I Asked Alice

I first met Alice Feiring when she flew to San Diego to participate in our first natural wine festival, Nat Diego. She had graciously agreed to join us and perform a book signing for her then-released book, The Dirty Guide to Wine. I had heard her described as a no-nonsense natural wine advocate with a feisty personality, so I was a little nervous when I first met her. However, after a few minutes, I realized she was just as human as anyone else. Yet I could definitely agree; this woman with her small frame and flaming red hair packed a lot of spunk in a tiny package.

About a month ago—nearly two years after we first met—I received an Instagram message from Alice. She wanted to know our 2019 dates for Nat Diego because she was publishing another book and wanted to offer another book signing. Alas, the stars would not align because the festival was scheduled before the book release. The next best thing would be to interview her, so here we are.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ms. Alice, she is a world-renowned wine writer. She has written for the Wall Street Journal Magazine, Time, The New York Times, and Wine & Spirits, to name a few. She’s publishing her fifth book in a decade. She has an online wine club called the Feiring Line Wine Society for which she personally selects the wines (they’re delicious!). And finally, as if she wasn’t busy enough, this year she launched The Feiring Line Writing Mentorship Award program giving aspiring writers a chance to have their voices heard.

One could say she’s a tad prolific. 

Throughout her career, she has challenged the status quo and inspired drinkers to be ‘woke’ to the myriad ways wines can be manipulated in the commercial wine world. She’s a staunch supporter of producers who make low-input wines, aka natural wines, and has been writing about them well before people started calling them natural, making her the OG authority in the annals of natural wine. 

For the interview, Alice was excited to talk about her newsletter/website and the upcoming new book. I could’ve talked to her for hours, but being the busy lady she is, I’m thankful she was generous enough to share a half-hour with me. Our conversation covered the spectrum of her work and thoughts on wine culture: her books, her digital following, and whether or not she’ll be the one to legitimize natural wine by putting a pin on it.

K: You said you started The Feiring Line during a hurricane.

A: It launched during hurricane Sandy – the Monday after hurricane Sandy. It was kind of funny because I had no power where I was, and I had to go to find some power because I needed to find my mother who was missing at Long Beach. I walked up to my designer’s office. Actually, I was going all the way uptown and then I realized, “Oh, I’m right at Uggi’s block on 27th street.”

And lo and behold, they had all sorts of power. So I not only got a way to go and find my mother, but we just, you know, launched The Feiring Line [chuckles] when the city was in the middle of a disaster. We sent the first issue out because, back in those days, it was just the pdf and so it wasn’t the website.

K: Do you know how many subscribers you have now?

A: Yeah, about 800?

K: You started this in 2013, but people here in San Diego are still asking questions and are still discovering natural wine, and I think that’s the case for a lot of the country too. How has your audience changed over the last six years since you first launched Feiring Line?

A: From the beginning, it was international, but I have a lot more people in a lot more different countries. Now I have subscribers in Japan, China, Russia, Ukraine, and I think I have a couple in Israel, certainly in Australia. But I’m just picking the ones that I think are kind of unusual. I have one or two in Turkey.

So, there’s one thing: I’ve gotten a lot more trade support than I used to have. Before it was, you know, a lot of just normal people, and now I would say it’s about 50% of people in the trade. From winemakers, a lot of winemakers, to importers looking for new wines because I don’t only cover wines that are available in this country because it’s such a global publication that I don’t see the purpose in that. And I think as far as my demographics, I am still mostly read by men.

K: Why do you think that is?

A: I think because I took on Robert Parker! [laughs]

K. I’m a student of the Court and WSET. I haven’t taken a class in a couple of years, but natural wines wasn’t something they talked about at all.

A: Do they ever talk about it now? I don’t think so.

K: I didn’t want to say because I’m not certain if they’ve increased the exposure to it or at least begun coverage, I should say, but they haven’t found a strong voice yet despite the fact that this is the way that wines were made pretty much the whole time until the last century.

A: Right.

K: What do you think is the solution to getting this sort of education out there to people?

A: Well, you know, we just did this thing in Texas (Wild World), which is the seat of TexSom and the Court. It has always been an incredibly conservative state, and TexSom has always been a conservative conference where natural wine has had absolutely no presence. And, I made a comment about something like that for my seminars, and the TexSom people immediately got really, really upset and started defending themselves. I think this year at TexSom they are going to inject a little knowledge that the wine world is changing and maybe they need to address it – as far as how to do it in a way outside of a conference, in classical education. 

As more people get their certifications, and they have a different bent and different palate and knowledge of wine, I think people like Pascaline [Lepeltier, Master Sommelier], who obviously drinks mostly natural wine and is greatly respected, she probably will affect some of that change into the Court. As other people do, they will put pressure on them, and this is something that the Court – if they want to remain relevant – cannot ignore. The same thing with Master of Wine. The MW will have to change because this is the future. It is now. It’s the present. It has been the present and it is gonna be the future.

