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Oenophilia


The New York Times chief wine critic on the perils of connoisseurship and the pleasure in discovering one’s personal taste.

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“…lush layers of mocha, graphite, and braised strawberry, with a darkly tender, bing-cherry finish.”

“…a brooding core of mulled currant, warm fig sauce, and maduro tobacco, liberally laced with tapenade and lavender notes.”

One of these descriptions of wine—tasting notes, as they’re called in the business—was published in a respected magazine; the other is imagined, a fantasy bottle as yet unmade. But which one is which hardly matters, as both are essentially incomprehensible. While tasting notes have come to dominate how wine is discussed and dissected by critics, their strange juxtapositions and seemingly arbitrary references provide ideal fodder, like the titles of academic papers or the names of members of the Wu-Tang Clan, for computer-generated mockery. (“A cruel rosemary essence and sour millet essences are binded in the 1994 White Pinot from Bob’s Winery,” spit out PhraseGenerator.com.) But as New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov would argue, beneath the seeming ridiculousness of tasting note jargon lies a bigger problem: the notion that wine itself is esoteric and intimidating, understood only by those with the most advanced knowledge and refined palates.

Tasting notes are just one factor in what Asimov diagnoses as widespread “wine anxiety” among those who want to enjoy wine, or at least believe they should. In today’s wine culture, reviewers rate bottles on 100-point scales, suggesting that this capricious beverage can be assessed absolutely by those in the know. Myriad books promise to analyze vintages, unlock the histories of grapes, and demystify food-and-wine pairings. Glasses come in different shapes for every hue. In this environment of rigidity and hierarchy, Asimov observes, enjoyment is replaced with effort; fascination, with fear. “Each step of the way there’s an element of judgment,” he says in the interview that follows. “Did I choose the right wine? Do I have the right wine glass? Did I pour it in the glass correctly? Is it bad? Is it good? How does it reflect on me?”

When wine becomes burdened with moral judgement, Asimov finds it sapped of its essence—dynamism, cultural heritage, and, perhaps most importantly, pleasure. In turn, he practices a kind of criticism that embraces subjectivity. In his 2012 book, How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, he emphasizes how one’s own taste in wine develops not by studying or sampling, but through lived experience: actually drinking wine, around a table, with food, in good company. Asimov’s goal is not to erase distinctions between higher-quality and lower-quality wines, but rather to encourage an open-minded process of personal discovery, and an understanding of how wine changes with context (“whether you’re in a good mood, whether you’re in a bad mood, is there music playing, did you have a fight with your spouse…”). In his criticism for the Times, he tends to describe the flavors of wine simply, and then move on. “I feel as if what’s in the glass is the least interesting thing about wine writing,” he explains. “To me, what’s much more interesting are the people, the place, the history, the politics, all of the elements that go into producing a wine.” While he concedes that consumers do turn to critics for the bottom line—“What should I drink?”—Asimov is more likely to write about a bottle of wine as a window into the distinct culture from which it originated.

Asimov traces his own love for food (and subsequently wine) to an epiphanic meal in a Paris bistro at age fourteen, when a simple plate of steak and haricot verts struck him as unlike anything he’d ever eaten back home in the suburbs of New York City. “I became what people call a ‘foodie’ now,” he recalls. After an early start reviewing beer for his high school newspaper (it was the ’70s), Asimov spent years in academia and on national news desks before transitioning to restaurant criticism and eventually taking up the role of the Times’s chief wine critic, in 2004. In addition to his regular columns, “The Pour” and “Wines of the Times,” his “Wine School” column invites readers to explore a given set of wines on their own and then commune virtually about their tastes and experiences.

I met Eric Asimov at a lively, crowded French bistro in New York’s West Village last month. Seeming to sense a brief moment of wine anxiety on my part (what should I order in the presence of an esteemed wine critic?) he made the decision for me. The white he selected was delicious, though as Asimov would maintain, inseparable from the context and conversation which, like a good wine, revealed new surprises and insights over time.

Meara Sharma for Guernica

Guernica: You’ve written a lot about wine anxiety: feelings of inadequacy or ignorance when it comes to choosing the right wine, understanding how to drink it, knowing what to say about it. Why do you think wine, for many people, can be so fraught?

