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Book Review: The Battle For Wine And Love by Alice Feiring

feiring_cover.jpgReview by Brooke Cheshier.

I was going to read Alice Feiring's book and write my review and I swore I was not going to be influenced by the controversy that was thundering across the web-writing world. But then I thought, well, perhaps I'd just take a peek? One quick look? So I clicked onto the Cellar Rats forum, then the Wine Spectator Bulletin Board and suddenly found myself swept up in the tornadic, mostly negative conversations occurring on these sites. Heck, even Amazon.com reader critiques seemed uncensored. One Amazon review, titled Feir and Loathing on the Champagne Trail, basically dubbed her memoir a lousy graft job, a formulaic read with clichéd characters and a patchy chronology.

"It's almost impossible to know when events related to wine are actually taking place," the reviewer, Bevetroppo, wrote, "which is a big drawback when you're trying to put her wine-related observations in context." With Bevetroppo's and other reviewer's words ringing in my ears, I somehow slipped into the crowd, nodding to myself and saying, yes, that's right The Battle For Wine and Love IS one big "chocolate mess."

Step back, I had to tell myself, before you pick up a stone and start throwing. What did I think? What do I think? About half a dozen pages into the book I was hooked by one line: "I remember finding solace in the thought that I would fall in love again and this time the man would drink."

That single sentence was like an open invitation into Feiring's personal world. "Come on in and please, call me Alice." I found myself thinking this could be the literary equivalent of happening upon some tiny bar only to discover dusty French house wine being poured from full carafes and Eartha Kitt growling into a chrome microphone. Suddenly I was ready to devour this book in one Red Riding Hood-sized bite.

Yes, there are some chronology issues, although perhaps time just doesn't exist for Feiring; I personally suffer from frequent time lapses when wine is involved. Yes, Feiring views the wine world in black and white - designating wines as either "authentic" or "scientifically engineered" - while I am quite happy to roll around in all the gray muck. Yes, she writes about wines that few people can access. And yes, Feiring gets personal about her feelings toward designer yeasts, irrigation, micro-ox, Yellow Tail, UC Davis-educated winemakers, Spanish Chardonnay, and the puppeteer behind it all, one Robert J. Parker. But it's his influence, not the man, with which she takes issue. "My problem isn't with you," she says to Parker during a phone interview, "but with producers and marketers who court your palate and change their ways because getting that score is so important."

When it comes to her passion for wine and the vine, Feiring opens herself up, exposes all her vulnerabilities and you never once have to beg, "Tell me how you really feel." In a passage regarding irrigation in California, you can envision her weeping for vines that will never have the opportunity to grow deep roots, absorb those soil-derived essences and become the potentially complex wines she knows they could be. She writes that here, "the roots have very little to say to the grapes. In wine or in love that kind of lapse in communication is not my thing."

Unfortunately, in writing about love, that kind of lapse in communication is her thing. Wine invites intimacy. It suggests you move past the easy banter and into the real conversation. Even at its most playful, wine still celebrates, honors and mourns the things that really matter: love, friendship, loss.

A memoirist has to do one of the most terrifying acts to be successful: make him or herself vulnerable to an audience of strangers. Sadly, I don't think Feiring succeeds. As she explores past romances and present relationships, Feiring's revelations are cryptic and closed.

"Though I fell in love with the Owl Man instantly," she writes in chapter 3 about a past love, "I was always aware of the delicate infrastructure of his darkness." Comparing him to that fringe grape Syrah, she writes, "Both the man and the grape had extraordinary qualities, though it took a lot of work to get to them."

What are those extraordinary qualities, I wanted to scream when I read this passage. And just how was he dark? What exactly went on in that relationship? But Feiring evades any real revelation, saying she'll save all Owl Man conjecture for her novel. At several points during my reading, I became so caught up in my disappointment at this evasion, that I almost failed to notice that with wine, at least, Feiring was asking some very interesting questions.

Is it really possible that irrigation was at the root of the phylloxera epidemic that nearly wiped out the California wine industry? Is there a direct connection between Americans' almost diabetic propensity for sugar and our craving for syrupy wines? While her answers are not always fully developed she's asking the important questions. More importantly, she's inspiring me to ask questions as well.

After reading this book, I found myself sticking my nose in a glass and asking, what is it I really like about this wine? Does this wine really speak to me? And, do I care if it doesn't? Am I OK with a clean, place-less chardonnay? Am I OK with a wine from Spain that doesn't "speak Spanish?" Or that speaks a new dialect? I might be. And there's no shame in that.

The shame lies in letting one person do all the thinking for me.

To channel Ms. Feiring , when it comes to wine and love (and here I am referring to a love of wine), it is so easy for your treasured wine pro (whoever he or she may be) to stop being a guide and start being a crutch. Feiring herself never hesitates to tell you how she likes her wine, but she never forces her opinion on you, never says that hers is the only valid style. If the volumes of Feiring-focused dialogues on wine forums and bulletins are any indication, she has inspired a generation of wine drinkers (and readers) to ask their own questions and seek their own answers.

In many ways, Alice Feiring has achieved with a memoir what so many aspiring literary novelists hope to achieve with their novels: she gets you to think for yourself. Of course, like so many of my favorite old novels, the book isn't without its shortcomings. I wanted romance and heartbreak and honest admissions of failings on both ends. I got honesty on the wine side, but I only felt whispers of it on the personal side. Still, the book is a swift, easy read with some fabulous wine recommendations (if you can find them) and frankly, I have always had soft spot for flawed things -- both old, slightly broken wines and real, imperfect people. I think it's something - if I may be so bold - that Alice and I have in common.

Alice Feiring, The Battle For Wine And Love, Or, How I Saved the World From Parkerization, Harcourt 2008, $15.64, (Hardcover).

Brooke Cheshier spends most weekends watching SEC Football and stealing blackberries from the neighbor's yard. When she's not staring blankly at the computer (she is working on her first book; progress is slow), Brooke moonlights as a freelance/marketing copywriter in Napa Valley and is the Wine Correspondent for G -The Magazine of Greenville. Her sole occupation for the latter is to make heavenly matches between southern eats and the world of drinks. She has also joined her first bowling league. Brooke can be found at odd hours blogging on http://aficionada.squarespace.com.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.