The collection of wine writer Gerald Asher comes to UC Davis

“Long ago, during my apprenticeship in the wine trade, I learned that wine is more than the sum of its parts, and more than an expression of its physical origin. The real significance of wine as the nexus of just about everything became clearer to me when I started writing about it. The more I read, the more I traveled, and the more questions I asked, the further I was pulled into the realms of history and economics, politics, literature, food, community, and all else that affects the way we live. Wine, I found, draws on everything and leads everywhere.” — Gerald Asher, from his 2012 book, A Carafe of Red

The UC Davis Library has acquired a collection of writing — in the form of newspaper clippings, emails, and notes — by the San Francisco-based wine writer Gerald Asher. A former wine merchant, Asher gained a reputation during his career for identifying and championing lesser-known wines. He introduced British consumers to French wines that were rare in the UK in the 1950s, and in the 1970s he shared California wines with his once-skeptical peers on the East Coast. Asher’s collection at UC Davis includes his writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Gourmet, Decanter, and Wine & Sprits, along with associated notes and email correspondence in both analog and digital formats.

The collection, part of the Warren Winiarski Wine Writers Collection, will be most accessible after it has been processed. In the meantime, please direct queries to speccoll@ucdavis.edu.

Eloquence in Writing, Acumen in Business, Foresight in Wine

Born in London in 1932, Gerald Asher started his long tenure with wine in 1950, when he took a job with a wine retailer in London’s Shepherd Market. Five years later, he went on to found his own London merchant house, Asher, Storey, and Co., and continued to run the company until 1970. Asher-Storey was recognized as groundbreaking for its introduction of obscure wines to British drinkers, several of which would become market favorites.

The wine writer Gerald Asher. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Teran

In 1971 Asher relocated to New York where he was Vice-President for national wine sales for Austin, Nichols & Co, the distiller of Wild Turkey but also, at that time, the leading importer of Bordeaux classed growths in the U.S. Simultaneously, he became Wine Editor of Conde Nast’s Gourmet, where he wrote a monthly essay for the next thirty years. He then continued to contribute wine recommendations and notes to the magazine until 2009. Meanwhile, he had moved to San Francisco in 1974 to manage The Monterey Bay Company, a wine marketing venture set up jointly between the McKesson Corporation and the McFarland brothers, wine grape growers in the newly planted Monterey County. Asher was appointed the first chairman of California Wine Institute’s Geographic Appellations Committee, created to introduce formally defined geographic wine appellations to California.

“I made a mental note to watch which bottle became empty soonest, sometimes a more telling evaluation system than any other”

Asher was a champion of California wine in the 1970s, when the state’s winemakers were still gaining their footing. In 1976 he co-organized the annual California Vintners Barrel Tasting Dinner, which played an important role in building the image and understanding of California wines on the East Coast. Seemingly a serial entrepreneur (uncommon for a writer), he founded Mosswood Wine Company in 1978 with the McKesson Corporation. He headed the company until 1987, when he quit business and turned his attention fully to writing. His support for California wine was formally recognized by special resolution of the California State Assembly in March 2009.”

Along with hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, Asher is the author of the books On Wine (1982), Vineyard Tales (1996), The Pleasures of Wine (2002), A Vineyard in My Glass (2011), and A Carafé of Red (2012). British wine writer Jancis Robinson has called him “America’s most elegant wine writer.”

Asher on Wine Ratings and the 1994 Vintage in California

Asher wrote the following article for the March 2010 issue of World of Fine Wine. We’re reproducing it here with permission from the magazine.

