Serious Reads: Alice Feiring's Naked Wine

Book Reviews

Drinks-related books to add to the stack on your bedside table.


[Photo: Da Capo Press]

"When it comes to wine, I can be polarizing," says Alice Feiring. So polarizing, apparently, that it's worth mentioning as the first sentence in the first paragraph of her latest book, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally.

The problem, she admits, are her "unnaturally strong opinions" about natural wine. She believes the best wines are made with no additives and by winemakers who farm mostly organically and who have a goal of letting the natural components of the grapes shine.

So what, you say, as you swirl that Zinfandel in your glass, the one you picked because of its pretty label, the one that's all rich jammy fruit and 15.8% alcohol, wine is just made from grape juice, right? What could be unnatural about it?

There are two hundred ingredients on the list of government approved additives for wine. But unlike food, wine manufacturers aren't required to list their ingredients—which can also include animal proteins, oak chips, sulfur, yeast, enzymes, preservatives, and Mega-Purple, a brand of concentrated wine color—on their back labels. This means instead of 100% fermented grape juice in your glass, you're likely consuming a careful blend of juice and other stuff.

This is a known fact in the wine world, and many (most?) winemakers believe that at least some of these additives are essential for producing good wines—wines that are consistently palatable, shelf stable, and age well.

As you might imagine, Feiring, a champion of natural wine, has emerged as a lightning rod of controversy in the wine industry. And she must like her perilous perch, because she's prone to fiery statements. In a 2008 opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, she described California wine as "overblown, over-oaked, over-priced and over-manipulated." Ouch.

Yet only awhile later Feiring agreed to a challenge: become winemaker for a crop of grapes born and raised in California. What would happen? Would the experience make her question her purist stance or make her into an even more determined natural wine lover and advocate?

We find out the answer in Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally. The book is Alice's story of the joys and anxieties that come with natural winemaking. It is also the story of the natural wine movement and how it came to be.

Prior to picking it up I worried that Naked Wine would be both controversial and dry, that I would slog my way through page after page of technical wine speak peppered with broad name dropping, while my mind wandered.

Not so. Feiring is a dynamite writer, one who easily draws us into her tale. On each page she manages to be both authoritative and vulnerable and always exceedingly honest. She spots a scorpion in her guest room in France and screams. She loses her laptop while headed off on an important writing and winemaking adventure. She questions—if only the tiniest bit—if she's performing professional suicide by agreeing to try and make her own natural wine.

Amidst all this there's richness I hardly expected: travels through California, France, and Spain; descriptions of seven hour long Sunday lunches and salmon BLTs eaten under the stars; episodes of all night drinking; a cast of vibrant characters that range from Jacques Néauport, a fuzzy-haired natural wine god in a Breton striped shirt, to the humble and handsome Kevin Hamel, the "co-parent" to Alice's California wine project. She digs into the story of natural wine to discover the passion and inspiration behind it, but also finds herself surrounded by the great joy—and sense of fun—within the movement.

At the end of the book Alice learns that the wine she made—and yes, she did it naturally!—will retail for seventy-five to a hundred dollars a bottle. It's a kick in the stomach for Alice, who lives and drinks on the budget of a freelancer.

But despite the undemocratic price tag, she's proven her point on several levels. Yes, good wine can be made naturally, even in California. And yes, Alice is the person to proselytize on the page about the natural wine movement. Despite her occasionally polarizing opinions, Naked Wine is a fantastic read, one that will convert wine drinkers one bottle (or page) at a time.