“Turning the Tables – Interviewing the Interviewers” is a Q&A series profiling Wine Writers. We hope you’ll discover more about the wine writers you know, and learn about many others. The objective of this project is to understand and develop working relationships with journalists. After all, they are the ones who help tell our stories, review our wines, and potentially provide media coverage. You can do this by learning their wine and writing backgrounds, story and personal interests, palate preferences, writing challenges, and pet peeves. This is part of an ongoing series that will be featured monthly by Wine Industry Advisor.
Eric Asimov is the chief wine critic of The New York Times and the author of How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto, published by William Morrow, and Wine With Food: Pairing Notes and Recipes From The New York Times, written with recipes by Florence Fabricant and published by Rizzoli. His column appears in the Food section of The Times. He is on Twitter and Instagram, @EricAsimov. A collection of his columns is included in The New York Times Book of Wine, published by Sterling Epicure.
How did you come to wine, and to wine writing?
I’d fallen in love with food and wine as a teenager and began my career as a journalist writing about food and beverages in my spare time. I soon transitioned to writing about food full time and eventually became a food, restaurant and wine critic. I approach wine very much as I would food. I’ve had no formal training in food or wine — or in journalism, for that matter.
How has wine media changed over your 30-year career and 20 years with NYT?
When I began writing for The Times in the late 1980s, the internet did not exist, except maybe in its barest bones — dial-up modems and a few virtual communities. Wine media was ruled by a few powerful critics with similar tastes. Then, within a few years, high-speed internet began to spread wide, letting many more voices and opinions be heard. Wine writing became far more democratic and decentralized, especially with the rise of social media.
What are the primary challenges and hurdles wine journalism faces today?
Frankly, the biggest challenge is that so few wine-writing jobs pay well, much less a living wage. The travel necessary to write about wine intelligently is expensive, as is the wine itself. As a result, too many wine writers are subsidized by the wine industry, which poses a major conflict of interest for serious journalists. I don’t have a ready solution for this.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I have black belts in traditional Japanese jujutsu, Tomiki aikido and karate.
What haven’t you done that you’d like to do?
I haven’t traveled as widely as I would like, as my professional trips are dictated by journalistic imperatives and The Times’s travel budget. But when I have a clear sense of a story that I would like to write, The Times has never turned down an idea for a trip.
What is one thing you’d like your readers to learn from your writing about wine?
Two things, actually. First, I would like readers to understand that wine is a wonderful pleasure that rewards wide exploration and for which no special training or capabilities are required. All the things that have made wine intimidating for some are human constructions and have nothing to do with the wine itself or the joys it has to offer.
The second thing is that good wine, like so many things in the world, is threatened. It depends both on fragile ecosystems that may not survive wholesale climate change and on a web of human relationships that, for most of its history, have been exclusionary and exploitative. We have a lot of work to do on both the environmental side and the human side so that we can continue to enjoy the wines we love.
Can you describe your approach to wine writing?
First, I am a journalist responsible to my readers and colleagues. I am not a member of the wine industry. My job is to inform, question and inspire, not to sell bottles. I imagine I’m writing for an intelligent, curious audience comprising a range of people, from those who know very little about wine to those who may know more than I do about certain areas, along with plenty in between. My hope is to span that spectrum without alienating people on either end.
My aim is to make people feel as comfortable as possible with wine, comfortable enough to arrive at a notion of their own tastes without regard to what they think they should like. Ultimately, I would like to foster a healthy relationship with readers, in which I can give them the skills to explore, select bottles and make discoveries on their own without the crutch of critical approval or the fear of making mistakes.
What are you working on next?
Sorry, proprietary information!
What guidance can you offer to aspiring wine journalists?
Ask yourself what is most interesting about wine. Is it the people, history and culture of wine? The economics? The agricultural, environmental and human factors? Society’s relationship to alcohol? Methodology of making wine? The experience of drinking wine and how it makes you feel? All these together are what makes wine so fascinating. Go beyond a narrow, drab focus on tasting notes and scores.
What are your recommendations to wineries when interacting with journalists?
If you want journalists to pay attention to you, do not flood inboxes with generic press releases. Tailor your communications individually, which requires reading what journalists publish and understanding what might be interesting to them. Understand that a magazine writer may work on stories months ahead of their publication dates while newspaper and web journalists work just days in advance of publication.
What advantages are there in working directly with winery agency publicists?
When it’s urgent to get in touch with somebody at a winery and you don’t have direct contact information, or when you need pertinent facts that are not available on a winery’s website, publicists can be helpful.
Do you interact with country and regional wine associations, importers and wholesalers?
I try generally to have as little as possible to do with regional and trade associations, as they are uncritical and undiscerning. Sometimes, though, they will sponsor educational seminars regarding climate, geography and history that I have found useful. Importers and wholesalers are another story, as they are always useful conduits to producers and regions. Though they obviously are promoting their portfolio, they are generally interesting and opinionated. I can work with that.
If you take days off, how do you spend them?
Reading, writing, exercising, relaxing, cooking and hanging with my wife, family and friends.
What is your most memorable wine or wine tasting experience?
I have had so many wine epiphanies that have been crucial to my development, and I’m still having them. Most have not been rare or expensive wines — a 1978 Barbera d’Alba in 1982, a Hautes-Côtes de Nuits rouge and a Mosel riesling in the mid-1980s — but also a 1955 La Mission Haut-Brion in 1985, an 1846 Meursault in 2006 and so many more. They keep coming, and I have to say, I have learned as much about wine from the modest bottles as the famous and profound ones.
What’s your cure for a wine hangover?
Don’t have one! Know your limitations and stick to them, drink plenty of water and don’t drink a lot on an empty stomach. Otherwise, this, too, shall pass.
Do you have a favorite wine and food pairing?
Over the years, I have become less and less interested in precision food-and-wine pairing. Prime rules I adhere to: Don’t pick a wine that will overwhelm the food, and don’t serve food that will blot out the wine. If you can manage that, good food and good wine will be great together.
CARL GIAVANTI is in his 14th vintage of working with West Coast wineries as a public/media relations consultant. His background includes technology sales, digital marketing, project management, and public relations for more than 25 years. Clients are or have been in Napa Valley, Willamette Valley, Walla Walla, Columbia Valley, and the Columbia Gorge. (www.CarlGiavantiConsulting.com)