After 33 years at The New York Times, first writing about food and then as wine critic, Eric Asimov still maintains his wine curiosity intact. He looks at wine from an aesthetic perspective, looking for expression and stories to tell as he tries to convey the culture of wine to his thousands of readers in his two columns (The Pour and Wines of the Times) and well as in his entertaining and educational Wine School.
During a recent trip to Spain, Asimov, author of the books How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto and Wine With Food: Pairing Notes and Recipes from The New York Times, confessed that he doesn’t care much about wine marketing or which wines are selling the best but advocated for wines that look for authentic simplicity and personality, away from fashions.
You travelled to Europe in your youth. What are your memories of Spain back then?
The first time I came to Spain was in 1981 with a girlfriend. We arrived in Barcelona with our Eurail pass and the plan was to cross the country slowly to end up in Lisbon, but the night we got to Barcelona was the attempted coup. We saw the police with their weapons and helmets and thought 'we'd better return to France'. Of course it all ended but we were already gone.
Since then I’ve mostly explored Spain professionally. I’ve been everywhere and I always love coming here. The biggest drawback is that I don’t speak the language although I usually travel with a good friend who is fluent so we get by. I’ve always found that even during the crisis everything in Spain works better than what many Spanish people think. People here are always so welcoming. The difference between Spain and France is that in Spain if you have a problem people try to help you; in France, people explain to you why they can’t help you.
What changes have you noticed in terms of wine in all these years you have been visiting Spain?
The most interesting change is the rebirth and rejuvenation of winemaking in traditional areas that were known only locally, places like Priorat, Ribeira Sacra, Sierra de Gredos, Manchuela… Nobody knew these wines 30 years ago. This change is happening not only in Spain but all over the historical producing regions, although it may have come a little bit later to Spain than France.
We’ve seen the reconnections with traditions that had been modified for a global wine culture, both in terms of making wine that can travel around the world rather than just up the river and also in terms of quality. What’s important now is not mass production but very conscientiously made wines of integrity. At the same time we see old traditions that were very successful in their own time like Sherry or Rioja readapt. This is specially true in Sherry right now where the disappearance of their volume trade has led them to retool themselves as producers of smaller amounts of wine of high quality. That’s exciting to me. In Rioja, we’ve seen culture wars between the traditional manner of making wines, assessing them according to how long they’ve been aged, against wines that are intended to be of a place, along a Burgundian model.
And what does the world want or expect from Rioja?
I think that what the rest of the world wants is somewhat irrelevant. What’s most important is how to make the most distinctive and best wines and how to best understand Rioja. Certainly I think you can combine both. You can stick with tradition and make a wine that nobody else in the world is making —one of the wines in my tasting in Alimentaria 2018 was a classic Gran Reserva Rioja. This style has been marginalized but it’s just wonderful and I’d hate to lose that. At the same time, you can make that style even better by understating the vineyard and the sense of place that can come with great vineyards. A producer like Tondonia has always been doing just that.
The diversity of wines in Spain right now is enormous. Are US consumers aware of this?
I don’t think they are as appreciative as they could be. One of the problems in the US, specially in New York, is that we don’t have a tradition of Spanish restaurants and we need more of them. It is the best forum to showing off the wines. In this sort of contemporary restaurants —American, Italian, French— there is less of an opportunity for people to get to know Spanish wines.
In the New York scene, Spanish wines have to compete with wines from countries whose cuisine is well represented.
Spanish wines would benefit from having places where they could be featured. In New York right now, we have very good tapas-style restaurants but very little beyond that. There’s some old fashioned Spanish restaurants but those are disappearing.
So it would be good to have more Spanish food ambassadors in New York.
We are very lucky to have José Andrés who’s doing a wonderful job, but he’s just one guy and he is not even in New York. There’s room for plenty more.
Is that one reason why Spanish wines can’t seem to compete at the top level with French, Italian, Californian wines?
As far as Spanish wine goes, I think there are only two traditional wines that are known to the rest of the world: Sherry and Rioja. They are completely distinctive and maybe more needs to be done to show what their place is in modern dining.
