Image: “There are stories in them thar hills!” – Barolo Vineyards via piemonteitalia.eu
Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, has a predictably thoughtful piece this week about the state of wine writing and criticism. Asimov calls into question the value of wine criticism that centers on short write-ups and ratings of bottles. If you care about wine, you probably already read it, but I flag it anyway to underline a few points.
Asimov makes several points. One is that the “tasting and spitting” model where a critic will taste 30, 40, or 100 wines in a row is not actually accurate. It is a snapshot.
“But unlike soft drinks, good wines are not stable. They change continually, and trying to define them at one particular moment is like photographing the sky and assuming it will always look like that picture. It’s one reason I advocate drinking rather than tasting, getting to know a wine over time, with a meal, rather than relying on the quick transitory sample.”
Another point made in the article is that rating-based writing can put off newcomers to wine or make them dependent on the thinking of critics. “By subjecting seemingly every bottle to evaluation, year in and year out, these reviews convey the sense that the quality of a wine is random.”
Asimov thinks that wine writing should empower the reader. “I believe that the most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves.” He proposes that writers spend time educating drinkers on producers, importers, and other elements that go into a wine. “Wine writers have so much to offer beyond the bottle reviews: introducing unfamiliar regions, grapes and producers while revisiting old ones; offering critical appraisals of styles; and assessing what’s new and what’s ripe for rediscovery.”
I concur. Asimov’s own writing was one of the tools I used to discover the wine world. One of the most enjoyable and enlightening ways I learned about wine was to work my way through Vino Italiano by Joe Bastianich and David Lynch (who the Random House site confuses with the film-maker), a book that goes region by region in Italy. I would buy a bottle or two of the wines from a region, read the section on that region, take notes. I could compare styles within the region and across regions. It gave me tools that could be applied to the regions of other countries. In contrast, the giant Parker guide was packed full of notes about wines I could not taste with little point of reference.
Allow me to make a plug as well. Dave McIntyre, the Washington Post’s wine writer, is already doing much of what Asimov advocates. He does bottle ratings, but it is secondary to his columns where he has demystified wine language, talked about regions, tracked the making of wine through the seasons, and explored the local wine industry. The second plug is for Levi Dalton’s “I’ll Drink to That” podcast where he interviews producers, importers, sommeliers, and others for the stories behind the industry. If MacIntyre is doing the undergraduate class, Dalton is conducting a graduate-level seminar and we get to listen for free.
Implicit in Asimov’s argument is that the wine industry and the people that love wine are often their own biggest enemy. They can take something inherently pleasurable and turn it into something dutiful and exclusive. I am glad to see some of the most prominent names in the field are correcting that.
Another great asset to understanding wine is to find a good neighborhood wine shop where they can help guide your exploring. We have been developing a list of such shops for D.C.