Interview - Alice Feiring
Alice Feiring. Fierce warrior and champion of wine and culture across the world.
Alice and I met towards the end of October last year. She was in town for the launch of the Slovak translation of her book 'Naked Wine' and to say I was excited was an understatement. I discovered Alice's writing by accident when I began researching natural wines more deeply - 'stumbling' upon her at that point was inevitable. Alice's writing and the life choices that underline that writing are to me inspiring and real beyond explanation. It's the kind of writing everyone should be doing and/or reading. You may not agree with everything (or anything) she says but her voice is so clear and arguments so articulate that it immediately lays the ground for worthwhile discussion. What's more valuable than respectful, open discussion?
Since meeting we've stayed in touch over email (I helped her fact check a piece about Slovak and Czech wines for the latest edition of her newsletter! you should definitely check it out) and with so many important topics burdening my mind lately, I couldn't imagine a better person to talk to about them. I'm very happy and grateful that Alice took the time to talk to me about writing, tasting natural wines, women in wine, Trump's administration and more. Let's dig in.
WINE AS A FORM OF ACTIVISM
VK: Your journey with wine has been long, varied and is far from over. One thing’s for sure - you've always been a very vocal champion of the wines and winemakers that you believe in. My friends and acquaintances often ask me why I dedicate so much time and money to wine and when I respond that other than enjoying drinking it I view it as a form of activism, they're usually baffled. Do you view your writing and the voicing your opinions on wine as a form of activism? In a review of one of your books the author calls you "at times an overzealous activist".
AF: I’m not sure I’m so over zealous, I just rarely have lukewarm opinions. It’s been a curse. I can’t help it. But I certainly have been an activist and until just recently when it was complicated by the decline of the American Empire, I thought it was my political arena. When I cried fraud against the wine world in 2008, I was genuinely outraged by the fact that what was in wine was hidden from the public. I did my best to expose it. I think I did a pretty good job!
VK: I think so too! Your love for natural wine - let's give it that label for the purposes of this interview - speaks as much to upholding tradition as it does to supporting and protecting the environment and the people who are connected to it. Is that an important aspect of it to you? Whenever I have a glass I feel like I'm helping the environment as opposed to harming it but that may just be a naive hippie sentiment.
AF: The two are inseparable for me. To merely look at wine as this thing in the glass that pleases you and gives you a buzz, well, what’s the point writing about that? One might as well be a candy critic. The metaphor of wine is so rich, and yes, has tremendous cultural implications.
VK: One of those implications for me is the motto 'put your money where your mouth is', which with wine I do as much as I can. However lately, I've realized that the standards that I apply to wine I don’t always translate to other products. Food mostly yes, but things like clothing, cosmetics etc. not so much. How have you translated your attitude towards wine to daily consumer choices? Do you make a point of buying sustainably across the grid?
AF: Most of my skin products from face to body are organic or biodynamic or homespun. I’ve been fragrance free for a long time and abhor commercial fragrance in product—as well as food. I don’t think I have any household products that I wouldn’t put in my mouth. My clothing? I try! I wish I could cut down on plastic consumption---bags and the like—but that one is tough.
VK: Instagram is a growing platform for people to reach out to a new audience. I - although it may not seem that way - have a conflicted relationship with this idea of self promotion as a tool to promote things that I actually care about and fear becoming one of those so called "hashtag activists". What's your relationship with the platform? Has it done anything useful for you? And how do you think a person can actually get people to go out and buy that bottle of wine as opposed to just liking your picture?
Very mixed. It makes me jealous to see that I’m not having as good a time as others or drinking all of those fabulous bottles or not invited to the super cool parties—and I suppose people looking at my Insta feel the same way. The platform breeds insecurities. On the other hand it’s a great tool to communicate with, share ideas and here’s the part I battle with, self-promotion. It’s the most effective ways I have to communicate about my newsletter. But honestly, as a failed salesperson, I wish I could bow out of all social media. I’d have more time for reading, writing and I could go back to not being hooked on Trump news. But, to leave it is to be forgotten.
About the Instagram wine culture/sommelier? Many people buy wines through Instagram and do their wine director job based on those recommendations and I say, that’s fine, but do your real research. It’s a lazy way to go about it, to buy wines that are considered cool, while not tasted or vetted.
WOMEN IN WINE
VK: I woke up on the Sunday after the Women’s March, having had a wonderful day of drinking great wine to find a lot of messages from friends and the Internet flooded with mostly beautiful depictions of the Women's March. I felt slightly ashamed I wasn't out marching somewhere too. You were at the march in NYC - what was it like?
