Flame thrower: an interview with Alice Feiring

Wednesday, 17. May 2017 - 12:00
Late in the 1960s, Alice Feiring was buying a copy of Albert Camus’s The Plague from a New York bookshop when a dark-haired man approached her. He introduced himself as John Berger and suggested they take a walk.
 
Although uncomfortable, she agreed. When he said her red hair made her the perfect subject for a portrait photo, she agreed to that too. The teenager was something of a budding artist herself, so she understood how contrasting colours could make an interesting picture. Berger took her to his rooftop and snapped away.
 
Then he took her into his apartment – messy, full of women’s clothing – and put a packet of photographs into her hands, while he headed to the bathroom. Feiring put down her book and flicked through the photographs. They were so pornographic it took her some moments to comprehend what she was seeing. When she did, she knew she had to get out.
 
Which is when she discovered the front door was locked.
 
The bathroom door opened. A naked Berger came towards her, but somehow – Feiring doesn’t remember how – she got the front door open and fled.
 
Only to realise that she’d left her book behind. Feiring marched up the stairs, banged on the door, and demanded her book back. He gave it to her.
 
Many years later, in 2010, Feiring turned on the news and saw Berger’s face. It turned out his real name was Rodney Alcala – and he was a convicted rapist and serial killer who’d just been sentenced to death.
 
If Feiring hadn’t got that door open, she would have been another of his victims.
Alice Feiring is petite and quietly spoken. And brave.
 
The first sip
It was a Barolo that got her hooked on wine – a Giovanni Scanavino 1968 that her father’s girlfriend invited Alice to loot from her ex-husband’s cellar. Feiring had always been obsessed with smells – her mother used to scold her for smelling her food – and the complex Barolo aromas drew her in. Coincidentally, her Boston flatmate was also holding weekly wine tastings in their apartment, and her wine education began.
 
After moving back to New York in 1988, Feiring continued freelance writing about architecture, design, and, occasionally, about wine. She met Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW, who took her to tastings, and Feiring found she not only adored Barolo, but also the other great styles from Northern Italy. Even California Chardonnay caught her fancy.
 
Until the turn of this century, that is, when Feiring found wines from all over the world were blurring into one another. What became known as the ‘international style’, or winemaker-led winemaking, was in full swing, and “everything was trying to be Napa Cabernet or Merlot. Either soft, or very heavy, with cherry vanilla everywhere. It was hard to find Rioja that tasted like Rioja. Bordeaux was no longer drinkable to me,” she says. “It was very difficult for me to find the traditional wines that I didn’t even know were traditional. I thought they were just wines, and then I realised: ‘Oh my God, these traditional wines have been wiped out!’”
 
Yet it was a 2001 article she wrote for the New York Times that really launched her as the champion of natural wines. “A friend of mine in PR called me up and said ‘Alice, there are these guys out in California who are helping to manufacture wines geared towards Parker’s taste,’” says Feiring. “I thought, ‘wow, that is a really interesting story.’”
 
The article, For Better or Worse, Winemakers Go High Tech — which details how technologies like reverse osmosis and oak chips were being used to engineer flavour — seems relatively tame from the vantage point of 2017. In 2001, however, it stripped the mask from commercial winemaking and, Feiring says, made her enemies.
 
Feiring says it took her about four years altogether to realise how ubiquitous the international style was, but it led her to writing the book The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization (2008). It’s part travelogue, part memoir, part polemic against the industrialisation of wine, in which she travels through the Old World looking for traditional wines to drink.
 
Feiring was searching for wines that were completely ‘honest’, in the sense of having nothing added to them. Honesty is a value she also brings to her writing, sometimes searingly so. In the book, she calls one character – anonymised, but whose identity would be clear to the people involved – a “narcissist”; a hotel part owned by a named famous winemaker is “a dump”; while a barrel sample she tastes is “total dreck”. The book is very engaging – as is the follow-up, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally (2011) – but it doesn’t pull any punches. She also applies this ethic to writing about herself, sharing her highs and lows.
 
Feiring says she paid a high price for her outspokenness, believing she has lost writing commissions as a result. In France, however, things were different. “Many winemakers said to me that I was free, and that my opinions were free, and I wasn’t bought,” she says. “This was very highly valued.”
 
