If you already know who Alice Feiring is, then you probably already know whether or not you want to read her new book Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally.
If you don’t know who Alice Feiring is, some background is order. Feiring is a respected but polarizing wine writer best known for her critiques of Robert Parker, whose Wine Advocate launched the now ubiquitous 100-point rating system for wine.
Actually, “critiques” may be putting it nicely. Feiring pretty much loathes Parker, his taste in wine, and the concept of ratings. Her first book, 2008’s The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World From Parkerization, was part memoir, part polemic, and Naked Wine is no less trenchant.
Feiring is an advocate of so-called “natural” wines—wines made with no additives or chemicals, using the least intrusive process necessary and, preferably, with zero added sulfur. She claims that only wines made in this manner allow one to truly taste the terroir of the wine (although she is careful to say that not all wines made in this manner are necessarily good). This is a controversial and unpopular stance in the wine world, but Feiring takes no prisoners.
“One sip of the natural stuff often changes your attitude toward wine forever and often fills your life with (forgive me for saying it) meaning,” she writes in Naked Wine. That’s a lot to ask for out of a glass of wine, but Feiring’s enthusiasm is infectious. As I read the book, I kept wishing I could taste the wines in it with Feiring there in person to explain each one. (And as for those wines: Good luck finding any in Knoxville. I asked around, and it appears only two of the producers mentioned in her list at the end of the book, Pierre André and Thierry Allemand, can be found easily in this market.)
But Naked Wine is not merely an exhortation to embrace vin naturel. Veering between travelogue, history, and a how-to manual, Naked Wine jumps back and forth between Feiring’s attempt to make her own wine using the methods she endorses and her journeys in France and Spain in quest of others making wine, as she describes it, “without artifice.”
Feiring’s “natural” includes a rejection of all but the most basic winemaking techniques—no thermovinification or reverse osmosis for her—and, most controversial, no added sulfur. All wines contain a certain amount of sulfur, as it is a natural byproduct of fermentation. Feiring believes that if a wine is made and handled properly, this small amount of sulfur is all the preservative a wine needs. However, as she admits, you’ll be hard pressed to find too many winemakers who agree with her, as most—even those using organic or biodynamic farming—add some sulfur to their wine. Not only does it act as a preservative and stabilizer (unsulfured wines, if not stored at cool temperatures, can quite literally explode on the shelf), but sulfur also kills bacteria that can harm the wine.
Within the natural winemaking world, there is debate as to whether or not any amount of added sulfur is permissible, and Feiring gets into this debate at length. Naked Wine presupposes its readers have some familiarity with the subject, as Feiring casually tosses around the names of the world’s most prominent wine writers, even quoting at one point from former Wine Spectator writer James Suckling’s Twitter feed. (Notably, this also marks the first time I have seen a tweet quoted in a book.)
Naked Wine also presumes the reader has a working knowledge of wine and winemaking techniques. If you don’t know the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux, this is not a good place to start, no matter how interested in organic culture you may be.
As Naked Wine opens, it seems like it will be about Feiring’s travails making wine for the first time ever, as she insists on hand-picking the grapes and stomping them with her feet, much to the disbelief of the other employees of the California winery where she undertakes the project. Yet once the wine begins to age, there’s nothing for Feiring to do but jaunt back and forth between New York and France and Spain, returning only to her own wine for the last three pages of the book.
Luckily, Feiring’s journeys are more engaging to read about than her winemaking (in which she comes across as more than a bit of a spoiled brat). While there has been a small recent boom in natural winemaking in the United States, the heart of the movement is in France, and it’s there that Feiring’s passion shines. She knows and loves French wines, and the true heart of the book is her journey to track down one of the fathers of the natural wine movement, Jacques Néauport. When she finally joins him for a climactic dinner and discovers his motives for making natural wines were less than purely philosophical, it feels like the scene where Dorothy finally meets the Wizard of Oz.
Despite its unevenness, Naked Wine is worth picking up if you, like me, are a tiny bit of a wine snob. I, like Feiring, prefer French wines to those from California. I’m not convinced by all of her arguments about the natural winemaking process; however, neither have I tasted all the wines she has. But if you love being able to taste terroir, you’ll appreciate Feiring’s unbridled adoration as she tastes her way through the natural winemaking world. She writes, “These wines were not about points or perfection or about color and body or structure. They were the kinds of wine that can bring charm and joy.” Naked Wine, for all its polemic, is, at heart, a book about the pure joy of drinking wine. Just try to get through it without sticking your nose deep into a glass of a good French red. I dare you.