Eric Asimov: Wine in our society has always been associated with intellectualism, which immediately prompts a sort of love-hate relationship. The populist strain associates anything intellectual with esthete, snobbery, aristocracy—all of which goes against the grain of the so-called democratic ideal of this country. And that’s reinforced by the notion that in order to appreciate or enjoy wine you have to study up, essentially turn yourself into a connoisseur, to understand these very fine points of appreciation. And if you lack that knowledge, just as if you lack book learning or a perspective on opera or ballet, you can’t enjoy it.

Guernica: You describe how many of the rituals surrounding wine drinking contribute to these feelings of unease. For example, the fateful moment in a restaurant after you’ve ordered wine, when the waiter brings over the bottle and pours a small amount for the diner who has to deem it worthy or not. It’s usually an awkward encounter.

Eric Asimov: Right. You don’t know what the point of that is, what you’re supposed to do, what you’re supposed to look for. And then there’s the typical vocabulary around discussing wine, which involves detecting very esoteric aromas and flavors. Each step of the way there’s an element of judgment. Did I choose the right wine? Do I have the right wine glass? Did I pour it in the glass correctly? Is it bad? Is it good? How does it reflect on me? All of these issues come up that really don’t come up with any other sort of food.

Guernica: Looking back into the history of wine, how did it take on this kind of weight?

Eric Asimov: There’s two elements. If you go to historic wine-producing countries, for eons, you just drank whatever the wine was. You didn’t have a list to choose from. It was not something that aristocrats or connoisseurs drank only; it was something that everybody drank. A lot of it was bad anyway, so there wasn’t a question of issuing a personal judgment on the wine. But when you leave those countries—and England is the initial example, because wine is not native to England—an element of connoisseurship develops, in which people who have discovered wine seek out the best. These tend to be aristocrats with money who travel and have the wherewithal to accumulate wine. So it becomes the province of a very small number of people who are indoctrinated into the secrets, often by their upbringing or their schooling. Places like Oxford and Cambridge have very historic wine societies with very deep cellars where you’re trained in the ways of your class.

You transfer that to America where you have the notion that we’re a “classless” society, and a large majority of people resent trappings of the upper class. So whether you associate that with an education, or with wine, or with other symbols of aristocracy, you create a sort of resentment as well as an intimidation and an anxiety around those symbols.

At the same time, though, you have people who are genuinely interested in wine but they’re not raised with wine at the table, the way you might be in, say, an upper-class British home. And so they’re starting in as adults, and they are looking to be taught. They don’t have the comfort that comes from doing this all your life, so there’s an indoctrination process. The classic example is the Crane brothers in the comedy Frasier: they are so pretentious about wine because they are so insecure about it. There’s a lot of truth to that formula.

Another interesting point is that as people in the historic, wine-producing regions are drinking less and less wine, and it becomes more of a global commodity rather than just a local product, they face the same situation that Americans have faced. Suddenly if they are interested in wine, they have an enormous number of choices in front of them, and that creates a kind of anxiety that didn’t exist for centuries when they didn’t have to make these choices.

It turns into a personal flaw if you pour a wine and you don’t like it, especially if a critic has said it’s good.

Guernica: In your wine writing and criticism, you advocate for a sense of ease around wine as opposed to anxiety. But ease comes from confidence—and how do you get that? It seems a chicken and egg situation.

Eric Asimov: Yes and no. I think ease and confidence come from familiarity. And my argument is that familiarity doesn’t come from reading about wine, or tasting it in tasting sessions. It comes from drinking it, having it at home, and becoming a habitual wine drinker. That doesn’t mean you have to drink a bottle every night—you might drink a glass with dinner—but the more you repeat this exercise, the more you become aware of what appeals to you about wine. Rather than what you’re supposed to think.

The wine culture that developed in this country reinforced this feeling of anxiety, first by developing the language of the tasting note, and the score system, and by suggesting that wine authorities are somehow these omniscient figures who know all, who are always right, and who nobody can match up to. It makes it very hard to take a mistake in stride. In fact, it turns into a personal flaw if you pour a wine and you don’t like it, especially if a critic has said it’s good. If you don’t find the “liquified road tar” and the “fig tart” and all this other stuff that critics are finding and relaying in their tasting notes, you think, “There must be something wrong with me. I’m not equipped to understand wine.”

Guernica: You actually have a whole chapter in your book called “The Tyranny of the Tasting Note,” in which you strongly critique the flowery, seemingly free-associative winespeak that has become so common. How did that style of wine writing develop?

