An Evening w/ New York Times Wine Critic, Eric Asimov

Emma Jane-Doody Stetson

Who is Eric Asimov? “I’m a shrink,” he informed the group assembled at the Darien Library. “I’m like a priest that people confess to.”

OK, so his description might not have been literal, but as the evening unfolded, it turned out to be strangely accurate.

In reality, Asimov is a respected journalist who writes a weekly column on wine for The New York Times.  He also contributes to their Diner’s Journal blog and created the popular $25 and Under restaurant reviews.  His most recent achievement, though, is authoring a full-length book entitled How To Love Wine, that he presented at the Darien Library on Thursday December 13.

Although Asimov is an established commentator, he still retains the fun wit of an entertainer.  The evening felt like a cross between an educational seminar and a stand-up comedy routine.  As the event coordinators started off the evening by pouring the guests wine, he remarked, “It’s a strategy of mine to get the crowd liquored up.”

Asimov began by outlining the two major impetuses for writing what he refers to as his “memoir meets manifesto.”  First, he wants to introduce people to the growing number of exciting, esoteric wines available in today’s ever-expanding market.  “This is the greatest time in history to be a wine lover,” he announced.  “There are more points of view than ever before.”  He explained that small-scale producers in Europe have produced delicious, yet unknown wines for years.  In the past twenty years, new laws and more adventurous consumers have made it possible to get them here.

He applauded the local wine programs and specialized stores in Connecticut, in particular, for contributing to the revolution.   “You are lucky to have a store like Nicholas Roberts that seeks out wines like this,” he told the crowd.  He served two wines from the boutique wine store to provide “examples of the wonderful cornucopia of wines slowly becoming available.”  The first was a Joseph Forester Trepat.  The varietal is usually used to make Cava, a light sparkling Spanish wine.  However, this unique bottle is a smooth, pale red with round fruit tastes and a hint of pepper.  The other selection was a white wine from Greece, the Domain Skouras Moscofilero.  Its short skin contact and aging over lees results in a lovely balance of floral notes, fruit, and acidity.

Asimov’s other reason for the book is where the therapy references come in.  Because of his many successes, people look to him as a wine authority.  They come to him for advice about how to best enjoy the beverage.  “Usually it turns into people telling me their troubles with it,” he laughs.  Somewhere between all the swirling and references to terroir, wine cultivated a reputation for being pretentious and intimidating.  “Why?” Asmiv laments.  “It’s there for pleasure.”

Asimov alleviates anxiety by urging people to emotionally connect to the wines they encounter.  “You just have to experience it,” he explains.  “Good wines, are, in fact, expressions of culture.”  Although this might seem like a virtuous approach, it runs contrary to many of today’s wine critics who insist that the beverage must be prevented without history or feeling so as to present bias.  They view it from a clinical perspective, as if they were testing a toaster for Consumer Reports.  Tasters may sample hundreds of wines in one day, taking a quick sip and moving on.

“Wine appreciation takes the guts out of wine,” he muses. “Wine isn’t something to appreciate, but something to love.”

Asimov himself fell in love with it as a “sullen teenager.”  With a twinkle in his eye, he recalled how his parents uprooted him from a new girlfriend and whisked him away to France for the summer.  At first he moped around, but a lunch at a Parisian bistro with his father changed everything.

“There was great food, great wine, friends, family, loved ones. From then on I wanted to reproduce that,” he explicated.

In all of his memories, wine is present but not the focus; it is the loom that weaves the people in the scene together.  Asimov fondly remembered his years drinking “cheap” wine as a graduate student.  At first it seemed strange that The New York Times wine critic would recall these years with such warm regard, but as he relived the comradery he and his roommates shared as they sat down to dinner, the audience at the library fell in love with the boxed wine with him.

The most touching reminiscence, though, centered around his parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary.  Although only 28 and still humbly working his way into the industry, Asimov decided to purchase a thirty year old bottle of wine to commemorate their years together.  He selected a bottle of Bordeaux from 1955.  At the time, the $200 bottle seemed like a splurge; today a thirty year old bottle of Bordeaux would be thousands of dollars.  He chronicles the undertaking in his book.

“We took turns burying our faces in the pitcher to breathe it all in…,” he read to a rapt audience.  “As I inhaled the aromas of the wine, I felt the sentimental history of my family wash over me, of the hopes and dreams of Mom and Dad over their thirty years of marriage, of the lives they had built for themselves and that their children, now adults, were trying to build.”

Just as the audience had become completely absorbed into the scene, Asimov shut the book and broke the spell.  “I showed my mom this part of the book,” he said with a look of mischief in his eye.  “She told me, ‘I’m glad it meant so much to you.  I don’t really remember it.”  He paused, smiled, shook his head, and let out a small chuckle.

And that, in nutshell, embodies everything that Asimov believes about wine.  Meaning and memory is fluid.  Wine is context, emotion, expression.  Like a great book, the same bottle can be interpreted in a multitude of ways by different individuals, generations, and cultures.

“Wine is one of the simplest pleasures,” says Asmiov. “And it’s available to anybody.”