Turnaround
The term ‘natural wine’ has no legal meaning, but it’s understood to mean wines made with as little intervention as possible, with little or no added sulphur. Natural winemakers claim that minimal intervention is being true to terroir. But given that sulphur not only kills bacteria and unwanted yeasts, but also prevents oxidation, its removal risks making the wines funky and unstable.
 
The movement is said to have begun in the 1960s with Beaujolais winemaker Jules Chauvet. Parisian wine lovers were already drinking natural wines by the 1980s, but it was around the turn of this century that natural wine really took off. From Paris it spread to London and New York, and to significant Danish restaurants such as NOMA. Doug Wregg and Isabelle Legeron MW premiered their Natural Wine Fair in London in 2011; it later became two wine fairs, one of which – Legeron’s RAW WINE – has introduced natural wines to consumers in places like Berlin.
 
As natural wines became more popular, they set off a firestorm of controversy; on the one side are people claiming that only natural wines are truly authentic, with commentators on the other calling natural wine a “cult”, as Bruce Palling did recently in The Spectator.
 
Feiring has been right in the middle of it all. On the one hand, she has notable supporters, such as Mike Bennie, writer and co-founder of Australia’s Rootstock Sydney festival. “Alice is the leading spokesperson and figurehead in natural wine globally,” he says. “She resonates for her steadfastness yet intellectual approach to the overarching subject, brought alive through her positive emotional response to people, place, and resulting wines.”
 
Satirical writer Ron Washam, the ‘HoseMaster of Wine’, on the other hand, often parodies Feiring. He says he started because: “I’d expended a lot of energy lampooning Parker, and I wanted to go after the other side, too,” and Feiring was useful because she’s a recognisable name who has come to represent the natural wine movement. He adds that for satiric purposes, she represents a puritanical preacher type, “endlessly proselytising, but something of a fraud. Throwing around the red herrings of ‘honest, authentic, and natural’ with the fervour of a Sunday morning Scientologist.”
 
Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, says: “Well, I think that she’s made her mark as a strong and sometimes strident voice for natural wines. I think she’s certainly been a polarising figure; there are obviously people who very much admire her and think highly of her point of view, and others who are appalled by her.” Asimov says that while Feiring didn’t put natural winemaking on the map – he gives winemakers and importers credit for this – she’s shone a light on many of these wines. As to why Feiring draws such criticism, he says it’s because she doesn’t “feather her words”.
 
What lies ahead
Feiring says she is now interested in the development of post-Soviet countries. Georgia is an obvious case, being the cradle of winemaking and the home of qvevri winemaking – Feiring’s most recent book, For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture, is a love letter to Georgia – but she’s also turning her attention to Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “Croatia should be doing some pretty cool things. The outer reaches of Slovenia are doing some great things as well.”
 
A truce is also being declared inside the wine world, with natural wines gaining widespread acceptance. Feiring believes that the rise of natural wines has been a boon for some regions, particularly Beaujolais and Muscadet. “People for the longest time just couldn’t get any money for their wines,” she says. “Some of the Muscadets are still crazy cheap and totally undervalued.” Nevertheless, these are areas being revitalised “by the revolutionaries, the people who decided they were going to make wine organically. When people were just selling their grapes to the big co-ops or producers, it was enough to get by but not enough to make a living. The people who started working biodynamically and naturally all of a sudden started getting decent money for their wines.”
 
Today, Feiring is on the move, judging competitions, speaking at conferences and holding tastings all over the world. When she judges wine, she is unapologetically subjective in her opinions. “You cannot quantify wine. You cannot be objective about wine. If you are, you’re kind of missing the point,” she says, adding that her criteria is that a wine has to be pleasurable, enjoyable, and authentic, and it has to evolve. “Does it take you somewhere?”
 
Her next book, which comes out in July, is written with her friend, sommelier Pascaline Lepeltier. Called The Dirty Guide to Wine: Following Flavor from Ground to Glass, it organises wine not by grape or region, but by soil type. And she continues to produce Feiring Line, her natural wine newsletter.
 
As for future projects, she’s still haunted by her escape from Rodney Alcala and is considering doing something with the story. Her concern is that she doesn’t want to give Alcala more attention, but, she says, “I need to do it. It’s material I need to write.” Tackling difficult subjects is, after all, something she’s never shied away from.
Felicity Carter