Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally, by Alice Feiring

Further adventures with Alice in the world of natural wine! I very much enjoyed her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love, and her blog The Feiring Line, even though I'm a wine neophyte. Feiring's engaging prose makes for a fun read even as she slips in technical explanations in easily digestible sips.

Feiring is a champion of natural wines, wines that are allowed to make themselves. I continue to be shocked by the number of invasive techniques and additives used in winemaking: yeast, sulfur, heat, wood chips, and silica gel, to name only a few. Most commercial winemakers are out to create a particular taste rather than letting that particular batch of grapes grown in that patch of land during that particular year express something quite individual. To me, it sounds like the difference between a fast food restaurant and that quirky bistro down the road with the excellent chef. On the other hand, winemakers have to be concerned about their business and so look for ways to avoid the instability they associate with natural wine.

In this volume Feiring has been enticed into creating a batch of wine in her own way. She is the first to say that she is not a winemaker and doesn't aspire to be. However, given the opportunity of having a half-ton of grapes on which to try out her theories, she is tempted though also terrified. Book learning is one thing; feet on the ground (or the grapes, as the case may be) are another.

While we follow the thread of Alice's wine, we also get to go off with her on adventures visiting vineyards. We learn about the techniques they use and problems they encounter and at the same time get to enjoy the evening walks through the vineyards, the charming family luncheons, and the boisterous, good-natured dinner parties that go late into the night. We get to meet the winemakers who stand outside the mainstream, colorful characters such as Nicholas Joly, “the Deepak Chopra of wine biodynamics”, who says of artificial wine, “‘This wine had no song ‘”. Feiring comments, “Joly called it song, I called it voice, but we meant the same thing. Just as writing needs a voice, a distinctive wine needs its own expression.”

She has a deep appreciation for the vignerons of Europe, winemakers who also cultivate the vineyards. Who better to understand the particular nature of a grape than the person who has nurtured it and the soil in which it is grown? This is not a model common in the U.S. where most winemakers purchase grapes grown by someone else. Feiring's quest for an American vigneron takes her on visits to a number of quirky winemakers, including the Coturri brothers who grow fruits and vegetables next to the Zinfandel and Benyamin Cantz, a former art major who creates organic kosher wine.

This thoroughly enjoyable book contains a number of helpful appendices, including a list of additives and processes for wine approved by the U.S. and a list of natural wines that Feiring cautions is a “very personal—and perhaps even eccentric—list”. Alice is a friend of mine, so perhaps I'm biased, but check out other reviews such as these in the New York Times and Bloomberg News. And try some of the wines she mentions.

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