When I wrote a column last year expressing some skepticism over the “natural wine” movement, I inadvertently became a poster child for industrial wine, earning public opprobrium from Alice Feiring (though we made peace) and a slap on the wrist from Eric Asimov. Anyone who reads me knows I’m not a fan of “industrial” wine, but I had a little trouble grasping just what “natural wine” was supposed to be, or not be.
Turns out Feiring was grappling with the same question, sort of. In her new book, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes do What Comes Naturally (Da Capo, 2011, $24), Feiring attempts to define natural wine to herself and to her readers. At the risk of oversimplifying, a natural wine is made without synthetic pesticides or herbicides in the vineyard, and without commercial yeasts in the winery.
Beyond that, the lines become blurry, especially on the essential question of added sulfites, a sulfur-containing preservative commonly used at bottling to stabilize a wine. Natural wine purists argue that sulfur is not needed if a wine is properly made, that it disguises the wine’s flavor and causes headaches for the drinker. Feiring clearly agrees with the purist viewpoint, though she’s tolerant in this book at least of vintners who prefer not to risk their wines going funky in the bottle. Feiring does her readers a disservice by emphasizing the rather high amount of sulfites that governments allow in wine without acknowledging that most winemakers use much less. And she makes some questionable claims, such as natural wines don’t cause hangovers. (Though I have heard others blame additives in wine, rather than alcohol, for the day-after headaches.)
Yet Feiring writes engagingly about her own attempt to make a natural wine, in California of all places – a region she seems to fear after publishing a critical article in the Los Angeles Times. And she takes us to the natural wine meccas of Beaujolais and the Loire Valley in France, with a detour to try and find “real wine” in Spain and a quest to suss out the origins of the natural wine movement. She doesn’t really find an answer – her idolized winemakers turn out to be rather cagey about their techniques.
I wish Naked Wine had more of the sharpness Feiring displayed in her earlier book, The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization. (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) Her perspective on wine is still provocative, but she’s more cautious here, though her talent for setting a scene and ripping off a yarn is as evident as ever. She provides us a list of her favorite natural wine producers, so we can put her arguments to the test. And she tantalizes with a list of additives the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows in wine, although she only touches tangentially on this subject. Her next book, perhaps? I’ll read it.
Previous book reviews:
- Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes, by Evan Dawson
- The Drops of God, Volume 1, by Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto
- The Vintner’s Apprentice: An insider’s guide to the art and craft of wine making, taught by the masters, by Eric Miller
- To Burgundy and Back Again: A Tale of Wine, France and Brotherhood, by Roy Cloud
- A Toast to Bargain Wines, by George M. Taber (not recommended)