AF: It was a wonderful, inspiring day of optimism. Unfortunately I didn’t get to march much!
VK: Well, better to not be able to march because of too high of an attendance than the opposite situation. Do you consider yourself a feminist? To me it's such a loaded word and I'm still not sure what my thoughts on it are - everyone seems to have a very decided viewpoint of what it means to them. I love women, I love people and think everyone should receive equal treatment and appreciation for the work they do but of course I know it's not that simple and one has to call bullshit out.
AF: A loaded word, sure. I remember the bra burnings and when abortion became legal, even though I was quite young. My mother inherited the women’s movement mid-life. She was not happy about it. And it suited me just fine. There was some leftover damage; my brother was brought up knowing he could do anything he wanted (lucky for him it was medicine) I was brought up to be fearful and incapable with my mother’s hope that I would get a nice little job in education. The treatment of women as second class never really registered, and I suppose I rejected it.
I never think of myself as being a feminist, in fact, it’s probably very unPC but it doesn’t make sense to me. That I believe in women’s equality? Is that a question? I resent, for example, a tweet from ugh..Ivanka.. about “women should have a seat at the table.” Should have a seat? Why is that even a question. And how ironic that she’s touting that at a time when women’s reproductive rights are being given over to men to decide. An old friend of mine once wrote a play entitled, “The Men are Afraid of the Women,” and he was mostly right. And yes, as you said --- the boys club still rules.
VK: It does feel that way sometimes, though there are plenty of men who are kind and respectful. You've done a very good job at speaking out about those who aren't and persevering in your pursuits while not coming off as derogatory. Do you feel like it's 'getting better'? I'm seeing a lot more influential women in the wine world - your friend Pascaline Lepetier, Severine Perru, Isabelle Legeron, Marissa A. Ross etc. and many many winemakers - and it makes me very happy.
AF: It is not getting better. When Pascaline was up for the Best Sommelier of France they told her she should wear some makeup and her shoes should have a heel. Perhaps they’d tell a man to shave, but I doubt it. Women still have to play the part, use their best physical assets. Learn how to seduce to get their way, and most of all, play nice. And then of course be very smart. Then maybe you get to get ahead.
VK: Uff. I can’t even imagine what Pascaline’s reaction must have been. Have you ever encountered tangible expressions, whether face-to-face or otherwise, of people within the industry treating you differently because of your gender? A male winemaker once called me 'cute' and told me my opinions are 'okay but irrelevant', but I can imagine you've had it much worse :-) How do you respond in those situations?
Being called cute is not so bad, but the other ½ of the statement is gross. I mostly respond by not reacting. When younger of course I had to deal with the guy who wanted to hire me but I had to be his mistress---( I ran out of the car). More recently there’s Ron Washam’s commentary on me, which is fine, but does he have to get sexual? The napkins the ---Alice just needs to get fucked cartoon ---what can I say? I’ve been called shrill---was that ever used for Parker? But the worst, is being too controversial to be hired by mainstream magazines while a man is allowed their opinions, a woman, no matter how well-informed, if they are delivered bluntly, is not. So, do I believe that being a woman with strong opinions and credentials has prevented me from making a living as a wine writer? Yes, I do.
VK: You write in your book "Naked Wine" about how the approach to tasting natural wine is very different than the systematic approach people are taught with conventional wines. Can you briefly talk about how it's different?
AF: For example, color and weight are meaningless in the world of natural. In the conventional world they count. I teach people to first have an emotional response and then figure out why they are having that response. Is the wine in balance? Does it evolve? Does it transport? Does it refresh? This is entirely different than analyzing the beginning middle and end, the color evaluation and the viscosity. You don’t like a wine because it is full bodied, you notice it.
VK: I absolutely agree with you in that the things like sense of place, savory quality and liveliness are all key and that you can't really apply the systematic way to natural wine 100%. I've found myself however inclining more and more towards the emotional impact of the wine in terms of tasting and "forgetting" how to taste in a more technical way. Is it really possible to taste natural wine technically and avoid just calling everything 'delicious juice'? Am I wrong to tell people to taste based on their gut emotions? I feel like it gives leeway to not being able to identify faults properly.
