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"When it comes to wine, I can be polarizing. I don't mean to be; I just have unnaturally strong opinions," Alice Feiring writes in her new book, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally. Feiring is a fierce advocate for wines that strive to be "natural"—organically farmed and made without the help of industrial yeasts, enzymes and other additives that are commonplace in conventional wine production. Here, the influential wine writer reveals why she's an anarchist, what to look for in a supermarket, and the new producers she loves in California—a region she's disparaged in the past.
© Andrew French
© Andrew French
Do you see Naked Wine as a manifesto for the natural wine movement?
Not at all. There's been so much interest and debate about what natural wine is. I just figured there had to be a book that put the movement in context. It's not at all a manifesto—it really is an exploration of how certain styles evolved. What became a movement used to be just a type of wine. It became a movement because people need to define things.
What do you mean when you call wine "naked"?
It's a philosophical approach: nothing added, nothing taken away. That's the starting point.
The variety of opinions you found from known natural winemakers was surprising. Like Eric Texier and Thierry Puzelat, who said that under some circumstances, they might use enzymes (an intervention that most natural-wine aficionados would frown on). How do you explain that?
It's not a religion, and people want to make it a religion. It's not a regime. It's sort of like there are all sorts of vegetarians—lacto-ovo, vegan—but they're all vegetarians. A point of difference between some hard-core people is that some believe wine without sulfur is the only way to express terroir. Other people, who may just have a philosophical difference, say that a tiny bit of sulfur helps to bring out terroir.
Do you think it's a common misconception that there are set rules for natural winemaking?
Yes I do, and I think it's just human nature to need those rules. And then there are those of us who are just basically anarchists and who don't need the rules. What it comes down to is, do you like the way the wine tastes or not, and I do find that the more you get used to wine with very low sulfur or no sulfur, the more difficult it is to drink other wines.
Terms like organic and biodynamic have entered consumer—and marketing—lexicons. Do you think that's a positive thing?
Yeah, I do. Without that rising level of awareness, big business—the big wine industry—would be left unbridled. I think ultimately, the result of this will be less manipulation even among the more industrial wines. Just because somebody makes a half million cases of wine doesn't mean it can't be a relatively authentic product. Hopefully there'll be more of that even on the supermarket level.
If you need a bottle and your only option is a supermarket or liquor store, what do you look for?
I delight in doing that. I like challenging myself, going into a really crappy wine store and saying "Ok, what could I do if I didn't travel with my own," which I always do. If I'm in California, I can luck out by going to the supermarket. If I'm in upstate New York, I'll look for something from the Finger Lakes, or I look to the Rhône or Alsace. And if that fails, I'll look to see if there's any sherry, or I drink Scotch or a gin and tonic.
After going through the wine process for the book, do you have more or less sympathy for winemakers who use modern techniques?
Way less, because making wine is so easy.
Is there a new-world region that you think is headed in a great direction right now?
California. They're on the verge of a huge breakthrough, and it's quite encouraging. Coturri is definitely worth taking another look at. La Clarine Farms is emblematic of a new generation. Arnot-Roberts is doing some really fascinating stuff. I recently had some wines from Ryme cellars and I thought they were beautiful. Sonoma's kind of a hotbed right now.
Alice Feiring's three-bottle introduction to natural wines:
2007 Domaine de la Tournelle Fleur de Savagnin
"It's a wine that would really surprise people. It has some oxidation, it's nutty, and it would send somebody more to the savory side than the fruit side. It really has such life in it."
2009 Clos Roche Blanche Cot
"It's something I adore and it's a benchmark. Thierry Puzelat's In Cot We Trust, from a nearby vineyard, would be a good runner-up. To me, Cot in the Loire Valley is terroir on a silver platter."
2009 La Clarine Farm Home Vineyard Red Blend
"This shows what California natural can look like. It's wild and brambly and extremely enjoyable. It does have California fruit in there but it's restrained—and more animal. It's just purely delicious."