Eric Asimov: Don't try to demystify wine; just enjoy it

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If you read Eric Asimov's wine columns in The New York Times, it becomes quite apparent that he drinks for pleasure. But it also becomes apparent that he does not think that wine should be completely demystified. Asimov writes about this duality in his book How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Am I right in saying that I think you want us to stop worrying about what’s in the glass and just enjoy it, but also leave a little of the mystery intact?

Eric Asimov
Eric Asimov

Eric Asimov: That's exactly my point in this book. There's so much pleasure in wine, and we create so many obstacles to feeling that pleasure. We feel that we have to know so much about it, we have to be able to describe what we taste, we have to know what sort of barrels those wines were aged in and what sort of dirt the grapes were grown in. That's all fine if you're that curious about it, but that's not a prerequisite for enjoying wine. I think we've let the wine obsessives in our society define how to appreciate wine.

I'm going to make a point here that there's a big difference between the great mass of wine that's available out there and the small amount of wine that is made with care, with intent, that is somehow an expression of culture. It's a little bit like mass-produced food and good restaurant food -- there's a real difference and we shouldn't lump it all together.

Most wine critics don't separate the two kinds of wine, and I think that's a major problem. The wine with the funny picture on the label, 15 million bottles a year, is very different from the wine that's produced in a small vineyard by a family that has been doing it for centuries.

LRK: Give me an example of something that you love.

EA: There are so many great stories in California. We've had a tendency to focus on the wines that get the highest scores. I'm looking for wines that have a connection to the land, that have a history of expressing the qualities of that particular place where the grapes are grown.

I look at a place like Napa Valley, and one of my favorite cabernet sauvignons there is Mayacamas Vineyards. This is a historic place that has been making great wine for decades. But it has been disregarded lately because it stylistically doesn't fit into the popular notion of big, powerful, fruity, Napa wines. And yet they've been making such wonderful wine in a consistent way that really expresses the philosophy of the Travers family that's been making the wine, the dirt in the west side of Napa Valley where the grapes are grown. I feel it's a shame that it's been disparaged because it doesn't fit stylistically in with what's popular today.

LRK: Which cabernet is it? What does it taste like?

EA: It's a cabernet sauvignon, and to me it's a wine that needs time to develop. It used to be that we expected most great wines to require aging. In recent years this has changed. We've made wines that are more accessible immediately -- maybe at the cost of the ability to keep for a long time.

When you ask what it tastes like, it's a hard question to answer because I resist the use of the listing of fruits, flavors and flowers to describe wine. But I would say that this wine has a texture that captivates. It feels so good -- it's fresh and refreshing -- that you want to keep drinking it. It does connote flowers and fruits, yes, but it doesn't really matter which ones. It's just delicious.

When we talk about demystifying wine, do we really want to break that wine down into a dozen flavor components? In a way that's saying that the human has control over the wine. The great thing about wine is its unpredictability and its changeability from year to year, from hour to hour, in a glass as it ages. That's the mystery of wine that I think needs to be preserved.

LRK: How about another example?

EA: I think of a little family operation, Matthiasson family vineyards, also in Napa Valley. It's a fascinating experience to visit the Matthiassons -- it harkens back to the days when wine was really just a subsistence crop like anything else farm raised. They raised their grain, their vegetables, their animals, and their grapes. I feel as if that's the connection that we're missing today.

The bottle of wine that belongs on the table with the bread, the meat and the vegetables represents wine’s true place as a staple. It can be so much more than that, but if you approach it from that direction, I think that you will develop much more of a sense of ease with it.

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