The value of wine criticism: A conversation with Eric Asimov

What is the proper role of the wine critic? Is it more than simply reviewing bottles? Eric Asimov, Chief Wine Critic of The New York Times, shares his wine writing philosophy.

Eric Asimov, Chief Wine Critic, The New York Times
Eric Asimov, Chief Wine Critic, The New York Times

Eric Asimov is the Chief Wine Critic of The New York Times, where he began his career in 1984 as a national news editor. A food lover since student days, he convinced the Times that they were missing an opportunity by focusing solely on high-end restaurants. This led to the 1992 launch of his “$25 and Under” column, where he reviewed “restaurants where people can eat lavishly for $25 and under”. He began writing about wine in 1999 and became Chief Wine Critic in 2004. Meininger’s caught up with him at the recent MUST – Fermenting Ideas summit in Portugal, where Mr Asimov was speaking.

 

Could you just restate for me the principle that you outlined in your recent column It’s Time to Rethink Wine Criticism about how you’re going to approach wine writing from now on?

Well, it wasn’t entirely a vow of behaviour for me, but I was just raising the question of whether the best use of time for wine critics is to be reviewing hundreds of bottles, with dozens of bottles with a little tasting note and score. It doesn’t really help consumers—you don’t really learn anything constructive to help you build your own knowledge or develop your own tastes so that you can decide for yourself what you like and what you don’t like.

What about the role of the critic as somebody who discovers things worth trying, who says, "I found a wine you should know about"?

I think that’s a more important role for a critic than simply reviewing bottles. Critics can expose you to wines that you never considered or never heard of. They can get you to look at wines in a new and different way. They can inspire you to try a wine that you had dismissed or scorned or get you to re-taste the wine that you decided you didn’t like. There are all sorts of ways that critics can and will always be useful for wine consumers.

If you take every bottle individually, it conveys the idea that that blind quality is a very random thing. It doesn’t take into account a producer’s style, a producer’s attitude, a producer’s history. It says each new bottle is a zero sum game and you’re going to have to depend on me to tell you whether it’s any good or not.

You’re using the word “consumers”. Do you see your role primarily as recommending things that people should go out and try? In other fields, like theatre or books, criticism isn’t just making recommendations, but also talking about how an individual example fits into history and relates to its peers.  

I think I take a broader view of being a wine critic than most people do. Most people would define a wine critic as one who reviews bottles. What I would like to do is to get people to think about what they’re drinking. I think wine critics ought to have points of view. They ought to be able to argue in favour of certain styles or be opposed to certain styles.

You’ve got the biggest wine pulpit in the world, because The New York Times has become an international publication that’s available to everybody with an internet connection. How has that changed the way you talk about wine? In particular, how does affect the wines you do talk about, because many people won’t be able to get hold of them?

It has made me think about writing on a less parochial level, then for someone living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan looking for a certain bottle that I’ve recommended.

One of the things that I am working against is this expectation that a wine writer’s job is to recommend a bottle that people will be able to find at their convenience. And you know, I can understand the frustration [of readers not being able to find that bottle], but I also think there’s educational value in knowing what is made in this world, what is available in this world and how different people are thinking about wine. Even if you don’t have that immediate gratification of being able to run out and find that bottle, it’s good to know that it exists. You may travel to a different city and find it on a restaurant list there.

Do you just come up with a column, or is what you write dictated by, say, The New York Times making a push into Australia? Do you now have to be aware of speaking to Australians, or is that something you don’t take into account?

It’s not part of my consideration when I’m thinking about what I’m writing. It is part of my consideration when I say to my editor, "does this mean that I can go to Australia?" And I did earlier this year.

A couple of years ago the New York Times ran a series looking at the value of criticism in the age of opinion. Dwight Garner, the book critic, wrote the following:

What we need more of, now that newspaper book sections are shrinking and vanishing like glaciers, are excellent and authoritative and punishing critics — perceptive enough to single out the voices that matter for legitimate praise, abusive enough to remind us that not everyone gets, or deserves, a gold star.”

