A very (very) sensible book : a review of How to Love Wine by Eric Asimov
It would be hard to fault Eric Asimov for taking shortcuts or being too categorical in his new book, How to Love Wine. The New York Times’ wine critic is a careful man, who doesn’t hide his opinions but does express them in nuanced, detailed ways, giving readers the lay of the land and presenting competing views, when he takes on a particular topic. He is certainly not the kind of guy who would have written 10 Sure Fire Ways to Love Wine (and Impress Your Friends), for instance.
For him, there are no recipes for loving wine – and no obligations, either. He repeatedly wishes readers would stop being embarrassed about their lack of knowledge of wine, an all-too-common expression of guilt or inadequacy brought forth by the current American wine culture, which according to him puts too much emphasis on knowledge and “appreciation”, rather than just enjoyment.
Performance anxiety shouldn’t be the issue it has become for so many would-be wine lovers, Asimov advocates. “It’s not connoisseurship that leads to loving wine, but familiarity and sharing, which eventually lead to insights and understanding.” In other words, pop a cork, pour a glass or two, preferably with a meal, and if you enjoy yourself, one thing will lead to the other. “Buy a corkscrew, and use it”, Asimov says, quoting the great Alexis Lichine, one of the great promoters of wine in the 20th Century.
To demonstrate that point, Asimov digs into his own personal experience with wines, pointing out how the pleasure of wine came for him well before knowledge. The love of wine, he recounts in a very personal and engaging way, surprised him a few times before he started delving into the subject: in a bistro in Paris with his father, when he was a teenager; having a bottle of white zinfandel, while in college, served alongside a big plate of pasta with garlic shrimp; discovering a bottle of barbera d’alba from Giacomo Conterno found unexpectedly in a Whole Foods in Austin, Texas, back in the early 1980s.
The latter, in particular, was a revelation to him. Not knowing the producer or the variety, he says, “I somehow recognized at the very least that this wine was different from the wines I had been used to drinking”, and the resulting pleasure “filled me with the ardour to discover just how much pleasure could be found in a bottle.” That pleasure was matched with food, significantly, rather than isolated in blind tasting or technical exploration of vintage, terroir and winemaking method.
The book is subtitled “a memoir and a manifesto”, and these memories do much to fill the manifesto part, which asserts that the American wine culture born in the last thirty years, in good part but certainly not exclusively through the emergence of players like Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator, stifles the pleasure of wine by putting so much insistence on knowing the particulars of any and all wines and on the “proper” way to appreciate them.
In that context, Asimov takes to task the “tyranny of the tasting note”, as it has become today, a “flowery litany of aromas and flavors [that] does little to capture the experience of a fine glass of wine.” He takes a whole chapter to ask what really describes a wine, demonstrating rather convincingly, for me, that we have gone overboard with what has now become a standard testing note, exclusively concentrating (supposedly) on what is in the glass without providing context.
Then again, at the end of the chapter, as Asimov presents other ways to approach descriptions of wine, he quotes Hugh Johnson on Burgundy, a rather lovely description of various terroirs that I enjoyed a lot – while wondering if it wouldn’t be just as intimidating to someone just starting to discover wines. There is an oscillation, throughout the book, between the advocation of enjoyment and an attempt to tell readers to just relax and enjoy the ride, on the one hand, and an inevitable turning to the minutia of the wine world, to all these fine details that make wine lovers excited while baffling most others, on the other hand.
It is perhaps inevitable to have that back and forth, because of how wide-ranging a subject wine is. As he writes in a chapter appropriately entitled “The Ambiguity of Wine”, “In the end, if we are being honest, we admit that good wine is elusive, uncertain, cryptic”. Discoveries in wine lead to more questions, and a constantly evolving portrait, unique to each and every one of us.
The current North American wine culture is sometimes oppressive, in certain respects, but it is also freer and more diverse than ever before, and it is therefore difficult for someone as careful and attentive as Eric Asimov to draw a definite, crystal-clear portrait. In fact, no such definite portrait could or should exist. That difficulty makes the book a little convoluted, from time to time (the introduction, notably, has a bit of a slow start). However, that also makes it very true to the nature and reality of wine, and allows Asimov to give readers some very useful keys for entering the wine world. Opening the doors, though, is up to them.
Eric Asimov, How to Love Wine. A Memoir and Manifesto. New York, William Morrow, 2012, 272 pages.