Three bottles: Eric Asimov

The best sets of answers in this series are always the toughest to introduce.

I started Vinolent in 2009 for a number of reasons, one of which was the paucity (in my opinion, of course) of good wine writing.  Another was that I wanted to share, to preach, if you like.  I didn’t want to just score 2009 Latour 100 points; I wanted to share the theophany of the experience, the little cry in the car park afterwards, tell you about an experience that sits with me still.  And also to try to convince, or persuade, that a glass of Barbera and a salami panini could be just as good, if a little different.  It’s not about the score, it’s not about another notch on your vinous bedpost.  It’s more than that.

The knowledge of wine is never-ending – wine is not a subject that you can master.  Indeed, I’d say that one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t learn it.  You’ll never finish.  And that – the fact that you can’t learn it, score it, define it – is the answer to the riddle.  Any conversation, any article, on this million-petalled flower, can never be definitive.  There can never be a verdict.  Debate is pointless – there is no answer.  It’s about the ride, not about the destination.

There are just a few people that understand this.  I think that Eric Asimov is one of them.

Mr Asimov is the chief wine critic for the New York Times.  And in my opinion his wine writing is right at the pinnacle.  I am very, very grateful for his answers.  Answers that got me thinking in the same way that Becky Wasserman’s did.  Thoughts that seemed to just, well, “get it”.

I thank Mr Asimov for his prose which was written, appropriately, above the clouds and, incidentally, between two of my favourite places: San Francisco and New York City.

What was the first wine/bottle that got you into the whole wine thing?

For me, food has always been the thing, and I have always included wine in this category. As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1980s, I was becoming obsessed with good food, good restaurants, cooking and eating. I was aware that wine always improved the experience, but I did not yet consider the quality of the wines, just the cost and the size of the bottle. On a limited budget, this usually meant jugs of what were labeled Minervois, thin, wan but plenty of it. One night, for reasons I don’t remember, I decided to buy something better. Completely by chance, I selected a bottle of Giacomo Conterno Barbera d’Alba 1978. As I opened it for dinner with friends, I was taken aback by the intensity of the aromas. I had never imagined a wine so vital, vivid and alive. In the glass it seemed to radiate pleasure. I knew from then on that I had to learn to find wines this good always.

What was the first bottle that took you closer to your maker?

I can’t say with certainty as many epiphanies might qualify: My first red Burgundy, a modest Haute-Côtes-de-Nuits, which opened my mind to another universe of wines, or an ’85 Jayer Cros Parantoux, not modest, which filled in that universe with stars and constellations; an old Bartolo Mascarello, which opened an entirely different avenue of inquiry; the first time I tasted a wine from my father’s birth year, or a wine from the year Lincoln was assassinated. What resonates above all are messages from the past, traveling through time in a glass. This struck me in particular in 2010, standing in a stone shed that passes as a cellar for one of Bordeaux’s true noblemen, Jean-François Fillastre of Domaine du Jaugaret. From a tiny plot, maybe 1.5 hectares, M. Fillastre makes as fine a St.-Julien as I know, resolutely old-fashioned in style yet pure and beautiful, Bordeaux with the soul of Burgundy, a description that he would most definitely resist. On this occasion, M. Fillastre opened for me an unmarked bottle that was clearly old. The wine was a pale ruby color as he poured it out, delicate but not fragile, luminous and pure as I sipped. It turned out to be from 1943, his birth year, made under excruciating circumstances during the German occupation. I was moved by the wine, by M. Fillastre’s lovely act of generosity, by the way in which this bottle represented not just his entire life up until then, but centuries of dedication by a family that had tended this land since 1654. And I was moved by the fact that M. Fillastre had no heirs, and by a powerful sense of all we have lost and all we may yet stand to lose.

What was the best wine/bottle you have had this year?

I’ve had some sublime bottles this year: a ’53 Lafarge Clos des Chênes, a ’45 Mouton-Rothschild, a ’78 Monte Bello, a ’64 Biondi-Santi riserva. These were all lucky encounters, glimpses of the profound heights wine can attain. But for me, wine is far more often a down-to-earth yet heartfelt pleasure, enjoyed daily among family and friends. Once one has gained a context for all that wine can be, the simpler pleasures become the more meaningful. Of all the bottles that have touched my heart in the last 12 months, the most representative was a 2007 Chinon, Les Roches from Jérôme Lenoir, the sort of rustic, soulful, resolutely old school wine that I like to drink all the time. It’s an expression of a person, a place and a culture, transmitted without polish, distortion or falsehood.

Eric: thank you again.

Eric Asimov: The New York Times

The Pour