The Ongoing Roar

Alice Feiring….You GO!

I think it’s great that the San Francisco Chronicle and the LA Times would give Alice a fairly large stage to bitch and moan about California wine not being to her tastes and the contention that a single, Maryland-based Palate is the reason for her California Discontent.

Alice is in the midst of promoting her new book that takes the art of bitching and moaning into a book length format. Feiring’s "The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization" has a whimsical looking cover design that might just as easily be translated to a publishing effort on how pandas and tulips can save the world. But it seems behind the happy cover lies another approach:

"Join her as she sets off on her one-woman crusade against the tyranny
of homogenization, wine consultants, and, of course, the 100-point
scoring system of a certain all-powerful wine writer."

Just for the record there is no tyranny of Homogenization in the world of CA wine. There is only disappointment that most wines don’t appeal to one’s palate. It’s also true that Alice’s call for more "natural" winemaking and "natural" wines is really just a a reflection of her philosophy of life and not a critique of winemaking. It’s highly doubtful she or most others could consistently identify wines that are made with and without "natural" winemaking techniques.

Still, I love to see Alice, this artful writer, make a full frontal assault on those wineries and critics who likeFeiringbook
to drink and make wines that don’t appeal to her. There is a passion here that transcends and makes secondary work of the disappointment that is at the heart of her recent screeds and editorials. It’s good writing, it’s controversial, it engages the reader and it demonstrates that the politics of preference is alive and well in the world of wine.

As I read the good news today that the California Supreme Court overturned the law prohibiting same-sex marriage, I saw similarities between Feiring’s position that California wine should be more subdued and natural and the opponents of the California Supreme Court ruling who believed marriage should be what it always was, between a man and a woman. Both Alice and the conservative, anti-gay camp believe there has been some brainwashing going on. But in the long run, both the opponents of same sex marriage and Alice will lose their battles. America is not, and never was, a place where traditions were forceful enough to squash the aspirations of those who choose to simply do what they want as long as it’s not hurting anyone.

The big, bold wines that Alice believes are imitations of what real wine should be will be with us forever and will continue to be made because California’s climate allows this as does technology, and because other people like them. But she should take take heart. There will always be Cathy Corisons, Steve Edmunds, Stony Hills and many, many others who, if Alice wants to seek them out, will demonstrate that there is no winemaking region in the world more diverse in the style of wines it produces than California.

Nice review of Feiring’s New Book at The Women’s Wine Critic Blog.

21 Responses

  1. St. Vini - May 16, 2008

    The telling remark is when she complimented the syrah that tasted of “olive”. Are underripe flavors somewhoe more “natural” than ripe or overripe? Not defending the monsters like Turley, but why strive to make wines that taste like they were made from a vegetable, not a fruit?

  2. Tom Wark - May 16, 2008

    I have no problem with someone preferring a more vegetal wine over a fruit driven wine. But the key here is that we are simply talking about preference, not quality.

  3. Arthur - May 16, 2008

    “those who choose to simply do what they want as long as it’s not hurting anyone”
    The problem in California is that making this style of wine, convincing the consumer that it is of good quality and then charging $30+ per bottle *IS* hurting a lot of people.
    It’s called fleecing of the consumer.

  4. Tom Wark - May 16, 2008

    These wines that Alice doesn’t like are of good quality. I’ve rarely tasted one that is flawed and most will do just great for early drinking if they have the high pHs.
    The cost of these wines is just a function of supply and demand.
    I don’t see how anyone is hurt.

  5. Thomas Pellechia - May 16, 2008

    I must disagree with you about that word “quality” in your post. Quality or lack of it is not a subjective matter.
    Having said that, I don’t like monster wines either. Still, we (in the wine industry) should be teaching people to trust their own palates; we should not preach to them what things are supposed to be–unless, of course, we (the industry) come to agreement over what wine is supposed to be.
    Seems to me that the same pot-shots that many of us take at major critics can be taken at those of us who claim to have the definitive answers.

  6. Arthur - May 16, 2008

    We may not be on the same page here.
    I am firm in my contentions that quality is can be measured by OBJECTIVE criteria and standards.

  7. Andrew - May 16, 2008

    Tom, you’re a riot. Only you could write these things.

  8. Thomas Pellechia - May 16, 2008

    “The problem in California is that making this style of wine, convincing the consumer that it is of good quality…”
    Your above statement appears that you equate style with quality. If so, that would be a subjective parameter for quality.

  9. Arthur - May 16, 2008

    Certain styles offer better quality across different parameters: complexity and grace, enjoyability, food friendliness and longevity. These are not a matter of personal preference and transcends style. It is a matter of fact that certain wines – when made particular way – make for greater synergy with food, offer greater longevity and are able to age and evolve into something more complex and captivating than those which are made to be made immediately accessible. Hence the former offer greater quality – overall.
    My point was that the current reigning style in CA is suboptimal at best. With excessive ripeness and alcohol, it is a poor food companion and, because it is immediately available, it is stripped of the ability to evolve into something more complex over a significant period of time.
    Nonetheless, the public has been convinced of: 1) this is superior to a wine of grace and longevity and 2) worth the egregious prices.
    Thus, my contention that making this style is hurting the customer because it is selling an inferior product at premium product prices.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - May 16, 2008

    My point was that the current reigning style in CA is suboptimal at best. With excessive ripeness and alcohol, it is a poor food companion and, because it is immediately available, it is stripped of the ability to evolve into something more complex over a significant period of time.
    Nonetheless, the public has been convinced of: 1) this is superior to a wine of grace and longevity and 2) worth the egregious prices.
    I agree with your assessment. But I do not agree with your conclusion.
    Without an overall technical agreement on what exactly constitutes wine and what (other than personal preference) determines its value both monetarily and culturally, your view of quality is not sustainable.
    Those with an alternative stylistic view can call your style of wine thin, weak and of low quality. How do either of you prove your point?
    Ms. Fiering’s argument puts forward personal preference at the expense of technical enlightenment. It does not address the subject of quality, and the rating system of the critic that she criticizes also does not address the subject of quality.
    You cannot address quality through the prism of personal preference.

