Gerald Asher on Wine Writing

This week I’m living in two worlds. Not by choice mind you, but mostly because I can’t leave the day job fully behind, ever. But most of my brain is here in Napa at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. This morning we began the symposium in earnest with two keynote sessions (“Why have one when you can have two,” said director Jim Gordon?) one from author and magazine editor Dominique Browning, and the other from wine writer Gerald Asher.

I’m going to share my notes from Asher’s remarks first, mostly because they touch on the ongoing discussion that surrounds Eric Asimov’s most recent column and my response to it.

Gerald Asher is without question one of America’s foremost wine writers, and one of the best wine writers in the English language. The wine columnist for Gourmet Magazine for almost 30 years, Gerald Asher was writing about wine before many of today’s current crop of wine writers (and bloggers) were out of diapers. His writings, in particular the compilation called The Pleasures of Wine (which you can buy here, or read a bunch of online for free here) taught me a lot about what was possible when it comes to writing about wine, and continues to inspire me.

Here is my usual “pseudo transcript” of his remarks. Not being a court stenographer, I have condensed slightly, and omitted (and missed) various bits. You can be sure that any part that sounds inelegant and stumbling is my fault, not the speaker’s.

* * *

Good morning. I’m delighted to be here, but I look around at wonder that all of you people want hear what I have to say.

I started to write about wine stemming from my professional activity. While at university, I started working at a wine shop in the evenings. It was so easy. Take the money, hand them the bottle. It was a simple way of getting into the wine business. The owner of this little shop liked to go home and have dinner with his family, so put up a notice that he needed help. I was a student, it was easy.

One of the things I didn’t notice at first was that this little area of London had a very busy business of its own. It was called Shepherds Market, but there were mostly “shepherdesses” plying their trade. They were our best customers. At that time meat was still rationed, and I still remember, one of these ladies coming in to buy her little half bottle and saying that without the meat, “this is what gives us strength.”

There was a point I remember where the shop owner came in one day quite agitated, saying “they’ve changed the vintage on the beaujolais and they’ve given me no warning. ” He said that people were going to be upset, coming in looking for the ’47 when all we’ve got is the ’49. He told me that it was my job to convince them that the ’49 was just as good. “If you have to give people a free sample, you can.” he said, “but you’ll need to explain this.”

And so he said that I had better taste the wines. He opened a half bottle of the 49 and one of the 47, and said “I want you to taste these two to explain that this one is as good and maybe better than the one before.” They both tasted pretty good and pretty much the same to me. He was satisfied I got the message, and my career was born.

It was glorious. In that moment, tasting from one glass to another, and handing out the half bottles was… [Asher smiles with delight] well, I remember one large Spanish shepherdess telling me, “young man, when you want a free sample, you just tell me.”

From there I went into the business properly. I went to classes and eventually I was sent off to work with vintners in Spain, Germany, and France. Then I came back and started a mail order wine business. Selling by mail order, you have to write about the wines, and so I began.

Eventually I came to NY to work with Austin Nichols. I knew the editor of Gourmet, and out of the blue she asked if I would write a column, three or four times a year. I said “what about?” She said “you decide.” Fortunately, because I was continuing to work in the trade, I was constantly in touch with people, constantly out in the wine world.

I only started putting my experiences into any kind of shape, after a couple of years, when I had an editor asking me what I was going to write about in the future. Until then it was just whatever I came up with.

When I did get into the habit of doing a column on a specific subject, as opposed to my random experiences, I couldn’t just write a long chatty letter to a friend with digressions. That was a beginning of a manner of working that stayed with me for a long time.

Here’s how I would work. If the article was about Alsace, I would go through all the tasting notes I had made over time. One of the benefits of being long in the tooth is that you’ve got plenty of material. You go back over tasting notes, books you’ve read, contacts in that place, phone numbers, get yourself assembled, organized. Then once you have everything together, you think about the angle for the story and backed up by who to get in touch with, the quote you’re going to get, a reference from a book.

References are wonderful. People have been writing on wine for a long time, but even if what they wrote in 1863 is no longer interesting or relevant, you’ll be surprised at how one little thing compared to today gives great depth to any story.

I always made sure to assemble more information than I needed. You must have real knowledge about what you’re writing about. You can’t wing it. Statistics were things I collected. If you say sales of Sylvaner have gone down, and you have a statistic to back that up, you can say it convincingly. I’ve always been surprised at the sloppiness of writers about all topics — if you know even a little sometimes you can tell just how little the writer knows himself.

Make sure what you’re saying is accurate. That was my way of doing it — start a folder, put it together, then start my conversation.

Writing is a conversation, to me. The best kind. You can’t get interrupted.

But even if you’re not getting interrupted, you have to hold someone’s attention. Information must not only be accurate, but in a digestible form. It also has to be entertaining. So you start your story, and you throw in a little digression here or there. The little digressions you give can relieve the whole thing, give some background and relief and humor. I say humor but not silliness. There is a big difference.

Remember that the person you’re writing to is educated, intelligent, and grown up. They don’t expect you to talk down to them or be condescending, just because you know something about wine and they don’t.

