The simplistic side of Eric Asimov

I read with great interest the New York Times of August 24, where wine writer Eric Asimov praises small winemakers in Bordeaux and contrasts them with the big chateaux, ‘a world of brand-name products sold like luxury goods,’ he wrote.

It was refreshing to read about smaller winemakers, more modest, who make ‘natural’ wines, with ‘no manipulation, no chemicals,’ he quoted Jean-Francois Fillastre of the 1.3-hectare Domaine du Jaugaret in Beychevelle-St Julien.

I am in Bordeaux to get a sense of the 2010 vintage just before harvest – where rain is sorely needed because grapes are too dry (indeed the famous consultant Jacques Boissenot told me in his lab at Lamarque, just south of St Julien, that the merlot grapes are 30% lighter than last year, with very thick skins and little juice).

In any case, I have also criticized the Bordelais for high prices. I have criticized the glitz and glamor as well, being fairly turned off by a visit to Chateau Latour during en primeur week, full of fawning writers and people in the business hungry for a rare allocation amidst an arrogant Fort Knox like ambiance. The wine is fantastic but costs a fortune and I like wines to drink… It is true that in 2009 many chateaux went haywire with prices. One of my favorite wines of Bordeaux, Chateau Figeac, for example, I found to be sold at far too high a price in 2009 compared to previous vintages (not nearly as crazy as Latour of course), and owner Eric d’Aramon was not very happy with my critique when I visited his chateau last week to taste some wines. In any case, Figeac, not modern in style by the way and yet one of those ‘luxury goods’ that Asimov describes negatively – is damn good wine.

Which is not something I can say about Domaine du Jaugaret. What Asimov strangely did not mention in his romantic description of the cobwebbed lamps and mushroom like mold of the cellars is a distinct vinegar smell as well. And why did he not mention the fact that Fillastre’s wine was not authorized to bear the St Julien label? Mr Fillastre spoke vaguely to me about ‘the authorities giving me trouble’ but when I spoke to locals in St Julien, people who sell wine in modest shops for example and who did not wish to be named, the reason is that there is a problem with his wines. A problem I could detect distinctly from the 2008 barrel sample which had acetic acid aromas. Now, the welcome in his modest domain was charming. It did remind me of visits to small domains in Burgundy. And we went to see some of his vines, 18 rows, between Ducru Beaucaillou (actually formerly Terry Gros Caillou recently bought by the 2nd growth) and Branaire Ducru, located not far from the inland Chateau Gruaud Larose. And I liked the 2007, which was frank and fresh, but nothing particularly amazing as Asimov would have you believe. Certainly not haunting. Still, Mr. Fillastre is indeed authentic, in the way he does things a ‘l’ancien’ as they say in France. But he also admits to not being able to control temperatures during fermentations. Something pretty basic. His agenda against ‘adding chemicals’ and ‘making natural wines’ is nice, but not everything a l’ancien is necessarily good. And if it is true that his wine sells for at least $60 a bottle in the US, and even up to $100, well I find that absurd.

Asimov would have done better to have tried a wine like Domaine Castaing also in St Julien and just near the vineyards of Jaugaret. The wines there are cleaner and cheaper. In fact, this domain, which has no problem obtaining a St Julien appellation authorization, has the same area of vines – about one hectare – and is also far more modest in terms of price: about 13 euros a bottle. Now that is more like it. It is hardly as good as a wine like the aforementioned Branaire Ducru for example, where there is much soul in making great wine. Same goes for Leoville Barton. Are these wines more expensive? Of course.

Like it or not, many of the ‘brand-name products’ Asimov criticizes take much more care in the vineyard and in the vat room, and they are not overripe or modern. The result is excellent wine that is – well, yes – more expensive.

There is a very well known American adage that Asimov’s ‘soulful article’ (actually simplistic article) seems to ignore: You get what you pay for. Or at least you should…

4 Responses to “The simplistic side of Eric Asimov” (Leave a Comment)

  1. Panos, c’mon, you are no longer get what you paid for!

    At today’s ’09 prices you get MUCH less than what you paid for. $1000 bottle doesn’t deliver $1000 experience, and I doubt it will ever deliver it, even 20 years from now.

  2. pkakaviatos says:

    Greetings Serge! Thanks for the reply.

    Once again, I think that 2009 Bordeaux pricing – on a general level – is too high.

    And I have spoken to several negociants who say this. Ferdinand Mahler Besse told me that ‘this is the most dangerous campaign he has seen’ . Another negociant has spoken about a lot of potential ‘toxic stock’ . So, yes, the danger of a bubble bursting is real.

    But I am very skeptical about putting Asimov’s St Julien working class hero on such a high pedestal. Especially when his wine is actually not inexpensive – surpassing some of the so called ‘luxury’ brand prices. So perhaps I should have ended the text with ‘you SHOULD get what you pay for’ lol.

    It just seems to me to be very simplistic and romantic to say, ‘ah, these evil corporate Bordeaux types vs the little guys who are so much better in a soulful way’ or something like this. It is not that simple.

    It does not mean that the ‘soul’ of Bordeaux is found in rather obscure estates with limited means, however charming they may be. The reason many established estates have reputations is because they do have the superior exposures and microclimates and soils. They have the money to invest in something as basic as temperature control during fermentation, or to invest in new vertical presses and tractors. Or whatever other important items/services are needed to make the best of a given domain.

    As you know, I am not someone with a modern palate, and do not like wines with ultra low yields resulting in overripe thickness and bloated prices tags based on potential 100 point scores. But the truth is that many established brands – to me at least – truly represent the soul of Bordeaux. Wines like Leoville Barton in St Julien. Or Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac. Or Brane Cantenac in Margaux. These are not $1000 per bottle boutique wines. In many vintages, they cost less than Jaugaret. So, generally, quite affordable, representing ageworthy wines – clarets – that have not ‘betrayed’ tradition but rather embraced modern methods and progress in a reasonable fashion. And there are many others like them.

  3. Panos, this “SHOULD” would make heck of a lot difference! as it would definitely put everything in proper perspective, just my humble opinion!

  4. pkakaviatos says:

    Thank you Serge. I added the ‘should’ ;-).

Leave a Reply