It’s something that somebody asked me yesterday, about whether or not I thought of organizing some kind sort of formal education for natural wine and maybe certification. It’s kind of a road that I’ve been thinking about. Actually, I don’t know about the certification part because it seems to be very against natural wine, but on the other hand, that’s probably the way it’s gonna go.

So, when there’s some formal school and certification for natural wine… actually, it shouldn’t even be just about natural wine, just really an alternative that encompasses all kinds of wine. But, really, with the knowledge that these wines aren’t the only wines that are relevant to the student, then they’ll have to somehow adopt it. And it’s the way that if I ran a school, there’s no way I would not be teaching the other kind of wine—and because you need to in order to assess the differences. And of course, a school like that would be completely independent since tastings for the Court are heavily lobbied by the big companies, and that’s one reason why natural wine hasn’t been a part of it.

K: You do have a section in the Feiring Line called “Higher Ed”, which I found fun for me because you tackle things like flaws, cider and mouse, etc. Is that targeted for the average reader, or are you gearing more towards the wine professional?

A: I am gearing it towards both. I think one thing that has been an objective of mine is to be read by both the novice and the professional. Basically, it is higher education. If somebody wants to go there, I will take them through this, hopefully, in an understandable way. I think all of these issues that I bring up are important: to be able to understand natural wine and [the information is] now there up on the website so somebody can be ready for them at their leisure. But sometimes, I take on things others wouldn’t take on, like Aarron’s [Alice’s writing peer] filtering piece or the mouse in three parts, and so I like to think I take on issues in the natural wine world that other people don’t necessarily want to talk about. 

K: That’s a good segue to your book. You’re releasing it August 6th?

A: YES! August 6th.

K: And this is your 5th book?

A: YESSS! [chuckles]

K: By the title, it sounds like it’s an introductory wine book for the layperson. It’s not that your books are super technical, but they seem to be more about your journey through the wine world, whereas this one appears to be written for everyone.

A: Well, Dirty Guide wasn’t a narrative either, but, certainly, my first three books were narrative nonfiction, where, through the use of a memoir technique, I do educate. That’s been my methodology for those first three books. Dirty Guide was more of a guidebook, but Natural Wine for the People is very much in my voice. It’s not just a dry, little book, but it is

“let’s take on all the issues of natural wine” and it is geared toward the layperson. “You wanna know all about natural wine? Well here’s this cute, little book that’s going to tell you everything.”

It’s going to tell you how to talk to the person next to you who hates natural wine. It’s going to tell you how to talk to your uncle, who has nothing but Napa cabernet in his cellar. It’s about what natural wine is, about what the issues are, about why, sometimes, it tastes like cider or what is considered a wine fault or wine flaw, or what about natural wine is completely acceptable.

Also, it talks about a different way to access wine that’s natural because the old standards don’t apply. You can’t really bring a 20-point system of wine evaluation to natural wines. It doesn’t make sense. How are you going to give a value to a color? It makes no sense.

K: Right. Clarity is pretty much out the window.

A: [laughs] Right! Totally out the window!

A: It also talks about current fads in natural wines that I think are fads. I actually try to preach tolerance by talking about “we all love natural wines—some of us might like more extremes than others, but, you know, everybody get along!”, because there’s a lot of fractionalism. So, it’s kind of an insider guide instead of a primer. Or the “insider guide primer”.

So, that is what it is: where to find natural wines and how to love [them].

There’s a lot about natural wine tourism [in the book]; going to the fairs and, hopefully, every aspect of natural wine and natural wine community.

K: Coming back around, this is kind of an introductory question—and I didn’t want to ask anything terribly trite—but how did you find your way into this realm of wine?

A – I never really left. I started drinking what I would consider very traditional wines back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. When I go back to look at what my favorites were, they were all relatively natural. And it was really at the point that the international palate became the only one, and it became more and more difficult to find the wines that I loved, which is how I wrote the basis for my first book [where] I pinpointed what was different about the wines that I loved. And that’s when I found out that they were from organic viticulture with native yeast fermentation, that they were not inoculated, and they really didn’t have the 72+ ingredients that can be in wine. 

So, that was really when I started focusing on these wines in 1999. In 2000, when I was working on my first book—it was a book for hire for Food & Wine magazine—it was just a wine guide. That was really the turning point. I had to try so many wines, and I was hating so many of them. That [is when] I realized that the Loire Valley, in particular, was pumping out a lot of wine that I liked, and that was my gateway into the natural wine movement—to make a very long story long.