  11. Arthur - May 16, 2008

    I am all for technical assessments of wine. However, the pit falls of that can be demonstrated by what some consider shortcomings and homogeneity (even “soullessness”) of mainstream Australian wine.
    Ultimately, whatever technical/laboratory markers we come up with, I suspect that they will end up being tied into parameters like longevity, complexity and synergy with food.
    At the same time, it’s important to point out that organoleptic assessment of wine can be performed reproducibly.
    There was a lot of buzz about some published literature of late where a group of *economists* and *marketing academicians* from Stanford and Clatech who looked at how people reported enjoyment of a wine relative to suggested price.
    What those commenting on the study completely missed was that the authors pointed to evidence that personal enjoyment (“perceived pleasantness” in the words of the study authors, which is related to preference) is a separate brain function from the actual perception of aromas, flavors and textures. This supports the idea that one can be a trained organoleptic assessor and separate their preferences from their observations. This does require strict adherence to a process, though, rather than casual tasting and note taking.
    I do not have any problems with any technical ways of measuring parameters correlated with quality. However, at this point and time, we have better chances of developing and propagating an organoleptic system of wine assessment than a technological one.
    And here, no doubt, we get into this notion of variance in sensory acuity and some vague (and misinformed) notion of physiological variation. “Supertaster” is a myth. Yes, there is some variance in acuity and expression of olfactory receptors but it is not so great that two people could not smell the same things in the same bottle of wine.
    Yes, some people are a little better at it than others – just like some are better at playing an instrument or a sport. But sensory assessment is like learning a language: you must learn it – to recognize and come to know how to distinguish different aromas and flavors and know what they mean. It’s a brain, not a nose and tongue, thing.
    Once we get past that, and once we learn organoleptic assessment and learn to separate observation from preference, we will find our findings and assessments will not only be concordant between evaluators but also with whatever technical methods we devise.

  12. Thomas Pellechia - May 16, 2008

    You misconstrue what I mean by “technical.” I do not mean technological–I mean organoleptic, which is the technical end of winemaking.
    I am not talking merely about sensory. As I’ve said many times, I have experienced cult wines that have been by any laboratory measure inferior wine products, yet they enjoy superior prices and consumer following. Without an accepted standard, those wine producers flourish along with the many bacteria that flourish in their wines.
    You should seek Maynard Amerine’s essay concerning wine quality. It is enlightening even 50 plus years after its creation.
    The simple fact is that in wine, there is no apparent industry-wide standard to measure quality. But there are a volume of mini-fifedoms of interpretations of quality.
    In my view, that is the problem with the wine industry, and it is what makes wine criticism such an easy occupation for even the most unknowing to master.

  13. Arthur - May 16, 2008

    I see your meaning now.
    Sounds like we should take the opprotunity to sit down and talk when time and geographical location permits.

  14. Thomas Pellechia - May 16, 2008

    Perhaps in August. I might be on the Left Coast–after I get my immunization shots, of course 😉

  15. Arthur - May 16, 2008

    Sounds great Thomas,
    I emailed you my contact info.

  16. Peggy - May 17, 2008

    I wasn’t aware that the world needed saving from Parkerization. I am glad to be in the know now. Thanks for the post.

  17. Mary Baker - May 19, 2008

    Tom, thank you for the link to my book review, which is published on both the WWCB site and our home blog at Dover Canyon. (Alice has also responded to the review.)
    I am a little amazed by comments that I “dismiss” her book, and on the WWCB site, “did you even read it?” This is an 1,800 word book review, and I hope that readers will leave thoughtful commentary on the book and the issues.

  18. Morton Leslie - May 19, 2008

    In the case of Ms. Feiring, a picture is worth a thousand words. Her little smirk is perfect. She is proof that if you time it right there is money to be made and fame awaiting the contrarian. Just don’t be the first; then you are just the outspoken oddball. But if you wait until after Mondovino and other pioneering,though flawed, attacks on Parker and his “homogenized wines”, the time is probably right for a person to come forward with a more honed and suitably clichéd message.
    For that matter, it’s was the same for Parker. Before Parker wine critics waited for the wines to be shipped…often waiting for a few years to make a judgement on a vintage. But that didn’t help the average wine merchant or collector who didn’t have the motivation or resources to judge for themselves. Parker tasted wines from the barrel after the 1982 vintage, saw that they were dark and big, that they fit the clichéd concept of wine quality, and he was brash enough to make a judgement despite his limited experience. It was exactly what the amateur wanted at the time… someone, anyone to tell them what to buy before the wines hit the shelves. Proof that it is often helpful to have no idea how much you don’t know; else you might keep your mouth shut at the opportune time.
    And you might miss the chance to smirk.

  19. Tish - May 20, 2008

    Methinks many of the people who bash Alice Feiring are doing so unfairly. I know her, consider her a very astute writer, and (gasp) look forward to reading her book before passing judgment.

  20. Andrew - May 24, 2008

    Damnyankees is one word. So is Yankeessuck.

  21. Tom C. - May 27, 2008

    Gawd, am I tired of Parker-bashing. Can’t anyone express an opinion praising balance, or terroir, or un-spoofulating, or whatever, without taking a dump on the guy? It really diminishes the susbstance of the debate. I’m not saying that happens here, and the comment thread here is quite civil in tone, but this Parker-bashing phenomenon is spreading like SARS on wine blogs across the “Internets.” Enough!

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