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A new book from Gerald Asher

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When it’s finally out in the market, give yourself a treat and buy Gerald Asher’s new book, A Carafe of Red, which is about to be published by University of California Press, our common publisher. I was sent an advance copy; it should be widely available soon.

The book is a compilation of Mr. Asher’s previous articles, mostly written for Gourmet magazine–articles that defined his style of lucid intelligence. Reading a Gerald Asher essay is more than just inhaling the written word, pleasant as that is. It’s like sitting in an easy chair in front of a warming fire on a chilly night, with a glass of Port in your hand, and Mr. Asher in a chair opposite you, explaining, in an indulgent way, whatever the topic is. The new book covers lots of territory, as you’d expect: everything from Côte Rôtie and Malmsey to Armagnac and Priorato.

I was especially interested, of course, in the chapter on California Cabernet Sauvignon, which originally appeared in the mammoth, authoritative The Book of California Wine, also published by U.C. Press. I’ve read that article many times. Like a great wine, it never palls, and seems to get better with time. It takes a bold, skilled hand to make sweeping pronouncements like this one: the “legacy of California Cabernet Sauvignon has been handed down by Louis M. Martini, Charles Krug, Inglenook, and Beaulieu Vineyard [which expressed] the seeds of all options available to winemakers today [i.e. 1984]. A writer needs not only vast learning to issue such declarations, but also the self-confidence to know that few will dare challenge him.

Sidelight: Is Mr. Asher’s statement true today? The “options” he referred to were that Charles Krug was 100% unblended Cabernet, with not too much oak. Inglenook on the other hand blended in Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Louis M. Martini was a master of blending, which produced “agreeable wines ready to be drunk early,” while Beaulieu used “young American oak…to dramatic effect on intense, unblended Cabernet” in the Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

Mr. Asher, 27 years ago, could not have foreseen the rise of Robert Parker and the dramatic tendency toward higher alcohol (and more new oak) that has characterized the “cult Cabernet” of today. We could, I suppose, add this as a fifth “option” for Cabernet (whether blended or not), but we could also view the modern style as an extension of the Krug style, “with fruit so persistent and finish so soft [Mr. Asher wrote] that the wine left a sweet impression…”. (He’s speaking of a 1956, tasted in 1979.) I might easily describe a Cabernet from, say, Hall or Maybach with those very words.

A particular joy of reading such a comprehensive and personal book as A Carafe of Red is that we get to experience, vicariously but no less intimately, Mr. Asher’s experiences of wines we will never otherwise have the opportunity to taste. (I love Michael Broadbent’s The Great Vintage Wine Book for that very reason.) For example, in his 1975 essay, A Morning Tasting with Joe Heitz, Mr. Asher describes tasting the 1966-1970 vintages of Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the 1960s (I suppose you could say the Beaulieu Private Reserve was more famous, but I don’t agree). There are other references to these wines from other writers–see, for example, Harry Waugh’s diaries. I’ve never had any of those wines and probably never will, but it gives me endless pleasure to read what great writers had to say about them, and to compare their impressions against each other. Both Harry and Gerald loved those Martha’s Cabernets, in their own ways, of course; both were British and somewhat reserved–Mr. Asher seldom gushes. In fact, one can say that Gerald Asher laid down his own option for stylish wine writing, an option that began to be perfected before him (for example, by George Saintsbury), but never with such precise clarity and authority. It is a style every serious wine writer would do well to study.

  1. I don’t think Asher’s comment is true today. Today it’s about power and expensive French oak. His statement regarding B.V. Reserve is misleading, the wines were bottled with little noticeable oak, though B.V. used new American oak. The new barrels were first used to age a vintage of a Gamay/Mondeuse blend they called “Burgundy”. That wine always showed a lot of oak, but the barrels were well extracted by the time they saw Cabernet Sauvignon. Interestingly, I opened a ’68 B.V. Burgundy the other night and it had aged beautifully. Color was bright ruby, taste soft and silky despite only 12% alcohol. No trace of oak seemed to have developed into a pretty bottle bouquet.

  2. Morton is right, of course, but in a oddly strange way. Asher’s early writing about Cab were done in an era when old-fashioned ways were still the order of the day.

    By the mid-80s, we had seen the riper vintages of 1978 and 1980 and were about to launch into the 84s and 86s. French oak was not recently “invented” in California. It was there is the wines of the early 1970s from SLWC and Ch. Montelena, and as the industry grew with new wineries whose visions were more worldly than Martini and Krug, it was not unusual that more interesting oak would be used than steam-bent, unaged American stave pieces.

    Power is, of course, another not so new item on the CA horizon. The Cabs of the 1960s and 1970s were not nearly so complext or complete as those of the middle 80 and early 90s. That they would change again in the late 90s was not the fault of one publication but an attempt by wineries to capture the market mood of the day.

    One final tidbit. Not long after I started Connoisseurs’ Guide, I took a long trip to France so that I could taste extensively there. New oak was not unheard of in France then just as it is not unheard of today. In 1978, Ch. Mouton aged its wine for one year in new oak, then transferred it to new oak for a second year of aging. California did not invent the process of adding oaky richness to Cabernet Sauvignon and we need to stop beating up the wineries because they now use more oak than they did in the 1960s.

  3. Steve, I have a hardback copy of “On Wine”. Does this new book contain new territory not previoulsy published in book form?

  4. Mark Cochard: I’m not sure.

  5. Gerald Asher says:

    Thank you, Steve, for your kind words about A Carafe of Red. It isn’t due for publication until February but it’s my favorite collection of essays because I’ve allowed myself to meander more widdely around the subject of wine. I took pleasure in researching and writing everything in it. In answer to Mark Cochard’s question, there are two essays in it which appeared in On Wine, published in 1995. They are the essays on Jerez de la Frontera (I thought it needed an airing because a new generation has little idea what sherry really is) and A Morning Tasting with Joe Heitz. I included that one because it gives the feel of a time in the early 70s, before the Paris tasting hastened the expansion of Napa Valley, just underway. I’m not sure that I agree with Morton about BV Private Reserve. The American oak contibuted to the identity of the wine, whether pre-used or not. It’s interesting to note that in recent years BV has gradually switched to French oak for the Private Reserve. In any case, in addition to the brief reference to the Georges de Latour in that essay written for the University of California’s Book of California Wine (1984), A Crafe of Red also contains a full essay on the Georges de Latour Private Reserve, first published in 1990, in which I quote from many conversations I had had with Andre Tchelistcheff. I hope you will find it of interest.

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