Wine Books: Alice Feiring
Alice Feiring is a highly regarded and award-winning wine columnist and blogger. Known for her strong advocacy of natural wine over other styles, she is not afraid to court controversy with her strongly expressed opinions.
Not entirely by chance there has been a strong presence of books with an organic, biodynamic or 'natural' feel to them on my reading list of late, some recently published and some rather long in the tooth. In the former camp, and a strong addition to the 'natural wine' lexicon is this tome, Naked Wine, Alice Feiring's second book after The Battle for Wine and Love: How I saved the World from Parkerization. 'Tome' is perhaps not quite the right word though, as it suggests something dense, academic, perhaps even a little dry, whereas this book is anything but. Written in a style which is captivating, personal, digestible and candid, leafing through a few pages of Naked Wine is a little like leafing through somebody's private journal at times, one that describes a very individual journey of adventure, mishap and discovery.
In Naked Wine Alice weaves several tales that take us from her New York home to California, the Loire, the Ardèche and beyond, and like so many of life's great journeys the destination seems uncertain. Meanwhile, the truths that come out along the way are as much about Alice as they are about natural wine, this being part of the candour that makes the book so enjoyable. Alice recognises that she does seem to get under the skin of some people, so much so that she opens her prologue with this statement; "When it comes to wine, I can be polarizing. I don't mean to be; I just have unnaturally strong opinions". Indeed, but there is plenty within this book that reveals Alice's softer core; a song has the power to move her to tears in an instant, thanks to invoked memories of a love long lost. She is a "sucker for flattery", she reveals. At times the book can become intensely personal.
But what of the journey? Much of it revolves around Alice's adventures making wine; although the original venture was to be in Oregon, chance carries her to California, to work with the Italian variety Sagrantino. Self-discovery and realisation follows; there are many parallel issues - difficult decisions concerning when to pick, and the back-breaking job itself - but the greatest trial for Alice was the need to compromise. Having started out with very solid principles which would see unnatural interventions and manipulations excluded from the winery, Alice eventually agrees to water-addition to counter the rising alcohol levels in the final wine. It was a manipulation that I think she regrets, but she is of course being too hard on herself. From the outside, her work in California is a triumph, and that she ultimately finds the wine "confusing and confounding" says more about Alice's credo and passion - just as strong as her opinions, it seems - than it does about the wine.
While these elements of the tale provide a soft and entertaining cushion for the reader, the real story here concerns natural wine - the naked wine of the title - and where its origins may lie. It is a fascinating tale, peeled away layer by layer, as Alice travels, tastes and converses with vital 'natural wine' personalities. Jules Chauvet, the late Marcel Lapierre and the gang of Beaujolais vignerons who might be credited with the birth of natural wine feature strongly, but so does a mysterious peripheral figure, Jacques Néauport. The Loire also features - how could it not, when the topic is natural wine, you might ask - and we meet Nicolas Joly and his daughter Virginie. There is a hint of innuendo in the cellars at Joly's place, more transparency from Alice, a sign of a naughty sense of humour perhaps, or have I just watched one too many Carry On films in my time? And Thierry Puzelat naturally features too, which brings us back to Beaujolais again of course, Tue-Boeuf being a play on Duboeuf. But more commonly, the roads lead back to Marcel Lapierre, and also to Jacques Néauport, who she interviews, having travelled deep into rural France to do so. Ultimately, though, this final encounter disappoints, the shadowy Blofeldesque figure of Néauport eventually materialising as someone eccentric, nebulous, perhaps even aloof. A god (or should that be prophet?) should always be interested in his flock, we might think, but this doesn't seem to be the case with Néauport. Unfortunately for Alice, too many questions went unanswered in this anticlimactic moment.
Nevertheless, this book provides a fascinating journey, albeit one we can enjoy only vicariously, led by Alice. There are many notable nuggets of information - sometimes of a disturbing nature - concerning natural or naked wine hidden away in this book. For example, some supposedly 'natural' winemakers seem to get away with using some fairly toxic weedkillers, and some anti-sulphur vignerons use lysozyme in its place, a subject on which Néauport was disappointingly reticent. Having said that, some other aspects of natural wine - such as the increased carbon footprint that may be associated with certain 'natural' methodologies - go entirely unaddressed. Nevertheless, we should note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive or balanced debate concerning natural wine, and I suppose it is only natural (no pun intended) that some elements will receive more attention, while some do not. Happily, above all, the book reeks of honesty. It gives a fascinating glimpse into the heart and soul of one of the 21st century's most passionate and yet also divisive wine bloggers, and also provides us with some noteworthy detail on the rather ignominious birth of what must surely be one of the most significant wine phenomena of recent years. The book comes highly recommended, and I'm hoping there is more to come in print from Alice in the future.