AF: It depends on who they are and what the purpose of their tasting is. If it is to enjoy, they don’t have to know about faults, they only need to know if they like it. If they don’t like a wine, it is just as informative to figure it out as it is to determine why you like a wine. So, does it explode on the back palate like a bomb? Too much brerttanomyces or mouse taint. Is it all apple cider vinegar or paint remover and no fruit left? Is there a mushroomy quality? (Not necessarily a flaw). Is there too much vanilla from oak? Is there too much So2 or is a wine too reduced? How can you tell what kind of reduction is a flaw and what kind just needs air? All of these are worth knowing about to enhance wine enjoyment.
VK: Your voice in your writing is so clear, so poignant and endowed with a huge dose of persistent passion. What's your writing process like? Do you just sit down and write on 'inspirational whim' or do you make a point of having a strict writing regime ala writing something everyday.
AF: I write best in the morning. Usually I write from 7-10 or 11, take a break. Then I resume at about 2 until whenever, and it depends if I’m on deadline for someone else or myself. But if there’s a deadline I’m likely to just forge through until it’s finished. I’m pretty disciplined about it, even if I often feel disorganized. Getting exercise regularly is essential.
VK: Your new book "The Dirty Guide to Wine" is coming out this year, a book focused on discovering the wine world through a soil composition focus. You told me yourself the book was very difficult to write. Are you happy to have it done and dusted? Should I buy it when it comes out? :-)
AF: Ah, the book. You should absolutely buy it! Honestly, it’s the book that I wished someone else wrote, but since it didn’t exist, I had to. Writing it with Pascaline Lepeltier made it a little easier and a little harder at the same time. She’s a marvelous researcher and added quite a lot in conceptualizing the book. She pushed me to make it more detailed. Left to my own devices I’d have made it a far simpler guidebook. In addition, it was the first time I wasn’t’ writing in complete isolation and I liked that a lot. On the other hand as this was the first book in a long time that was a guide and not a narrative, I found that, a boring task. I learned a lot, so the pay off was worth it.
VK: Writing is in my opinion one of the most therapeutic exercises - I like to write about the things that make me upset to help make sense of them. In your book "For the Love of Wine" you write a lot about your brother Andrew who passed away - his battle with cancer, your very special relationship. It was such an unexpected but beautiful way of connecting the topics in the book. I later read your op piece in the New York Times detailing the aftermath of his passing - it makes me well up just thinking about it. Was including his story, your shared story, a way of coming to terms with his passing or did his presence in the book come naturally?
AF: I started to write the book in 2012 and Andrew died in 2013 so it was impossible that he wasn’t always on my mind and it seemed impossible to ignore that this was the undercurrent. But after the first draft my editor told me I should either bring him in more or leave him out. I suppose I was timid about it, having my editor’s permission to integrate his dying and my relationship with him as a greater theme was liberating. And I soon came to see a thematic link –death and resurrection or death and moving on or just the flow of life and the connection to the Georgian toasting/philosophical take on like, that I think worked in the book.
TRUMP, OR NOT
VK: I started toying around with the idea of interviewing you after I read your fantastic post election piece in Fish & Game Quarterly. It spoke to me on such a fundamental level because it touched upon all the topics we've discussed - politics, activism, family - in such an honest, raw way. It's now post inauguration - how are you feeling about everything today?
I just came back from two weeks in France and it was so fabulous to be able to laugh about it, I knew that once back in the US it would go back to being a nightmare. I never felt really American until our particular freedoms and a desire to be a torch of sanity in the world—even with failings—started to be Trump-threatened. How did we get here, the rise of Mall culture, the lack of arts education and the growing fear of those who think and read? Of course, it’s a global problem. The whole world is looking for quick answers to deep problems, that don’t work. They are looking for messiahs and scapegoats. I never thought I would see this dissolution in my lifetime.
VK: Quick answers to deep problems.. How painfully true. I could use a little more patience in my life as well. You wrote another great piece about how the wine selection for the inaugural lunch should have been much more thoughtful and showcasing of what the US has to offer in terms of wine and how even doing something "so small" as really curating a good wine list can make a big difference and have an impact. What would you say we can all do to make a positive impact in today's world of Trump, fake news and tendency to slide into aggression?
AF: A wine critic who merely recommends wines as a job is a modern phenomenon. The richness of wine writing lies in the power to communicate on political aspects. Under that rubric come farming, environment, culture, freedom, truth, fraud, aesthetic and authenticity---and of course, wine. I think when one has a platform it is tone deaf not to use it for commentary and to illuminate and communicate. Sometimes one has to collapse in relief into a good glass and extol beauty. But one should never forget that there’s a reason so many in the past have lived and died while clutching to the vine.
All pictures were taken by Lucia Magulova at Alice's book launch in Bratislava, October 2016.
Thank you Alice.