Eric Asimov: People have always written that way about wine, but primarily to oneself, as a memory device. Wine buyers, wine importers, people in the trade, would keep track of the many wines they were tasting just by writing notes and making references that they themselves could understand. My old colleague Frank Prial, who was the wine columnist at the New York Times before I was, traced it back to Oxford and Cambridge deans in the nineteenth century who tried to outdo themselves with florid writing [“Modern winespeak,” Prial wrote, “can be traced to the Gothic piles of Oxbridge, where, in the nineteenth century, certain dons, addled by claret, bested one another in fulsome tributes to the grape”].

But someone like George Saintsbury, who wrote about wine around the turn of the twentieth century, never talked about wine in those terms. And nobody really did until, maybe, Robert Parker. He and the Wine Spectator popularized this period of sort of exaggerated specificity. Where a classical British writer might have talked about a wine’s structure, and maybe a category of flavor like fruity or savory, they boiled it down to these comic exaggerations.

Guernica: I think many average wine drinkers find these descriptions absurd. Maybe they’re intriguing, or playful, but they’re not really informative.

Eric Asimov: That’s exactly my point. It may be amusing, it may showcase the creative references that you can come up with, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the wine. Food writers don’t write that way, and it’s not because if you have a forty-day dry-aged steak it doesn’t have a whole myriad of flavors and that if you sat down you couldn’t describe a bunch of them. But that would be absurd. And I think it’s absurd in wine too.

At the same time, I’d say the vast majority of people in the American wine trade take this kind of writing very seriously, and they think they’re actually communicating the character of the wine. But to me, people’s references are so different, especially when you’re dealing in the murky area of aroma and flavor.

Guernica: So what’s your preferred mode of writing about wine?

Eric Asimov: Personally, I feel as if what’s in the glass is the least interesting thing about wine writing. You can describe a glass of wine in general terms: is it sweet, is it savory, is it fruity, is it citrusy. It might remind you of gravel or rocks or seashells and people call that “mineral.” These words can give you a hint of the character of the wine.

But to me, what’s much more interesting are the people, the place, the history, the politics, all of the elements that go into producing a wine. And the culture that a wine can often symbolize, especially in the Old World. That’s much more interesting to me than whether this wine has notes of red cherry, black cherry, bing cherry, New York cherry, Washington cherry, or whatever.

Guernica: On the other hand, all that history and context don’t necessarily tell people what they often want to know, which is: Is this good, and should I drink it or not?

Eric Asimov: It’s funny, today, so-called critics of film or books are modeling themselves after the classic American period of wine criticism, where instead of writing thoughtful treaties or point-of-view articles, they’re issuing very small, telegraphese, one-paragraph summations with a score. I don’t like to see that in wine, and I don’t like to see that in books or movies, although that is what many people tend to gravitate toward. They want the bottom line. Just tell me what to buy, what to read, what movie to see. I understand that, but at least if I’m talking specifically about wine, it’s far more interesting to learn about a particular sort of wine, the people who make it, the culture that it expresses, and therefore be inspired to want to learn more about it rather than just having somebody tell you what to do or validate your choice in advance.

Wine changes according to context and the notion of eliminating context to judge a wine is wrong.

Guernica: The scoring system you mentioned—rating wines on a 100-point scale—seems to have developed to help satisfy this desire for concrete information. And the appeal is obvious from a consumer standpoint: if you’re in a store with no idea what to buy, those scores do seem like a kind of road map.

Eric Asimov: I have more ambivalence about the points system than the tasting notes. I understand completely why people gravitate to it: it’s simple, it’s easy, it gets to the bottom line. But it can be very misleading if you don’t really understand what the critic is trying to do. And also it hides bias under the illusion of objectivity.

To give you an idea: a critic might be tasting seventy-five wines in one shot. You have all of these glasses in front of you, you have enough time to give a sniff, a quick taste, spit it out, and come to a quick conclusion. If you are going to be very diligent about it, you might give it two or three tastes, but if you have seventy-five wines ahead of you, you can’t spend too much time. I think palate fatigue is often unacknowledged, and when you have a whole range of wines like that, wines that are powerful will stand out. Wines that are more subtle get buried in the crowd.

Most of all, it’s a crime against a good wine. Because a good wine is meant to change—it’s not static. It not only changes in the bottle, it changes in the glass, as the temperature changes, depending on what you tasted before, what you taste after, whether you’re in a good mood, whether you’re in a bad mood, is there music playing, did you have a fight with your spouse…

Wine changes according to context and the notion of eliminating context to judge a wine is wrong. The other argument that I’ve had with people is that if you know where a wine comes from and you know who made it, that gives you valuable insight into what’s in the glass. We don’t hide the identity of the playwright when you go to the theater so that you won’t be influenced by what you know of their work. And it doesn’t make any sense to me to feel compelled to do that with wine—during tastings, hide where it comes from and who makes it. I think it’s another example of an American fixation on “phony democracy.” We don’t think backgrounds mean anything. We don’t want to think that who your parents are should control your chances for success in life, but they do.

