Friday, May 30, 2008

Alice in Wine Blog Land

A while back, someone offered me a taste of a California cabernet sauvignon. My impression was of a suspension of Woo-Woo-Welch's grape jam (without, however, the concord foxiness) fortified by a generous splash of Everclear. I spat and said the first word that came to mind, which was "Parkerilla."

It wasn't Graham Parker, whose album The Parkerilla was a blot on an otherwise distinguished, and still ongoing, rock 'n' roll career, to whom I referred. It was Robert Parker, fellow lawyer turned tastemaker, publisher of The Wine Advocate, author of several wine books, and unquestionably the most powerful person in the world of wine today. In assessing wines, Parker gives the usual "hints of black currants and kippered herring" kind of commentary (Some such commentary makes me think of Humpty Dumpty: "When I use a means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."), but also assigns precise numerical grades to each vintage, in effect saying, Red Queen-like, to those scoring less than 90, "Off with their heads!", and thereby playing into the American mania for quantification and score-keeping. Consequently, lots of people do their wine shopping on the basis of Parker ratings, which many stores include in their ads and helpfully display next to each bottle.

Parker's preference for what he calls "hedonistic fruit bombs", that is, wines with overpowering fruitiness and high alcohol, has shaped demand to the extent that many wineries, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, have tailored their technique to produce wines that fit that description and stand fair to get high Parker marks. Because of these wines' massive, chest-thumping quality, I decided to give them the epithet "Parkerilla." As you may have guessed by now, I prefer wines with more--how you say?--nuance. So, I shudder as the Parker juggernaut rolls, apparently inexorably, along.

Fortunately, I have some allies who are waging anti-Parkerilla guerilla. One of them is my Kings County compatriot, Brooklynguy. Another, whom I have just discovered, is Alice Feiring, who puts out the estimable blog Veritas in Vino. Up top on her home page, under the heading "Appellation Feiring", she lets you know where she stands:

I’m looking for the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want my wines to tell a good story. I want them natural and most of all, like my dear friends, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. ...I’m trying to swell the ranks of those who love the differences in each vintage, who abhor homogenization, who want wines that make them smile, think, laugh, and feel sexy.
Ms. Feiring champions the concept of terroir, which, like many French words, is hard to translate neatly into English, but boils down to the notion that a wine's taste should reflect the idiosyncracies of the environment in which it was produced (Again this brings to mind Humpty Dumpty: "When I make a word do a lot of work like that, ...I always pay it extra."). She has taken the battle into the heart of enemy territory, writing an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times titled "California wine? Down the drain", in which she characterizes the bulk of that state's wine as "overblown, over-alcoholed, over-oaked, overpriced and over-manipulated." In other words: Parker-ized to the hilt. This prompted a counter-attack in the same newspaper, in which Matthew DeBord called her a "terroirist" and delivered such gems of wisdom as:
[T]he "terroirists" lambasted California -- which by this time had become the most successful winemaking region in the history of, well, wine -- for imposing a bland style on the rest of the world. America promotes democracy and market capitalism. California promotes wines that don't suck. This cannot stand.
Alice, of course, responded, calling DeBord "the Sean Hannity of the Wine World" and herself a "terroir jihadist." The comment thread following her post, in which she participates, is well worth reading. She offered further commentary in a Q&A format here.

Alice is promoting her new book, The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and, in furtherance of that, will be at my daughter's favorite after-school hangout, the new Barnes & Noble at 97 Warren Street (corner of Greenwich) in Tribeca, at 7:00 P.M. this coming Monday, June 2. New Yorkers, and anyone else who happens to be in town then, please take note. I'll definitely be there to:

(1) buy the book;

(2) get her to sign it; and

(3) blow her a kiss on the way out.

Subsequent events, including some in mid-June in California (this woman has intestinal fortitude!), are listed on her blog.

Update: I meet Alice! Yes, I was there at the Tribeca B&N at seven sharp yesterday, to find most of the seats already taken. With luck, I found a vacant one at the end of the second row. After a couple of minutes, a woman who looked like Jackie O. when she was a young Jackie Kennedy, but with a nasal piercing, took the podium and introduced Alice, who looks like the fifth grade teacher you had a secret crush on, pretty not in a cover girl fashion, but in a wise yet vulnerable way.

She began by reading several sections of her book. The first was how she discovered wine, when her father's second wife invited her to raid the cellar amassed by her previous husband. The second was about her quest to meet the man who made the Barolo that she took in that raid and with which she fell in love, a quest that failed but in the course of which she learned much about Italy, its wines, and the reasons for their sad decline. The third was about Burgundy and her meeting with Parker. After reading, she invited questions. There was much discussion of new winemaking techniques, especially something called "biodynamics", of which Alice generally approves, but is afraid may become simply a marketing ploy. Asked what wines she particularly enjoys these days, she said she was especially fond of Loire wines, as well as some Côtes du Rhône and some Beaujolais.

When my turn came to have my copy of her book signed, I handed her my blog card, and she said she had read this post, and liked it. She then signed the book, "Thanks so much." I will now put on my shameless shill hat and say, "Buy Alice's book. It's great."