- Publish Date: Aug 26, 2010
Our Q&A with The New York Times' Eric Asimov.
Admit it: You've flipped open the paper to a wine critic's column, clipped out the list of top picks and headed straight to the wine shop. That's the last thing New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wants you to do.
What he does want is for you to understand his perspective. Asimov doesn't claim to be a wine educator, but someone who's uniquely positioned to convey a sense of the pleasure that can be found in a particular wine style, region or variety. Only if, after reading his words, does his experience with and understanding of a certain type of wine resonate with you, should your next stop be the nearest liquor store.
While Asimov's job requires careful research and planning (with results that can be pleasantly surprising or shockingly disappointing), in the end, his wine experiences aren't too different from anyone else's--he just has more of them. In fact, he doesn't feel that you really need to know anything about wine to enjoy it as much as he does.
To learn more about what it's like to cover wine for the paper of record, read on for our full interview with Eric Asimov.
Bottlenotes: How would you describe your approach to the subject, and how it's different from that of other wine critics?
Asimov: I would say that I'm most interested in the pleasure and the emotion of wine. I think that most of the conventions of wine ratings, scores, tasting notes and the omniscient position of the wine critic all get in the way of pleasure and emotion. I don't think it's so important that people know a lot about wine as it is they drink wine if they like it. I don't think anyone is under any obligation to know about wine. I don't think of myself as an educator, but more as an inspirer.
Walk us through your normal procedure for story development: What happens between identifying what you want to write about and then sitting down and blind tasting all the wines?
I do a lot of different kinds of stories, and not all of them include blind tastings. The story on Txakolina involved no blind tasting at all.
Generally I'm in this world all the time, I'm out, I'm reading things, talking to people and drinking different things so I get different ideas about things that interest me. I figure if I'm interested in it, maybe other people are, too. In [the case of Txakolina] there was the kind of bizarre notion that this wine, which is basically unpronounceable, made from grapes no one's heard of from a region no one associates with wine--I was seeing it all over. Not just in Spanish restaurants, but in wine shops. And I began to wonder about it. Just a little bit of research indicated that the amount shipped to this country, while still fairly minute in the bigger picture, had shot up.
It took more than a year to persuade my editor that it would be an interesting story. Last year I had gone to Spain to do a couple other stories and I wanted to add this one on, but he didn't think it would be worth the extra time and expense it would require. This year I was heading to Spain and Bordeaux, and there's a geographical proximity there. So I re-presented the idea, and this year he went along with it.
Five or six years ago when newspaper budgets weren't so tight, it would have been a lot easier to do this story when it came to me. Nowadays you have to really make a good case and double up on things that you're doing. If you're going to spend the money, you have to squeeze a lot of production out of it.
Are there any wine regions or varieties that you cover annually because they're obligatory in a sense--Beaujolais or California Chardonnay--that you wish you didn't have to?
No, I would say that the so-called obligatory things I don't do. I get invited every year to En Premier [in Bordeaux] and I never go. People ask me why, and there's no reason at all for someone in my position, writing for a general-interest publication, to barrel-taste Bordeaux. I'm not going to recommend futures to people--that's not my audience. I'm not interested in doing that, and I don't think the readers are interested in having me to do that. I don't really feel obliged to do things that don't interest me.
The kinds of things I do feel obliged to do are holiday coverage--what wines to drink at Thanksgiving dinner, sparkling wines at the end of the year. Editors and writers get bored with that sort of thing, but consumers crave that sort of information. If it seems repetitious, you have to come up with new ways of presenting the information. But I don't feel like I have to write about California Chardonnay every year or anything. I do think there are cycles and you come back to things, but you also go where news and interest takes you. I'm very lucky that I have the freedom to do that.
Does it ever happen that you get deep into the exploration of a region or variety, only to discover that it really wasn't as good as you thought?
In terms of not covering a story because the wines weren't as good, no, because however the wines taste is part of the story. Usually I don't set out to write something until I have a good idea what's there. I have had unsuccessful forays where I wanted to write stories, and for one reason or another I got bogged down and had to set ideas aside. Maybe because sources were not open to me or refused to talk.
