Wine Questions? A Top Critic Has Answers

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This photo of a group toast is titled "It doesn't get better than this!" (dutchbaby/Flickr)
This photo of a group toast is titled "It doesn't get better than this!" (dutchbaby/Flickr)

Eric Asimov has a longtime love of wine. Good thing too, because in addition to being The New York Times' wine critic, he's also published a book "How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto" (see book excerpt below).

We pick his brain on such questions as: What's the difference between a Syrah and a Shiraz? What wines are exciting him now? And what's with the current trend of wines with names like "Cupcake" and "Layer Cake"?

What's your go-to wine for holidays or dinner parties? Let us know on our Facebook page.

____Interview Highlights____

Eric Asimov On Sicilian Wines:

“Twenty-five years ago...if somebody talked to you about Sicilian wines, you thought about bad, oxidized wines, and awful sweet wines. Now it’s got a thriving industry...From Eastern Sicily there's a young woman, Arianna Occhipinti, who is making an assortment of wonderful different wines. They’re elegant, graceful, intense.”

“From Mt. Etna...a wine with a label Calabretta. It’s really fascinating: they don’t release their wines for years, they pre-age them for you so that their most recent release is 2002, already aged 10 years.”

Eric Asimov is author of "How to Love Wine."
Eric Asimov is author of "How to Love Wine."

Another Region To Keep An Eye Out For:

“Ribeira Sacra in Western Spain. Beautiful wines made on slopes that were originally carved out as vineyards by the Romans 2,000 years ago.”

Recommendations For Beaujolais Under $20:

  • Jean Paul Brun
  • Marcel Lapierre
  • Martine and Pierre-Marie Chermette

Recommendations For This Holiday Season:

“Champagne used to be dominated by a small number of big producers but now, in the last 10 years, you’ve got dozens of small farmers who grow their own grapes and make the champagne...that are producing really interesting variations on the theme. Pierre Péters is really good; Blanc de Blancs, that’s a champagne just made from Chardonnay; Egly-Ouriet, that’s a champagne that’s more dominated by red grapes like Pinot noir.”

“You don’t have to find these particular bottles, but if you have a good wine shop, they’re going to have a good selection of these small grower-producers. You can’t go wrong exploring. That’s what’s really fun.”

____Book Excerpt: 'How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto'

By: Eric Asimov____

Wine Anxiety

Does the world really need another book about wine?

The bookshelves are already packed with volumes that tell us everything we could possibly want to know. Atlases, encyclopedias, guides to the grapes and to the vineyards. Ratings, analyses, textbooks, historical surveys, and coffee table companions. Monographs on single grapes and single estates. Many of them are wonderful tools, the kind of reference works that any serious student ought to have.

Beyond these are the primers, the essays, the how-to guides to wine-and-food pairing. Then come the prevention books — how not to embarrass yourself in front of your boss, ten surefire tricks to avoid wine gaffes, and so on.

On the other side are the books that promise to demystify wine, to make it easy for anyone to cut through even the densest jungle of vinous terminology. Of course, these books succeed only in reinforcing the mysteries that make wine seem, for so many people, as arcane as quantum physics.

Clearly, wine is a serious matter that can weigh heavily on a person. Not something to be taken lightly at all. If you doubt this, consider the hallowed ritual of examining the wine for flaws, which you can view at any decent restaurant on any given night. Notice the embarrassed-bordering-on-doomed expression of the individual targeted by the sommelier to taste. The bottle is uncorked, a thimbleful of wine is poured into the glass, and the glare of the spotlight hits full force.

The haunted look tells all, like the voiceover narration of internal dialogue in a bad film noir: I know I’m supposed to twirl the glass. I’m not sure why, but I see it all the time, twirling, twirling, twirling! Why? Now what do I do? Drink it, I guess. Why is he standing over me? I’m supposed to nod, right? What if I don’t like it? How should I know whether it’s good or bad?

Nine out of ten times it ends meekly, possibly with a game shrug to the sommelier and an embarrassed aside to one’s companions. At some fancier restaurants nowadays, sommeliers have taken it upon themselves to give the wine an initial taste, with the laudable aim of weeding out any bad bottles before they make it to the table. Of course, this practice has given rise to the suspicion that, by pouring a taste for themselves, the sommeliers are somehow bilking customers by giving them less than a full bottle.

I think everybody knows how it feels to be put on the spot like this. I know when I’ve been charged with tasting the wine at a meal with famous collectors or wine writers I’ve experienced performance anxiety, too. This fear of being mistaken, of being wrong, or of simply not understanding what’s going on, pervades the world of wine, where such a premium is placed on knowing everything and always being right.

