Tuesday, February 7, 2017

David And Goliath: N.Y. Times Wine Writer Eric Asimov Challenges Big Wine To Make Terroir-Driven Table Wines

Eric Asimov is not a regular at Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, the wine industry's biggest annual get together. But he came to Sacramento this year to be the keynote speaker at the symposium's Tuesday lunch, which takes place a day before the main action starts on the exhibit floor.

Perhaps he was a creative pick for a keynote. (In 2016, Bronco Wine president Fred Franzia was the keynoter; in 2015, K-J/Jackson Family Wines' president Rick Tigner gave the address.) It was a change to go outside of Big Wine's circle.

Asimov's not one to applaud the wine industry's mass produced plonk. And he's not one to cave in to industry pitches - "California Wine Month," for instance - like the consumer wine magazines (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, Sunset, and more), who are dependent on winery, liquor and food ads. No, he's an actual journalist, as he told the crowd. Even the pay content subscription websites like JancisRobinson.com, RobertParker.com, and Vinous.com are loathe to challenge the industry on substantive topics, sticking to their knitting (tasting notes and producer profiles) and winning popularity contests with the producers they favor within the fine wine industry. So Asimov's outsider status, honesty and integrity were a change of pace.

Be that as it may, Asimov is a gentleman. Being the polite, well mannered, diplomatic guy that he is, Asimov presented his positions in a congenial and educational way, as he built up to a plea for the multibillion dollar industry to fill a niche on wine shelves that is currently dominated by European producers - producing $10-20 table wines that are terroir-driven. By the end of his speech, he pleaded for an end to cheap imitations of Cabernets and Chardonnays and a move toward more diversity in varietals (think Sicilian, etc.) and wines with a sense of place.

But before all that, there was lunch, which, for me, was part of the educational experience of attending Unified Wine and Grape Symposium for the first time. I saw none of the usual wine writer suspects that I later ran into at the SF Bordeaux tasting later that week. There was only one other reporter that I knew there, and he writes for CAWG, the California Association of Wine Grape Growers, an industry group.

It's an industry gathering through and through, with mostly ag guys (yes, guys) and a mix of business, bankers, and marketers (the latter mostly men, some women). (I began to understand why there was such wild enthusiasm for the Women of the Vine conferences.) Women smiled to each other about the long lines for the men's bathrooms during bio breaks.

Aside from growers and barrel makers and lab staff, I met people who provide services in what to me had been somewhat invisible segments of the industry - those who do the job of transportation logistics (trucking and shipping wine to markets), or companies that make exotic decomposers, that break down winemaking waste byproducts.

So it was good that I finally got to Unified, which is, as the entrance signs reminded attendees, the biggest wine grower and producer expo in the western hemisphere. In fact, this year, according to local newspaper reports, the event set records with more 14,000 attendees from 31 nations, maxing out the Sacramento Convention Center's capacity.

But first things first. At lunch, I found myself seated at a table made up mostly of men who work for Cal Poly's viticulture and enology department, located in San Luis Obispo, or for J. Lohr winery.

I had the good fortune of sitting next to the wine school's department head - Belgian born, wine business professor Benoit Lecat - on one side and Jim Prince, a plant geneticist who's now associate dean for research in the Ag School, on the other side. Prince had just joined the Cal Poly faculty, having worked previously at Fresno State.

Also at our table were Andrew Thulin, dean of the Ag School, and Lawrence Lohr, the younger son of California wine icon Jerry Lohr, who founded one of the state's larger, family owned wineries. Though the 1.8 million case brand started in Monterey, it today owns 2,000 acres of vines in the Paso Robles area, making it a major player in Cal Poly's neighborhood, and a supporter of the school's planned expansion.

As Central Coast's wine industry has grown by leaps and bounds over the past several decades, its educational facilities have not kept pace. I learned that Cal Poly (founded in 2004) has outgrown its original facilities and is currently fundraising for a new 40,000 square foot center for enology and wine.

