Monday, June 26, 2017

Blind Book Review: Alice Feiring's "The Dirty Guide to Wine"


I’m not sure what happened, but, apparently, my review copy of Reverend Alice Feiring’s latest sermon was misdelivered. I have no idea how this happened. I am certain that the publishers want my opinion of the book and must have sent me a copy. I can’t find it. But that’s not a problem. I’ll simply write my book review blind. Much as Feiring can predict the nature of a wine by the soil from which it originated without having to actually taste it, I can review one of her books without having actually read it. It's probably the same old schist. I can truthfully say that I have never enjoyed not having read a book as much as I thoroughly enjoyed not reading “The Dirty Guide to Wine.” If I were you, I would rush to my nearest book store and pick up a copy! Then put it down, and leave.

Can Feiring write a book without a stupid title? “The Dirty Guide to Wine” is about soil. I was sure from the title it was going to be about exposure. That’s dirtier, especially near a playground. She saved the world from Parkerization with her first book, and then wrote a book called “Naked Wine,” and now we have “The Dirty Guide to Wine.” What’s next? “Orgasm in a Glass”? “WILF Hunter”? Does the publisher really think the title will sell more books? It’s not clever, it’s stupid. And, hey, who knows more about that than I? For maximum sales, I would have entitled it, “The Dirty Guide to Wine for Idiots.” Though, honestly, maybe just carrying this book around implies the idiot part.

Feiring is proposing a “new” way to think about wine. Her way. The way where you have to subscribe to her newsletter to know what to drink because she’s out there grilling natural wine producers on your behalf. She’s a truth teller, she’ll have you know, and, you, well, you’re sort of a sucker. You believe it when a winemaker says he makes natural wine, and, spoiler alert, he might be lying! People lie to you in the outside world. They’ll tell you what you want to hear. They’ll corrupt you. You can only trust one truth-teller. And you should subscribe to her site and buy her book! There is but one truth, and it’s the redheaded one who speaks it. This is how cults work. Is the natural wine movement a cult? Have you ever met anyone who managed to escape? But, I guess, better the redheaded cult than the orangeheaded cult. It’s only wine. At least the natural wine cult is benign. The orangeheaded cult is malignant.

“The Dirty Guide to Wine,” which I’m looking forward to not reading a second time, is, at its heart, about terroir. “Terroir” is French for “I haven’t any fucking idea how to explain why this wine tastes like that.” But “The Terroiry Guide to Wine” is too hard to say without sounding like you have a speech impediment. When someone tells me I can taste terroir in a wine, I immediately wonder if they can sense my aura turning red. Feiring focuses on soil in this book, which is one of the elements of terroir. Which is like being one of the cards in the Tarot deck. Isn’t it meaningless without all the other cards around it? Or is it more like a book about biodynamics that is 250 pages about cow shit? I’m so confused.

Wine confounds us much as our reason for existing confounds us. So we turn to a sort of spiritualism, a religion of wine. We assign all sorts of emotional power to wine. We go into mystical rants about our favorite wines, we dance around in ecstasy and speak in bungs. Feiring finds that natural wines, unlike the wines she’s disqualified as high priestess of natural wine, speak to us on an emotional level. Which is just peachy, though what if one is emotionally crippled? Lot of that in the new world of sommeliers and wine experts online, as I can attest. Isn’t that part of how wine speaks to you, through your own emotional demons? Does wine elevate our souls, or just drown our sorrows? Must there be more to wine than the simple fact of its ability to alter our consciousness? Yes. I guess there must. People can’t stop writing dumb books about it.

