Alice Feiring has become, over the last five years, one of the most important voices in American wine writing. After publishing her first book The Battle for Wine and Love in 2008, Alice found herself at the center of the most controversial topic to hit the wine world in a generation—what is commonly called 'natural wine.' She has gained passionate followers and critics alike for her outspoken support of wines with minimal intervention, wines she defines as having "nothing added, nothing taken away." She publishes regularly in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, New York Magazine, and more. She is the recipient of a James Beard Award and was named 2011 Louis Roederer International Wine Feature Writer of the Year. She is the author of two books, The Battle for Wine and Love (2008, Harcourt) and Naked Wine (2011, Perseus Books).
In October 2012 Alice launched her current project, The Feiring Line, a newsletter of exclusive wine stories and recommendations, which has once again grabbed the attention of critics and wine lovers nationwide. It is a great resource to anyone wanting to learn, read about or revel in the leading edge of wine.
I met Alice at the Jenny & Francois 2013 Winemakers Dinner in the basement of The Smith, in New York's East Village. We talked wine, writing, farming and mutual friends. The following interview is based on that meeting and a subsequent email conversation.
Hi, Alice. So kind of you to agree to this interview, especially since I know you've been on the road a lot lately. What is the response like, traveling around, to your take on wine? Have you had any delightful surprises?
Perhaps the biggest thrill was when the Champagne producer Francis Boulard asked for my autograph. I was so touched, and a little embarrassed because I should be asking him for his signature. It's been a deep honor to get the respect of vignerons of his caliber.
Wow! Francis Boulard asked for your autograph? What did you sign for him?
He apologized that he didn’t have Le Vin Nu with him, so he gave me his Renaissance des Appellations tasting book. (This was at the tasting in Angers, 2012).
Speaking of Boulard—ego boosts aside, in your worldview, what makes a great Champagne? Who are your favorite producers?
The same thing as everything else: great original material, an ideal location and soil, the lowest sulfur you can get away with and a talented winemaker. It seems as if I do like a natural first fermentation as well. Producers? Boulard, Bouchard, Prévost, Colin, Bereche, Larmandier, Lassaigne, Vouette et Sorbée, Bedel, Leclapart, Laval, Tarlant—it goes on and on, sorry for other favorites that I forgot to mention.
Since you wrote your first book the conversation surrounding real/authentic/natural wine has taken some unexpected turns and come under great scrutiny. Plenty of notable figures have weighed in. Do you ever fear ideology might get in the way? Or has this been a healthy debate?
The bickering is silly. People are so threatened by the wines and the fact that many people are loving them. The people who yell the loudest, like Michel Chapoutier or Michel Bettane, seem to have the most to lose in customers and credibility, so it makes sense they’ve been vocal. But it is indeed healthy. When it all shakes down, the public will be more aware of how much not-natural can be done to a wine. Now that people are clamoring for them, there will be more to choose from. The new generation will be making very different wines than their fathers. So while the debate can get dirty, the outcome will be terrific.
You seem to refer to a sort of end point where natural wine is more normative, or at least less embattled maybe. Do you see it that way? How close are we to that point?
Well, I don’t know about normative! For example, I’m in Proseccoland and yesterday had lunch at a restaurant that had a mostly ‘normal’ wine list, but when the word natural wine came up, he knew exactly what we were talking about. There wasn’t a whole lot but to see Kante on the list was amazing (and cheap too). Conventional wineries will stop fighting and eventually create a ‘natural’ line extension for their ‘brands.’ That has already begun to happen. I can’t forecast, but how long before we see 2 Buck Chuck sans souffre? Give it under five years.
Process and philosophy are at the heart of what you write about. How important is language?
Very! Often I get into trouble on Twitter because of language. So hard to avoid a dogmatic sounding message when you have to eliminate the frill and the nuance, but the nuance in talking about wine is so important. There are few absolutes.
You've said you came to the newsletter somewhat reluctantly, not being a fan of the "tasting notes format." And yet The Feiring Line has been well received. How do you approach recommendation that is different than other wine newsletters? Is story still a part of your process?
I realized many people just want to know what I like to drink, and so I gave in. But again, the narrative is essential. The newsletter has about 3-4 articles and 20 recommendations. I've selected a number of icons, you can see them for yourself here:
I give my tasting note, then plug in an assortment of symbols that suit the wine. In the collection of symbols, a story emerges. For example, if a wine has a hardcore, classic and cool stuff, you might be scratching your head for a while to see what I mean, but the clues will be in the words.
In that system, are you recreating experiences you've had personally, whether through talking to winemakers or reading? I mean, is that head-scratching or aha! moment something you feel is essential to loving wine?
