Eric Asimov’s “How to Love Wine”
My copy of Eric Asimov’s How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto has already been filled with folded down corners and marks on pertinent sections. The pencil appears where he shares ideas I want to reflect on further–like his consideration that a great wine moves in “a fragile ambiguity” offering experiences of doubt and tension (48). The dog ears hover over moments of prose I find enticing and beautiful. There is a sort of almost incongruity in this, as Asimov’s writing here focuses on a central thesis–wine is for ease and pleasure. Along with that thesis, is a common refrain recommending we move away from the tasting note culture of wine, in which apparently objective analysis seems to bear down on bottles, and to instead drink wine as integral to a culture of enjoyment. For me to mark the text, then, as an academic would, with notes of professional analysis, might seem to avoid Asimov’s point. The ultimate conclusion Asimov offers, however, supports that there is no one right style of wine, and no one right answer on what should be enjoyed. (There are some recommendations on how to enjoy it–over time, with a meal, etc., but not a limitation on those possible ways.) It is instead, simply, that if we wish, we should feel free to go ahead and love wine.
Asimov’s book brings together the journalistic tone we know of him already from his regular writing in The New York Times, with personal stories in which he invites us into some of the intimate moments that changed his view of wine. I found myself charmed at the flow of these remembrances, feeling for the younger Asimov that revels in the joy of discovering the power of a meal, that is, “the sum total of the event” (107)–the place, the mood, the food, the place settings, the wine. And especially for the Asimov that celebrates sharing these moments with others, including a 30-year Bordeaux with his parents on their 30-year anniversary. And that I believe is part of the point of this book.
Let me explain.
There are times in this read when I question the contrast between the more spare manifesto tone, and the memoir approach. The book begins with the sense that it needs to convince us of something, and at first I resisted what felt to me an opening with a defensive stance. After the first couple chapters, however, we step into a more relaxed voice that wants to share stories with us, and invite us into a more familiar understanding of Asimov’s personal connections with wine. By the conclusion it is clear Asimov, as he puts it, does not wish to proselytize. The early chapters, then, must stand for some other purpose. At first the move from the earlier, into the narrative reflection felt disjointed to me. In moving through the book as a whole, however, I recognize these first chapters are there to do what might be important work–that is, help us to clear a space for ourselves from the heavy assumptions of a wine culture that demands infallible knowledge and analytic tasting notes. In stepping out from under such weight, we can instead simply breath, relax, and enjoy as we read. Not only for hedonistic pleasure, but also for the sense of complexity that comes with no longer expecting an expert to deliver packaged and memorizable answers for us. The responsibility of authority comes back to us. In purposefully helping to create this kind of space, I believe Asimov is doing something to be appreciated, and that he can be thanked for.
U.S. wine culture often appears as intimidating, pretentious, and alien. Novices and connoisseurs alike doubt their own ability to successfully select a bottle of wine, as if it is a test not only of ones knowledge, but perhaps too of ones value as a person, or as a professional. There is, in other words, a fear that when it comes to wine it is far too easy to screw up. Eric Asimov, with his job as the Wine Critic of The New York Times stands as one of the arbiters of taste for the nation, and the world of wine at large. With such a position, then, if there are people qualified for delivering the test results of appropriate wine knowledge and value, Asimov is one of them. From that position of authority, Asimov avoids announcing what wine it is right for us to drink, and instead invites us to relax and enjoy whatever we drink with greater ease and freedom of pleasure. In this way, the stories he tells us are not only wonderful anecdotes about a person I love to read. They are also invitations for us to see that he (and by implication, the other arbiters of taste in the wine world too) is simply a person. Any experts in wine have ample knowledge, yes (and that should no doubt be respected), but the knowledge they have arises from their own experience with wine over time. Wine knowledge, then, is dynamic, changing, and, at its root, personal. If we want to love wine, we can develop our relationship with it ourselves too, just as Asimov or any other expert has.
By sharing his memoir with us, Asimov accomplishes the manifesto portion of his text by example. In the midst of what might otherwise seem alien, or intimidating (the world of wine), what Asimov’s book does, is invite us in to the experience.
Thank you to the William Morrow division of Harper Collins for sending me an advanced copy of this book.
Most importantly: Congratulations and thank you to Eric Asimov for this excellent book, and for all his important work. May we all strive to bring such humility, grace, and clarity in excellence.
Asimov, Eric. How To Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto. ISBN: 9780061802522; ISBN10: 0061802522; Imprint: William Morrow ; On Sale: 10/16/2012; Format: Hardcover; Trimsize: 5 1/2 x 8 1/4; Pages: 272; $24.99
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