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.
Asher’s premise sounds like everything the “Wine Points Critics” are trying to say. Glad it’s sinking in; and don’t try to tell me that this aligns with grouping entire varietal categories into 100 point smorgasbords, because it absolutely doesn’t!
Actually, Asher’s premise (regionalism) sounds like what most hard core wine lovers have been celebrating for about 500 years.
As for his critique of “sameness”, as I put it, I’m pretty sure one could use wine reviews using the 100 point system to make the case against the alleged “sameness”.
Your “Wine Points Critics” are not so dumb as to be unaware of their traditional view, Tom. That’s their point, too: 100 point systems are grotesque, modern day distortions of wine qualifications. If anything, 100 point systems promote sameness; particularly among producers valiantly trying to please such critics by crafting products to their standards.
Everyone knows this — it’s an open secret: top producers putting point accumulation in front of terroir, grape and even personal artisanal considerations. There is no defense, Mr. Wark, other than the fact (granted) that points do help consumers make choices. Problem is, they’re being helped by being diverted to wines produced according to distorted standards. You’re taking the bad with the good, which is the point…
Not sure what you mean by “distortions of wine qualifications.”
However, there are a number of wines that are truly terrific…I mean GREAT wines that appear to be true to their terroir, that regularly get high scores and great reviews from the 100 point people. How could this be?
Further, let’s take Napa Valley for a moment. We all know that in Napa today, the wines that are often considered the best and which usually get high scores tend to be 14.5% alcohol, dark, extracted, etc, etc. You know the wines. Explain to me how these wines are not authentic representations of the soils, the hot climate, the traditions of winemaking in the valley that have developed over the past 25 years.
Finally, with regard to “distorted standards”, how are standards distorted and from what normalized base do these “distorted standards” emerge? In other words, what are the undistorted standards that we ought to be concerned with?
Just added these to my reading list. Thanks, I am always eager to read good wine writing and had not really ever read anything by Mr. Asher. Good to put him in front of the next gen of wine industry folks, myself included.
You are going to enjoy Asher’s work!!
Gerald Asher is a genuine treasure. A wine lover who can write circles around most of us in the writing business.
But, let’s be clear. Mr. Asher’s writings have nothing to do with the 100-point system–although he is a vigorous critic of most tasting notes despite the fact that he writes them himself (witness his recent notes in Decanter).
I have to take issue with my long-time friend, Randy Caparoso. The 100-Point system is not responsible for the ills you perceive. My. Peynaud is, or maybe consumer preference is. But, Mr. Parker or Mr. Laube or even little old me did not change the consumer. The consumer votes with its readership and if WS is more popular than WE and Parker is more popular than Dan Berger as wine critics, it is because the consumers have made them so.
Mr. Asher has educated so many of us, and I am proud to say that I am one of them. His writings are celebrations and educations rolled into one. But, to use his celebrations of place to launch a jeremiad against the 100-point system, no matter how much you might dislike it, misses the point in my humble opinion.
I like our debates over on the CGCW blog about this topic much more than including them here.
Oh, and, folks, this is book worth reading if you love wine.
I once had the pleasure of tasting wines with Gerald Asher and then presenting him as the guest speaker for the Sonoma County Wine Technical Group. His presence made for a memorable evening and he brought out many members who tended to avoid these often moribund sessions.
When I asked him about how he managed to convey so much insightful information in his essays, he responded that he didn’t know very much about wine but was good at asking questions of those he interviewed. Perhaps there’s a lesson for all us “Wine Writers”.
Mr. Asher saying he does not know much about wine is like Stephen Hawking saying he does not know much about the universe. He was in the wine trade in England for many years, and while he does admit to doing a lot of research for his articles, he could not even begin to ask all the right questions if he did not have great knowledge to begin with.
He is also quite humble and incredibly likeable.