You’re metaphorically looking your reader in the eye. I give the same advice that Ms. Browning mentioned just before. When you write something, stand up and read it out loud. And if you don’t have someone who has the patience to listen to you, you be the listener.

One thing I don’t think that we have enough of in wine writing is the use of cause and effect. Whatever wine tastes like, whatever you’re going to do with it, it is as it is for a reason.

There’s a lot of talk about terroir, and that can become technical, but if you’re telling someone to drink Vouvray, it’s not enough to say it’s a pleasant white wine, it’s a bit sweet a bit dry and so on.

You have to link it to where it comes from. It’s not about a dissertation, but you need to understand why a wine tastes as it does. Why? You must know what the effect of the conditions of its origin. Where the wine came from, why it is as it is, and why it tastes as it does.

When writing about how it tastes, you want to avoid confusing the subjective things about wine with the objective things about wine. My fingertips curl when I read tasting notes. Boring stuff.

The first thing about your tasting note, is the note reminding you of that wine. When you’re tasting professionally, give yourself the obvious things. Bright acidity, tannins that are raw, those objective things. Then you need a hook that will bring that wine back to you wholesale. If I wrote hints of that, peaches, truffles, there’s no way in which I’m gong to reconstruct in my own wine. And certainly I’m not going to convey to someone else who’s reading it the complete picture of the wine. It’s such BS, it’s ridiculous.

When you taste a wine, there’s usually something that really stands out to you. Certain wines have a finish of grapefruit. Or some other thing distinctive about that wine. That’s the hook you must write down. Maybe it’s not the predominate feature, but what it does is call back to your mind that wine. At that point you can write something about it.

People want to know: are they likely to enjoy it and what was its principle characteristic. This is difficult.

I woke up this morning and spent some time on The New York Times. I went looking for news of the revolutions, but then couldn’t help myself and went over to the wine section where Eric Asimov had a wonderful article about tasting notes. In it he writes that the more specific a description of a wine, the more useless it is. He then goes on to dig himself quite a hole.

But his basic point is sound. Forget the fruit bowl, it’s enough to say the wine has fresh fruit, don’t go further than that.

I thought, if you have the patience, I was going to read a couple of short things, from my own writing. I find it easier to demonstrate what I mean about taste and terroir.

I wrote this piece because as I look through some of the work that was given to me for discussing with some of you here, I realize something I must convey. One of the things that I reminded myself I must make clear, is that distinguishing between objective accounts of the wine and the subjective, one should never say, this wine tastes of …. It’s rather about making clear that you are being subjective. Say, that a wine puts you in the mind of this or that. Never that the wine tastes like something. Otherwise someone is going to open the wine and say “Hell, where are the truffles I was promised?”

Despite this background I have given you, you must help people understand that wine is a pleasure.

When I came to New York, there were all these bright winemakers out of Davis that were let loose on the innocent public. They knew how to pick up a glass, analyze the wine, pick it to pieces. They would set up a glass with acid, tannin, then taste all these things, and then say you could taste the wine because you knew so much about acid and tannin.

No one explained that like looking at a picture, you taste the wine and you like it or not. The best wine, the wine you really love, you pick it up, and enjoy it. The second time you pick it up you say “Jesus, this is good.” But over time the wine is registering with you.

Our job is getting people to the stage that they pick it up and enjoy it. Not analyze it. Wine tasting is for professionals. Those that have to pick the right cask of Chinon and sell it.

You want both the subjective and objective. You want solid bits of objective info, but you are sharing the experience of it, and I think that most writing is doing that.

* * *

At this point the floor was opened for questions.

QUESTION: Given that you were in the business, how did you balance that with your writing and how you would encounter people and their wines?

ASHER: One of the difficulties of being in the trade and writing is that there has to be this very clear distinction between the two. On the one hand with my work, I spent most of the time traveling. I was in various countries selecting and buying wines. That gave me the feel for it all. That fed me and brought me up to date and that gave me the bedrock, but I did not write about those specific wines.

I once wrote a piece about a property in the Beaujolais. It stood out. This was a property that put Beaujolais on the map. I used it as the core of what I was writing, and we imported a little, and I never heard the end of it. It would have seemed crazy to not include them in a piece about the Beaujolais. But boy did I get rapped over the knuckles for it. I never did that again.

QUESTION: Do you see a difference between wine writing and wine criticism? What is it?

ASHER: I don’t know what qualifies anyone to be a wine critic. The only people that look at wine with analysis, they do it academically. That is fine.

With us we look at wine and whether we like it, and the more experience we have, the more we can figure out why.

Sometimes wine is ONLY subjective. I want to be careful what I say, which I don’t usually. I think that the ratings and and what the whole thing has done has had a good effect in getting people interested in wine and getting people to know that they don’t have to learn anything in order to enjoy wine. It’s a good effect in that sense. But it’s had an appalling effect on wine. It’s only now that we’re coming out of this phase of over oaked, heavy, over-ripe, wines.

You know if you’re a small winery, it’s difficult not to look at those ratings and think that it’s the golden ring. I’m not sympathetic to the world of wine criticism. It’s not like music criticism, or the arts.