New York wine writer Alice Feiring doesn’t seem to be interested in Riesling, so why am I writing about her today? Well, her work brings up something crucial about wine geography. That’s an vitat subject, because people think about wine in nations and regions, for example expressing preferences such as those for French over Italian, or Long Island to the Finger Lakes. A wine’s geographical origin often determines not only how “in”/ “cool” it is, but also how “right” or “wrong” it is. Those are value judgments, sometimes moral judgments whose implications go way beyond the wine in the glass.
For example, Burgundy stands head and shoulders above anywhere else on Planet Wine for many New Yorker wine drinkers and amongst the professionals who sell them their drug of preference. Space here is too limited to analyze exactly why this is the case. More important for us today is the fact that Burgundy continues to produce a slew of over-priced inferior wines, but that fact barely registers here in the city, because US importers are filtering them out rather well. Of course, some mediocre juice like the St. Aubin white from Louis Jadot recently served to me in a very swanky Park Avenue apartment still gets through. That kind of thing tends to be politely ignored though, because the Burgundians are often regarded as the Good Guys.
When I was beginning to explore the world of wine back in early-1980s London everything looked very different though, Burgundy often being referred to pejoratively as, “the Other Place”, i.e. not-Bordeaux. The wines were much less reliable than they are today, great reds then being as rare as white ravens However, even in this dark hour for Burgundy there were some mind-blowing reds like the wines of Henri Jayer. Nothing in the world of wine is carved in stone, instead everything is in continual flux, and the situation on the ground in any wine region at any time is never just black or white.
On to Alice Feiring, who’s books I just read. I particularly like the way she writes in ‘Naked Wine’ (2011, Da Capo, Cambridge/MA) where her voice is striking and clear; light years removed from the hopelessly convention-bound norm of wine writing. Most of our colleagues have their inner eye fixed macro-lens-like upon the wine in the glass in front of them, so that it fills their entire field of view. That’s why they write as if the rest of the world didn’t really exist and had no effect upon the taste of the wine. In contrast, Feiring’s writing often has a wide-angle-lens perspective vividly conveying the people behind and around the wine. She seeks connections, follows leads and never fears saying what she thinks. Great!
BUT I have some serious issues with what she says. Her depiction of sulfur in winemaking is not only extreme, but sometimes highly misleading. This deserves a whole story to itself, so fundamental an issue is it, and I’ll be giving it that treatment soon. Today I’m concentrating on geography.
‘Naked Wine’ tells the story of how Feiring made a wine in California (from the Sagrantino grape which originally hails from Umbria/Italy). Her descriptions of the winemaking and her awakening to some of the positive sides of California are at once evocative and well observed. “Was there something deeper for me to discover here? Yes, I was sure there was,” she writes on page 14. However, in more than two hundred pages she hardly gets further than that tentative realization. Instead, she repeatedly suggests that California wines are nearly all over-extracted jammy monsters and doesn’t hint at the true diversity of California wines. Even when she mentions a major winery like Ridge whose wines never fitted that jammy monster cliché she doesn’t bother observing that fact, much less bother describing them.
In the final chapter she tells us all about the “natural” wines of California, but not as one of many facets of a complex region. Instead she comes dangerously close to depicting the entire State (as large as Italy minus Sicily!) to a place where the Evil Empire of industrial wine production is pitted against a handful of “natural” wine rebels. She seems to suffer from a deep-seated prejudice that California was always the wrong place for winegrowing and very largely remains so. For Feiring that only begun to change when the first “natural” winemakers appeared on the scene and started turning a tiny corner of California into a utopian wine paradise. The problem I have with this is the implication that everyone else in the California wine industry is involved in the wrong business, and are by implication wrong people.
In contrast, for her France has always been the right place for wine, although she does find time for some rather imprecise criticism of the French wines she doesn’t find “natural” enough. For her the ultimate in France is, yes, you guessed it, New York’s favorite: Burgundy! On page 204 she describes the region as, “the Holy Land” without the slightest trace of irony. Holy DRC! Saint Aubert de Villaine! I’ve tasted some amazing wines from DRC, but also some very disappointing ones, which means they’re also part of the real world along with the rest of us.
Much of ‘Naked Wine’ describes Feiring’s research in France and Spain. (She takes the trouble to describe and criticize the latter nation in a much more nuanced manner than California). Endless wine dinners follow tastings and vice versa, then there’s another visit to a vineyard which is always very beautiful. I’ve got nothing against this, nor do I have a prejudice against ancient and rustic stone-built buildings in small, remote villages. To her credit Feiring insists that wine doesn’t demand a cute backdrop, however, these situations become very repetitive, finally descending to the level of an Old World cliché; one deeply rooted in the East Coast Mind.
California doesn’t have that kind of backdrop to offer, because the wine industry there is simply too young. And that seems to be a fundamental obstacle for Feiring to appreciate the state’s winemakers and their achievements. “…only 150 years of experience…” she laments on the penultimate page of the book. It seems that for her the oldness of the Old World is simply without compare, particularly if it is in France or somewhere else “natural” winemakers are busy creating a wine paradise on earth. Sadly, she seems incapable of self-critically examining any of these positions.
Finally this elliptical orbit brings me back to Riesling and Germany, which get exceedingly scant attention in ‘Naked Wine’. This comes during her description of a meeting of the French group of biodynamic winemakers who call themselves La Renaissance des Appellations. For those who want to read that sentence in context (I strongly recommend it) you’ll find it at the bottom of page 77. Excised with my scalpel it reads, “all the wines from Germany were obviously yeasted and had so much sulfur I started to sneeze as though it were pollen season.”
Since at least a decade not adding yeast has been common practice amongst Germany’s ambitious winemakers, indeed it’s been a fashion, the resulting funky aromas often being referred to by the buzz word “sponti” (from spontaneous fermentation). Sulfur levels in the majority of German wines have fallen considerably as a result of the new generation winemakers with more sensitivity than their parents had. Biodynamic winegrowing is spreading fast in Germany and there are some interesting “natural” wine producers like Peter Jakob Kühn in the Rheingau. We don’t get a hint of this in ‘Naked Wine’ though, because Germany seems to be one of the wrongest places on Plant Wine and is therefore directly in the Feiring Line. As Dirty Harry famously said, “Go ahead, make my day!”
PS Part 2 on the subject of sulfur follows shortly. WATCH THIS SPACE!