Eric Asimov, chief wine critic for The New York Times, visited Whitman College to speak about “How To Love Wine.” Afterwards, Asimov opened up in a Q&A about his liberal arts education, which wine to pair with pizza and his nostalgic affection for Mountain Dew.
By Edward Weinman
Edward Weinman: What makes wine from the Walla Walla region so special that you’d travel all the way from New York City to speak at Whitman College?
“Everything I do is shaped by my liberal arts education.”
Eric Asimov: One of the reasons that I’m here, aside from the opportunity to speak to students at Whitman, is to learn more about the region. In New York City, we have access to most of the big Washington brands, but it’s a lot harder to find many of the cool, small, estates wines. I’ve heard a lot of good things, but I haven’t tasted that many of the wines. So I’m here to find some answers to that question.
EW: Speaking of Whitman, you, too, went to a liberal arts college – Wesleyan University. How has a liberal arts education helped you throughout your career?
EA: Everything I do is shaped by my liberal arts education. I never took journalism. I was a history and American studies major. You learn a way of critical thinking that you can apply to any field. A liberal arts college gives you an opportunity to explore the world and figure out what interests you. Every day I’m grateful for having a liberal arts education.
EW: Wine is what interests you. What is the attraction?
EA: I think people who go into the food or wine field do it because they love eating and drinking. We want to figure out a way we can always do this in our lives – eat well and drink well. I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t say that was the number one reason. But number two is very important. I find wine completely fascinating. It’s not writing just about the wine itself. It’s writing about personalities, people and places, history, culture, economics, politics and business. It all fits together. And you can examine it from a different angle every time you write. The least interesting thing about wine is writing about how it tastes. It’s everything else that makes wine interesting to me: What it represents. Where it comes from. Why you can’t get access to a particular bottle that you want.
EW: What makes a great wine?
EA: That’s a hard question to answer. I’m trying to stretch the definition of a great wine. Wine is strange. On one hand there is an objective sense of the greatest wines of the world. They are delicious and induce contemplation. They have to appeal to the mind and the soul. They should have the capacity to age; should reflect a sense of place. Express a particular culture or people. A terroir. Paradoxically, there are times when the greatest wine in the world is not the best wine to have. So what does “great” mean? There is a shifting sense.
EW: It’s Friday night. I just ordered a pepperoni pizza from my favorite national chain. What wine should I be pouring?
EA: (laughs) First of all, I’d council you to find your local independent pizza place where they care about ingredients.
EW: Okay, Sweet Basil, here in downtown Walla Walla.
EA: Italians tend to drink beer with pizza. Or Coke, I’m ashamed to say. We don’t need to be bound by their custom. But bubbles go really well with pizza. So I’m a big fan of good Lambrusco. That’s different than people’s clichéd impression of Lambruscos, like Riunite, a bad mass-market wine popular in the ’80s that forever shaped ideas that Lambrusco was a sweet, candied confection. But there is really good Lambrusco. Short of that, a good wine with acidity and crispness. It doesn’t have to be a red wine. Try champagne with pizza sometime. It’s really good.
EW: In your book “How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto,” you write that as a kid you were a big fan of Mountain Dew. I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, “Did you prefer it in a bottle, can or out of a fountain?”
EA: I have memories of bottles. I remember I went to this summer camp as a kid in Vermont. At this camp, everyone was issued a bicycle. I’d go on these bicycle trips rather than canoeing or mountain climbing. I loved seeing Vermont that way. Vermont is a place with mountain ranges, maybe smaller than here on the West Coast, but mountains nonetheless. One of the rewards of finishing these rides over a mountain pass was finding the local general store and buying a soda. I always associate Mountain Dew with finishing a ride. The satisfaction of it. But I have wiped soda out of my diet. You grow up and you want a cold, refreshing beer instead.