I am trying to recreate an experience, yes. In the assortment of icons a sort of pastiche about the wine is formed. Is it easy to drink or does it take the 'geek' to know it? Is it a wine for everyone or does it presume a certain inclination to a kind of wine? Or at least a forewarning? Is it simply a wine I'm nuts about? A wine that is cool enough to warrant attention and thought? A classic example?
Your mission includes "hunting the Phillip Roths... of the wine world," but after his recent retirement announcement you wrote on your blog about a sort of intellectual break-up with the master novelist. Have you had any similar disillusionments in the wine world?
I didn't see that as an intellectual breakup. I experienced more a feeling of being abandoned. His retirement had such a strange effect on me. I almost considered throwing in the towel as well. I went though a terrible time for a few months, swearing I’d not write another book and just devote myself to my new job and the newsletter. Then little by little, some stories took me over and there it is, I'm back thinking about the next books. It's a wonderful feeling. But disillusionments in the wine world? Yes. The attack on natural wine has been shameful. Last June a wine shop in Rome was fined and will be taken to court for offering ‘natural wine.’ Tom Wark’s Fermentation wine blog wrote a much publicized piece called Natural Wine: The Ugly Underbelly, accusing ‘them’ of unfair marketing practices (what marketing practices?). They are called brown, fizzy, unstable, with apple cider vinegar tastes. Is this kind of wine the enemy? I mean, come on, what could be indefensible about a wine that has, at it’s heart, nothing added or taken away?
I am also puzzled by natural wine being seen as stylish (since when is something that tastes good stylish?) but even worse—and this was expected—is industrial winemakers and firms using the word natural in advertisements, and companies like big prosecco makers trying to get my interest because they use a technology to avoid sulfur.
Outside of the natural wine world, I am constantly amazed by the self-importance of Bordeaux and amused by the Wine Advocate suing Antonio Galloni for his wine reviews and use of the 100-point system.
About that question of sulfur. I think there's a lot of misinformation about sulfites out there, and I'm constantly baffled as to where it all comes from. Like, "I get headaches from wine and someone told me it's because of the sulfites. Do you have any wine that doesn't have sulfites?" As a retailer, we get that question a lot. What's your take? Are sulfites an important part of the natural wine conversation?
This is complicated. Sulfur is an element that binds with oxygen to become sulfite or Sulfur Dioxide (So2). This happens naturally as a byproduct of fermentation. This is very different than added sulfites, which most often are petrochemical derivates. It is also different than the addition of elemental (volcanic, for example) sulfur. And not all additions are created equal. Legal limits for white wine are around 220 parts per million. A natural wine might have some added to 20ppm. Also, there is a lot more to have a reaction to in conventional wine than sulfur. Tannin addition. Added acidity. Enzymes… for example.
Beaujolais took a big hit in 2012. As did much of France. How will the effects differ, in your estimation, between large industrial operations and the small-scale vignerons you know and love?
200 growers went out of biz in 2012 in Beaujolais. Those who really suffered are people growing grapes for negociants like Dubouef, working on volume, who don’t have bottle sales to rely on. Those are the folks who collapse. Those working organically, naturally and generally, well, they're surviving. Those are the people who are putting their names on the bottle. So someone like Dutraive whose domaine is in Fleurie, who suffered but was clearly not too concerned—he told me with a shrug, “It’s agriculture. I’m doing ok.” The key to these vintages (and there will be very little wine) is to stay away even more from large companies. The only hope for good wines was in rigorous selection, and you have to have very high standards to pull this off when most grapes would go straight into the garbage. In other words, stick to the small guys in the 2012 vintage and you’ll be okay. Let’s hope for better luck in 2013 and 2014.
If you could curl up with one book and one bottle of wine from your past, together, right now, what would they be?
My "Desperately Seeking Scanavino" chapter in The Battle [for Wine and Love] and the 1968 Scanavino Barolo. Also, getting my hands on an early Martin Ray pinot (never had one) and reading Vineyards in the Sky wouldn’t be bad either.
Since you're now in the business of recommending: can you suggest a few places for our readers to visit, should they want to experience wine the way you have?
I think it’s best, no matter where you're going, to call up or write the vignerons you really admire and tell them you love their wines and want to see their vines. There’s nothing like sincere flattery to get a door to open. Of course, if you can get an introduction through an importer or a wine store, that will go the extra mile as well. The best hospitality will be in places not overrun by tourists, such as in the Langeudoc, for example St. Chinian. And if the winemaker, like for example, Jean-Marie Rimbert, has a chambre d’hôte, what could be better?