Decanter book reviews
Eric Asimov, How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, Harper Collins $24.99
I read this book in two sittings, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of Asimov's existing readership, notably at the New York Times, where he has been chief wine critic since 2004, will likely enjoy it also. The problem? We're not the target audience.
The book is labelled 'A Memoir and Manifesto' and its stated aim is to rid novices of 'wine anxiety' by charting a carefree path of discovery through wine's wonderful diversity. A laudable and worthwhile objective, and one for which Asimov presents a compelling case. He convincingly - and amusingly - ridicules 'the tyranny of tasting notes'; he debases the myth of blind tastings and the all-powerful 100-point scale; he calls into question the value of wine courses. In short, he undermines wine's establishment and presents in its place a vision of a more inclusive, democratic society. But I fear that in so doing, he is preaching to the converted, rather than recruiting more disciples to his cause.
In the second chapter, Asimov identifies the '21st century connoisseur' - new wine lovers who shun vintage charts, drink Cru Beaujolais, Sicilian reds and German Riesling, and understand that 'the key to unlocking wine is love not appreciation'. These are the people who will take most from this book. Yet its premise - and many of its pages - are concerned with dispensing advice to newcomers. At the same time though, the book assumes a fair bit of prior knowledge (an awareness of Ribeira Sacra's place in wine's hierarchy would be useful when this remote region is detailed as early as p22), which makes one wonder whether such newcomers will be able to navigate a path through a book that often jumps quickly from biographical detail to the dispensing of advice.
I found the 'memoir' passages more engaging - and convincing - than the 'manifesto'. Tales of Asimov's progress through the smokey, fractious newsrooms of the New York Times are wonderfully vivid. But then I'm an editor who has worked in newspapers. Similarly, anecdotes from trade tastings and wine trips resonate because of my personal frame of reference. Even the slightly indulgent tales of his exposure to marijuana connoisseurship at college are made the more entertaining because I've met Asimov, and feel I know him, to an extent, through his writing. Would the average Joe Public, though, coming to this book for insights as to how they can 'bolster their [wine] confidence', as the blurb promises, take much solace from such reminiscences?
They would, perhaps, feel that Asimov is one of them, and the author does a fine job of exposing his humility, vulnerability and imperfections as a wine critic. Possibly too fine a job. Asimov is one of the most erudite, thoughtful, diligent and knowledgeable wine writers out there. His hero is Hugh Johnson, and there are times when his thoughtful yet incisive prose, clear and crisp in its delivery, orbits the same realm. But would Johnson write a book for beginners? In so doing, I can't help feeling that Asimov is underselling himself. There are passages, notably on the new wave of California producers, or changing fashions in Piedmont, where he gives a tantalising glimpse of his extensive acumen. I would have loved more of these insights into the wines and people that excite and inspire him. It would make for a different book, and one that may risk alienating wine novices, something which Asimov is at pains not to do here. It's possible, though, I would argue, to appeal to both connoisseur and novice. Just not in the same book...