Saturday, May 23, 2009

Don't Shoot the Message

We've all heard to old adage don't shoot the messenger. The bearer of bad news shouldn't be held accountable for the news itself. But what if the roles are reversed? Say, you like the message, but find the messenger a bit abrasive? That in a nutshell is wine ideologue Alice Feiring.

She characterizes her message as one in favor of diversity, beauty and natural complexity in wine. Her blog states:
I'm looking for the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want my wines to tell a good story. I want them natural and most of all, like my dear friends, 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 love the differences in each vintage, who abhor homogenization, who want wines that make them smile, think, laugh, and feel sexy. For better or worse, it seems as if I am a wine cop traversing the earth, writing and speaking my mind, drinking and recommending wines that are honest.
In other words, she seeks and praises wines that display individual character. She is opposed to over-the-top, unbalanced fruit bombs that fail to exercise any restraint or express anything honestly or profoundly. Naturally she is a proponent of wines from the Loire Valley.

Unfortunately, she also has a penchant for taking extreme positions in the interest of stirring up controversy. It's never enough for her state her position. She's always on the offensive looking to lob a Molotov cocktail at her opposition. Her recent entry on California Pinot Noir includes this gem:
That morning there was a rumor that Cali Pinot was getting better. Frankly, I think they should pull out the vines and start all over, but that is obviously an unpopular point of view.
Although her criticism may fairly apply to a rather large proportion of California Pinot Noir, lumping every single producer in every appellation into this category is pure non-sense. Certainly a proponent of terroir such as herself should recognize there are genuine differences between Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley, for example. If she adores Burgundy, that's certainly something to write about. But hating something for being not-Burgundy and whipping up a harsh generalization is simply scandal mongering. An organoleptic description coupled to her opinion instead of a diatribe would help illuminate what it is Ms. Feiring loves or loathes in a particular wine.

There is a certain irony here is that an individual who fervently defends wines of nuance and substance often veers into the realm of polemic. It unfortunately seems that Ms. Feiring's criticism is often both shrill and self-righteous, as evidenced by her choice to subtitle her book "How I Saved the World From Parkerization." Whether or not one buys into the theory that one critic dominates an entire industry, it's a bit egotistical for any one person to anoint herself the leader of the insurgency.

Last year she actually helped make some California wine, and her blog posts were very telling. In one post she writes:
I did not get into the vat with the Sagrantino grapes that day. I had been late and Kevin -– the Kevin Hamel of Pellegrini — had taken care of it. I was upset — Kevin hadn’t realized how attached I had become to the task. He scolded me a bit. “I know you originally were going to make wine at Eyrie Vineyards and create your own wine,” he said. “”Here it’s a group effort — and I feel that you’re a little disconnected.”
In another she worries about high sugar levels:
The wine was going to have reasonable natural acidity, which would add freshness. But the high sugars not only could create high alcohol but put us in danger of something called a stuck fermentation — a situation that occurs when the yeast gobbling the sugar peters out before the wine ferments to dry. Correcting that problem might lead to heavy duty intervention — which I wasn’t happy about — in what I was hoping would be a natural wine. But we had to pick from the lesser of evils.
The impression I take away is of an individual who has very strong personal preferences, if not an uncompromisable philosophical position, but is admittedly far removed from the actual process of winemaking. This perhaps is what makes her proselytizing most difficult to stomach. It's as if it had never occurred to her before that winemakers may not have perfect raw materials, and that they often make compromises despite their best efforts. Moreover, techniques that are effective in one climate or geography, may not be well suited for other regions. Chaptalization, the common practice of adding sugar to wine to boost its alcohol level, would hardly ever be a consideration in California, just as water or acid addition would make little sense in most of France.

I don't like manufactured wine, either. Gigantic, soupy 16% alcohol wines also aren't my cup of tea. Dull industrial wine or ultra-ripe, super extracted wines are made by choice. That's fair game, and that's my point: technology is not an inherent evil, but its use can be. On the "natural" side of the debate, Brettanomyces, a native yeast that gives wine a range of funk from leather to outright manure, is also not inherently evil, for example. Or if a wine is exposed to too much air, it will take on an oxidized quality. Too much technological manipulation or too much Brett or too much oxygen exposure generally will, however, make a one-dimensional wine. The problem is not black and white. It is technicolor, and the discussion needs to move away from simple arguments like "darker and more extracted is better" or "natural, hand-made is better." Is it too hard to imagine that certain modern techniques in the hands of an educated, sensitive winemaker can assist in achieving natural expression? I appreciate Alice Feiring's message, but often wish it could be conveyed in a more nuanced, less ideological manner.

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