Q & A with Eric Asimov

Few voices in the wine world are as influential as that of Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for The New York Times. His regular columns have served as the entry point for many people beginning their wine educations, and his self-effacing style and affinity for independent, small-production growers has made him something of a stand-in for the little guy in the wine world—if the little guy had an extraordinarily well-tuned palate and a really big megaphone. Here he talks about making wine approachable, what to drink during the holidays and what he’ll be imbibing on New Year’s Eve.

Imbibe: One thing we’ve always like about your wine writing is that you’re very approachable. You don’t talk down to people, but you don’t make it into this big anxiety-producing thing.
Eric Asimov: One of the single greatest obstacles to people enjoying wine is this level of anxiety about it. People get so worried about looking stupid about wine, about not knowing enough. It’s so weird, because you don’t hear people getting like this about other subjects. When’s the last time you heard someone say, “Oh, I wish I knew more about opera”?

Imbibe: And thinking about that as it relates to the holidays, the key is to enjoy wine and not get bogged down in anxiety.
You want to have wines that go well with the food, but there are plenty of likeable wines that are totally enjoyable in a supporting role with food. I like to think of them as “Shakespeare wines,” in the same sense that Shakespeare’s plays could appeal to all strata of society—they can be enjoyed on one level because they’re funny and bawdy, and on another because they’re so poetic and thought-provoking. Some wines can do double duty. For the last few years my go-to Thanksgiving wines have come from Clos Roche Blanche in the Loire Valley. I choose a red, made with Gamay grapes, and a Sauvignon Blanc. They’re delicious, satisfying, you can ponder them if you choose, and they’re not very expensive. They’re fresh, dry and refreshing.

Imbibe: So when people come over to your home, do they get scared to bring a bottle of wine? Or do they get the craziest, most cult wine they can find to impress you?
Well, most people coming over to my tiny New York apartment are friends, so they’re going to be on the same wavelength. Most people leave the wine to me, anyway.

Imbibe: Do you have any rules for giving wine as a gift?
Yes! The number one rule would be: When you give wine as a gift, don’t expect you’ll be drinking that wine. If you want to drink it, buy it for yourself and leave it at home.

Imbibe: Any other advice? Should people try to get something unusual, or go with something that’s easy and more approachable?
EA: It depends on the recipient, of course. But I’m a big Champagne lover, so I’ll always recommend Champagne as a gift. I find that even people who aren’t really into wine appreciate the thought of Champagne—they understand the gesture, at least.

Imbibe: When did you first try Champagne?
I was in college. I remember being invited to a professor’s house to have dinner. There were a few students there, and he served us Champagne—well, sparkling wine. You know, the drinking age was still 18, so it was totally legal. This was the ’70s, and I think it was probably just Korbel or something. But I remember being so impressed—you know how it is: When you’re young, stuff like that seems so sophisticated.

Imbibe: What’s one of your most unusual experiences involving Champagne?
One of the strangest Champagne experiences was at the restaurant Per Se. We were in the middle of the meal—at Per Se, the thing is you have all these courses, with a different wine paired to each course. And the server brought out a rosé Champagne. He decanted it, which you almost never see done with Champagne. And then he poured it from one decanter to another and back again, I guess to soften it. And it was really quite extraordinary, I have to say.

Imbibe: Speaking of Champagne, what will you be drinking on New Year’s Eve?
EA: My New Year’s Eves are a desperate effort to not go out, to not deal with the noise and drunkenness. So I usually have just a few friends over, and I’ll open whatever good Champagne I happen to have on hand.