Eric Asimov, The Chief Wine Critic of The New York Times, is one of the most influential wine voices in the United States and he wields that power with grace, humor and gravitas. He has an enviable ability to deliver a message without attitude or pissing people off-- a trait worth acquiring. Using that particular talent, he has written how to love wine, a memoir and manifesto. A very sweet book it is.
For some reason the world sweet keeps on coming to me. The book is written with sweetness. By the time I read the book the second time, the volume took on weight, very much like a lively wine might.
However, I did get tripped up on the title. I found myself wanting to swap out the N for and F,--how to love your wife. The idea echoed some sort of 1920's kind of manual, as if one could follow the steps to loving God, wife, man or wine. How can one possibly write about how to love wine. How not to fear wine? How to embrace wine? Loving can’t be taught. If it could, there would be far fewer heartbreaks in the world. But, I chose to go with an ironic reading of the title and moved on to the second reading where I focused less on the loving wine and more on the memoir and manifesto.
For the memoir part, as Ethel would say, “Sometimes you need a bissele mazel.” Obviously Eric has talent and to help that along, he was blessed with some luck through the decades. His parents encouraged his writing, recognized his talent. Lucky Eric had a newspaper man dad who made sure his son had editing chops--which served his career well. He also had parents who took him to Europe. I eagerly went along with him on his memory trip to Paris, leaving his first girlfriend behind at 14. The sullen, pining boy discovered real food for the first time that sent him on a fabulous food obsession that might be just the thing in 2012 for all of those mini-gourmands, but quite precocious for its day. That and sharing a 1955 Bordeaux, La Mission Haut -Brion with his parents, were two of the more personal and welcome glimpses into the Eric's person and palate in formation.
From school, to graduate school in Austin to Chicago and to the New York Times, Eric tells us his life with humility and knowing he had soome luck shining down on him. And that's why it is impossible not to root for him, even though we know it's ending up swell.
The manifesto sections take on juicy topics; the soullessness of Bordeaux, silliness of wine tasting classes, the role of ego in winemaking. The best rant in the book, though, is on the tyranny of the tasting note.
The tasting note is low hanging fruit. Eric's take on it is fresh. He entertainingly pontificates that it is intimidating nonesense instead of instructional enlightenment. Giving into some rare snark, he pits Tanzer’s notes against Jay Miller's against Wine Spectator's James Molesworth --as he singles out Molesworth's use of maduro tobacco. One of my favorite passages from this section is when he parallels Gary Vaynerchuk to the Spectator.
He (Gary) has been accused of dumbing down wine with his comparisons to canides like Nerds or Bazooka Joe. But honestly, how is likening wine to Nerds any dumber than Wine Spectator approved terms like melted licrocie snaps and fig paste?
Bravo and spot on. There are few descriptors one actually needs about a wine and the long note which takes the wine out of context is meaningless.
There is a paradox in how to love wine. Eric's writing about food in his life seems more passionate than about the book's heart, wine. Eric's part in the birth of the $25 and under column for the Times and his food adventures was an energetic tale where I felt his passion for the hunt and the object. But his journey in wine was harder to feel. The writing was more intellectual, shot more from the super ego than the id.
Food writing always does seems more personal, it is after all more primal. On the other hand, wine historically invites a more compex take: it is culture, agriculture, politics and art. Even if the world tries to dumb wine down and squeeze the liquid into a tasting note, wine is compellingly thought provoking and perhaps easier to fall into discourse instead of tone poem.
Even thinking about the difference in his food and wine prose provoked another thought about wine drinking and writing. Sometimes like food, wine can be primal, swig it back just like Jack Daniels, stuff it in your face like a truffle, but once you peel back the layers, there is a world of emotions and words and explanations and theory and debate that can take you through years of bottles and wines and regions. It is a drink that you can love but for better or worse, it makes you think. The holy grail will always be the wine that brings together the head and the heart.