The Battle For Wine and How I Learned to Love Alice Feiring
Alice Feirng is an anti-establishmentarian that believes beauty is extracted from order. This puts her at odds with American wine and probably modernity too. And yet this strange and compelling perspective also gave her open entry directly into the hearts of the audience I watched her address yesterday.
Last night, in the grand, old tank room of Sonoma's venerable Sebastiani Vineyards, with lights dimmed and candles lit, Ms. Feiring held court in front of a crowd that was decidedly modern: a group of 100+ wine bloggers and wine industry participants interested in understanding this burgeoning genre of writing spawned of new technologies.
The message Ms.Feiring had for gathering was surely familiar to most of the older people in the crowd who came of age when Ms. Feiring did: Don't give in to the managers of crude compromise that seek to put everything in the employ of profit and mediocrity; stay true to blogging's roots and continue to stir the pot.
How could this gaggle of wine bloggers, who properly understand themselves as the wine industry's literary equivalent of the crowd with pitchforks and torches, not embrace this message? I know it appealed to me.
Feiring, who explained that she fell into blogging by happy accident, lamented much of the simple minded writing she is too often asked to produce where wine is concerned. "Wine Entertaining" articles for the Kmart and Target crowd had gotten to her. Blogging at her In Vino Veritas blog, though producing for her no immediate income, had given her a place to express her deepest concerns for the wine industry, a place to extol the virtues of authentic wines, and a place to explain what's right and wrong with wine in the 21st century.
For anyone who might wonder what Ms. Feiring believes is wrong with wine, and particularly California wine, one need only read her LA Times editorial from last May that succinctly summarized her book that would soon follow: "The Battle for Wine and Love — Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization." She pulls no punches in her LA Times Article:
"When I first stopped drinking the Left Coast, it was because I was
offended by the overuse of wood, boring flavors and lack of structure….when I evaluate them [California wines], I think not in terms of whether I like them but whether I can tolerate them."
But it's not just California wines that have offended Ms. Feiring: "But take heart, Golden State, you're not alone in making what I consider to be undrinkable wine. About 90% of the rest of mondo del vino has been similarly corrupted."
What Ms. Feiring believes will save the world of wine, California included, is a dedication to dirt; a commitment to authenticity by the makers of wine; winemaking that is "fiercely committed to working with, not against, nature."
Within Ms. Feiring's message to bloggers not to give into those that would turn blogging into just another place to publish more boring, dreck-filled "Wine Entertaining" articles that please advertisers and those with a disposition toward the color grey, is an implicit reiteration of her problem with 90% of today's wine: it is mainly "overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated." Her explanation for how this has happened, this corruption of nature, is somewhat complex but one of the primary culprits is the desire of winemakers around the world to conform to one man's palate. Robert Parker's seeming demand that good wine be big, fat, unnaturally ripe and extracted, over oaked and flabby has influenced winemakers, marketers and accountants to eschew the creation of wines that reflect the place where grapes are grown.
Alice Feiring is an incontestably beautiful woman. Small and slim in stature with a long graceful face and flowing red hair, there is a pixie queen quality to her. She sparkles too. This is not the sparkle of a bright, over sequined stunner that leaves a wake behind her as she glides across a crowded room. It strikes me as the sparkle you see in the eyes of carefree, curious, optimistic youth who still believe that beauty is God made, not man made.
For the short time she addressed her fellow bloggers, she demonstrated great command of the art of holding a room. This, I've learned, is not an easy thing to do when the room is filled with a collection of people who are defined in large part by a strong desire to express themselves—at all times. Nevertheless, Alice quietly addressed the crowd and explained that, amazingly, it was her first time ever giving a talk, as opposed to a reading.
Mostly she spoke of how she came to blogging, her experience being the "anti-Parker", her view of what blogging means and ending with a substantial nugget that I hope did not get past everyone in the room: she explained to those who put together the Wine Bloggers Conference that this was the first time wine writers had been organized. This was a two fold compliment. At once she acknowledged that a few people had actually managed to herd the cats into a room, while simultaneously giving bloggers entrance into the fraternity of Wine Writers. Wow. I hope no one in the room last night took this comment lightly.
And yet, for all of her beauty, grace, generosity and insight, Alice Feiring has problem. The kind of natural wines to which she so desperately wants to see winemakers dedicate themselves and drinkers embrace, are not really "natural" at all, but rather artifacts of inertia, government decree, and the forces of order.
The reason we know what Chambolle Musigny taste like in its natural, unmanipulated state is because we know what Pinot Noir tastes like and there are very specific rules for how "Chambolle Musigny" is to be produced—from vine to bottle. This government-ordered state of nature is a product of many things, not the least of which is powerful brand equity that has been built around a certain style of wine made in Burgundy over many years. Were these rules to change, diminish, or be discarded all together then the state of nature, the definition of "natural wine", would change.
We don't regulate what wine should taste like in America. At least not much. This is why in a place like Russian River Valley it is nearly impossible to say what we can expect from a wine that hails from Russian River Valley. It might take its taste from any number of different varieties of grapes. It might take its taste from any number of growing techniques or ripening philosophies. It might take its taste from any number of winemaking techniques. But what it won't take its taste from is government decree.
I think Alice wants drink wines that taste like Russian River Valley. I think she wants to drink wines that taste like Anderson Valley. I think too she wants to drink wines that taste like the dirt and climate of Eaglepoint Ranch vineyard. She's a Terroirista.
Ironically, her desire for natural wine and her bent toward railing against the establishment and her call for bloggers not to give in and to keep stirring the pot all express her inner anti-establishmentarianism, while her desired outcome for reform of winemaking and wine appreciation calls for well ordered rules that would tell us what is best gown where and under what conditions it is grown and how it ought to be produced.
It seems to me that Alice extracts beauty from order, not the low level form of chaos she otherwise promotes.
I may be overstating the contradiction of Alice Feiring. It may be that she could find happiness in wine were it just to be made from grapes that are not quite so ripe, not quite so steeped in oak, not quite so manipulated for the tastes of the majority; that wine be made a bit more often to the demands of her own palate and that it be made by men and women that have a bit more dirt under their nails sing a more spiritual tune. I don't know.
But here's what I do know. I'm in love with Alice Feiring. And I told her so last night. I told her that I loved her spirit, her measured contrarianism, her generosity and the inspiration that oozes out of her. I hope she gets her wine.