On Gerald Asher and wine writing

The English have probably thrown up more good wine writers than anyone else. Not surprising given that London has for so long been the centre of the world’s wine trade. Thumb through the major English wine publications and you’ll find a level of commentary and judgement we don’t enjoy here. But even so, it’s riveting stuff. And a good deal of it, naturally enough, is pitched at the already well-informed reader.

But every now and then there emerges a wine writer of greater stature. Someone who not only exercises good judgement on the topic, but also has the literary skill to enthuse as well as inform the reader. In Australia, probably only Len Evans ever achieved that. Perhaps there’ll be a few more gems from him in the years ahead!

Some of the most easily digested essays on wine that I’ve read flow from the pen of Gerald Asher. I’m not a regular reader of the American Gourmet magazine, but his wine column illuminated the occasional issues to come my way. Recently a friend handed me a book, Gerald Asher on Wine, a collection of his essays, many adapted from Gourmet articles. I’d read it all before, but what compulsive reading it was after the turgid fare we’re still served up in our glossies.

Asher began his career in the wine trade in London shortly after the second world war, In Asher’s words, “The wine trade was regarded as a convenient refuge for those of good family who were ill equipped for the intellectual challenge of law or medicine, yet insufficiently rich to be placed in private banking in the City. He who had every right to be modest in his expectations was thus kept from the shame of idleness, but, in the process, depressed the expectations of the rest of us. For nearly five years my salary had remained unchanged. Proud of my accomplishments, I asked the managing director if he would review it. He was taken aback. ‘Young man,’ he said, turning me down, “if I were to grant an increase, it would merely encourage you to ask again another time. There’d be no holding you.’”

And there was no holding him. For Gerald Asher it was the spur to setting up in the wine trade on his own. He set about building a prosperous business, quite different from the traditional London wine merchants. Instead of concentrating on the great classic wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, he went in search of the distinctive county wines of France, discovering cheaper wines of high quality.

Thus detached from conventional wisdom, he searched diligently to arrive at his own definitions of which wines represented both quality and value. His judgement must have been good, because the business prospered. Presumably this was the period in which he learned to pen his enthusiasm for the lesser wines of France. How else would sales have been so good.

The experience gained in visiting the cellars of hundreds of producers all over France, combined with his earlier classical training, gave Asher a unique perspective on wine and how it meshed the soils, climate, food, and people of the regions from which they were produced. His independence of experience and thought also led to another breakthrough in business. He began exporting both the lesser and classic wine of France direct to the United States, and not through London as was traditionally the case. No doubt there was much ‘tut-tutting’ amongst the gentlefolk of the trade.

The market there was attractive enough to win him as a permanent resident in 1971, to New York initially, but finally in San Francisco close to California’s wine industry. Trade in the United States he found far removed from the gentlemanly pastime it was in Britain: “I had to supply mug shot, finger prints, and personal history to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, whose representative visited friends and acquaintances in the course of their enquires. It was clear that I was to consider myself henceforth a potential criminal, at very least. Indeed, I was soon to realise that the laws relating to the sale of wine – irrational, demeaning, and absurdly varied from state to state– make certain that everyone involved with the wine and spirit trade of this country will at some time, knowingly or unknowingly, commit an offense… “

Undeterred by the bureaucratic monkeys on his back, Asher’s wine knowledge was further enriched by the incredible vigour of the then rapidly expanding Californian wine industry. Working in the trade, and most importantly selling to the public, Asher managed to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. His essays breathe an enthusiasm for wine.

And though a magazine like American Gourmet is read by the well-healed with an above-the-ordinary-interest in wine, his words are for everyone, not only those versed in wine lore.

If you can find this volume, published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York, 1986, grab it and prepare for a late night. You won’t want to put it down.