An Education in Wine Writing
When I entered the wine business in 1990 at the PR firm of Gracelyn and Associations, Gerald Asher was an "A" Writer. It was the term we gave to those writers and journalists that carried weight or an audience. As the wine writer for the esteemed Gourmet Magazine, Mr. Asher carried both.
More important than anything else when I joined the fraternity of flacks was to learn as much as I could about the wine writing world. Not only was I to develop a familiarity with the people that wrote about wine, but I was to develop an expert knowledge of what they wrote about and how they wrote. This insight would be the key to serving our clients who hired the firm to do an especially good job of communicating their stories to the media. This largely remains what I do today.
When I read Asher's latest book of essays, "A Vineyard in My Glass", I was reminded why he immediately appealed to me. Asher is a chronicler; a profiler. That kind of approach to wine writing suited my disposition, having just completed a Masters in History. The biographies, chronicles of times and profiles of people and cultures had been my reading material for the past six years. The real difference between Asher and the academics I read at University was they he could write well and he didn't use 10 words when 5 would do the trick.
"A Vineyard in My Glass" republishes a selection of Asher's essays primarily from the past 20 years as they appeared in Gourmet. The exception is a final essay on the Rutherford appellation in Napa Valley written in 2010 for World of Fine Wine, a piece that is reminiscent of his earlier chronicling and profiling, but which doesn't quite match the tenor of his earlier works you'll find in this book that reach back into the 1980s.
The new book of Asher essays has terroir and regionalism as its theme. Each essays profiles in short a individual region: Dry Creek Valley, Anderson Valley, Corton, Sancerre, Champagne, Soave, the Sarr & Ruwer, etc, etc. The theme of regionalism in "A Vineyard in My Glass" offers Asher the opportunity to demonstrate the prism through which he has always understood wine since the 1970s. In the introduction written for the book, Asher explains:
"Inevitably, I came to associate any wine I met with a specific place and particular slant of history. I learned to perceive more than could be deduced from an analysis of the physical elements in the glass. For me, an important part of the pleasure of wine is its reflection of the total environment that produced it. If I find in a wine no hint of where it was grown, no mark of the summer when the fruit ripened, and no indication of the usages common among those who made it, I am frustrated and disappointed. Because that is what a good, honest wine should offer. It is not just a commodity subjected to techniques to boost this or that element to meet the current concept of a marketable product."
This appears to be Asher's primary critique of the current state of affairs in the wine industry. It is a backhanded critique of sameness for the sake of the marketplace. His vast experience with the wines of the world gives him the credibility and authority to make this kind of critique, I think.
Besides the chronicling and profiling, Asher's work is also stuffed full of an urbane empathy that allows him to spin an honest but always sympathetic portrait of wines or a region, and always doing so with a straight face and not too much fuss. Underneath what are fairly straightforward profiles of regions, the people that populate them and the wines produced there, one finds the prose of a romantic whose love of authenticity and preciseness and, most importantly, pleasure are allowed to seep out, politely and burnished smooth.
I've not gotten to know Mr. Asher. I've spoken with him on the phone now and then. However, he was never the close acquaintance or friend as some other wine writers have become for me. However, he has been an important influence on me. Reading him helped me gain a significant education in the field of wine and he also pointed the way toward good writing. I suspect he has payed the very same role for so many others in the wine industry and for many has become a companion through his writing.
I think there are better wine writers than Mr. Asher working today, but not many. They can be counted on one hand. And the fact is that Mr. Asher just doesn't write often enough these days for my taste. I wish he'd write more but at 79 years of age, having worked in the wine trade since the 1950s and having given wine lovers a long list of reading material ("On Wine", "Vineyard Tales: Reflections on Wine", and "The Pleasures of Wine"), I think we can give him his break.
"A Vineyard in My Glass" is going to appeal to a number of different types of readers. The sentimentalists we find satisfaction in reading essays from the 1980s and 1990s that profile people and place. The wordsmiths and fans of them will appreciate the taut, insightful and well written explorations provided by this work. The wine lovers will love a book that exudes a love of wine.