Alice Feiring, Natural Wine and the Question of Integrity

I’ve been, and will continue to be, a harsh critic of the “natural” wine movement for a number of different reasons. But now it’s time to give credit where credit is due.

Alice Feiring has long been a darling of this small movement. She has championed its champions and its wines, defended it against criticism and been on hand nearly where ever necessary to discuss its trends and substance. And of course, she has written extensively about “natural” wine.

Today, Alice released her first newsletter, “The Feiring Line”. While I think her tagline for the newsletter, “The Real Wine Newsletter”, is without merit, I want to quote from the newsletter’s last page:

“The Feiring Line is…the only independent newsletter specializing in honest viticulture and minimal intervention wines.”

Note there is no use of the term “natural”. In other words, note the precision with which Alice uses words and her lack of fraud in the use of terms in her description of her newsletter. I congratulate Alice for utilizing particularly the term “minimal intervention”. This is a perfect description of those wines that have now come to fall under the “natural” heading.

I would have little but good things to say about this movement if more folks followed Alice’s lead.

The idea that a wine might be “natural” is absurd in any context. The use of the term is exclusively for marketing purposes. I’m clearly not against marketing. But it’s not really marketing when you make a claim that you know isn’t true. It’s fraud. And lies. I’m further put off by the claim made by too many that these minimal intervention wines are somehow new or some sort of new movement among enlightened vintners; some new road being paved by iconoclasts and trailblazers. In fact, the kind of wines that Alice champions in her “The Feiring Line” and that have been hailed under the banner of “natural” are the same kind of minimal intervention, artisan wines that have been pursued and made real by vintners across California, Europe, Australia and in other winemaking regions for decades now.

As for Alice’s Issue One of The Feiring Line, well, I think it’s grand, I think it’s really well done, and I think it’s a terrific and valuable addition to the wine media landscape. The reviews are without ratings, feature pithy yet descriptive prose and let the reader know the grape, the viticultural technique, SO2 levels, price and importer. The design of the newsletter, delivered as a PDF document, is outstanding and easy to read and follow. We get profiles of producers, restaurants and regions. And of course, we get Alice’s fine and engaging writing style.

But again, I’m particularly happy and pleased to see that Alice chose not to go with the term “Natural” in describing the wines she focuses on in this new entrant into the wine newsletter sweepstakes. It shows courage and integrity, two things that we’ve come to expect from her.

Hopefully, those other champions of Minimal Intervention wines will follow suit and drop the “natural” wording.

SUBSCRIBE TO THE FEIRING LINE HERE


26 Responses

  1. John Kelly - October 31, 2012

    Now I am going to take issue with “honest” viticulture. That’s imprecise, and deprecative of all viticuture that does not meet some nebulous, undefined standard. “Minimal intervention” applies to both.

  2. Tom Wark - October 31, 2012

    John:

    True. Same for “Real Wine”. However, I’m willing to see reform happen one step at a time.

    Tom…

  3. Tim - October 31, 2012

    This is why I love the heck out of Alice. A voice in the wilderness she is.

    @John Kelly, you need to work in the wine industry to know that ‘honest viticulture’ is merely a description of the opposite of most low-end/mass-market commercial winemaking. Alice is championing people who love wine, not wine marketing.

  4. Samantha Dugan - October 31, 2012

    Tim, you might want to Google John Kelly and wine….

  5. Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Treasured Extremes - November 1, 2012

    [...] Alice Feiring launches her newsletter! Even Tom Wark is impressed. [...]

  6. John Kelly - November 1, 2012

    @Tim (whoever you are) if you worked in the wine industry you would know it is all marketing. Alice included. Have you read her books?

  7. doug wilder - November 1, 2012

    Tom,

    The link to subscribe to Alice’s magazine doesn’t work…

  8. Tom Wark - November 1, 2012

    Doug…Hmmmm….works for me and my stats say others have successfully clicked on it. The link is http://www.alicefeiring.com/newsletter.

    Tom…

    • Doug Wilder - November 1, 2012

      Thanks Tom. Must just be my firewall. Will check when I get home. I completely support Alice in her endeavors because she is passionate and a champion for a particular genre. I wish her much success. It will be those who are interested in her viewpoint that will determine how successful it is in the end. I guess the more controversial you are the more coverage you get :)

  9. Thomas Pellechia - November 1, 2012

    John beat me to it:

    “Honest viticulture” is a short step up from drivel.

    While I think I understand what is meant by “minimal intervention,” without definition, it’s an open-ended phrase.

  10. Tom Wark - November 1, 2012

    “honest viticulture” is truly ambiguous, and that’s a good thing. “Minimal intervention” is far better and far more accurate than “Natural Wine”. “Minimal Intervention” does not possess the cultural and commercial implications that “Natural” now possesses, particularly when applied to a consumable good. And that’s a much better step.

  11. John Kelly - November 1, 2012

    Tom it’s a good thing? Then by whose nebulous and arbitrary standards am I and are all my grower friends practicing “dishonest” viticulture? It’s just as much name calling and hand waving as “natural” wine.

  12. Tom Wark - November 1, 2012

    John:

    I hear you! Believe me. But I’m looking at this as a step in the right direction and all too often it’s a matter of embracing the small steps and then urging larger ones.

    “Honest Viticulture” is a nebulous and arbitrary term. No doubt. However, it’s far less dangerous a term than “Natural Wine”, which not only describes a product (“honest viticulture describes a process, not a product) but has significant meaning in the consumable culture. That said….I do hear you.

