Dish

Reviewing Alice Feiring’s new book on Georgian wines

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She may not be a household name for casual wine drinkers, but Alice Feiring is known among those who follow wine writing. She’s particularly notorious for her strident championing of natural wines and outspoken criticism of their opposite, the “manufactured” wines that she very publicly took to task in her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love: Or, How I Saved The World from Parkerization (2008). That book, and her writings prior to it, courted controversy; Feiring famously dismissed the entire Californian wine industry as “overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated.” Her next book, Naked Wine: Letting Grapes Do What Comes Naturally (2011), helped push natural wines into the mainstream—and indeed, they’ve become quite trendy as of late. (This is also due in no small part to similar, and much larger, movements in the food industry.)

After publishing Naked Wine, Feiring was looking for a new cause. That has manifested in her newest book, For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture (March 2016). The book chronicles her travels through Georgia, a country that claims an 8000-year-old history of winemaking, and which is in the midst of a vinous revolution: after decades of suffering under Soviet rule, during which time wine was treated as a commodity just like any other and pumped out of huge factories in ever-increasing quantities (and sharply declining quality), Georgia is emerging as a player in the contemporary wine industry.

This puts it at risk, Feiring argues, for falling prey to the same things that have happened in other emerging countries: consolidating planting to a handful of top-selling, familiar grape varieties (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon) and using various additives and processing to homogenize the end product, rendering it indistinguishable from all the other wines on the market today. Her book is, therefore, designed to showcase the uniqueness of Georgian wine and why it’s vital for Georgian winemakers to hold on to the traditional techniques they kept alive at home throughout the period when Soviet factories pumped out an ocean of barely drinkable plonk.

Chief among those old methods is the use of qvevri—large clay pots sunk into the ground, used to age wine—and skin contact, the practice of allowing the grape juice to spend extended periods of time macerating with the skins and seeds, including with white-grape varieties. (This renders the final wine amber-coloured and is why they are also referred to as orange wines.) Feiring spends a good deal of time talking about both, and the integral role they play in the uniqueness of Georgian wine. She also argues that the wine world is crazy for wine made in clay pots, though that’s a trend that certainly hasn’t gone fully mainstream.

Her infatuation with the country, its people and its wines is inspiring, if not entirely infectious. Much of this is undoubtedly due to her tone—consistent with her previous works, Feiring comes on strongly, quickly and often sounds preachy instead of passionate. Those who haven’t read her before should brace for some proselytizing, though there’s less of that than in her previous books.

One of the best parts of For the Love of Wine is the recipes. At the end of each chapter, Feiring shares a traditional Georgian recipe. Often it’s a dish that she’s already mentioned, because as she makes clear early on, meals are no small occasion in Georgia: feasting is an almost daily occurrence there, and mandatory when one has guests. Wine flows through Georgia’s veins, Feiring argues, and to hear her tell it, that’s often more literal than not: this is a country that allots three litres of wine per person at weddings; one of the people Feiring interviews casually mentions that Georgians drink two litres of wine a day. (The Wine Institute disagrees, citing a number that’s far lower: about 19.7 litres per person per year in 2011, which is only about one standard 750ml bottle every couple of weeks. The large amount of Georgian wine that’s homemade—and therefore not included in official statistics—is likely the reason for this huge discrepancy.)

Feiring’s tendency to oversimplify is the biggest fault of For the Love of Wine. Reading through the book, the reader is made to think that every single Georgian cares passionately about organic agriculture and winemaking, despite her providing examples of just the opposite. When she admits that this is obviously not the case for everyone, it’s very late in the book—within a few pages of the end.

The sense imparted throughout is that it’s Georgia versus the world—Italy and France “fight natural,” Feiring says; it’s as simple as that. The implication of morality that comes along with these reductionist assertions is troubling. Natural wines are good and right, Feiring seems to be arguing, and everything else is bad and wrong. Yet she admits that the flavour profile of qvevri and other natural wines is one that won’t appeal to many wine drinkers, and she’s right: rustic is the polite word often used to describe such wines, but rough, sour and faulty are also common denunciations.

It is extremely unlikely that natural wines will ever be more than a niche product. If Feiring truly wants Georgian winemakers to succeed, wouldn’t she want them to make wines that will be a success on the market? This doesn’t mean they all have to sell out and jump on board the additive bandwagon—there are undeniably far too many confected, additive-riddled wines out there already—but there’s a much bigger middle ground than she’s willing to concede.

The legacy of the Soviet era is no small shadow that still looms large over much of Georgia, including its wine. And the wolves of modern winemaking practices are indeed knocking on the doors of the country’s aspiring vintners, for better or worse.

The fate of Georgia’s wine industry notwithstanding, Feiring has certainly achieved at least one thing with For the Love of Wine—something she also accomplished with her previous two books as well: that woman sure knows how to get people arguing about wine. V

Mel Priestley is a certified sommelier and wine writer who also blogs about wine, food and the arts at melpriestley.ca

For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture
By Alice Feiring
Potomac Books, 208 pp, $37.50

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