Can you give an example?
I never got a really satisfactory story about California cult wines--the market for them crumbling--when the economic meltdown occurred. I think that other people were able to get better information on that than I could. I never actually got anyone to admit that they had any difficulty selling these wines, even though it became conventional wisdom that they all did. No one ever really came out and said so. I feel like I failed in getting that story.
Has there been a tasting that just completely threw you off, meaning the wines were exceptionally good, extremely disappointing or just all over the map?
There are a lot. A few years ago everyone was talking about how wonderful Washington State Syrahs were--that this was the next big thing. We tasted a whole bunch of them, and they were nondescript, mediocre and really without character.
We did a Cava tasting earlier this year, and I've never been much of a fan of Cava, and I was really impressed by these wines.
I was very disappointed recently in Chianti Riservas, and really disappointed when we did a tasting of American Gewurztraminer. It was highly disappointing since a lot of them from Mendocino are really good. It turned out a lot of my favorites weren't even in the tastings.
So after you decide on a topic, you don't know which wines will be in your tasting?
Pretty much. We have a tasting coordinator who does the shopping. We buy all the wines retail. We don't call wineries up and ask for samples. In most cases I've had the opportunity to drink these wines in other places, so I have a benchmark notion in my head.
It's hard because we don't want to encourage the wineries to give us free stuff. And we don't bill our tastings as, "These are the ten best," it's, "These are ten good examples".
Do you consider that an advantage or disadvantage? Or maybe a bit of both?
It's neither. My aim in doing the panel tastings is not to tell people what to buy, but to give them an idea of what to expect or hope for, and what the best can be in the genre we're discussing. And really to talk about the overall rather than the specific. We give some recommendations, yes. I recognize the fact that a lot of people will just cut out the list and not pay attention to anything else. I feel that's unfortunate, because that's not my aim, to rank the wines.
I'm not one who believes in scores and tasting notes. So from my point of view, our way is a little bit more honest. But it's also a recognition that were a general-interest publication. We don't have a huge staff gathering every example to tell you what's the best in the world.
How important has Twitter been for engaging with your audience?
I love Twitter, and it's put me in touch with people very much in the same way that my blog did, where people had direct access to communicate with me and vice versa. The great thing about Twitter is you can be pointed in the right direction very quickly in terms of the reading and research that you do, and more than that it's just a lot of fun for me in the way that Facebook never is.
Where do you see the field of wine journalism in five years?
I feel like I'm in an extremely privileged position. I've seen papers all around the country jettison their wine writers or eliminate their coverage or make it generic. Luckily my paper still thinks it's an important part of our cultural coverage. I'm hoping that will continue to be the case, and that the Times and papers everywhere will find a way in a completely new economy and the technology to make journalism pay for itself and be profitable. It's hard for me to separate wine journalism from that because it's crucial to be able to have good journalism in all parts of life. This year has been more optimistic for the Times than last year was. So I'm a little more hopeful now than I was then.
I do think that the increase in the number of voices we've seen in the last five or more years will continue, and we'll see a decentralization of power in wine writers, and I think that's a good thing for everybody.
Who of your peers do you admire?
I admire a lot of wine writers. I would say number one is Hugh Johnson, who I think puts wine in the proper perspective. He puts it in context--he puts it in the context of a life, not just a meal. He writes beautifully and evocatively about wine in a way that I find far more inspiring than trying to boil wine down to aromas and flavors.
I think Matt Kramer is a great wine writer. He's famously the provocateur, and always wants to take unexpected and contrarian positions. He certainly makes me think about wine and all sorts of issues surrounding it.
One more person who is not strictly a wine writer, Robert Camuto, wrote a book called Corkscrewed, about idiosyncratic winemakers in France. He has a new book coming out this fall not so much on the wines of Sicily, but he tells the story of Sicilian culture through wine and winemakers. I think it's brilliant, it puts wine in perspective and it captures or epitomizes the way I would like to think of wine: as part of a cultural spectrum rather than something to be analyzed and scored.