Is wine from a chalky soil more alive? Does wine from a granite soil have a different energy? Don’t you find these questions embarrassing? Wine might make us feel more alive as we consume a great bottle of it, but the wine’s not alive. Wine is made from a living organism, true, but so is cotton, and I don’t think my shirt is alive. It’s loud, but I can’t hear it. As for emotion, we bring the emotion to the wine, not the other way around. To say that a natural wine, however you define it (and it’s mostly defined by the writer, who demands your trust), is one that is not only better but also speaks to you on a more emotional level is profoundly fatuous. The wine isn’t doing that. YOU are doing that. You see the label and you get emotional. You bring your emotional baggage to the glass just as surely as you bring your palate. The wine speaks to you of your values, perhaps, or of your visit to the winery, which changed your vinous life. It speaks to your human weakness, too. You so want to be right and so want to be admired that when you know it’s natural wine it tastes alive to you, and when you know it’s not a natural wine, you immediately sense the evil that lurks within. The fervor with which natural wine proponents write and speak about wine is eerily reminiscent of people who have found Jesus. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Different soils affect grapevines in different manners resulting in different flavors in the wine made from those vines. Skilled tasters can detect those differences. They can taste the differences in oak barrels, too. I’m pretty sure the oak forests used to make barrels aren’t organically farmed, but somehow that doesn’t enter into the definition of natural wine. Hey, screw that habitat. It’s also obvious that the health of the soil is of utmost importance to the vines and the wine. I dislike manufactured wine as much as the next wine expert, though it probably represents the vast majority of the wine produced in the world. And I love many wines considered natural. But the natural wine world, represented so famously by Feiring, is the new face of wine snobbery. It’s an attractive face because it leans on environmentalism and spiritual, feel-good, mumbo-jumbo. But it’s still snobbery, and it’s unpleasant to read and be around.

Snobbery was once 100 point wines. Natural wine lovers would have you believe that only wines farmed organically or biodynamically and made with minimal intervention are the true reflections of beauty and greatness in wine. The points they award are for doing what they tell you is the right way to make wine. It’s snobbery, plain and simple. There are shit wines that received 100 points, and there are shit wines that are natural. Feeling better about yourself because you drink 100 point wines or feeling better about yourself because you think the wines you drink aren’t ruining the earth is about the same thing. It’s not about the wine, it’s about feeling better about yourself. Either way, it’s about wine speaking to the emotionally crippled. I just want to drink interesting wine, I don’t want to ascend to natural wine nirvana.

It’s lovely to think that Alice Feiring and Pascaline Lepeltier MS (Run!) are crusaders for a better wine world. It was lovely to think that Robert Parker was our wine advocate, too. Pick your guru, worship at the church of your choice. Now I just want to know who’s going to save the world from Feiringization.

36 comments:

Bob Rossi said...

"Her way. The way where you have to subscribe to her newsletter to know what to drink because she’s out there grilling natural wine producers on your behalf."
This really disturbed me. There are some natural winemakers I actually like, and would be very upset to find out that some of them had been grilled. Charcoal or gas?

As to this: "The fervor with which natural wine proponents write and speak about wine is eerily reminiscent of people who have found Jesus."
Whenever anyone says that to me, I want to say "I didn't know he was lost."

A great post, by the way, although you did get a bit serious in the second half.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Bob,
Thanks. I did get a bit serious in the second half. This just speaks to how I write more than anything else. I'm always trying to change speeds, change voices, change tones. It's not that I intended to get "serious," it's more that it was just the direction my mind took me as I wrote.

I thought hard about changing the second half. I reread it before I posted it and thought it came across as too rabid. But I use this blog to exercise my voice, and I am learning to trust it, for better or worse. Satire needs outrage once in a while, too. It may be misplaced outrage, but outrage is fun to write.

I think Feiring is right about a lot of things in the wine business. A lot of things. But that doesn't give her a free pass in the satire department. People who support natural wines think I pick on them, while people in the more mainstream wine world of reviewing think I pick on them. I like to think that, in the mirror image of FOX news, I'm unfair and unbalanced all the time.

Bob Rossi said...

"I like to think that, in the mirror image of FOX news, I'm unfair and unbalanced all the time."
I like that line. I think there's a pun in there. Probably intended.

Dean Tudor said...

Ron, as always, a great blind book review, just missing the ashes and sackcloths of taste. I am glad that you do not suffer from geophagia terror, unlike some other "writers" -- should I use those quotes? won't that get me into trouble? Glad I live in Canada where quotes are welcome. And speaking of quotes, I'll be happy to send you the stuff log roller blurbistas that you missed when you copy did not arrive. Holy schist! It happened again...Feir not...

Mary Orlin said...

Thanks for doing the "dirty" work Ron so I don't have to. Great line about barrels and oak trees not being organic.