The other emerging styles of Spanish wines are not as well known and they haven’t had as much time to make themselves known. Take the wines of Sicily, which are very much in vogue in the US. Although a much smaller region, the wines of Ribeira Sacra are also known but haven’t had that sort of burst of fashion around them. I think that’s got to do with the restaurant issue and having a place to show off these wines.
Savvy sommeliers trying to find the latest trends may also help.
Yes, we’ve seen some of that. Albariño had its burst of popularity and so did Priorat because it was the darling of Robert Parker, but they’ve had to reinvent themselves a little bit because making wines in the style favoured by Parker has dropped off a cliff and they have —successfully in my opinion— pulled back from the overly alcoholic, fruit-bomb styles. These wines have become much more restrained and nuanced in the last few years.
Is it good to see the so-called Parker style of wines fading?
I believe it’s a good thing because it’s not a style that I favour. In the long term, more restrained, balanced wines have a better chance to be on the table as part of a meal as they can harmonize with food. There were a lot of powerful wines that had to be drunk almost like a standalone cocktail because they overpowered food.
Do you think that style will ever come back?
Everything is cyclical so you never know but I think there will always be shifts and the pendulum will go back and forth. In any case, the time-honored style of wine as something that goes on the table will endure, no matter what the momentary blips of fashion are.
Which current trends in wine are here to stay?
My hope is that over time people become less and less concerned about what is fashionable. You really have two kinds of wine and two wine audiences. For one group, wine is not an all-consuming topic. For them, wine is simply something that is a pleasant vehicle for alcohol; they want something that is cheap and agreeable and maybe it’s fun to think about drinking pale rosé on the beach. Then you have a smaller segment —but one that I think is slowly growing— of people who learn and care more about wine and become more discerning about it. They are less interested in fads and more in their own taste and what appeals to them. For this kind of people, the most important thing is that we have more distinctive wines, wines made with integrity, wines made with the consciousness of environmental concerns and political concerns and I think we’ll see more wines like that.
But most winemakers are concerned about selling their wine.
I was in Casas Ibáñez (Manchuela) recently and I sat with some winemakers. We had a lovely rosado de Bobal and they asked me if I thought this wine would sell because it’s dark and not pale. “Everyone wants pale rosé right now”, they said.
That’s not how I look at wine. I look at wine for its quality, its energy, its vibrancy, its texture and I don’t really think about the marketing of it or who’s the audience for this wine or how should we adapt it to that audience. I think if you make good wine, if you make it with integrity and you love the wine, you’ll find an audience.
In your book How To Love Wine you say “At best, tasting notes are a waste of time. At worst, they are pernicious”. What’s so wrong with them? Could the problem lie on the style of the wine writers rather than on the tasting notes?
There’s a misunderstanding about what tasting notes are and how they can be helpful to people. Tasting notes written about 100 years ago were not flowery; instead, wines were described in very general, simple terms. If you want to convey the character of a wine to somebody, you can do it very simply saying a wine is fruity, mineral, heavy, delicate… These are useful terms and they can help place a wine.
The idea that we can deconstruct the essence of wine by describing every last nuance we perceive and that you can give this note to somebody else to communicate what the wine is about is wrong. It is really the product of wine consumer magazines that need to fill space differentiating between hundreds of wines at a time. How can the consumer understand that this wine tastes like stewed figs and this other one tastes like fig compote and this one like fig pie?… This doesn’t accomplish anything and it divorces wine from the culture that produces it.
How about scores?
I think scores are also pernicious although I understand them better. If you don’t follow wine and you go into a wine shop, how do you differentiate between all the bottles? Using a score makes it very simple, but what do the scores represent? It’s almost as if you’re using a universal scale for wines that each have a different role to play so a consumer who doesn’t know anything about wine will always want to choose the 19 over the 15 even though sometimes the wine that scores 15 is the best for a particular occasion.
