of omniscience perpetuated by the authorities feeds anxieties of ordinary consumers.
Of course there is much mystery about wine that is precious, [ambiguous, unknowable]: How does wine age? How does soil affects flavor? Great winemakers – however egocentric they may be – are humble enough to understand that nature is ultimately in charge and many variable forces control the outcome of their wines.
I wanted to offer a different vision of wine, where’s it another ingredient on the table with great food, friends, companionable occasions. A character actor, a supporting player, not always dominating, not a diva but makes everything better, but simply part of the tableau. [A component of the meal] rather than an object of fetishism or a mysterious unknown at the table.
ON THE EVENING’S MENU
Following several mouthwatering, passed hors d’oeuvres were four very tasty but not overfilling dishes, and thoughtfully on-point pairings by Matt Reimer. They were as follows: Nantucket Bay Scallops Citron and Quick Romaine Kimchi with 2O11 J.J.Prüm Riesling (Mosel); English Coddled Egg and Devonshire Cream alongside Mushrooms on Toast and Groats with 2O11 Château Musar ‘Musar Jeune’ Blanc (Lebanon); Rosemary Charred Côte de Bœuf and Salad of Rutabaga, Cress and Oxtail with 2OO9 Bonny Doon Vineyards ‘Le Pousseur’ Syrah (Central Coast, CA); and Leslie Mackie’s Steamed Pudding Cake with 2OO9 Les Clos de Paulilles (Banyuls).