Alex Krause said...

If there is any justice in the world, the second edition of Dirty Guide to Wine will include an excerpt from your inimitable review. If I were ever to publish a book and have it blind reviewed by you, I wouldn't let the chance escape me.

pam strayer said...

If only we could talk about the harm from pesticides and not additives, we could have a better reason for drinking wines from organic vines. The natural wine movement, as you so nimbly point out, on unverifiable reports on additives. There is ONE wine standard that ACTUALLY requires a wine be made without any additives, except sulfites, and that is Demeter certified Biodynamic Wine in the U.S. Qupe makes wine this way, so does Porter Creek, and others. If consumers - and Alice Feiring - really cared about standards, they would at least mention these wines and this standard. But they don't.

I wrote awhile back (on my blog) about the large number of U.S. "natural wine" exhibitors at the RAW wine fair in Brooklyn who made one wine each from an organic vineyard, but whose other wines were all made from pesticided grapes. RAW Wine does nothing to stop this. So they're basically promoting people who SAY they don't use additives, but who are fine with using pesticided grapes. So many contradictions, one can only laugh. And you added to the merriment. Thank you.

thegrapebelt.com said...

Thank you for this. A great combination of laughs and legitimate outrage. Too many people in the wine biz who think these things (in more prosaic terms) but won't say them. "...dance in ecstasy and speak in bungs." Excellent. Maybe if more people point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes, we can stop this pretense and start dealing with what's in the bottle and not what we're supposed to think about what's in the bottle. Will that ever actually happen with wine, or will people insist on always building new churches to some belief or another?

imkarenp said...

Thanks for reviewing the book unread so that I don't even have to think about reading it.

Tom Elliot said...

How many emotional power points would you rate the book?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Dean,
I'm often told to indulge in coprophagia. Which sucks when I forget to floss.

Mary,
You're welcome. Lovely to meet you this past week! Thanks for being a common tater, and I hope you return soon and often.

Alex,
Second edition? Hard to imagine. I wonder if the first edition was printed on recycled paper, by the way...

Pam,
I adore you! Thanks for your always telling insights.

A confession: I did read several pages, maybe six, of Feiring's book on Amazon. In one paragraph she says that you can't trust producers when they tell you they're "natural," just as you point out. So how do you know who to trust, she asks? Why, just trust her and Pascaline! I think that's what set me off, and what made me see through the whole sort of high priestess of natural wine crap. It's self-interest. Who needs Demeter when you have Feiring and an MS?

RAW wine is also about self-promotion and self-interest. Nothing wrong with that, to be certain. Except for presenting yourself as a white knight when you're really just using consumers as pawns.

Oh, I'm getting grumpy in my old age. I'm full from all the coprophagy.

Justin Howard-Sneyd said...

Hi Ron,

Can you blind review my book too please?
I haven't written it yet, but I'd like to know if I should.

Thanks!

Justin

Rocky Volcanics said...

Bless you for this.

Dean Tudor said...

Justin -- I can do advanced log rolling blurbs for you based on your future book, no charge, just a copy of the book when finished..

Víctor Orozco said...

Very interesting article. I have to confess that I don't always understand your language, but it sounds fun, incisive, and sometimes poetic. What I believe people should know about wine is something I call "The Concept of Wine". Most of what I read about it is personal, individual BS. Ten wine experts, talking about the same wine will give you 10 or more different opinions, which just add more to confusion. It really takes a lot to understand wine but, most importantly, doesn't take anything to enjoy it!

Daniel said...

if you cannot create or destroy matter, only change its state, and all the water in the world is finite and has be recycled nearly an infinite number of times, is anything actually organic, or natural? is the juice inside the grape actually just dinosaur pee?

can you blind review my dinner in two nights so I can just skip eating it?

muchos gracias, Hose!

Charlie Olken said...

Can you blind review my comment so I don't have to write it?

Alice makes a popular target because she is zealout and a mystic and lives beyond the realm that most of us inhabit. Obviously, your common taters enjoyed this trip into satire and sensibility.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Gang,
There's so much to say on this subject. I'm sure Alice Feiring dislikes me, but, at least, she has the sense to ignore me. Or, more likely, she doesn't read my crap at all. And, to be sure, her acolytes don't venture here at all. I don't blame them. I'm annoying as fuck.