There was also talk at our table about Lohr's 2013 Monterey Chardonnay being featured at Trump's January inauguration. "The wines were all picked before the election," Lawrence Lohr told our table, "when no one knew who would win." He's had to explain that to a lot of people on both sides of the political fence.

After our leisurely lunch, Asimov took the stand. It was a rare opportunity for him to speak to a wine industry he doesn't especially like, because, like many wine lovers, he doesn't really care for wine that's produced in an industrial way - which is what the majority of California's wine industry is. Witness my lunch companions and the institutions they serve.

But we can't all be artisanal.

To begin, Asimov covered a wide range of topics, beginning with the origins of his wine writing career. He began writing about food for the New York Times in the 1990's, before starting to cover wine part time in 1999. When Frank Prial, the main wine writer for the paper, retired in 2004, Asimov moved into the role.

From the gitgo, Asimov reminded the crowd that he's not like other wine writers - in many ways.

"Remember I'm a journalist first. I'm not part of the wine industry. I'm not a booster of the wine industry. I respond to the needs of readers and consumers," he told the crowd.


Asmiov explained how he approaches his job, which is distinctly different from the way that many other wine writers do.

"Many people I talked to, they don't know about all these aromas and flavors in tasting notes," he said, observing that many readers were intimidated by such notes. "What is it about wine?" he said. "It's sole purpose is to give pleasure," he said, adding that too often it makes people feel anxious, intimidated, and inadequate.

"So I looked at the way people were supposed to talk about wine," he said. "There's a long list of esoteric tastes. It's simply not the way most people think about wine." Such terms are "unnatural," he said and when people find they can't describe wine in those words, they blame themselves.

"Why is it that we've chosen this lingua franca?" he said.

Asimov went on to one of my favorite topics - the fact that one can compare tasting notes from different critics tasting the same wine and find "different flavors, different aromas...it has nothing to do with the wines. It has to do with what is going on inside their brains. Consumers can't find the same aromas and flavors that were in the magazine."

So Asimov tried to find a way to describe wine that makes people embrace it. "And that means thinking about wine in context," he said. "The context of being at a meal, with food, and with other people. That means we're paying attention to wine, but not such rapt attention that it becomes a divide. Wine is about the people, the occasion, the context."

He began encouraging people to pick wine to go with the occasion and the place, urging them to be less uptight about choosing wines based on experts' opinions.


"Rather than allusion and omniscience," he said, "I would try to be more open about what was going on in my mind about a wine. I'd also be open to making mistakes about wine. For instance, in blind tastings - I've guessed wrong more often than right. Wine doesn't always behave in a logical way...You have to pay attention to the emotions in wine as much as we pay attention to the rational (soil, oak, etc.)."

"The joy that wine gives me, the sense of wonder is important," he said. "We have to shed this idea of neutral impartiality. All genres are equal."

Elaborating on that idea, he said, what critics in all disciplines do ranges from curate to pontificate. "I'm on the pontificate side,"he said, which means advocating for wines he likes and hopes others will try.

"We need to eliminate the notion of this model that ranges from modest to profound which is reinforced by the points system," he said.

"My hope," he said, "in a sort of subversive way, is to eliminate dependence on authorities like me."


Asimov said this is the greatest time in history to be a wine lover.

"The diversity of styles and varietals is something nobody ever heard about 25 years ago," he said. "Just compare a wine list from the 1980's to one from today. That 1980's list is closer to a 1920's list than today's list." Thirty years ago, he said you'd see the great benchmark wines from Bordeaux, and Burgundy - and maybe California. "We've filled in now," he said.

"Every village in Europe had its own wine, with its own grapes, in its own tradition," he continued. "Now, with intrepid importers, we have quality that's increased dramatically from places that were scorned and despised. Think of Sicily 20 years ago, or the Jura, or upstate New York, which has some of the best Rieslings."

Asimov told the audience that there are new ways of thinking that can replace the way what he called "the Mondavi generation" thought. They looked at Burgundy and Bordeaux, he said, and they focused on the grapes from those regions - Cabernet and Chardonnay.

"Napa used to be diverse," he told the audience. "Now it's monochromatic Cabernet."

