How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto
by Eric Azimov
(HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, 278 pages)
With apologies to famous Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, according to Eric Asimov, chief wine critic of the New York Times, wine causes a sense of dread & suspicion. What is meant to be a simple pleasure, the consumption of the fruit of the vine with family and friends, has become a source of anxiety. Like the sword of Damocles, the fear of being mistaken, of being wrong, or simply not understanding, appears poised over every wine-related decision, however great or small. Instead of a joy, wine has become a burden.
The reason for this pervasive oenological angst, notes the author, is the underlying notion that learning about wine is a prerequisite to enjoying it. In other words, “only connoisseurs are equipped to enjoy wine.” Mr. Asimov’s purpose is to reorder this spurious equation: first, the pleasure of enjoying wine; then, if one is so inclined, the pleasure of learning about it. “My point,” he continues, “is that by overemphasizing the knowledge required to appreciate wine, our culture neglects the emotion necessary to love it.”
And Mr. Asimov does a first-rate job of attacking what he feels are the three chief culprits perpetuating our specious view of wine: blind tastings, scores, and tasting notes – and, by implication, the wine critics who employ them. Blind tastings, for example, certainly have their uses; but, bottom line, they simply bear no relation to the way most people drink wine. “If you really want to get to know wine,” the author relates, “you need to open a bottle, pour yourself a glass and drink it, preferably with a meal.” And the futility and downright silliness of attempting to quantify something as subjective and personal as wine with a numerical score appears all-too-obvious.
Then, of course, there are those verbose, often ungrammatical tautological tasting notes, which drive Mr. Asimov – and this writer as well – right up the wall: “… The flowery litany of aromas and flavors does little to capture the experience of a fine glass of wine.” These exercises in semantic futility, the author concludes, are, at best, a waste of time; at worst, pernicious. And I couldn’t agree more.
Does it really enlighten a consumer, for example, by telling him/her that a particular vintage exudes “a sexy/kinky bouquet of pain grillé, Asian spices, pencil lead, mineral, lavender, blueberry, and black cherry”? Not particularly. But the real oxymoron is that, even among the most respected wine critics, the myriad flavors and aromas they use to describe a single vintage barely, at times, appear to coincide. One writer’s “fig sauce, crushed plum & blackberry paste” is another’s “blueberry and cherry liqueur.”
Here, once again, Mr. Asimov is, I believe, right on the money: “The more specific the description of flavors and aromas, the less one is actually saying about a wine and what it has to offer.” On the other hand, words like “lush,” “concentrated,” “muscular,” and “powerful” give the wine lover infinitely more salient information about what may or may not be appealing in a particular bottle.
Throughout history, the act of consuming wine has been one of decidedly UNcritical enjoyment, the libationary equivalent of bread on the table. And the author, who is obviously a bit of a romantic, would like to restore that simple – though hardly simplistic – relationship. Thus, near the end of his book, following his negative assessment of the current state of the American wine scene, and a number of suggestions for improving its anxiety-producing paroxysms, he comes full circle, restating his opening theme in more personal terms: “Once you can establish to your own satisfaction that you enjoy wine for what it is rather than what it represents, then it becomes a question of how much time, energy, and money you want to devote to enhancing that pleasure.”
Mr. Asimov describes his book as a memoir and manifesto. And if he’d stuck to the manifesto portion, he – and the reader – would have been infinitely better off. Unfortunately, the autobiographical sections are rife with logueurs, dull, tedious passages that neither illuminate the author’s personality nor appear terribly relevant to his views about wine. Does the reader really care that the he smoked his share of marijuana in high school & college; or that, apart from the occasional bottle of jug wine, beer was the beverage of choice during his undergraduate years? Hardly.
And yet… despite its shortcomings as a memoir, the book has a great deal to recommend it. Mr. Asimov is a modest, likable, insatiably curious guide through the often perplexing oenological jungle, who isn’t afraid to admit that he’s often wrong. His is a breath-of-fresh-air, down-to-earth approach to wine that I find totally refreshing.
If you’re a wine lover, How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto is definitely worth a read.
Available in hardcover and paperback at Barnes & Noble and at amazon.com. Mr. Asimov also discusses his book in an online interview on YouTube.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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