I have a theory, often stated here, that the cult of natural wine is driven by our guilt for having utterly ruined the planet. Maybe if we make wineries go biodynamic the world will forgive us. On top of that, most of the greatest wines on the planet (historically and by reputation) are beyond thel financial reach of most, if not all, of us. The 1% that buys the great Burgundies and Bordeaux and Napa cult Cabs makes them unaffordable for the rest of us even if we could get them. What's a snob to do? Well, sommeliers and wine writers can then rave about equally hard to obtain wines that are "emotionally" more moving, if you're sensitive enough to understand, obviously better for the planet, and capable of assuaging our guilt. A sommelier can appear knowledgeable and altruistic and better than the snobs who buy 100 point wines. You can be the 1% in the know about how wine is really meant to taste--Natural!

Truthfully, I'm fine with it, but I like to call it the way I see it. Feiring is selling herself, and her mission won't save the planet or make better wine. But it does sell subscriptions and books. Again, nothing wrong with that. I'm just having fun. The mystical and emotional mumbo-jumbo around natural wine is simply marketing of a different color. And what is marketing but lying in order to sell?

I miss IPOB. They were much nicer people. But that's a different story.

Ziggy said...

My head in spinning, this, after reading Alice's book and your blind review and drinking 2 bottles of Ménage a Trois. But I feel like dirt.

Chardonnay said...

Yes IPOB - Inane Promotion Of Bullshit. Come back Raj....

Gordon Ritchie said...

Damn, coffee spat all over the keyboard again, 'speaking in bungs' hahahaha, I find myself doing that sometimes but more like bungholes - hey, how you doin' in there?
I have been thinking about natwine (a little) as well as all the rebelliousness in the world currently, and I wondered if perhaps the two have some connection in a more middle upperclass somewhat polite form of rebellion?
As opposed to say voting for a bigoted orange swamp turd, or the wasteland turmoil that is UK politics?
Keep up the good work HM
Gordo

Bob Henry said...

"Coprophagia"?

Geez, thanks for that mental image that lingers like an earworm.

(Remember: rinse and repeat. I'll be upwind.)

Bob Henry said...

I think New York Times columnist William Bryant Logan beat Alice to the subject by a few decades:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/william-bryant-logan/dirt/

lap0da said...

Yikes. The states of red and blue are now firmly positioned on the front lines of the wine world. This is not satire, it's an out and out attack. I don't happen to care one way or another but I respect winemakers who try to do the right thing, and by that I mean to make wine as simply as possible, with as few things added (or taken away) as possible. We can't always choose our messenger and some of us don't even need one. Yes she's shrill but so are you when you cross the line from satire to opinion.

Zach said...

Ron, I actually did read the book, and let me tell you, you went a bit easy. The cultish devotion to natural wines is one thing, but the sheer number of logical inconsistencies is another. She also manages to call sugar toxic, which...

The point about the new snobbery is a really, really good one, and something that needs to be kept in mind at all times. Thanks for bringing it up.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

lap0da,
First of all, thank you for being a common tater. I always get excited when someone reasonable shows up to take issue with me.

You seem to have a strange notion of what satire is. Out and out attack is its nature. Always has been. It can take many creative forms, but it attacks hypocrisy and the powerful and the smug and the fools. I'd never say Alice Feiring is shrill, by the way, that's misogyny of the worst order. She's a talented writer, better than most from a skill perspective. Also, crossing lines is what satire does as well. It's not meant to be just funny, it's meant to hit a target and sting. Satire is opinion, not fiction or fact.

I, too, admire winemakers who try to do the right thing. I do not admire wine writers with agendas who play long and loose with the facts for their own advancement and need to be loved.

I hesitated to write this piece because anything about Feiring stirs up a hornet's nest. But it was my hesitation that made me go through with it. I don't need to be right, that's not the satirist's job. I try to explore "truths" as others present them, and explore them in a bombastic, outrageous, ridiculous fashion. That's satire in my world. And, hey, turns out this blog is my world. Though you are always welcome here.

