A new book from Gerald Asher
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.