This is an imperative that has never belonged in wine criticism. You never hear anybody say anything bad about wine or the people who produce it. What do you think about that quote?

Well, I’ve been accused of being quite negative. If you go back 10 or 15 years ago, I was writing about how appalled I was by the exaggerated styles of California Pinot Noir or Napa Valley Cabernet. I’ve never hidden those views and I like to think that I’ve made the case for why I found those styles appalling and why the search for more classically shaped styles was worth it.

When you do a tasting and you single out a bottle for criticism, that’s a different situation. Then you’re talking about a single bottle and you don’t really know what the situation was with that bottle, whether it was badly stored or not. I don’t like to write about individual bottles in a negative way generally, because people are looking for recommendations. But I don’t have a problem with criticizing a certain style as long as I’m offering an alternative.

One of the problems with wine writing is that writers socialise with the people that they’re reporting on, which can blur boundaries. How do you operate as a reporter in this very social industry?

Well, I think there’s a certain amount of socialization that is necessary because, I mean, what is wine? It’s a world that often takes place over meals. You’re drinking and eating together and I think it’s incumbent on good wine writers to maintain a distance. This doesn’t mean you have to be cold or unfriendly. Or you can’t get to know somebody. That’s part of reporting. You want to get to know somebody. But then this doesn’t mean that you are friends, you know?

And it doesn’t mean that you now regard yourself as part of the wine trade. I certainly don’t. I’m a journalist. I’m not part of the wine trade or the wine world. I don’t care whether more people drink wine or not, except in the sense that I’m describing and introducing them to pleasures. My job is not to get people to drink wine.

Speaking of your job, how far does it extend? Do you see your job as specifically focused on discovering wines and talking about them? If you stumbled across a big scandal, would you cover it in your column, or would you pass it on to one of your colleagues in another part of the newspaper?  

It really depends. If it’s a case that demands the expertise of a financial writer, I would probably pass that on. If it’s a case that has to be analysed by legal expert, that’s not my expertise. But if there’s an angle to the story that is of interest to the world of wine consumers, absolutely I would take that on. For example, the Rudy Kurniawan court case was covered by a courts reporter who wrote the daily story. I did an analysis from a wine point of view. It’s always on a case-by-case basis.

We’re in an age where everybody’s got an opinion and everybody is taking it to social media. How has that changed your role?

It has certainly added to what I do. Social media is a great resource for any journalist, so you have to try to keep up, although it’s not easy. I want to engage with people who have a legitimate questions, not somebody who reads a review and says, "you’re an asshole. You don’t know what you’re talking about."

How did you learn about wine? Did you learn about it in a formal way, or did you learn on the job?

My wine training is strictly as a consumer and, more specifically, as a poor student who was in love with food and obsessed with restaurants. As a student, my friends and I would buy what we could afford, to have wine on the table with our meals. I got into wine from the bottom up.

You talk a lot about wine being food. Do you like cooking?

I’m a very rustic cook. I like good ingredients, simply made. I make a lot of pasta dishes. In the last couple of years I have been making a lot of bean dishes because I discovered a source of heirloom dried beans. It’s really about seeking out the ingredients more than anything else.

In your book How to Love Wine you wrote you once got a death threat for writing about food.

Yes, as a restaurant reviewer I received a death threat scrawled on a torn piece of a greasy pizza box. The threat was on one side, and the other had a postage stamp and address, sent like a postcard. I can't believe it was actually delivered to me at the NYT.

Even so, it wasn't as disturbing as the guy who wrote me by hand, pages and pages at a time, not threatening but creepy. When I never answered him, he finally wrote another screed, concluding "You are not a nice man, Mr. Asimov." Nothing like that has ever happened to me in wine.

And what do you drink when you’re not drinking wine?

Water and black coffee.

No whiskey, no -?

I like beer. I’m not much of a cocktail drinker. It’s often a little too sweet for me. I love Tequila and especially mezcal. But I don’t have enough capacity to drink as much as I want to. For the most part, I drink wine with meals.

Interview by Felicity Carter

There will be a report on the MUST - Fermenting Ideas conference in Issue 4, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International, out in late August.

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