on 27 December 2012
Those of us who crave good wine writing will be tempted by this, a wine memoir by the wine critic for the New York Times: it's like an American version of Hugh Johnson's "A Life Uncorked", only not quite as interesting.
Thus, we have Asimov's journey from ordinary suburban American life through to the Big Apple and annual tastings of Romanee Conti et al. All the way through, he's keen to stress his ordinariness, the moderacy of his personal income and even the limitations of his taste buds.
Blind tasting is a particular bugbear. Not only, he tells us, are his own guesses inaccurate but even to play this kind of game is to divorce wine from its essential linkeages, not just with food, but with friends or family. Wine for him is for drinking not tasting.
All very well, but Asimov therefore bypasses the whole Emperor's New Clothes aspect of wine culture: i.e. that people's taste buds are blinded by a glamourous label. Asimov says 'my taste buds are often inaccurate but I know I prefer J.J. Prum's rieslings and Jim Clendenen's Pinot Noir...' but does he really? Might he not just have bought into the romance of a conversation with a particular vigneron and be transferring that sentiment on to his tastebuds? In which case, he doesn't like a particular style of wine so much as admire a particular lifestyle of vigneron. In order to highlight his own humility, he undercuts his tasting powers to the extent that you wonder what kind of wine critic he is at all. A theatre critic never emphasises his/her own illiteracy, for example; Matt Kramer has made similar points, but somehow with more conviction.
For sure, Asimov comes across as a thoroughly decent, likeable guy who knows he has led a somewhat charmed work life, and actually I agree with many of his observations, especially about the limitations of the mass tasting. Can one really focus on wine number 63 in a line-up?
But equally, he peddles some myths which need busting e.g. "to develop your love of wine, you must develop a good relationship with your local wine merchant". Now this may have been true in the 1980s when the only way to get access to most interesting wine was through the shop down the road, but in a post-www world, when anyone can order pretty much anything, and in which wine opinions are strewn like confetti across the net through blogs and forums, who needs a local wine merchant? Fine if they are nice, but completely unnecessary.
Anyway, I still read this with pleasure, but I had hoped for more. Could the New York Times really not find anyone more inspiring? This is not in the same league as Jancis Robinson, Andrew Jefford or Matt Kramer. Try "Matt Kramer on Wine" before you get this.