Podcast – The Language of Wine – In conversation with Eric Asimov and Stephen Satterfield

Eric Asimov is the Chief Wine Critic of the New York Times, a role he has had since 2004. He is also the author of How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto. He was interviewed by Stephen Satterfield, co-founder of Whetstone Media, a multi-platform, multi-media company dedicated to food and wine.

Stephen Satterfield

What have you observed as some of the most meaningful changes in the ways that food and beverage are communicated, though The New York Times specifically, but maybe at large?

Eric Asimov

Forty years ago, writing about food and wine was still considered second rank in a lot of ways. It was gathering recipes, not to explore a culture, but to sell products. A lot of the people who were doing it didn’t really think of themselves as journalists, but as boosters, essentially, for the food business or for the wine business, and that has changed entirely. The Times was one of the pioneers in requiring its food writers to be journalists. It was the first American newspaper to have a weekly column devoted to wine, written by Frank Prial, who was a journalist, not somebody from the wine industry whose thinking was to promote wine in the industry.

Stephen Satterfield

Was the move into wine intentional and something you wanted to pursue, or was it a pathway to another destination?

Eric Asimov

Writing about wine is something I’ve always wanted to do, having been passionate about wine since I was in my teens. I got to know Frank Prial my predecessor, and Frank was an interesting guy, who was not only a supersmart guy but a brilliant writer; very cultured, multiple languages, but also a traditional journalist. He’d been a foreign correspondent and he’d always sort of grumble about being stuck writing about wine, as if it were somehow demeaning to him when he should be off crossing the Khyber Pass and covering conflict and so on. I once said, “Frank let me follow you around. I’ll trail you. You can introduce me to people. Teach me what you know. Give me six months and then I’ll take over from you and you won’t have to write about wine anymore.” He didn’t speak to me for two months after that. He actually loved the job.

Times have changed now. Back then, many newspapers had somebody writing about wine; some of them were freelance, but many of them were on staff. Nowadays we have just two staff wine writers for newspapers, which is very sad.

Stephen Satterfield, founder of Whetstone Media, and Eric Asimov, New York Times’ wine critic

Stephen Satterfield

Did you have a sense of the way that you wanted to talk about wine, or is that something that was adapted once you started in that role?

Eric Asimov

By the time that I started to think seriously about writing about wine (1999), Frank Prial’s way of writing in a very literary way about wine – Hugh Johnson being another example – was being discarded, as the focus came to such people as Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator. These people were treating wine as a bottle-by-bottle consumer question: This is what you should buy, this is what you should not buy, here’s my description of the wine and there’s my score. To me this was a more intimidating of discussing wine because the very specialised language of the tasting note separated out the people who ‘got’ that language from the people who didn’t know what the hell it was talking about. To me, this had the effect of putting off people even as it promised to welcome them.

Stephen Satterfield

It’s really interesting that you’re talking about a writer like Hugh Johnson whose style is really literary and ethereal, and someone like Robert Parker, who became famous because of his language becoming numerology in a sense. Was there a particular time you can point to where this started to happen?

Eric Asimov

I think it coincided with the rise of Parker in the ‘80s and the ‘90s which also coincided with the wine and food revolution. Wine used to be such a small and specialised market and if you were discussing new vintages, it was restricted to Bordeaux and Burgundy. Maybe you would talk about Champagne and Port or something like that, but it was a very narrow kind of field. If you were to look at a restaurant wine list from, say, 1980, it had far more in common with a restaurant wine list of 1900 than it would to 2019. I think before somebody like Parker, the whole discussion, the whole point of tasting notes was not to speak to the public. It was industry speak, it was sales speak and it was very specialised language. Since then we’ve seen Parker’s explosive enthusiasm applied to wine tasting, directed to the general public. We’ve seen the rise of the sommelier and, in particular, the Court of Master Sommelier through movies and other media and it’s reinforced this notion that if you’re going to talk about wine, this is how you’re going to talk about it; if you’re going to understand wine, you have to be able to identify a wine after blind tasting. It’s reinforced the notion that you have to be a connoisseur to understand a wine. I think in the end it reinforces a kind of exclusivity around wine.

Stephen Satterfield

Are you talking about Britain and the US specifically?

Eric Asimov

Britain historically created the notion of wine connoisseurship. Not that there weren’t wine experts in France, obviously there were, but the greater culture in France and other wine drinking countries was centred around whatever the local wine was. You were not in a position of having to choose a wine for the most part. You just drank whatever was available locally. In a place like Britain where you had access to many different wines but grew up with none of it unless you were the child of aristocracy, this was all taught academically. This became a not only a vocation and avocation for people but it also a marker of class.

Stephen Satterfield

Do you think that the folks who were the small vignerons in France were, maybe unwittingly, a part of the globalisation of wine? How privy do you think they were to this new language that was evolving?

Eric Asimov

Vignerons all over the world have benefited enormously from the popularity of wine. If we go back 15 years to the movie Mondovino, it posited the notion that globalisation was the death of wine, because everything would be homogenised. We would all be drinking Chardonnay and Cabernet and it would all taste the same. Globalisation has instead demonstrated the amazing diversity of wine and helped people all over the world to appreciate it. I think that this has happened despite a lot of the intimidating language that has been used with wine, because wine itself is such a wonderful thing and gives so much pleasure. For people who get over that initial obstacle of intimidation, they begin to see the wonders of wine that are available.

I think it’s also important to talk about the internet, because on the one hand it closed down all the newspapers and wine writers, but it also opened up an opportunity for people all over the world to hear opnions that diverged from the gatekeepers. People could decide for themselves which wines they liked and why.

As much as language has been a barrier, emotion has been an accelerant. While somebody like Parker might have baffled people with the language that he used, the excitement that he so obviously felt about wine really helped to drive interest in wine.

Stephen Satterfield

Do you think there is a universal language in wine?

Eric Asimov

The wine itself is the universal language. Once people pour from a bottle and have a glass, that’s a unifying experience, but I don’t think that there’s a universal language any more than we all speak a single language. Even those of us who share the English language have so many different reference points and life experiences, that I’ve always believed the best way to talk about wine is generally. The more overly specific you get about a particular wine, then the more divisive you get, because people just don’t have the same experiences to latch on to. I’ve never been inspired to taste a wine because it tastes like blackberries and tobacco. I want to taste a great wine.

This transcript is only a snapshot of what has been discussed, and has been lightly edited for clarity. Listen the entire conversation here:

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