Text Size:-+
10.06.2008

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.


buy-from-tan.gif
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.

Comments (10)

Dean Tudor wrote:
10.07.08 at 1:51 PM

A very thoughtful review, Brooke. I think that if you checked Feiring's blog, you will see that the lapse in communication is even more strong, although that might just be the nature of blogospheres.

What I liked most about her book was the search for the Barolo (1967?) that was some sort of epiphany for her.

amy atwood wrote:
10.07.08 at 4:27 PM

Alica Feiring is the best kind of pot stirrer!
I love her passion even if I do not always agree with her points.
I agree she is making us all truly think about what we purchase and what we drink.
This was a good read. Not as deadly dry and boring as many a wine memoir I have read in the past.

Dylan wrote:
10.07.08 at 5:39 PM

Hi Brooke, this is my first time reading a post of yours on Vinography. You're a lovely writer--although that compliment is too generic; what I mean by that is when I read your words, I don't feel as though I am reading as much as you are speaking to me and I am listening.

It's certainly the difference between a book report and a book review.

I completely agree with the book's statement about accolades/critics and the way you artfully wove this detail into your own struggle to write an unbiassed review; we must decide for ourselves.

Without that, are we not just living through the likes and dislikes of other people? I say yes we are, and while it is a great thing to live for other people, it cannot be at the expense of what brightens up our own soul.


Brooke wrote:
10.08.08 at 8:50 AM

I agree with both Amy and Dylan. Alice Feiring is the best kind of pot stirrer (she does it with passion and - to steal one of her favorite phrases - authenticity. And she begs you to come to your own conclusion rather than just mindlessly attach yourself to hers.

Of course, I'm also with Dean. She may be able to stir the pot but man, I still felt like I didn't know the whole Alice at the end of the book. Maybe we're not supposed to?

michael wrote:
10.09.08 at 11:54 AM

I think the debate over criticism is outdated already. I think the newest generation of drinkers, of which I consider myself one, has been raised on multitude of choice, especially in voices we trust. The internet has made the idea of one influential critic untenable. Even Parker has handed over the reigns in many reasons. When I buy wine I buy online, or I check my blackberry in store to compare price, several reviews, and especially cellartracker, to see peer wine reviews, amateur reviews. The strength there is in the numbers, and those averages tend to run, in my experience, pretty true.
Some will say the damage has been done. I disagree. Winemaking has, globally, improved. Spoilage is down across the board. Costs are up to, but c'est la vie.
I think that the global criticism landscape has changed, and is changing. And I think that it will be for the better.

Cisco wrote:
10.14.08 at 12:57 PM

Outdated? I am also new to wine and until I read Alice's book I had no idea that some (maybe most) were not natural. I think this is her point and the even stronger point is that wine producers are doing this to please wine critics. Wine is being sold as a natural food when it is not, and this truth is unknown to most of us because the ingredients are not on the label and many wine producers would find themselves having to answer many questions and watching their bank accounts diminish(maybe) if they were to include the ingredients on the label. If not, why not tell us what has been added? Ok, they don't have to go as far as caloric intake, but the ingredients, please! This is really not that much to ask, is it?
My family did not drink wine. But in my adult life, I've been drawn to wine because I thought it was natural, aged (has history), and because of its diversity and variety (the taste depends completely on the state of the environment at the time the grapes were grown and harvested) and oh, the aromas of earth, sun and sky (I know, a bit much but you get what I mean).... I was drawn because I pictured hard working people in love with their craft, making something that would take years to mature -- no instant gratification. What other food can I savor that has these same qualities (please, no prosciutto and cheese suggestions... please!). Wine, I thought, was nature at her best and people at the heights of their craft. After hearing about natural wines from Alice's book, I decided to try them. I thought, that maybe, since I know nothing of wines, I won't be able to tell the difference. Oh, not so. I was seduced instantly. To me, without being able to tell what was different, I narrow my critique down to "they just taste better. A lot better."
Bravo Alice for this lovely book that made me fall in love with wine all over again, but this time, in its natural state.

Kyle Whitney wrote:
03.06.09 at 4:31 AM

"Tell me how you really feel."

Isn't it time for this clique to go? Was it ever funny?

03.23.09 at 2:21 PM

A little late perhaps to leave a comment on your post, Alder but since I reviewed her book on my blog and found Brooke Cheshier's review one of the better ones out there, I linked to this review.
Alice is now a 'Heroina" in Spain as she explains in her last entry on her blog 'In Vino Veritas"
Oh what fun it is to be a critic's critic!

alphonse wrote:
08.05.09 at 1:45 PM

I am sure Alice F. has a lot of experience and understanding of wine. Her writing, however... I found it a bit like Sex and the City heroine faces dragon(Robert Parker) and wins. The seam between the wine part and the love one is obvious from a mile. It is like she couldnt come up with a solid wine memoir and intertwining her wine stories with her love life was the patched-up solution. It doesnt work; the love segments are uninteresting, as she doesnt give enough detail. They are grafted on wine accounts. Also, the annoying, repetitive use of nicks, owl man, big joe, skinny, miss knish, is so redolent of Sex and the City, but they belong there, not in a wine memoir which pretends, after all, to be serious. I skipped several pages and towards the end found the interview with Parker manipulated, lopsided (in her favor) and shallow. In using Parker as a theme, Feiring tried to get attention to a book, which without the constant reference to the critic, would have not merited major interest.
To use Parker points, I score this book 81.
cheers

04.26.13 at 8:55 AM

What's up, this weekend is good in favor of me, for the reason that this time i am reading this fantastic educational paragraph here at my house.

Buy My Book!

small_final_covershot_dropshadow.jpg A wine book like no other. Photographs, essays, and wine recommendations. Learn more.

Follow Me On:

Twitter Facebook Pinterest Instagram Delectable Flipboard

Most Recent Entries

Bay Area Bordeaux: Tasting Santa Cruz Mountain Cabernets US 2014 Vintage - Early, Fast, Eventful Vinography Images: Big Shadow Come Explore The Essence of Wine with Me in Healdsburg: October 30th, 2014 Vinography Unboxed: Week of October 5, 2014 Another Idiotic California Law Screws Wineries Vinography Images: Vineyard Reflections The Fake Tongue Illusion and Wine Tasting 2014 Wine & Spirits Top 100 Tasting: October 21, San Francisco Cool Beauty: Tasting the Wines of the Western Sonoma Coast

Favorite Posts From the Archives

Masuizumi Junmai Daiginjo, Toyama Prefecture Wine.Com Gives Retailers (and Consumers) the Finger 1961 Hospices de Beaune Emile Chandesais, Burgundy Wine Over Time The Better Half of My Palate 1999 Királyudvar "Lapis" Tokaji Furmint, Hungary What's Allowed in Your Wine and Winemaking Why Community Tasting Notes Sites Will Fail Appreciating Wine in Context The Soul vs. The Market 1989 Fiorano Botte 48 Semillion,Italy

Archives by Month

 

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.