Alice Feiring wants to change the way you pick your next bottle of wine. If you've ever chosen an Oregon Pinot based on its number rating, it's you she's after.
As a wine writer for The New York Times and the author of Food & Wine Magazine's Official Wine Guide 2001, she's traveled the globe visiting vineyards. She understands how winemakers can make a heap of grapes taste like a place in a bottle—or, conversely, just like every other wine on the supermarket shelf.
But as she asserts in her new book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, these days, winemaking's traditional "natural" methods have largely been replaced with flavor-altering procedures like "reverse osmosis" (to remove undesirable flavors) and the use of additives like designer yeasts and oak chips. And whose palate are wine makers trying to please? Robert Parker's, Feiring says.
Parker has published The Wine Advocate magazine for 28 years, and high marks on his 100-point scale have become the goal for many winemakers. The result, Feiring says, is wine that pleases Parker's palate but doesn't rely on skill or the unique flavors a distinct region's grapes possess. Plus, Feiring is concerned that while organic wines may contain only non-chemical ingredients, they still can use more than just grapes alone—"natural" wine-making uses old-school, often slower methods, involving nothing other than the grapes themselves.
Feiring is coming to Portland to launch her new memoir/guidebook at this weekend's Indie Wine Festival, and will host a panel discussion on natural winemaking that promises to be controversial. WW spoke to her last week about her book and, of course, Mr. Parker.
WW: Who are you trying to reach with this book?
Feiring: I'm trying to reach a pretty serious wine geek, as well as someone who was smitten by Sideways and thinks they have a romance with wine but wants something a bit more substantial. I think I take the reader through a process, so that wherever they are they can come and see my side of the world of wine. Maybe they'll skip over the part about stems, or maybe they'll get into it.
What kind of changes are you hoping they'll make?
It's a very grandiose title— How I Saved the World. But I do hope that there will be at least some [changes]. I am hoping to get to that reader who is not terribly wine savvy, and they think that because wine is made out of grapes nothing else would be in the bottle. I am assuming that the people who shop at Whole Foods and eat locally and sustainably are going to say, "Hey! What the hell is in my glass? And why would I want that?" I'm hoping to create a market for winemakers who are too afraid to actually follow their heart—wine that speaks to a greater truth. I'm hoping that in wine regions like Oregon, places that are still mostly independent, that's starting to change. I think Oregon is the perfect place for this whole natural winemaking movement to take hold and really catch fire.
Is anybody in Oregon already making the kind of wine you're advocating for?
People like Doug Tunnell at Brick House, John-Paul Cameron, and certainly David Lett of Eyrie, the great grape pioneer who has always made wine that way and has never gotten his due for making wine that way. I don't understand. His wines are really beautiful.... I believe that we're actually on the cusp of having some of the most brilliant wines that I'll see in my lifetime. A lot of the big winemakers may get out of the business with the economic times we're in, and as long as they're in, we won't see a lot of the kinds of wine I'm talking about.
What does Robert Parker think of your book and your ideas? Do you think he takes it personally?
I'm sure he takes it personally! [But, it's] against "Parkerization" and not about Robert Parker himself. I don't think he knows that and so he probably thinks, "Oh no, here we go again, they're after me." After our last conversation, he was not very friendly to me. And of course I am banned from the bulletin board, and I don't know if that came down from him. If anyone types in my name there it's Alice F******. I am she-who-cannot-be-mentioned.
Wow. What happened during your last conversation with him?
He must have realized the title of the book, which I hadn't told him. And he was waiting, in ambush. At one point we actually got into a shouting match—I'm not very proud about that one, but I thought we ended up with some sort of peace. I really only have one beef with Mr. Parker, which is just that he hasn't taken a stand. He talks the talk about nature and wanting natural stuff, but he too, like most people in the world, seems to think that organic viticulture means natural winemaking. They're two different things, yet he doesn't seem to grasp that. And I don't understand where the disconnect is for him. Because he is so powerful, he has the power to change it, and he doesn't. He's got the medication but he doesn't give it.
ATTEND: Alice Feiring will sign books at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-0540. 2 pm Saturday, May 3. Free. Feiring participates in the Portland Indie Wine Fest panel seminar, "Natural Winemaking in the Age of Technology," at the Hotel Vintage Plaza, 422 SW Broadway. 3 pm Friday, May 2. $35.
Visit indiewinefestival.com for details.