Most people are resigned to enduring their wine fears. Some make halfhearted efforts to learn, but really, they just want to enjoy a glass of wine, not immerse themselves in a college-level course.

A select few are determined to overcome the obstacles. They head for the books, the classes, the glossy periodicals. They try CDs, DVDs, podcasts, and online educational devices. They learn to sniff out the myriad aromas in the glass and to talk in tasting notes, the global lingua franca of wine connoisseurs. They determine that 1945, ’47, and ’61 were great years in Bordeaux, but that ’77, ’84, and ’97 were not so good. They can recite the number of 100-point wines they’ve tasted, and they know the difference between a Sassicaia, Solaia, and Ornellaia.

But is becoming what society considers a connoisseur really the best way to learn to love and understand what’s in the glass? What is connoisseurship, anyway? And why is it that we assume the path to finding pleasure in wine begins with the accumulation of expertise?

The United States has become the largest single consumer of wine on the planet, yet what’s missing in many people’s experience of wine is a simple sense of ease. Instead, choosing a wine becomes an exercise in anxiety. Many people have come to believe that they cannot enjoy wine unless they are already knowledgeable, and so deny themselves the pleasurable experiences that would allow them to gain confidence. Instead of a joy, for many people wine has become a burden.

A friend once called me up because he didn’t know what wine he should drink with pizza, of all things. Well, why shouldn’t he be stumped? He’s read articles that break down wine choices depending on the toppings—pinot noir with a mushroom pizza, primitivo with pepperoni, Chianti if it’s topped with prosciutto and arugula, that sort of thing.

But what if it’s a prosciutto pizza with no arugula, or it’s topped with roasted peppers? Maybe you don’t like primitivo, or don’t have any around the house. If, like me, you live in Manhattan, 75 percent of the pizza you eat is delivered to your apartment. You know that the sturdy mushroom pizza from down the block is completely different from the more delicate mushroom pizza from the place three blocks away. The variables are endless, and relatively few are considered in such articles that purport to be helpful. Frankly, nothing should be simpler than choosing a wine to drink with a pizza, regardless of the topping. Pizza goes with so many different types of wine that it’s hard to be wrong. Yet for many people this sort of overly specific discussion fosters a sense of doubt and an unfortunate dependency on experts.

It saddens me to imagine the pleasurable task of acquiring wines perceived instead as a chore. As you might expect, I’m devoted to wine shops. I never tire of exploring the shelves in a thoughtful shop, examining the labels on the bottles, turning them over in my hands in search of new producers or more bits of arcane information, like an importer I’ve never heard of who brings in wines from a region I never knew existed. Of course, it’s all a preliminary, like poring over restaurant menus. As much fun as I have in the anticipation, the real pleasure is in opening bottles and sitting down to a wonderful meal with good wine, consumed with friends and family.

Wine to me is entwined with pleasure, joy, fun, family, and friendship. It’s not the sort of thing that requires book learning, academic training, or special classes, but rather an elemental pleasure that satisfies emotionally and physically. Yes, wine also has its aesthetic dimension, its rare and subtle beauty that becomes more apparent with experience. Plunging deeply into wine can be thoroughly rewarding. But it’s not at all required. It all depends on what you’re after. The simple contentment that comes with a glass or two at dinner is no small thing.

Years ago, back when I was coming of age in the 1970s and ’80s and found myself becoming consumed with interest in wine, its world seemed awfully small. Great wines came from Bordeaux, or possibly Burgundy, but most definitely from France. In the United States, for the most part, wine was obtained from a liquor store, an apt description of the nation’s drinking priorities. A few places did specialize in wine, like Sherry-Lehmann in New York City, where men in ties and aprons, the formal guise of the wine steward, might advise you on Bordeaux vintages or suggest a Champagne for a celebration.

Wine’s image was stuffy, the atmosphere clubby, and its world constrained and aloof. The general public was convinced that wine lovers were essentially snobs who looked downward with an attitude of sneering pretension.

A mere thirty years later everything seems so different — almost. No longer does wine occupy only a small corner of upper-crust society, or the hellish reverse fantasy, the down-and-out nightmare of bus stations and flophouses. Where I live in New York City, great wine shops can be found almost everywhere, from the carriage-trade posts of old to the hippest of hipster neighborhoods, where the young and the ardent chase wine with the same committed, obsessive energy that they pursue coffee, cocktails, and—this year, at least—meat cutting.