In the US, this combination of tasting note and score is a very alienating method for talking about wine and yet people believe this is the way wine has always been discussed, but it’s not true. It doesn’t correlate with the way most people experience wine; nobody is drinking their glass with dinner and says 'I taste rose petals and chrysanthemum'. They simply enjoy it and think of it as a totality.
Many wine drinkers feel inadequate for “not knowing anything about wine”.
What’s the best way to overcome that fear?
The best way is to become a regular wine drinker, trying a lot of different types of it and not feel that if you’re handed a glass blind you have to be able to identify where it comes from and what the vintage is. You just have to be able to say whether you like it or not and maybe why and over time you’ll develop confidence. It’s a lot like cooking; when you first start to cook you follow a recipe but over time, you substitute ingredients and become comfortable.
What about wine education?
It’s highly overrated. I don’t question the commitment of sommeliers who want to get their Master Sommelier but sometimes I question the reasons why. Is it really helping to learn about wine or is it to enter a society?
In the States, I see consumers thinking that the way to learn about wine is to learn as a sommelier would: to learn how to blind taste, to taste dozens of different wines. That’s a very specialized skill that you really only need for professional purposes. I don’t believe it helps you to understand wine better.
I think people are better served by drinking rather than tasting; by having the repeated experience and then if they really want to delve deeply into it, books and wine classes can be helpful as long as you are learning about the history and the culture of wine and not just learning how to blind taste.
Even though your dad was a newspaper man you didn’t care much for journalism but ended being the chief wine critic at The New York Times.
Some children want to do the opposite of their parents and that was my idea. I wanted to become an academic but I ended up thinking that I wouldn’t succeed at that. As I needed to get a job and earn some money, I got a job in journalism. I was hired at The New York Times at a very inexperienced time in my career. I don’t know if I would have stayed working for a newspaper had I not within a few years been able to start writing about food and eventually about food and wine.
What skills are needed to be a serious, good wine critic?
Certainly endurance and curiosity. You have to love wine and food because they all go together and you need a big appetite but what’s really important is a sense of self. When you write about food and wine you may end up in a society of wealthy people before long so you have to remember who you are and that you are serving your readers. You are not working for the industry or for the approval of the people you are writing about. That’s very important. Sometimes it’s easy to be transported into this fantasy world.
How do you maintain your independence?
I’m very privileged because I work for a newspaper that has both the resources and the tradition of maintaining very strict independence. We are very careful about conflict of interests. When I travel I pay my own way and I don’t stay at the winemaker’s residence.
Do you accept samples?
You can’t avoid them but I don’t review wines that I receive as samples. We buy all the wines that I write about. We are very lucky to have these resources; most people cannot do that.
How can bloggers or humble wine writers nowadays do a good job without selling their soul to the industry?
It’s very hard if you are a blogger although sometimes it works to my disadvantage because most wine bloggers have been to far more places than I’ve been because they can accept press trips that I can’t. I’ve never been to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Asia but, on the other hand, I know that if I have a journalistic need, my company will pay for me to go to these places.
But can one be independent accepting these gifts?
They always have to remember what their role is. It’s very easy in this business to think that you’re part of the wine industry. Maybe some bloggers want to feel this way and then their credibility comes into question. My mission is not to get people to buy more wine; I don’t care if they do or don’t. I want to help inspire people to find what’s so pleasurable about wine but I don’t have a stake in the success or failure of different wine producers or the industry as a whole.
Have you ever tried to make wine?
I haven’t really sought out the opportunity; I’m sure I could do that if I wanted to. I don’t believe that I need to be able to make wine to do what I do, just as I wouldn’t need to be a professional football player to write about football. My job is to understand wine and to be able to communicate what I think about wine to people and have it resonate with them in some way. Making wine would be interesting and I wouldn’t refuse the opportunity but it’s not essential… Maybe I’m a little defensive.
Sometimes, if you criticize a wine, the winemaker may accuse you of not knowing what it’s like to make wine.
I try to be conscious of that and I would never tell winemakers to change their techniques or what they ought to do. It’s not my job; my job is from the point of view of the consumer and I would never presume to tell anybody how they should make wine.