The day started with a lunch at Chez Casamir near the Gard du Nord. I was meeting with Jean Paul Gene, columnist with Le Monde magazine (out the last Friday in February). My publisher Jean Paul Rocher was joining, he was under the weather, with a cold. Never the less, the three of us knocked off two 2008s; Dard & Ribo Crozes blanc and Overnoy Plouss. Made the interview cheerier. Actually the interview was stimulating and it started with a joke ( I think.) "So, Alice, people might ask you if you've saved the world yet, but what we really want to know is if you've found love yet." I blushed, stammered and was relieved this was not captured on film. But I thought about that moment, as my spoon was in the vegetable soup, for days. I wasn't obsessing about the reality or my answer, but about the cultural differences between Americans and the French and I'm glad that love is still on their minds. The last question he asked was another that sat in my brain. 'You wrote that it is easier to have friends with different politics than different tastes about wine. Why?" I realized that wine is my political platform, and as it is also emotional. My closest friends can understand my taste, as they can also understand me. Connection is about being seen, is it not? As if a cloak has been removed and one stops being invisible? But politics? That needs diplomacy, it is rationale, a dear friend is a right wing republican. I know it's all about her father. But the fact that she and I share similar tastes (for wine and really flavors of all kind) make our friendship possible. I don't think we would share the same communal space if our connection was about belief and party line. After the two bottles I was a little loopy, had to rush to get dressed and get to Lieu Commun interview with Gault Millaut. Bert Celce (Wineterroirs.com) was taking the photos and was kind enough to give me some of them. When my publisher told me who was pouring at the event, I paced back and forth for about 30 minutes crying. I hoped I could keep from tearing up at night. In the privacy of my own apartment, sure. In France? It would have been too much information. At 6pm, pouring their wines at the signing were three of the book's heroes: Philippe Pacalet pouring the AOC 2007 Gevrey, Catherine Roussel, pouring '08 Gamay and Sauvignon #5 (showed gorgeously), and Pierre et Sophie (Larmandier-Bernier) with Terre de Vertus and the Blanc de Blanc. Marc Fèvre and I are laughing about something or other. The fact that they showed up for me and this, who cared about anything else? Flanking me was a friend I hadn't seen in 25 years, Honey-Sugar's ex-sister-in-law, Philippe Pacalet and his wife, Monica. That night we were back at Casamir. I was too fagged out to even speak but I squeaked out a pathetic and inadequate thank you. Two days later, wishing I had gone back to the newest bar a vin naturel in Paris, in the Passage des Panoramas, Coinstot Vino, but was plenty happy with a farewell lunch at Verre Vole with Jean Paul Rocher and his daughter Marie (I do love that place) I was off to Spain.
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."
I didn't think it was going to be this hard to read reviews. I know there are going to be some people who will hate the book and some who will love it. But the April issue of Wine & Spirits magazine included editor and publisher Joshua Greene's take on my book. And I kind of panicked. For the first forty-eight hours the actual letters looked like hieroglyphics then after coffee and the NYTimes this morning the words looked more coherent and when the coffee burned off the fog, I was stunned. I felt the way I did the first time I saw a play of mine read and the actors understood what I had written. Mr. Greene understood. He got it. I was so happy. He got the irony, he got the humor and of course, he got the wine stuff. I didn't even flinch when he described me as having "a train of frizzy red hair," and I was moved to hear his last lines: ...like Lynch (Kermit), Feiring's storytelling muscle takes the book beyond the neat genres established in the trade. This is a great read, a great perspective on the movement for natural winemaking and it's funny. The April issue is their restaurant one. Inside you'll also read writings from a satisfying packet of word slingers. From Tara Thomas' Chatreuse story to Field Maloney's pinot radicals, I couldn't ask for better company.
I'm in Spain and a friend sent the link, which unfortunately I cannot get to work on this site. At first I thought it was a joke! Read the text below or use your Google.
+++ Critic Blamed for 'Raspy' Wine Posted Wed. Feb. 13, 2008 7:05am by Page Six Filed Under Fresh Ink
AN award-winning food writer has declared war against influential wine critic Robert Parker, saying the power he wields in rating cabernets, chardonnays, merlots and other vintages has caused vineyards to dumb down their wines just to please him. In The Battle for Wine and Love Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, Alice Feiring, a James Beard Foundation Award-winning journalist, fumes that Parker's "tastes have become bigger than himself . . . the quest to make a wine that will attract Parker's attention has created wines that have such concentrated power that delicacy and minerality are overpowered."
For years, Parker, 60, has defined American wine criticism with his "100-point scale" in The Wine Advocate magazine reviews that can raise or lower prices and are relied upon by wine merchants around the world. That's led vineyards to create a "standardized wine" that could be made almost anywhere one that often relies on "technology and additives to rack up Parker points," Feiring writes. "At stake is the soul of wine. This is the giant corporation vs. the independent winemaker . . . wine is being reduced to the common denominator, and this is sacrilegious."
Feiring jets to vineyards around the world to speak with winemakers who admit they've tweaked their formulas in a bid to please Parker using commercial yeasts instead of indigenous yeasts, and certain woods to produce harder-edged tannins "that feel raspy, as if steel bristles were brushing the back of my throat." She finally confronts Parker: "Come on Bob, you're bigger than yourself. You can't deny that you've become an icon!"
But Parker who did not respond to an e-mail from Page Six fires back in the book: "Myths about me get embellished, exaggerated . . . No one in the history of wine has done more for the small artisanal producer the kind of people you claim you like than I have. You're trying to paint me [as] a big globalist, a tyrant, and a dictator . . . I hear that people make wine for me all of the time. It's like the Spanish Inquisition." The Harcourt title hits stores in April.
I'm hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I'm trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel. Welcome.
And, if you'd like a signed copy, feel free to contact me directly.