Summer and life having taken over in equal measure, I’m a bit late with this post. But since I wrote a recap of Jancis Robinson’s keynote speech at the Wine Bloggers’ Conference, I thought I’d do the same for Eric Asimov’s equally compelling keynote speech. Eric Asmiov is the chief wine critic for the New York Times. While I don’t always 100% agree with some of his more controversial ideas, I do always really admire and enjoy his work. I like that he pushes wine writers to reconsider how we think and write about wine. He also seems quite down-to-earth and approachable.
Eric began by telling us that he wasn’t sure he even qualifies as a blogger anymore: his blog The Pour died “an untimely death” about a year ago when all the food and wine blogs at the New York Times were combined into one blog, Diner’s Journal. But “what really is a blogger, anyway?” he asked. Like Jancis Robinson, he suggested that a wine blogger is really a wine writer, and that it’s time to think of ourselves all simply as writers. “Nowadays, a blogger is really a writer on the Internet,” as well as an editor and a publisher, he said.
Amusingly, Eric started his career as a critic writing beer reviews for his high school newspaper. (I guess the legal drinking age didn’t matter so much back then.) He developed a passion for food and wine early on, but he first became a news editor because, back in the 1970s and 80s, wine and food were not considered “serious” subjects in journalism. It was only as recently as 2004 that the New York Times considered wine a serious enough subject to have a dedicated critic. He took the position.
Eric’s wine education was completely self-taught: he never took a class. The term “wine appreciation” bothers him because he feels it misses the emotional connection we have with wine. We should learn to drink before we learn to taste, he said. In his view, wine writing should serve the consumer, not the wine industry.
Here are some of Eric’s tips for starting out in wine writing:
- Accumulate experience. To do this, you have to drink a lot of wine. There’s a big difference, he stressed, between drinking wine and attending tasting events. To really understand wine, you have to drink wine, not just sip and spit. You need to develop a context of many different wines you’ve had in many different conditions. You need to accumulate an experience of bottles. (I loved this piece of advice – I always feel I get a lot more out of a wine when I share a bottle over dinner, rather than just sipping and spitting a taste.)
- Develop a point of view as a writer. Approach writing (and blogging) as a journalist.
- Be a skeptic. You need a healthy sense of skepticism as a wine writer. In all of us at some level, he suggested, there’s a deep insecurity about wine. It makes us eager to show what we know and not adept at doubting what we’re told. For example, we’re told that low yields are always better. But are they really always better? How many times are we going to let a winemaker tell us that “wine is made in the vineyard” without questioning whether it’s really true? Don’t let yourself get caught up in the marketing points without questioning. Which leads to…
- Get your own answers. Question everything you’re told. Just because you read something doesn’t mean it’s true. Do your own research.
- Decide on your goal. You have to decide what you want to do as a writer and a blogger and how you’re going to connect with your readership. Eric cited a few examples of people who have cut out a clear identity for themselves with a clear goal. Gary Vaynerchuk, for example, has a very clear identity. Yes, he’s out there making mistakes, Eric admitted, but he’s loving wine and making other people feel comfortable about it. He also mentioned Brooklyn Wine Guy, one of his favorites, who has never tried to be anything he wasn’t and has never talked down to anyone. And Alice Feiring is very distinctive and original. “You may not agree with her, but you know where she’s coming from,” he explained. Very true. (Personally, I love that about Alice. She’s such a unique voice in the wine writing world.)
Eric suggested that, as we’re making decisions about voice, point of view, and how we’re going to connect to our readership, bloggers have the power to shape Americans’ view of wine. Americans are uncomfortable with wine, and how we write shapes how consumers feel about wine. The “time has come for us to all practice professionalism,” he said. Professionalism is the key to credibility, which when combined with having a unique voice, is the key to being heard. The old notion of the “wine connoisseur” is dead. These days, it’s not just old, rich white men who can know something about wine, it’s all kinds of people. And we can’t use the great Bordeaux and Burgundy wines as yardsticks anymore – they’re priced out of most people’s lives. The real 21st century connoisseur, said Eric, recognizes the great diversity of wines available to us.
He challenged all the bloggers in the room to go for one year without writing a tasting note, and to write only about wine we’ve actually consumed. Instead of focusing on the characteristics of the wine, say what it is you love about it, he suggested. Eric is well-known for his stance against tasting notes: he feels that a long list of aromas isn’t useful to the consumer. “Does it really matter if a wine is redolent of boysenberries or raspberries?” he asked. Do wine writers just assume that this is how they should talk about wine? He would rather urge people to use generalities when talking about wine. “Ever day,” he continued, “wines are diminished by scoring.”
I’m not sure how I feel about entirely doing away with tasting notes. I too find wine writing composed solely of tasting notes boring–I want the story behind the tasting note–but I do find it useful to read that a wine tasted of raspberries and violets and had a very high acidity but light body. So I can’t say that I will do away with tasting notes entirely in my wine writing, but I will think twice before using them, and I will try to weave a tasting description into a larger story about the wine and how it made me feel, rather than writing stand-alone tasting notes.
What do you think about tasting notes? Are they useful or interesting to you?