On Fine wine and Luxury- In conversation with Eric Asimov

Eric Asimov is the chief wine critic of The New York Times and the author of “How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto” 

This interview is adapted from various conversations with Eric Asimov from April to July 2019, done in order to prepare his panel On luxury – Creating the Exceptional, moderated by Elin McCoy during the 2019 edition of FM4FW in Bordeaux.

Pauline Vicard

Eric, you have been a strong advocate for dissociating wine, whatever their prices and associated quality, from the spheres of luxury. As we are trying to define Fine Wine, I wonder: do Fine Wine and luxury wine really mean different things?

Eric Asimov

Indeed luxury can mean a lot of things but in many ways, it’s almost irrelevant what it means, it’s what it connotes to people, at least to North American through their interpretation of wine culture.

In the US, when you use the word luxury people connote it to the following adjectives: exclusive, sumptuous, materially rich, extravagant, opulent, hedonistic, self-indulgent.

It’s this connotation that I have tried to sever from wine my entire professional life. One could argue that the association of art and luxury is fallacious. Art is necessary, it is part of what makes us human. It is not required to stay alive like food and air, yet the sacrifices humans have made for art, just as they have for wine, suggest both are required to make life worth living.

By my definition, luxury does not fall under that category, at least from the consumption end of things. Luxury is indulgence, and as such is a connotation of wealth, or, as Ms. Skeggs might say, of whiteness. I don’t want wine to be thought of as a Rolex or a Mercedes.

This is the problem with Champagne and Bordeaux. They have spent so much energy to be thought of as luxuries that younger people end up rejecting them.

Pauline

So we are talking here about the language used by this particular part of the Fine Wine ecosystem and how it can alienate people. How does it translate practically?

Eric

This segment of wine culture is indeed embodied by wine writers, critics, producers themselves and the way they will trade their wines. In the US, for example, it’s always been an intellectual exercice, it’s a matter of rationality and connoisseurship. Forget about enjoying wine, the phrase that we use is “wine appreciation”, which implies something that you have to spend time learning about in order to properly appreciate.

I personnaly think that the opposite is actually true: wine is easily and directly understood and enjoyed by people without education, it’s really the culture that we’ve set up around wine that demands that type of endoctrination, the very specific language that we use that has nothing to do with the way people experience when drinking wine. Because of that, most people look at wine as something that they think they enjoy but also feel that they don’t fully enjoy it because they don’t think they have the proper physical and mental equipment to properly experience it, simply because the whole flow of esoteric aromas that the trade uses is not how wine appears to them.

The language and everything that surrounds wine should aspire to mirror the pleasure that it brings to our ordinary life, whatever sort of life we all have, making it more symbolic of democracy rather than exclusivety.

Pauline

Does it mean that a “true” Fine Wine should aim at being accessible by everybody?

Eric There is a difference between the notion of working towards inclusivety – working on language and message that do not leave drinkers with a sense of not being good or worthy enough to appreciate your wine , and practically make your wine accessible to every body every where. Fine Wine usually being produced in smaller quantities, there will always be scarcity.