Yet one thing has barely changed. Wine still causes a sense of dread and suspicion. Nowadays, however, it is often directed inward. As the wine critic for the New York Times, part of my job is to talk to people from all walks of life about wine. I’m the natural recipient of their questions, and I love the give and take. They ask me for my opinions and seek recommendations, but sometimes they simply want to tell me how they feel. More than anything else, the single thought many people confess is that they don’t have what it takes to enjoy wine. They feel that somehow they lack the ability or the knowledge to appreciate what passes through their lips.

“I don’t know anything about wine, though I really should,” they say to me apologetically. Or, “All those flavors and smells that people talk about, I just don’t get them!” Or, “Can’t you recommend a book or a course that will teach me what I need to know about wine?” The desire is not so much for a guide that will effortlessly transform them into knowledgeable wine consumers as a yearning for relief from wine anxiety.

This sense of obligation and anxiety, with its accompanying feeling of inadequacy, is the biggest single obstacle to deriving pleasure from wine. Now, I don’t pretend to be a psychologist. Nor do I believe I am especially sane—like any good New Yorker I take great comfort in my neuroses. But I do understand and empathize with people who experience wine anxiety.

Despite what many people would have you believe, wine is indeed a complex subject. Demystifying wine is unfortunately too often a synonym for a disingenuous form of oversimplification, which only reinforces the anxiety that people feel about wine. This book will not demystify wine for anybody, and I can live with that. In fact, as the wine importer Terry Theise has suggested, we ought to think more about remystifying wine rather than demystifying it. But more on that soon enough. What I really hope to do is to clear up the murky, intimidating business of enjoying wine, of loving it. About this, no mystery exists: If people can feel more comfortable simply taking pleasure in wine, without the distressingly sad qualification—“Of course, I really don’t know anything about it!” — I think people will have overcome the greatest impediment to achieving a healthy relationship to wine.

Why is that important? Well, let’s think about it for a moment.

What other field of pleasure comes saddled with the same sense of obligation as wine? Few people feel that they really ought to know something about baseball, or automobile repair, or French literature. But wine? This is what I hear all the time: “Well, I really ought to know something about wine. . . .” People do not use that same semiapologetic tone to excuse their lack of knowledge of ballet or bread baking.

Why do people feel such a sense of obligation? Why are they so anxious and intimidated? That’s what I hope to explore and understand in this book. And by coming to some understanding, even an imperfect one, I hope to open the doors to less-encumbered pleasure. When the last book has been closed, the last note filed, and all that remains is what’s in the glass, pleasure is, after all, the primary purpose of wine. Yet to look at wine solely as a hedonistic vehicle is to miss much of what has made wine so significant throughout history. It can convey so much more than simply pleasure, but those added elements of wonder, of history and culture, of complexity and conviviality, are most available when wine can be enjoyed with ease, in its fundamental role as a pleasurable, refreshing beverage and dining companion.

It bears repeating: The primary purpose of wine is to provide pleasure and refreshment. It can do much more than that, but should never do less. With a mission so seemingly simple, I ask again, Why is it that wine and its trappings seem so often to breed a feeling of inadequacy?

These questions seem especially pertinent now because never before has wine been in a position to offer more pleasure to greater numbers of people. Right now is the greatest time in history to be a wine drinker. Regardless of the fluctuations of the economy, we have today unparalleled access to more different sorts of excellent wines, from more places all over the world, than ever before. Wouldn’t it be great if everybody who wanted to enjoy wine were able to take advantage of this fortunate time without fear and inhibition?

I’ve pondered this question for a long time, and I’ve learned that the answers are not easy or simple. Believe it or not, that’s a good thing, a very good thing.

Yes, that sounds contradictory. But contradictions are essential to understanding what makes wine such an immensely fulfilling topic for so many people. In fact, some of the most confusing things about wine are the books that promise to demystify it, to make it easy and simple. Just the other day a slender volume came to me in the mail — sixty-three pages including index. It promised to teach “all you need to know to choose the right bottle every time.”

I had to laugh, as nothing could be sillier or a bigger waste of its $16 cover price. Nobody, not even the world’s greatest wine scholar, will ever master all they need to know to choose the right bottle every time. Not only is that impossible, the notion is dreadful. Picking the right bottle every time is a little like eating only at franchise restaurants—at least you know what you’re getting, people will say—or owning a dozen sets of the same clothing—no surprises!

One of the great joys of wine is picking the wrong bottle and having it turn out even better than the right one. The surprise, the unexpected, the serendipity, the new experience—these for me are among the most euphoric moments wine can provide. But more to the point, even if choosing the right bottle every time were a goal, it takes years to gain the necessary experience to achieve even an approximation of such rote consistency. And for most people, it’s not at all necessary. The single most important thing one can do if one wants good bottles with dinner is to make friends with a smart salesperson at a good wine shop. Let them help you. Don’t bother with the sixty-three-page equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme.

