Gerald Asher is a small man with an almost courtly countenance. He's also a giant among wine writers, with fiercely held views on how to enjoy and appreciate his favorite beverage.

The loquacious Brit's decades-long run as Gourmet's wine writer ended with the magazine's demise two years ago, but many of those evocative works are compiled in a new book, "A Vineyard in My Glass" ($29.95, University of California Press, 288 pages).

Ever elegant and expressive, Asher's essays are more about the people and places that make the wine what it is than about the product itself.

Q Which wine regions have shown the most improvement in the 50 years that you've been writing about wine?

A The most obvious is California. Putting aside the overripe, heavy wines, when you look at Russian River Valley pinot noir, chardonnay from Carneros, Santa Barbara wines, the progress is phenomenal. When I came to California 30 years ago, there was nothing like this being made here. There were some good cabernets from Napa, and that was it.

Q And elsewhere?

A People really should not be so scared when they see something that's unfamiliar at a reasonable price. I don't mean $2.99. Don't look for the rock bottom. You're going to get sound wines, but they're not going to be interesting.

But if you're looking in the $7 to $15 range there are some interesting wines there. And the more unfamiliar, the more you should say to yourself "There has to be some reason why the buyer has put this Cote de Blank with name I don't know" on the shelf. Ask the salesman, "Why is it here?" Learn to trust your lack of knowledge.

Q We keep hearing that younger consumers are very interested in the kinds of "back story" you've always written about. Are you seeing indications of that?

A I think they are, I think they're interested in wine as more than something wet in the glass. In San Francisco there are wine classes and tasting groups, and they're not going in to see what is the best value; they're learning what is the background. They're interested in the story, why is this wine what it is.

Without that, you end up with this ridiculous situation where people are buying wines not for what they are but what they're not. You remember when New Zealand sauvignon blanc started coming in? At that time they didn't understand that if you have a heavy canopy, you end up with what [wine writer] Jancis Robinson called cat-piss flavor. And people loved it, not because "I've waited all my life to taste something like this" but because they recognized it as something distinctive.

So when people taste it they can go "yep, that's my Marlborough sauvignon blanc." People like that, something that they can recognize. Not in order to feel smug, but to feel a connection with wine. You can't do that with potatoes.

This is what has always made wine special because it's not just agriculture, but something about the way that grape interprets the way it has been grown.

Q How can people get better at tasting wine?

A Just by drinking. I don't think there's any special technique. Just think about why you're enjoying it. It's like music. I don't think there's any way to improve the way you listen. But the more you listen and learn about the guy who's written the piece or the ensemble playing it, the more you actually bring in your own knowledge of life, the more you will get out of that.

Bill Ward •