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.

13 Responses

  1. The Beer Wench - October 26, 2008

    The way you write is truly inspirational. Although the content of this latest blog is compelling, your sheer eloquence captivated me the most. The story is beautiful, but I was more impressed with how you presented it. Your choice of words, word flow & structure is – in my humble opinion – extremely graceful and poetic.
    Being new to the world of wine, I had not yet heard of Alice. I love how you portray her – your words feel very honest. She is a remarkable woman, yet like all other human beings – she has flaws. I love how you appreciate her strengths – yet have no issue with identifying and calling out her weaknesses.
    Being a strong, fiery lady myself, I would love to one day cross paths with this Alice.
    Thanks for the post! Wish I could be at the conference! Next year for sure!

  2. Tom Wark - October 26, 2008

    Thank you very much. Alice is a big girl. She can take probably about anything. And in the end, it’s not that she’s just completely off her rocker. She just sees things different than I do. Cheers.

  3. winehiker - October 26, 2008

    Tom, your words are indeed eloquent beyond compare. As a blogger who had found himself curious about Ms. Alice and the discussion she has previously engendered, I found her to be everything you regard her as, and I was impressed.
    I was lucky to be dining at Joel Vincent’s table, where she came over to spend a few minutes of storytelling. Rather than speak, I listened, raptly. Whether or not I may get an opportunity to speak to her again, I found her to be warm, engaging, funny, feisty, and human. Kinda like us bloggers!
    Terrific post, Tom, and terrific hobnobbing with you once again.

  4. Insider - October 26, 2008

    Tom – Have you tried the wines of the LIOCO project? In response to your writing about Alice’s speech, these wines may be of interest. What I find fascinating about them is that they are wines I would not seek out to drink for the hell of it, but they are wines that make me THINK. I have no tie to the winery or the wines, just a curiosity lit by a fellow wine nut.
    Have you had them?

  5. Tom Wark - October 27, 2008

    The Lioko wines appear to be vineyard designated wines, in general. I’ve always believed that the it’s the single vineyard, versus an appellation wine, that is most likely to provide a unique enough character to identify vintage after vintage. But I’m not really going out on a limb with that one.

  6. Strappo - October 27, 2008

    This is some love letter to our Alice. I think you have done a great job pinpointing the paradoxes in her position and her starting assumptions. I think she goes overboard sometimes, smiting all and sundry with the ferocity of her convictions.
    Yet at the same time I have my own conviction – that if there were no Alice Feiring, we’d have to invent one. Extremism in the defense of wine honesty is no sin…or something like that.
    And BTW now I’m REALLY sad I couldn’t attend the conference.

  7. Taster B - October 27, 2008

    My favorite thing about her talk was how genuinely touched she seemed to be by the existence of a community of wine writers.

  8. fredric koeppel - October 27, 2008

    whoa, whatya think about Lettie Teague?

  9. Joel - October 28, 2008

    I think what Alice highlighted for me was the stark contrast between motivational speaking and inspirational speaking.
    Gary V absolutely can spin a motivational speech to get out there and hustle and you can do it.
    Alice’s speech touched at the heart of what inspires people to put their love of wine out on display for the world via a blog. Her “dig your heels in and resist [the mediocrity]” I sure hope was inspiration to bloggers who have been doing it for a while as well as those wondering if they should start or continue.
    Great post. Really. And not having met Alice my mind’s eye created a much more imposing character (from the blogs and controversy of some of her writing). But in reality she was just about the single nicest person I’ve ever met in my life and I am a huge fan of her’s REGARDLESS of any opinions out there. I’m officially adopting her as my Auntie Alice because she’s really just the sweetest person I’ve met…
    Now that being said – she ROCKED the WBC by staying up Saturday Night until about 1:00am tasting wines with Doug Cook (AbleGrape) so she had more wear-with-all then 75% of the wimps who whined and went to BED!!!

  10. Nick - October 28, 2008

    Great post Tom. I too was tickled by Alice’s willingness to say what I often think about California wines. But, because I work in wine retail, I think I have a slightly different perspective. Since my job is to point people towards what they like best, I have to acknowledge that some people really enjoy the oaky fruit bombs from California, and really there’s nothing wrong with that.
    In fact when I first started working in wine, that’s what I wanted too. As I tasted more and more though, the fruit appeal started to fade and I found myself craving old world structure and earth, and suddenly the fruit and oak from the new world seemed out of balance.
    I think there’s a dangerous trap here the those of us who are heavily involved with wine can fall into. Tastes change over time, and they change particularly rapidly when we’re taste a lot of something. I think we naturally gravitate towards what is rarer and more unusual, ie the earthy french stuff. To us it seems more balanced and interesting, but to someone less experienced it might just seem overwhelming and confusing. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I just think we should be careful because it sounds a bit like Alice wants all wine to taste like she likes it, when really there’s room for everyone out there.
    There is one thing I can unequivocally agree with her on though. Down with parker!

  11. Douglas Trapasso - October 29, 2008

    I described Alice to a few OWC people before her talk as the Dr. Laura of wine. Her book and blog do come off as a little single minded and unforgiving of others. When you see her live, you understand that her overall message is to avoid mediocrity (good thing) and compromise (dangerous thing) in all areas of your life. I have no problem in saying that the wine world needs a few people like her to keep the rest of us honest. She is inspiring and worthy of our respect. But I also think that on a day to day basis, it would be hard to be a friend or especially an intimate of hers.

  12. ViciVino - October 30, 2008

    I too was at the dinner with Alice and I found her to be someone I could look up to. She has no fear to write or say exactly what she feels and she has a very intelligent and interesting perspective on wine and the wine industry. I found the audience mixed with feelings about her and some of the questions proposed to her were demeaning and I thought embarrassing, but she handled it great. I am new to the blogging industry and found reading your articles relating to some of the events at the conference to be great. I met you after the break-out meeting you and Alder did and I hope to talk to you more some day soon.

  13. Mahmoud Ali - June 4, 2009

    I just read Alice Feiring’s book and I have have to say that I agree with her completely. If you read it you would understand that she is not trying to tell people that they are wrong to like high alcohol, fruit bomb wines. What she is saying is that too many producers have changed their wine making tecniques merely to gain the favour of wine critics who like them. As a result they make “inauthentic” wines by extending the hang time, adding special yeasts to ferment the higher levels of sugar, adding tannins to balance the product, using reverse osmosis machines to balance the wines, and a whole host of other techniques, including plenty of new oak, that rob wines of their character and individuality.
    I haven’t liked almost any California or Australian wine that are the darlings of Parker and the Wine Spectator that have been served to me in the last year. The are hot, sweet, jammy, and almost indistinguishable from each other. Who wants a California Cabernet that tastes like a sweet Australian Shiraz?
    Don’t get me wrong, I like the old-fashioned Australian and Californian wines but unfortunately they are getting harder to find as winemakers try to gain the favour of the critics and the mass-market.

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