Late in 1989, a group of French wine professionals – growers, merchants, and officials of regional associations – came together in Chinon to discuss a new and troubling issue. A new phenomenon of points and ratings, presented as if they were eternal truths, was beginning to affect consumer purchases. Should the producers of wines shaped and defined over many generations by local circumstances and influences make changes and impose on their wines a style calculated to attract the attention and the high ratings of this new breed of critic? Or should they continue as before, helping their customers understand and appreciate their wines for what they were and had always been. An expression of origin had long been a wine’s hallmark. As far back as the 6th century BC, the wines of Rhodes had been exported all around the Mediterranean in amphorae closed with an official seal guaranteeing the authenticity of the contents. Those who bought them wanted and expected to find inside the taste of Rhodes. Almost every European wine is still identified by the place where it was grown — a region, a hillside, a riverbank. Increasingly that’s true of wines from all other continents, too. Almost every wine we buy carries a label linking it with somewhere, and we assume that the wine has meaning as an expression of that place. There was real anxiety among those present that it could all end in a flurry of market-driven winemaking.

A few weeks before last Christmas, I was a guest at a dinner of the Norman F. Haskell First Growth Tasting Group.  Named to honor the late Norman Haskell, a physician who had for years led the Marin County Wine and Food Society, the group — eight San Francisco Bay area couples — meet from time to time to taste together eight wines, usually a collection of top Bordeaux growths of common vintage or a series of vertical vintages of one particular growth. On that particular evening they had chosen, from nearer home, eight leading Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines of the 1994 vintage. Amaryll Schwertner, Hungarian-born chef of Boulette’s Larder, a small restaurant in the Ferry Building, had prepared racks of lamb to accompany them. The wines were from Araujo, Dalla Valle, Dunn, Chateau Montelena, Opus One, Pahlmeyer, Joseph Phelps, and Stag’s Leap. From Phelps, the evening’s organizer had chosen the winery’s Insignia – 85% Cabernet Sauvignon that year, with the balance made up of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot in diminishing order. But then all the wines, except for Randy Dunn’s, which was 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, almost all of it from Howell Mountain, were made with varying, small proportions of the other classic Bordeaux varieties.

The distinguishing feature of the 1994 growing season in Napa Valley was that there wasn’t a distinguishing feature. There was no inopportune frost; the spring was mild; and the season just went on in a gentle succession of weeks into months. There were no heat spikes, no dramatic storms. The days were cool and the nights were crisp. The grapes took their time in arriving at optimum maturity, but were nevertheless just ripe – not overripe – when picked. As I started to taste the eight wines in front of me, I was struck by how precisely the wines seemed to display the very characteristics anyone who knew the producers and where they were in the valley might have expected. That was possible because none of them had had to make special adjustments to accommodate the consequences of even a day’s deviation from that flat-line weather. The Dalla Valle, from a winery on a well-exposed plateau above the valley, known for its judicious use of Cabernet Franc, was fragrant, elegant and harmonious; Stag’s Leap, at the south section of the valley nearer to the bay, was balanced and smoothly patrician; Araujo, from the opposite end, near Calistoga, was richer; yet its more emphatic qualities were in perfect balance with each other, reflecting the character of the long-established vines of the Eisele vineyard, and its well-drained alluvial-fan soil. The Dunn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had a predominant proportion of Howell Mountain fruit, as the broad scale, firm structure, and touch of austerity at the close made clear. The Joseph Phelps’ Insignia evolved on the palate, typically showing a brightly defined edge to its fruit. Chateau Montelena had an attractive opening but finished rather short. The winery’s emphasis on “up front” fruit certainly pays off when its wines are young, but I’m not sure if it leads anywhere. Opus One had a sealing wax strain in its bouquet and flavor, something not uncommon, I find, in Cabernet Sauvignon wines after a few years in bottle – especially those from around the Rutherford and Oakville benchlands. The wine was still quite tannic, but not overbearingly so. I couldn’t say that for the Pahlmeyer, alas. Its over-ripe fruit was at odds with its obtrusively raw tannin and its acidity seemed disconnected to the rest of the wine. I have rarely tasted wines from this producer, so I can’t say how typical that wine was. I did note that the grapes had come from four widely dispersed locations in the valley and wondered on what basis they had been selected.