  13. John Kelly - November 1, 2012

    Tom don’t get me wrong – I completely embrace the nominal change, and respect Alice the more for making it. I generally like her writing and her POV – it’s just some of the people she has promoted and inspired who have taken the ideas too far IMO.

    At the risk of violating the corpse of an equine, I assert that “minimal intervention” is a process description while “honest viticulture” is absolutely not. The “honest/dishonest” dichotomy is no less value-laden and ultimately pejorative than “natural/unnatural.”

    I wager that the average chemical-dependent, flood irrigating industrial grape farmer is a damn sight more honest than 9 out of 10 people claiming to be “biodynamic.”

  14. Thomas Pellechia - November 1, 2012

    John, I agree with you, but I’d also love to know what constitutes “minimal.”

    Media people, and I am one of them, love to pair every concept down to a sound bite. Unfortunately, that’s a crummy way to educate people. Just tell the real story without trying to lead the reader’s thought process.

  15. Thomas Pellechia - November 1, 2012

    oops, pare not pair.

  16. M. Murdoch - November 2, 2012

    I think both ‘honest viticulture’ and ‘minimal intervention’ are both very good phrases to use to describe the way many produce their wine. There are a number of ways in which you can manipulate the way you grow your grapes and make your wine. I have seen a lot of this first hand and sometimes wonder, if in the end, after all the additions and subtractions, that it could really be called wine. I have to say that I am a huge fan of ‘minimal intervention’ wines and I have met some pretty amazing people who make them. However, I do not discount the fact that for some it is a matter of economics. 2012 has been a dreadful year for a lot of people who produce wine an I know personally, some people (minimal intervention) who have lost up to 70% of some of their vineyards. This is heart (and bank) breaking for them but they keep going. There is a lot of very, hard, work and love that goes into making ‘minimal intervention’ wine and I respect their choice to produce wines in this way.

  17. Thomas Pellechia - November 2, 2012

    So, M., how do you define “minimal intervention?”

    Which interventions are not allowed, which take you over the top, which are acceptable–and then, why?

    Don’t get me wrong: I am of the opinion that the less done the better. I just don’t see where a phrase describes much of anything, and I have yet to read or hear a cogent explanation of the phrase that cannot be challenged by one or more “interventions.”

    The trouble with absolutes is that they are often abstract. Simple phrases are even worse than that, and they indicate a potential lack of clarity in one’s argument.

    • M - November 2, 2012

      Hi Thomas,

      Yes I completely understand where you are coming from, and what is worse is that people who have never worked in a vineyard, or in a winery are jumping onto certain bandwagons with no knowledge of why they are doing so solely based on the word ‘natural’ The list of manipulations in wineries and vineyards is far too long to get into here but for instance with some of the producers I have made wine with in the Mosel use almost no outside intervention in the vineyard apart from hand pruning, hand weeding and using cover crops etc. In the winery nothing is use apart from a bit of sulphur before bottling. Some don’t even use purchased yeast. Other wineries use a plethora of sprays and fertilisers etc in the vineyard, in the winery DAP, thiamine, colour, tannin, reverse osmosis, de alchoholisation, water, malic, tartaric, carbon, enzymes, sugar and then after the wine is done, acids, sugars etc to the blend.

      So I guess minimal intervention is just that, doing as little as possible to your vines, must/ferment/wine as possible. Someone recently said to me ‘you can make wine anywhere now’ and this is true but it doesn’t mean we should if it means you have to do so much to the product to make it palatable and presentable to the public.

      Have a great day, I am off now to have my evening glass of wine! (that I made myself so know exactly what is in it ;)

  18. Thomas Pellechia - November 2, 2012

    “Someone recently said to me ‘you can make wine anywhere now’ and this is true but it doesn’t mean we should if it means you have to do so much to the product to make it palatable and presentable to the public.”

    A whole other issue, indeed.

    FYI: I have grown grapes and produced wine commercially, so I like to think that I know the ins and outs of the subject and that I don’t come to the conversation as a writer with an agenda, which is often as far as many go.

    Your paragraph regarding what some do and some don’t do illustrates exactly the lameness of the phrase, “minimal intervention.”

    All winemaking is intervention. I prefer we look at the issue as a pull between petro chemistry and, dare I say it, the “natural” world. ;)

  19. Ernesto Greenblatt - November 3, 2012

    “minimized intervention” is probably more accurate than “minimal intervention”.

    They’re basically on the same level as “natural”, though.
    To object to the one and not the other is nonsensical.

  20. Sarah May (@AntiquaTours) - November 4, 2012

    Thank you for this post. I am excited to attend the workshop and wish Alive herself were there. She really made me make a 180 with wine and I am huge supporter of what she does. Plus, I love her style of writing.

  21. Lee Newby, AIWS - November 5, 2012

    What I don’t understand with the natural wine crowd is they seldom give a nod to organic and biodynamic grape growers, which can produce grapes for thier minimally intervened wines. “Honest Viticulture”, get real and call a spade a spade, or are the natural wine crowd separating themselves from the certified grape growers as part of thier “we don’t need anyone to tell US how to handle our grapes” pass the Boudreaux mix again.

  22. M Murdoch - November 5, 2012

    Hi Lee,
    When you speak of the ‘Natural wine crowd’ are you speaking of the consumers or the producers?

    • Lee Newby, AIWS - November 6, 2012

      Critics ;)

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