Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Alice Feiring -- Naked Wine

You may have guessed from the earlier two posts this week, Association des Vins Naturels and Allowable Wine Additives, that I’ve been reading Alice Feiring’s Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2011).

Alice Feiring is the author of The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization and has written for many publications. She recently won the “On-Line Writer/Columnist of the Year” at the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. In her own words ( From Feiring's website): “I'm hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel.”

According to the PR material that came with the book, Feiring raises (and answers) controversial questions like:

• What’s the difference between natural and organic wine?
• What’s the connection between the natural food and natural wines movement?
• When did winemaking stop being an “art” and start being an “industry?”
• How much influence does “big business” really have in the wine world?

I’m sure how controversial any of these questions are and truthfully, the answers are not the interesting part of the book. The author looks at the above questions through a personal and historic perspective and also adds  her own attempt at making natural wine as part of the narrative.

If you are interested in wine and what is happening in the field (and obviously you are since you’re reading this blog), this is a very topical book. How important or marginal the natural wine movement is or becomes will become apparent over the next decade or so. The author believes “(t)here will be a trickle up effect. Many bigger wineries will use fewer tricks to make wine.” It’s hard to argue with the ideals of the natural wine movement, but it’s also confusing as to the exact rules that the field needs to follow. There seems to be no consensus on what “natural wines” actually are, with some touting organic or biodynamic farming coupled with minimal intervention all the way to those who only accept completely naked wines, made without any chemicals, fining agents, etc.

(As an interesting aside, Josh of PinotBlogger recently posted about Feiring's lack of credibility, due to his cameo in the book being misremembered. He hedges his bets, but wonders about what questions are raised by this, in his eyes, egregious error. I'm taking it with a grain of salt because I just don't know enough about any of it.)

This is a book that everyone should read, if only as an introduction to the myriad interpretations of natural wine that exist. That there are winemakers (and consumers) who debate the nuances of how much sulfur should be permitted expands the conversation about wine and winemaking.

This book made me ponder what is important to me about wine and how it’s made. I can’t really say that the author has made a great case for winemakers shifting to an extreme version of natural winemaking, but I’m all for less chemicals in the vineyard and subsequently in the bottle. This adds to the conversation that all wine enthusiasts should be having. However, I also have a foot in the camp that is best espoused by Peter Bell, winemaker at the Finger Lake winery Fox Run Vineyards. In Evan Dawson’s book about the Finger Lake area, Summer in a Glass, he summarizes it thus: “The very act of picking grapes is the start of a cascade of human actions. Crushing grapes is not natural. Everything we might do might constitute too much intervention to the ultra-purists. But wine is not some perfect gift from nature—it requires some guidance!” My personal feeling, based on no actual experience whatsoever (except a winemaking kit many years ago), is that as little intervention is possible is the goal, with judicious guidance to ensure quality not just from vintage to vintage, but bottle to bottle.

So, ultimately, Alice Feiring’s Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally is a worthwhile book to read with an open mind, using it as a conversation starter (even if just with yourself), about how wine can be made more naturally and whether it should be.

For other points of view, check out Palate Press and Vinography.

Disclaimer: This product was sent to me for review purposes, courtesy of Da Capo Press. I was not compensated in any other way for the review, was not obligated to give the book a positive review, and all opinions are my own. Some information in this review was taken from the company website.

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