To complete my notes, I started calling around to talk to the winemakers. One of the first was Randy Dunn. He confirmed that the season had been long and uneventful, and agreed that it had allowed the wines to reflect the styles of their specific sites within the valley and the winemakers’ expression of them. “But that was 1994,” he cautioned. “We had hardly begun then to feel the market pressure to conform to styles and standards set for us by the ratings, the newsletters, and the blogs.” He wasn’t sure if I would find it all quite so straightforward today.

Few doubt that the rating system has had an effect on wine production. It has probably brought more people to wine by persuading them that it’s just a matter of knowing the numbers. Some say it has raised standards, and for some wines that, too, might be true. But we have paid a price. Too much has been lost. As I chatted to wine makers, I was reminded yet again of the events of 1989 in Chinon. At the end of that day, the consensus of those present had been — not surprisingly — that consciously and deliberately changing the style or character of a wine, based on something real, simply to bring it closer to arbitrary external criteria, would not only destroy its ties with its origin-based identity but also risk taking it to a point at which it was no longer identifiable with anything much, other than a variety (perhaps) and a market-directed style. It was a prospect we had found depressing.

In Chinon, few English speakers used the word terroir except to say, of a wine that had a bit too much character, that it had a goût du terroir. Even the French, back then, were spare in their use of the word, and, frankly, I don’t remember whether we had used it much in our discussion. But it had been clear to us all then, and it’s clear to me now, that that’s what we were talking about. In essence, the day’s discussion came down to one question: With the growing pressure to conform to a market-driven style, would growers, merchants and writers continue to respect a wine’s terroir and promote the character and style that defined it, even if ill-informed but forcefully expressed opinion placed them at a disadvantage for doing so? In a world made increasingly bland with mass-produced products, wasn’t there some point in encouraging the consumer to understand and appreciate every nuance in a wine’s origin-based individuality?

The general opinion was that distorting the nature of any wine – its terroir – simply to attract a better score on a subjective and essentially meaningless rating scale (all rating scales are subjective and all are meaningless) would lead to the production of formula beverages rather than wines worthy of their names.

That was then, of course, and this is now.  Then, everyone grasped the fundamental idea of wine as an expression of its origin, its maker, the growing season, and the history from which it sprang. We tasted all that when we tasted the wine, even though we hardly ever used the t-word. Now we hear about terroir from all sides and all the time. Yet the odd thing is, when we pay attention we find that writers and critics who have so much praise for terroir (in an abstract way), are never very specific about its distinctive effects, and recommend most highly and give their top ratings to wines that show little or no terroir at all. Top rated wines seem to have more in common with each other than they have differences. Most of them conform to the “international style”, which makes me think of the formula beverages we feared so much in 1989. The high ratings go to powerful, tannic wines that are usually alcoholic, concentrated, and redolent of fruit over-ripened to the point where all individuality is lost. It is impossible for any wines to reflect terroir in those conditions. But is it any wonder that many growers quickly understand what they must do if their wines are to be favorably noticed, highly rated, and fetch as-yet undreamed of prices?  Should we be surprised that consumers schooled in their expectations by reading and hearing so much praise for what are largely overblown and over-ripe and over-sized wines end up by accepting them and paying for them whatever is being asked?

The international companies that now have substantial investments in wine production cannot ignore those ratings, those recommendations, those opinionated blogs. They must pay heed to the chocolate-box words thrust at us constantly. While expressing nothing at all, they beguile us, those absurd, meandering descriptions more appropriate to confectionery. Even the most experienced wine taster is suggestible. Tell him there’s a hint of oregano in a wine and he’ll find it. That’s why the average consumer, constantly groomed to look for forest fruits and spice boxes in his or her glass, doesn’t have a chance. We might well ask ourselves: what does any of it have to do with the expression of a place, or with the quiet reward of a wine unfolding on the palate? Wines that speak subtly on several levels can still offer consumers the contemplative pleasure they are designed to give. It’s up to us to find them by trusting our own judgment, and so support those winemakers who trust theirs.