Elizabeth David made her name writing about food, not wine. Nevertheless, hers is the first entry in 1962's Compleat Imbiber, Volume Five, the discovery of which in a used bookstore set me to glancing over my extant library. Well now, looky here — Gerald Asher's On Wine, published exactly 20 years later. Still an Englishman at the helm (the Imbiber was edited by Cyril Ray), but what do you know, my man has puddle-jumped himself all the way to San Francisco — the center has shifted. And who should be writing the introduction but one Elizabeth David. An auspicious connection; an excuse to go traipsing through the pages, seeing what the passage of two decades hath wrought. (On a more sober note: Vineyard Tales, Asher's 1996 follow-up, was dedicated to Ms. David's memory. And that book notes that The Compleat Imbiber is "hard to find and dear to collectors everywhere." The circle is complete.)
Growing up, Gourmet was the epitome of Establishment food mags, but Establishment is, I suppose, a relative term. It was still American, and America will always have something of the saucy upstart about it when compared to Asher's native land. Small wonder then, to find that Asher, who served as Gourmet's wine editor for more than 40 years, initially made his reputation as an English rebel against the reigning Burgundy-Bordeaux hegemony. Writes David, "I do have to explain that when I first knew Gerald Asher in London, in the 1950s, it was chiefly for his flair in finding and importing those 'other wines' that he had made his firm's name known." Southern France, Alsace, Beaujolais — he brought them all in, ignoring the conventional wisdom that such wines "didn't travel."
David also notes that "Nobody has to worry about the author's formidable knowledge and expertise; it is too discretely concealed to be more than sensed." Herein lay a fair measure of Asher's genius — he was perfectly willing to be intelligent and detailed in his discussions but never came off sounding anything less than conversational. A case in point: the wonderful evenhandedness with which he addresses the question of natural vs. inoculated fermentation in an essay on American Pinot Noir. "The University of California at Davis has taken a stand against spontaneous fermentation in favor of introducing known, selected yeast strains because California wine regions are too young to rely on local yeast populations. This policy of meticulous control has been a principle of California winemaking. The consistency and reliability of most California wines spring from this basic, orthodox attention to detail. But, at risk of being labeled a mystic (or worse), I must ask whether there isn't a point beyond which to know more is to understand less. Aristotle advised us to look for precision in all things only so far as the nature of the subject permits. Are not the subtle shades of flavor in Burgundian Pinot Noir attractive to us because they are fleeting, indefinable, and immeasurable? And if so, how can meticulous control reproduce such mysterious qualities?"
Asher made a virtue out of the immeasurable and the mysterious, contra the world of score-minded critics. Commenting on the French saying "There are no good wines, only good bottles," he writes, "Such inconsistency adds to the pleasure of wine but should impose a measure of caution when we start to praise or condemn a wine on the evidence of a bottle. In fact, I am awed by the temerity of those who, not content with sharing their impressions of wines, print lists of them graded to fine decimal points of a percentage, all on chance reactions to haphazard bottles." For wines above a certain level of quality, "Only the passage of time allows impressions and exchanged opinions of a wine to condense so they reflect, eventually, its real worth."
What awes Asher here is the kind of humility he demonstrates by admitting to being somewhat stymied in his attempt to pair wine with Chinese food. "The Beaune made the better match," he concludes at the end of one attempt. "It blended more easily into the established harmony. And that, I concluded, was the secret. We look for a wine to accompany a food, or we think of a food that will show off a wine to advantage. But any Chinese dish is so carefully balanced that the wine must either bring its own harmony, or must complete an overall equilibrium. I suppose it's another aspect of Yin and Yang."
And lest you get to thinking that such sentiments are the stuff of lofty-minded idealists, it might help to recall that Asher got his start in the wine business by selling it to whores. He worked in a shop in London's Shepherd Market, a place "better known, before the Street Offences Act, for its shepherdesses. Meat was then still rationed to eight ounces a week, or something equally measly, and red wine, I was assured, provided a necessary alternative source of strength. In the early evening, at least, most sales were half-bottles of Beaujolais to solitary ladies."
(Elsewhere, he says of that grape, "No wonder, then, that the wine of Beaujolais, too, should be as enlivening to the spirit as it is restoring to the senses. It is not a wine to sip, to contemplate, or analyze; it is for quaffing, for brightening the eye and loosening the tongue." And to digress even further, if only out of admiration for his range and generosity, it's worth noting that he once treated the readers of Gourmet to a comparative tasting of American jug wines -- Gallo, Paul Masson, Almaden, etc. -- even as he granted that "the carefree occasions on which we enjoy jug wines are not usually conducive to reflective, let alone comparative tasting." His favorite sipping white: a Colombard Blanc from Souverain. And to multiply digressions beyond anything Asher himself would have allowed -- the same piece notes that "surprising to many" is the fact that "nature cooperates to make mechanical harvesters more selective than traditional hand-gathering of bunches," because only the ripe berries fall "when a vine is shaken by a harvester's rods.")
He did his first comparative tasting at the behest of his boss, who needed him to assure customers that the '49 Beaujolais was every bit as good as the (sold-out) '47. "I suppose there are more bizarre ways of finding a life's vocation, that's when and how I discovered mine." Thirty-odd years later, we got On Wine.
If one of the great pleasures of reading The Compleat Imbiber was in affirming the prophecies it made about the wine industry, one of the remarkable things about the Asher book is how current it remains. Alsace, despite making excellent wines and offering simpler labels, can't get a foothold in the American market. Varietal correctness vs. marketability was a hot issue: "Technique has now acquired importance beyond soil and grape variety. We find red Graves, made by carbonic maceration, that taste like tannic Beaujolais...It is all the inevitable result of marketing wine instead of selling it, I suppose. Once we looked for ways to teach the world how to enjoy wine's variety. Now we teach winemakers the ways of the world." And even 25 years ago, the flavor of French oak was having its way with Chardonnay: "...the converted in all matters are notorious for their excess, and in 20 years it has become common for California Chardonnays to be judged simply by the degree of oak in the wine. The taste of oak itself, often oppressively exaggerated, has become so confused with what should be the varietal taste of Chardonnay that many assume the taste of oak to be the taste of Chardonnay."
And now and then, his reading of the times reaches the status of perennial wisdom, expressed in a style that has rarely been surpassed: "Because all country wines and foods have developed naturally as ordinary people have sought constantly to improve what was basically available to them, there is an easy relationship between them all, and they are easy to enjoy. Complicated dishes created by skilled chefs to enliven jaded palates and wines carefully oriented towards sophisticated city markets can be exquisite...But when I sit down to a plain daube of lamb and a bottle of Côte du Rhone, I know that God's in his heaven, and all's right with the world."
And later, "In the south [of France] the enjoyment of wine is direct. There is no long view or distant expectation, no time lost analyzing or discussing a wine that has failed in its immediate essential — to satisfy. Despite highways, tractors, and power presses, the Rhone delta is an antique world where a bottle of wine is, after all, a bottle of wine." Its "sound, everyday wines...must contribute more to the total sum of human pleasure than does all the sublime but minute quality of, say, Richebourg."