Zach,
Thanks. Toxic is a good word for the whole debate.

Gallego Red said...

Ron, having been recently inducted into your blogworld, I was delighted to see you take on this red fraud. She's been trolling wine romantics since she invented nonsense briefly for the NYT. To your psychoanalysis of natwine hugging, I would toss in an historical language perspective: the use of the word "natural" to describe an agricultural product stems from late, decadent Romanticism. An 18th-century vigneron, if asked if his wines were "natural," would not know what the question meant. No one on the "bio" side of things wants to actually talk about Steiner's mystical adaptation of Goethe because it would expose the whole thing to the rational light of day. But then, as you point out, wine snobbery is not about rationality, but about feeling better about yourself, a vinous gnosticism.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Gallego Red,
Welcome to my nuthouse. Thanks for being a common tater.

I try to take on everyone. I've written quite a few Blind Book Reviews. I was going to Blind Review all the entirely silly books about Rose, but that's just too easy. Alice's new book was irresistible to me. Just the title made me laugh. And the notion that she's created a "new" way to think about wine is demonstrably false, as Bob Henry points out.

I find the natural wine movement completely charming in a charming con man kind of way--think Professor Harold Hill and his "think" method of learning to play an instrument. It's fairly harmless, but when the con man starts to believe in his/her own con, that's when it gets funny. There's a great line in "The Music Man" that Hill delivers to Winthrop (a young Ron Howard) when Winthrop says to Hill in an accusatory fashion, "What band?!" Hill says the great con man line, "I always think there's a band, kid."

Most of us begin to believe our own bullshit eventually. Including me.

modus said...

I'm going to withhold my comments on natural wine, Alice Feiring, and wine in general, but only to write in support of this blog.

Ron, while I love the satire and the humor of your pieces, I appreciate you venturing in "the direction my mind took me as I wrote," as you commented above. Satire obviously comes naturally to you—and it is a gift—but it's something else to put down the humor and write from the heart. I'm glad you're exploring that and letting yourself venture into less comfortable territory. It was also nice to hear your contemplations on the matter in your above comment, and I'm glad you didn't change the second half.

Purity Wine said...

heretic...

gabriel jagle said...

As someone who knows how the sausage is made, I can assure you that the Feiring approved list of natural winemakers from Oregon is about as reliable as a dartboard.

Arabicspkr said...

Your best post that I've read. You just said everything I can't express, but was thinking about this morning before I read the post. Amazing.

Here's a tip for your next target: Abe Schoener. Check out his Instagram - scholiumwines

I'd love to see you satirize him
You're welcome for the new inspiration Haha

Arabicspkr said...

I'm gonna go a step further.....

I've noticed a few similarities throughout those in "that" community. Outside of wine, they have very empty lives, so they put all of themselves into that "glass." I love wine. Huge passion. I'm lucky to have learned winemaking from who I think is a top talent in the world right now. But I also have a life outside of wine. It isn't all of me. I wouldn't ever want that. I want children and a life, not the worlds best natural wine.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Arabicspkr,
Thanks for the kind words, and your thoughts. I have parodied Abe Schoener, though it was several years ago. I wrote a piece called "The Linoleum Project" which I reran as a "Best of HoseMaster" in June. Here's the link:

https://hosemasterofwine.blogspot.com/2017/06/the-linoleum-project-philosophy-first.html

Abe was even more famous when I wrote the piece, having been profiled in the NY Times Magazine. I haven't really paid any attention to him since then, followed him in Instagram, or tasted his wines. Not that that would stop me from making fun of him...

Zealots, it seems to me, almost always have empty lives they've filled up with their "calling." I love wine as well, and have a very rewarding, if reclusive, life. The Natural Wine game is also largely about marketing--of the wines and of the personalities who promote them. Great wines speak for themselves. Wines constantly promoted as great, or authentic, usually aren't.

Bob Rossi said...

"Great wines speak for themselves. Wines constantly promoted as great, or authentic, usually aren't."
That says it all.

Alcohaul Delivery said...

Agreed with Bob Rossi Wines speak for themselves, we can't judge them. Also you managed to maintain the balance between your first and second half.