Saving the world from Frankenwines The Globe And Mail Wednesday, April 23, 2008 Page: L1 Section: Globe Life Byline: Beppi Crosariol
It's a quaint myth: Wine is a product of nature, the simple spawn of fruit and airborne yeast. To drink anything more ancient or unadulterated, you'd have to dip your cup into a stream, crack a coconut or milk a cow. That's how it has been for 9,000 years, but over the past two decades, myriad technologies and lab tricks have turned that typical weeknight bottle into the potable equivalent of cake from a mix. At least that's the feeling you get after reading the book The Battle for Wine and Love by New York writer Alice Feiring, out next month. An industry answer to Fast Food Nation and Kitchen Confidential, the book paints a distressing picture of a world full of Frankenwines (my word, not Ms. Feiring's),cheap-trick sops with all the engineered flavour, artificially smooth texture and proximity to nature of a McDonald's shake.
For example, winemakers now generally kill off natural yeasts with sulphur and replace them with designer strains that can add flavours of, say, strawberry, cocoa or banana.The yeasts are often fed urea when they get tired, to keep fermentation humming at ever-higher sugar and alcohol levels, thereby creating bigger bodied wines for today's tastes. Among other additives are enzymes that deepen colour and boost "mouth feel." Then there's the hardware.
A device commonly used over the past 10 years is the micro-oxygenation bubbler, which can soften texture by erasing naturally astringent particles known as tannins. Arguably more intrusive is something called the reverse-osmosis filter - the Cuisinart of the wine trade - which can perform a host of functions, including reducing alcohol, removing water to concentrate flavours, restarting a stopped fermentation and filtering out mould. Still not happy with your wine's taste? Fire-charred barrels can add notes of smoke, espresso, vanilla and butterscotch, which are catnip for catching the attention of important American wine critics. And if $1,000 a barrel is too costly, oak chips tossed into the aging vat like bouquet garni into a sauce can mimic barrel aging at a fraction of the cost in a fraction of the time. Welcome to Ms. Feiring's nightmare. "I am hoping to give the other camp a voice," Ms. Feiring, formerly the wine and travel writer for Time magazine and a regular contributor to U.S. newspapers, said in a phone interview from New York. "I want to teach people who may not know how conventional wine is made what is in the average bottle of wine." The book is something of a Proustian journey, following the author to Europe and California, where she continues to find that the charming, hand-crafted country wines that turned her into an aficionado as a Harvard undergraduate in the 1970s are vanishing under the pressure of industrialization and global taste preferences dictated by international critics.
A more literal title for the book might have been la recherche du vin perdu, but The Battle for Wine and Love, to be published next month, will no doubt sell most of its copies on the basis of its provocative subtitle: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. Robert M. Parker Jr., as most wine aficionados know, is the world's most influential nose, a Maryland-based former government lawyer who shot to prominence in the 1980s with his newsletter The Wine Advocate, largely on the virtue of its much-copied 100-point scoring system. Mr. Parker has prompted, it is widely alleged, winemakers everywhere to torque their juice with overweening new-oak flavour and near-flammable levels of alcohol to pander to his supposed biases. By contrast, oak- and technology-eschewing traditionalists in regions His Bobness isn't so hot for, such as the Loire Valley and Rioja, have languished or disappeared. Lest one suspect Ms. Feiring is writing out of jealousy (the standard charge against wine writers who dare challenge Mr. Parker's infallible scores), she comes across as wholly sincere in her passion for what she calls preindustrial wines. "I have no desire to chip away at his power," she told me. "He's a great leader to those people. He can lead you to those wines," meaning those big, oversized, nipped and tucked California cabernets and Australian shirazes that may win beauty contests adjudicated by quick-sip critics but which she thinks have no authenticity.
Ms. Feiring dares to confront her nemesis head-on in a chapter called "My Date With Bob." It's a tense exchange, conducted over the phone, and while Ms. Feiring controls the narrative, one can't help but commend her fairness, quoting him at length. "Don't shortchange the consumer; they know when a chicken is a bad one or a good one," Mr.Parker deftly admonishes her. "There is no global palate." It's a platitude straight out of the U.S. politician's playbook; you can't argue with a free market.
If the engagingly written book sets up Mr. Parker as Goliath, Ms. Feiring in the end comes across as an endearing David, a self-described petite redhead whose roller-coaster romances lend the book a subplot as well as a metaphorical conceit. The "50-ish" author remains single at the end of the book, alas, but she will no doubt win a few male wine-geek hearts with her avowed lust for funky, old-style Riojas such as those of Lopez de Heredia and reds that smell of "puppy's breath" and "chicken soup and dill." Then there's her belief that "true wine" is about as rare and precious as true love. (Her words, not mine.)
A reader can't help but be gripped by the chapter "Desperately Seeking Scanavino," about the Italian producer of her first love, a 1968 Barolo that most connoisseurs would consider an ugly duckling. The section reads like a murder mystery, with Ms. Feiring frantically following clues to the whereabouts of the faded winemaker, whose Barolos,symbolically redolent of faded roses, have succumbed to competition from Parkerized wines. If tales like that sound familiar, you may recall Mondovino, the 2004 Jonathan Nossiter documentary about globalization in the wine industry. It, too, featured Mr. Parker as a sort of Dr. Evil. But I think The Battle for Wine and Love is much more compelling for its rich technical detail, passionately argued thesis and entertaining storyline. It's hard not to become curious about the wines Ms. Feiring loves, including Clos Roche Blanche from the Loire Valley.Another out of favour region she adores is Beaujolais,particularly premium bottlings named after the Beaujolais village of Morgon, such as those of Louis-Claude Desvignes.
As for those dreaded Frankenwines, Ms. Feiring's strongest antipathy is aimed at California, land of the three-digit cult cabernets made by retired land developers who hire consulting winemakers following the Parker playbook. "The wealthiest people don't make the best wines," she says toward the end of the book. But when pressed, she does note exceptions, chiefly Grgich Hills, a winery I, too, love,which has been going from strength to strength since embracing organic principles. When asked if she may be considered a snob, she doesn't flinch. "I'm a snob when it comes to shoes, too. It's not about price, though. I work really hard to find wines that I can afford."