Guernica: You mentioned Robert Parker, one of the world’s best-known wine critics. He popularized the 100-point rating system (Parker Points®), and allegedly moves prices in Bordeaux and has his nose insured for a million dollars. How do you see his influence, now?

Eric Asimov: I’m personally tired of the Parker conversation. I think in the US, certainly for people who really care about wine, we’re kind of in a post-Parker world. If you’re really talking about the prime period of influence for Parker, you’re talking about 1990 to 2005. To continually focus on Parker, I’m not sure it helps anybody. Historically, Robert Parker will probably be one of the most significant figures in American wine culture ever. And his great accomplishment was to, with his enthusiasm and passion, inspire enthusiasm in a whole new generation of American wine drinkers.

But I think he’s done considerable damage to his legacy by turning into a peevish, angry elder in wine. He could have been an elder statesman; instead he became one who lashed out with vitriol on anybody who would dare offer another opinion. Hypocritically, since he’s been on record as calling for civility among people who write about and talk about wine. It makes me sad that at least among people like me, whom he has criticized, but who also count him as a positive influence, we’ve gotten to this point.

Guernica: You’ve written about the notion of “stepping-stone” or “gateway” wines—this idea that if you hook people on to more mass-market, “lowbrow” stuff, you can then draw them into more complicated and expensive wines later. Does it work?

Eric Asimov: I think that’s an industry shibboleth and I don’t believe it. I think of wine like food: if your aim is to impress people about the deliciousness of organic foods or foods produced with care and conscientiousness, you don’t start by giving them Wonder Bread. And that’s what a lot of mass-market wine is. It’s more like an alcoholic soft drink than it is like wine. People in the industry tell themselves, all the time: “You start them on Yellow Tail and pretty soon they’ll be interested in Burgundy.” But it’s bullshit. You may as well say that people should start on orange juice or milk. No evolution begins like that. It’s more of an internal evolution that causes an epiphany or a spark of interest.

Guernica: To what extent, though, do you think that wine deemed refined or unrefined has to do with one, the price, and two, the demographic of the people who drink it?

Eric Asimov: That’s a really complicated question. You have to think of the food-distribution system in this country, and if you are living, say, in the inner city or some rural place where you don’t have access to a lot of really good foods or really good wines, chances are that you’re not going to gravitate that way. It may be that there’s a correlation between people who live in these places and their amount of income or their education or other things, but I don’t think it’s a necessary correlation. You can not have a lot of money but still be interested in good food and good wine without always having to spend a lot of money.

It has to do with access as well as upbringing. One of the most discouraging moments for me as a professional was when I used to review restaurants, and I was asked to give a talk in a high school, basically a very poor population, and it turned out that quite a few of them really didn’t know how to use cutlery at the table. It’s not an issue of race or where you grow up, it’s an income situation. The only food that people thought they had access to or could afford was fast food, which you eat with your hands. It’s tempting to turn wine into a class trapping, but it really doesn’t have to be. If you were to do an economic analysis, you would probably find that you can eat a lot more cheaply if you buy food and cook, rather than buy fast food, but that’s not the choice that a lot of people have.

Guernica: What do you think of Gary Vaynerchuk, host of the online video series Wine Library TV? His shows are on topics like pairing wine with Lucky Charms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Eric Asimov: I just think it’s a silly novelty. Gary has become a prophet of entrepreneurship, and has made a lot of money consulting and doing that sort of thing. It’s silly. Who the hell wants to drink wine with Lucky Charms?

Guernica: Yeah, but does it help to strip wine of its highbrow pretensions, or make wine seem more accessible?

Eric Asimov: Maybe in some ways it does, because it brings wine down to a knucklehead level. But I think the real problem is that we’ve turned wine and food pairing into this esoteric art that involves this whole series of charts and principles that you have to internalize. Salty? Sour? Sweet? Do you contrast? Do you match? You turn it into something that is so fraught with the idea that unless you study this you will make a mistake. And you fill it with fear. That’s the big problem, not whether Gary is talking about matching wine with Hershey’s Kisses. It’s really just: drink what you want, with what you want, and if you like it, that’s good, but maybe you’ll learn that different wines go better with different foods than others, and you accumulate experience and that turns into ease and confidence.