Asimov said he placed his hopes on the new generation, which he characterized as more open to diversity in California wine, along with a new diversity of varietals in the world. California wine now competes with Jura, Sicily, Argentina, Greece and Spain, he said.


Asimov argued for a wine aesthetic that focuses on wine that is best at the table.

"[Wine] has a galvanizing role to play in gatherings," he said, "--not as the diva of the meal but as a supporting actor who in its quiet way makes things better." Wine should be fresh and delicious - i.e. sound - and it should show sensory qualities that relate to its distinctive sense of place, he said.

"Great terroir is an expression of culture that is as important as a region's cuisines, like a song or a dance," he said, encouraging California winemakers to make wines that reflect terroir.

"Wine is for drinking, not for putting on a pedestal. It's a drink with food, for every occasion - it's a staple, a grocery item. Wine is food and it belongs at the table."

Most of the room would agree with him on this one, since they make the wines that stock supermarket and Mom and Pop corner market shelves.

Asimov continued, "We should eliminate jargon and pretense and make people more at ease, more familiar with wine and less fraught with anxiety." He urged the industry to stop reinforcing fears with articles like "Ten Wines to Remember" and shy away from complex treatises and complicated rules on food and wine pairings with tables and formulas. "Those feel like algebra, rather than just picking wine with a meal," he said.

"You don't have to be a connoisseur. It helps to know something, but it's not a necessary condition. We need to simplify it, but not demystify it.


"I like preserving the mystery because I'm a romantic," he said. "There's a lot about wine that we don't know - how age and complexity affect it...why Chablis is like no other wine, why Heitz Martha's Vineyard tastes like nothing else - and why we can't make those things somewhere else...We have to confess that we really don't know why...we have to embrace ambiguity and mystery."

In contrast, he said the industry is overly concerned with uniformity. "With technology in the cellar, the American wine industry reproduces the same flavors and styles year after year. I'm not opposed to this type of winemaking, and giving people what they want, but it's not the sort of wine that interests me."

He characterized himself as interested in diversity, discovery, individuality and culture in wine."This is one of the most exciting times in wine and for California, too," he said. "There's enormous change."


"Fifteen years ago, when I thought about California wine, it was monochromatic and dominated by a few dominant critical voices," he said (referring to Robert Parker, et. al.).

"Then I came to California in 2006 and 2007, and tasted Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. I could sense that people were searching for styles that were leaner, more restrained - not plush and fruity. Even though there were wine writers, there was not much written about the newer styles and you had to seek them out. That's no longer true today."

Asimov's parting words of advice to the industry were to make more diverse wines from lesser known varietals - and not just at the higher end of the market. "Aglianico, Albarino - these can be made in the $10-20 range," he said admonishing the industry to get away from being so monochromatic.

California has been stuck making cheap imitations of expensive wine, he said, to the detriment of the industry and the consumer.

"I would like to see less artifice in the low end, big production wines and more experimentation with different sorts of grapes," he said. "The cutting edge of the wine market has embraced cheap (under $20) European wines, like Muscadet and Beaujolais. The U.S. can compete by making better, cheap wines."


Asimov also came out in support of ingredients labeling for wines. "We should have imposed labeling just like we do in food," he said, saying that people will still eat Cheetos even though the ingredients are labeled. "I actually think labeling is in the wine industry's best interests."

Asimov pointed out that organic foods are a major category in the marketplace and recounted a story about how Fred Franzia's converting vineyards to organics because of his daughter. "She shops at Whole Foods and it was very important to her that they do something about organics in their wine business," he said.

People are going to be thinking about wine in food terms, he said. "I give Ridge and Bonny Doon a lot of credit for their labeling," he said.

During the Q and A following the talk, following up on his comments about organics, I asked Asimov why the U.S. had so many fewer organic vineyards than France, for instance. (The U.S. has 2.3 percent organic vines while France has 9 percent.)

He answered, "it's taken longer for wine to become part of the food culture in the U.S. In Europe, wine is thought of more as a food."

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