“How to love wine” is a book by Eric Asimov, the New York Times chief Wine Critic. Amazon price is currently just under £11. The book is subtitled “A Memoir and Manifesto”, and what follows is A Book Review and General Kicking About of Issues Raised by the Book.
I read this book quickly as it is not heavy in any sense of the word. It switches between memoir and manifesto in a seemingly random way, and there is much repetition of the main thrust of the manifesto. You can easily imagine that it was written in one pass with minimal editing. With tight editing it could be half the size. I would find it difficult to argue that is a good book.
Despite all that, I found myself quite enjoying it. It helps that Eric comes across as a nice bloke, and someone with ideas that I largely agree with. The big positive is that it got me thinking again about my relationship with wine, so in that sense I felt I got my money’s worth, and I hope Eric would take some pleasure from that. While reading it I found myself largely nodding along with the author, and indeed some bits seemed very similar to stuff I have written in the past. But then, on further reflection, especially when paying attention to some detail, I realised we do not see entirely eye to eye.
The main thrust of Eric’s manifesto is, I hope, summarised in this paragraph… No one should feel under any obligation to understand wine or become a connoisseur. If you are happy drinking whatever wine is on special offer at the supermarket, that is fine. Many people would question that this needs saying at all, but there are many wine experts, critics and merchants who embark on a moral crusade to get supermarket drinkers to trade up. And there are others who play on the fear and ignorance of ordinary punters, seeking to persuade them that they should educate themselves about wine so they can avoid looking foolish in restaurants and in sophisticated company. Eric rightly assures people that no one need learn about wine, and that no one need fear it. He thinks wine is not easy to understand, and does not like those who claim to teach you all you need to know in a few easy lessons. But it you decide you really do want to know more about wine, you should approach it is in an easy and relaxed way, with an open mind and a willingness to explore. It largely involves drinking the stuff, and paying attention to what you drink. So far so good – I agree. I would just add that if you want to progress only a little beyond the supermarket plonk stage in wine appreciation and then stop, that is fine too.
Where I diverge a little from Eric’s view, is in how to learn about wine, and the value of wine books and courses. Eric would have you start your exploration by taking the guidance of a good wine merchant, and drinking the suggested bottles with meal. Sadly, I think it is a lucky person that can find such a wine merchant – one who is both knowledgable and good at listening. Also, learning about wine at the pace of one bottle per meal is rather slow. By all means do drink with meals, and understand that is the best way of appreciating most wines, but I would additionally suggest using all opportunities to taste wine that present themselves – wine societies, merchant tastings, walk-around wine festival type tastings etc. Realise the limitations of those formats, but use all those opportunities to explore. Also, if you have friends that are also interested in learning about wine, club together with them to share bottles, with or without food. Listen carefully to what other people tell you about wine, but do believe everything you are told. If someone says something you think is particularly interesting or important to you, check it out. What is the evidence?
Also, unlike Eric, I think there is value in reading wine books at an early stage, not to learn how to appreciate wine, but just to get some facts under your belt. I think it is a lot easier to understand your taste in wine as you explore if you have a basic understanding of grape varieties, European wine regions, and how they relate to each other. It is handy, for example to know that red Burgundy is usually made from Pinot Noir, and that the Medoc is a sub region of Bordeaux. If you like Burgundy, you can then explore other Pinot Noirs, and if you like a Medoc wine you will probably like other wines from Bordeaux. Wine is not simple for two reasons in my opinion. One is because there is a lot of nuance and opinion. The other is that there are so many facts to get your head around. I think it helps to learn the facts, and to learn the difference between fact and opinion. I also happen to get a lot of pleasure from reading technical details about wine. I am not saying that is good or bad, but I get the impression Eric does not think such things are relevant. I’d just say that people should be encouraged to explore wine in the way they feel most comfortable with. I am a scientist by education, and that colours the way I get to know the world.
Finally, I’ll just say that I was not sure exactly what Eric was saying about wine as an expression of culture. It is clear that he likes wines from small producers that use traditional methods, but it is not so clear whether that is mainly from an emotional and ideological viewpoint, or does he really think those wine taste better? And if they do taste better, is that something that would come out in a blind tasting for him, or is it an example of “drinking the label”? Personally I share the same views in an emotional way, but doubt that the weight of tradition and history transfers itself to the wine glass as a recognisable taste. I would also point out that most punters, even wine lovers who buy at better wine merchants, have little idea about how devoted to local tradition the producer is. Some may have read articles about the producer, but I am cynical enough to suspect that journalists writing such articles do not always get the full story. Those producers most fully embedded in their own cultures are probably the ones least likely to get visited by foreign journalists, and quite likely also produce rubbish wines. That, by the way, is a good example of opinion and unsubstantiated fact. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to prove or disprove it 😉