We shouldn’t be thinking at home as if we’re a sommelier in a Michelin three-star restaurant. We should be thinking: there are a hundred different wines I can enjoy with my pizza, and I don’t have to have a different wine whether there’s mushrooms on it or pepperoni. Maybe you’re right that Gary is turning it into a joke to get people to relax. That’s really what they need to do.

I think we spend an awful lot of time fetishizing so-called “great wines.” We need to spend more time talking about the joys of everyday wines. Because this is where the real love is.

Guernica: As with the art market, the sometimes stratospheric prices of wines can seem completely absurd, as well as somewhat arbitrary.

Eric Asimov: I’m not an economist, but when you have a rising 1 percent, a class of rich people increasingly rich out of proportion to most people, that necessarily will drive up the price of goods in great demand. If it’s nothing to drop $10,000 for a case of certain wines, those wines become only the province of these people. It has nothing to do with the cost of production—but everything to do with who gets the profits. If, for example, a Burgundy is produced in small amounts, and the producer feels strongly as a matter of conscience that this wine should not only be experienced by a small cadre of wealthy collectors, but should be available to a wide range of people, it’s almost useless for that producer to try to sell the wines at affordable prices. Because people will just take that wine, knowing that they can resell it for absurd prices, and do just that. So if you’re trying to keep the prices low when you produce it, all you’re doing is giving the profits to some middle person who has no right to them.

But I think we spend an awful lot of time fetishizing so-called “great wines.” We need to spend more time talking about the joys of everyday wines. Because this is where the real love is. Yes, great wines are great and they can be profound pleasures, but there are certain moments when those pleasures are appropriate. It shouldn’t be a question of “If I can’t have the best, I’m not going to have anything.” The real pleasure of wine at any level is about how it goes with company, how it improves food, and I strongly believe great twenty-dollar wines on certain occasions are better than thousand-dollar wines.

Guernica: Certainly each sip is less burdened with expectation.

Eric Asimov: Right, when you’re thinking of a wine as a thousand-dollar wine, you’re thinking it has to be fifty times greater than the twenty-dollar wine. But this is not to say they’re all equal. My son Peter, who was in college at the time, was with me at a wine dinner I was doing for charity, and someone brought a profound wine: rare, old, wonderful. Peter, who’d never had a wine like that and didn’t know a lot about wines like that, tasted it and could tell it was very different. There was something about it that was so unusual that it stuck in his mind. I think people can have that experience with “great wines” and really profit from it even if they don’t know a lot about wine. But when you throw in the dollar figure and you’re doing arithmetic in your mind rather than just enjoying the wine for what it is, then it creates a problem.

Guernica: I’m curious to hear a bit about your background. What was the taste landscape of your childhood?

Eric Asimov: I was a child in the ’60s and early ’70s, the very beginnings of the American food revolution. When I grew up we were still eating convenience foods, products of post-war technology and energy: instant coffee, TV dinners, mass-produced canned vegetables, frozen vegetables. I never really ate anything striking until as a young teenager I went to France with my parents. My father had some friends who worked there and we went to lunch with them, and the food was a revelation to me. It tasted so unlike anything I had ever had. The flavors were so vibrant and direct and good that I thought, “I just have to figure out a way to keep having this experience.” So I became what people call a “foodie” now.

I was still in high school, but I became an insufferable kid who has to read every restaurant menu on the street. I associated wine with this pleasure of food. In a sense it was food. I didn’t become a dedicated wine drinker until I was in graduate school, but unlike a lot of people who have epiphanies when they have a “great wine,” I had epiphanies when I had just marginally good wines. Because I was just someone who loved it, I loved food and I loved wine.

My road kind of parallels the American food revolution. First you have people like Alice Waters and Kermit Lynch and James Beard here, and Richard Olney in Provence, and people are suddenly discovering all these foods and maybe getting a bit carried away with it. Putting vanilla in everything and creating weird combinations just to show how creative they can be as a chef. And then we discover that it’s not really the creativity of the chef in the kitchen but the quality of the ingredients that counts.

There’s a parallel arc of evolution in wine. First it’s, I’m an American and I’m going to make wine that rivals the greatest in the world, and then you realize, maybe I can’t just do that by buying new oak barrels and bottling wine from my five-year vineyard and charging $200 for it, maybe there’s something more to it. Maybe there’s more success in making a great twenty-dollar wine than making the greatest wine in the world. Maybe making the best wine I can make from this location is a better ambition to have.

