Can a virtual wine school run by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov sell Americans on the wines he recommends? We're about to find out.
Asimov launched Wine School, a new format column on the newspaper's site this week. It aims to be different from other wine columns in that he recommends wines but then promises to collect responses from readers and check back in a month to "review our experiences and suggest the next round of wines."
Most wine columns are one-way recommendations; this promises to be a conversation, if a crowded one.
The first column had 127 comments by early Wednesday evening, far more than a normal wine column, with many readers saying they planned to participate. Several wrote that they had already bought at least one wine Asimov recommended. A woman named Janet wrote: "Got the last bottle of Château Sociando-Mallet at Sherry-Lehmann but they're getting more in on Friday."
The first group of wines Asimov recommended were not cheap, averaging $44 each on Wine-Searcher. They are:
Château Cantemerle Haut-Médoc 2009 (Average price per bottle: $46 ex. tax)
Château Bernadotte Haut-Médoc 2009 (Average price per bottle: $30 ex.tax)
Château Sociando-Mallet Haut-Médoc 2009(Average price per bottle: $55 ex.tax)
Wine industry analyst Barbara Insel says that while some will complain about the high cost of entry, many New York Times readers will pay it. Digital access to The Times costs $8.75 a week.
"Think about the demographic for his column," says Insel, president of Stonebridge Research. "Who do you think reads the wine column at the New York Times?"
Asimov has kicked off with three wines from Bordeaux.
"I want to choose wines that illustrate underlying concepts about what makes wine so wonderful, soulful, enjoyable and even contemplative," he told Wine-Searcher. "I wanted to start with Bordeaux, a historic wine that offers an opportunity to lay out some of these ideas. I realize that these are relatively expensive wines, though they are on the less expensive end in the Bordeaux context. But you can't discuss place in Bordeaux with Bordeaux Superieur. I'm a history major and I wanted classic Left Bank Cabernet-based wine, and of course I need wines that people may have a remote chance of finding."
Asimov suggests that readers take notes on their impressions of the wines, "but don’t overanalyze. All the vaunted clichés of tasting notes, the genre of writing that traffics in hints of cloudberries, guava, melted road tar, fig compote and so on, actually communicate very little to other people about the experience of drinking that wine."
He suggests that readers note whether the wine is fruity or savory; that they pay attention to the texture; and notice whether the wine changes over the course of the meal.
"As for the meal, I recommend simplicity," he writes. "Lamb and beef are classic matches. Duck and even roast chicken would be good, too."
It's interesting timing, coming after a widely publicized outburst by Robert Parker last week in which Parker accused Asimov of misleading his readers by recommending wines in a leaner, less fruit-forward style. The new virtual wine school could increase Asimov's influence on the U.S. wine market.
Dave Holt, president of Italian wine importer Dalla Terra Winery Direct said he likes the concept of Asimov's new column. "I think it demystifies wine. I think it builds confidence. Anything we can do to get wine off the pedestal."
But Holt said that even if Asimov recommended one of his wines, he didn't expect any long-term sales impact.
"There are few things that really move the needle," Holt said. "Most of it has to do with the Wine Spectator. Wine Advocate too. The commercial value in [Asimov's new column] I don't think is that great. We'll see."