Honestly, though, whether the book is 63 pages or 630 pages, the underlying notion of these sorts of manuals is that learning about wine is a prerequisite to enjoying it. Or, to put it another way, only connoisseurs are equipped to love wine.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, or more backward. My purpose in writing this book is to try to reorder this equation, to reorient our thinking about wine so that pleasure comes first—that is, first the pleasure of enjoying the wine, then, if you are so inclined, the pleasure of learning about it. Over time I’ve developed a response for the many people who tell me with embarrassment that they aren’t equipped to understand wine, or who feel as if they are unable to penetrate what they imagine to be an exclusive wine culture. I say to them: Nobody is obliged to like wine.

Nobody is obliged to know anything about wine. It is not a sign of a well-rounded personality, of a civilized human being, of a renaissance individual, or of anything else. Knowing something about wine ought to signify nothing beyond the fact that you can be helpful with a wine list.

Wine is a great pleasure for many people. If you are at all curious about why so many people seem to care about wine, start drinking a glass or two of wine with dinner. Experience is the best teacher.

If the experience of enjoying wine regularly makes you even more curious, that is the time to think about books and classes. But understand that, as with any vast subject worth learning about, wine can become a lifelong passion. No such thing exists as one class or one book that will teach you everything you need to know. The first book is simply the first among many. It will most likely make you overly conscious of what you don’t know. And as many great people in the wine business have said, no substitute exists for pulling corks. In other words, the more different sorts of wines you drink, the more you’ll know and the easier wine will be to understand.

Last, but perhaps most important, no special physical characteristics or equipment are required to love wine. You do not need a hypersensitive nose, a palate that must be insured by Lloyds of London, a grasp of the world’s most obscure fruit flavors, or a set of expensive, ungainly glasses. You simply require an open mind, a sense of curiosity, and an awareness that learning about wine is an act of volition, not of obligation. The aim is pleasure and joy, not status, not connoisseurship, and certainly not wealth.

My point is that by overemphasizing the knowledge required to appreciate wine, our culture neglects the emotion necessary to love it. We focus on what people don’t know. We preach the virtues of wine education. Our wine culture tends to lecture instead of letting the wine in the glass do the talking. As a result many people end up in a tormented relationship with wine, marked by fear and resentment rather than simple pleasure, just as children end up hating school because they’ve had a demeaning teacher.

Having said that, writing a book runs the risk of adding to the lecture. Obviously, I don’t want to end up as another hectoring parental voice telling people to drink their wine as if it were good for them, like vegetables on a recalcitrant child’s plate. Nor would I enjoy coming off as self-laudatory or, equally unattractive, defensive.

So it is with some trepidation that, in addition to analyzing some of the features that mark American wine culture, I offer up my own experience of falling in love with wine. I do this because, almost as often as people confide in me their anxiety about wine, they ask with genuine curiosity how I got into this business.

I usually tell them that I possess the single most important trait of a food and wine critic: an enormous appetite combined with a swift metabolism.

That’s absolutely true, and people often laugh. But clearly it doesn’t begin to answer their question. And when I think about it, my own serendipitous path to what for me is a dream job might in fact prove instructive, if only because my experiences, whether accidental or purposeful, seem rather ordinary compared with the usual stuff of the wine memoir. Ordinary, at least, in the sense that they indicate no special attributes, unusual sensory characteristics or extraordinary access to great bottles. If I fail to convince you of that, I hope my experiences will at least be entertaining.

This book, then, is part manifesto and part memoir, a gathering of impressions through experience. I don’t imagine for a moment it will tear apart our entrenched wine culture. In fact, even if it did, I’m not convinced that my solutions offer the only method for reimagining it in a less threatening way. The idea is to start a discussion, and a reconsideration. I do believe I am asking the right questions, and if I can pull a thread on the crazy-quilt of established dogma, accepted principles, and so-called facts that rule our wine culture, I will feel that I have done my job.

I fear that the various parts of this book may not always dovetail neatly. For that I apologize. But neither the world of wine nor my own inner world is particularly neat and well organized. Both are full of awkward corners, sharp angles, overlaps, and unexplained culs-de-sac that can create tension and friction if you are not comfortable living with ambiguity and contradictions. Pretending otherwise would only contribute to the problem.

Excerpted from the book HOW TO LOVE WINE by Eric Asimov. Copyright © 2012 by Eric Asimov. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins.


  • Eric Asimov, wine critic for The New York Times and author of "How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto." He tweets @EricAsimov.

This segment aired on December 4, 2012.


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