With food, you’re limited by products in a supermarket, or what’s available on a menu, but things aren’t being chosen for you.

Guernica: It seems that today, people don’t need to put as much effort into cultivating certain tastes. You plug an artist into Pandora and it serves you similar music; you watch something on Netflix and it suggests what else you should watch. But when it comes to food, with the rise of the food movement you’re describing, I think we’re seeing a greater level of taste agency among the general population.

Eric Asimov: Books and music have suffered greatly because they’ve become products rather than works of art. Maybe I’m being an old fuddy-duddy, but I’m not a fan of the algorithm. I think there’s great value in browsing, whether you’re in a library card catalogue, or in a record shop, or radio without predetermined playlists based on focus groups and genres. If you go back to the 1960s in music, and the 1970s in Hollywood, you see vastly more freedom and creativity and variety in what was produced than you see now.

In a way, the reverse is true in food. With food, you’re limited by products in a supermarket, or what’s available on a menu, but things aren’t being chosen for you. You’re choosing where to shop, what to cook, what to eat. As you become more into it you become more aware of the quality of the ingredients, and where it all comes from, as opposed to music, which becomes a sphere of the producer rather than the artist. In restaurants we’ve diminished the importance of the maître d’ or the impresario, and elevated the importance of the chef. I think that’s a good thing. It may get out of hand when you turn the chef into an entrepreneur, who no longer cooks but duplicates the old role of the impresario. And then you get Guy Fieri, or whatever.

I always think of wine as about fifteen years behind food, in terms of recognizing that it is an agricultural product and you have to be aware of the ingredients and the method of production. Once people become aware of that in food, they eventually become aware of that in wine.

But it’s also important not to confuse wine with art. It may be a craft to make wine, and a cultural expression, but it’s not a work of artistic expression. It’s also a different kind of vision that you have to have to make wine. I compare it to a conductor rather than to an individual artist. You’re orchestrating different things that are happening, and some people can do it supremely well, and some people are more rote when they do it. But it’s not the visionary work of creating something out of nothing.

Guernica: For the last year and a half, you’ve been writing a column in the New York Times called “Wine School,” in which each month you write about a certain kind of wine, suggest a few bottles to try, and then encourage readers to drink, take notes, and join an online forum to discuss. It’s democratizing, in a way—anyone can participate—and you’re providing some structure while also encouraging people’s individual experiences.

Eric Asimov: “Wine School” is based on an idea that I had a long time ago, because of the lack of utility in wine classes. I felt they teach you how to write tasting notes, but don’t teach you how to love wine. So years ago, I wrote a few columns about what I called the “home wine school,” where instead of going to a class, you would just buy a case of different wines in a store with the help of the wine merchant, drink them over the course of time and pay attention to what you liked and didn’t like, and then go back to the store with the notes you took—you have to take notes!—and create a new case of wine based on your initial feelings. I got a couple of stores to actually put together cases then, and it was kind of fun, but it was a little bit of a vacuum since there was no community to discuss the experience.

Since then, with social media and the evolution of the Times website, it occurred to me that we can try to do this as a group, and actually have back and forth rather than tossing this idea into a newspaper column and seeing what people do with it. Ultimately the idea is to foster a sense of ease, and comfort, and confidence with wine, and to get people to have a lot of different experiences with wine on their own, without somebody telling them that this is a 95-point wine, or tastes like currants, or you have to cook it with chicken with mango sauce, or whatever. Just do it, and see what you think. The idealistic motive is to eliminate the wine authority, and turn everybody into their own best authority.

Guernica: I find it interesting that in your wine criticism you advocate for clarity, but you also describe the importance of a tension between ambiguity and certainty when writing about, as well as experiencing, wine.

Eric Asimov: Ambiguity is about a search for truth, rather than an assertion of correctness. You can really talk about that in terms of a lot of subjects. Politics, or religions. Certainty is more rewarded. Look at wine scores. But ambiguity or ambivalence is important because wine does change, and it can be different one time to the next, depending on the context, and if you want to be thoughtful about it, maybe sometimes you’re not really certain, you’re not sure. But we’ve sold people on sure. And we’ve sold people on omniscience, and on the loudest, most declarative voice. That has been damaging just in terms of human civilization. The people who are the most certain are often the ones who lead us in the wrong directions.

G

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