K: No, actually, I thought that was beautifully said because I think that most people don’t recognize how much the market drives their own access or palate. I imagine you’ve done a lot of traveling and have been able to taste a lot of these wines, but if importers hadn’t begun bringing them into the States, a majority of people wouldn’t have known any better. Now, it’s coming at them from all different angles, and they’re trying to understand where this wine coming from without understanding it’s always been there. They’re trying to make sense of it.

A: Right, that’s true.

K: What do you think your book is going to do for future wine drinkers?

A: That’s a good question! I don’t know what it’s going to do for future wine drinkers! Well, hopefully—that’s a hard question because I don’t know how to answer what it’s going to do, but, hopefully, it will give people a starting point for a deeper understanding. Instead of just understanding that all natural wine is cloudy, [they should] be able to understand that there’s a great range within natural, and you can’t really tell a natural wine necessarily by looking at it. The one thing that we have now, which we didn’t have ten years ago, is a greater variation of tastes and flavors and textures in wine than we did a while back. What I see now in the market is people trying to condense natural wine into one style. So, I’m hoping that people will come away with this knowledge that the world of natural wine is diverse and exciting, and it really can’t be put into a box, and, hopefully, that it’s more than just wine made without sulfur.

K: For our industry professionals here, how difficult is it for you to talk about natural wine flaws to educated wine professionals? Is it a conversation you find is easy or is it heated?

A: No, it’s not [difficult]. I find that most people—well, let me go back, actually a couple of years when I went to Nat Diego. [And] I use this story all the time when I talk about wine flaws.

Somebody there asked me if she could shadow me and watch how I taste. I said “Sure”, and after a few minutes, she said, “Can I ask you a question?” and I said, “Sure.” She asked, “When you first taste, do you look for faults?” I started to laugh because I had never thought about that, ever. And I just laughed and I said “No—I taste for pleasure first, and then I work backwards from there” because I don’t see the point. 

When you’re looking at the faults section in my book, there are very few wine faults in natural wine. I mean, once you get out of balance, now we’re talking about maybe not a good wine. But when I talk about tasting for pleasure first, that changes the conversation, and it’s so opposite their training that there’s not a fight. It’s more of a ‘huh’ and a questioning of their own methodology. Then after that, if I have to do an evaluation, then I go through my 8-point evaluation system. 

K: Do you go through the system in the book?

A: [laughs] Yes, it is there, and I do go through it—this is such a nice book! I’m so proud of it.

One of the things I look for is an emotional impact. Does the wine have life?

 [CampestreMag note: she goes on to reveal the other points, but I would get the book to learn more] 

These points are the elements that really draw me into the wine.

K: Do you have a guilty pleasure in conventional wine…? [she answers before I can finish]

A: ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! It’s not palatable to me. No way. Uhn uhn.

K: This is a question that always comes to me, and I’m sure it comes to you as well. It comes back around to wine flaws or faults. What do you think about some of the wine bars that embrace wines that are on the extreme end of faulty, but are still finding popularity among buyers?

A: Yes! Well at Wild World, we had—if I do say so myself because I designed them—some pretty great panels and one of them was about the ethics and aesthetics of natural wine. We had one person on the panel who was defending extremely crazy zero-zero wines, like no input in the vineyard or in the winery. Now, we have all had the ones that are mouse-ridden and disgusting, but you have people who say they love it. And I was thinking about this, and I kind of appreciate this almost macho or adventurous spirit that says, “I’m taking this wine for a ride like a bucking bronco and yahoo, let’s keep on riding it!” 

And I think, well, I’m not doing it because it’s not giving me pleasure, and I might look at that person as if they’re insane, but I can appreciate the extremity of it. And I have no problem with those going on the list, as long nobody is giving anyone else shit for not liking it. There’s got to be the awareness that this is on the extreme version and this is where, probably, natural wine education is really needed, because I see a lot of superiority out there from people thinking that these fucked up wines are the only ones that are wine.

K: There’s a term that people use when they say a wine is “super natty”. What do you think that phrase means?

A: For me, the people who talk about “super natty” are talking about natural wines that are a style more than a wine. They are cloudy. They are kind of messy. They’re kind of mousy. They’re identifiably fucked up.

K: I think that these are the wines that people usually associate with natural wine even though they lean toward the more flawed side of the umbrella. I know that there are shops that seek only these wines.

A: They may think that they’re left-wing, but I think that they’re absolutely right-wing! They’re the Taliban of the natural wine movement. I’ve seen them reject completely natural wines because they were completely delicious wines that anybody could like, but they say, “They’re not natural enough for us.”

K: Okay, so, final question. I keep seeing this question pop up and it’s on your website, too. So, if you don’t mind elaborating on this now: is natural wine dead?

A: Okay, that is the story that I wrote for Omnivore, “Is the Natural Wine Movement Dead?” It was the natural wine movement that I was drawn into in the early part of this century that I believe is dead, and the reason that it is is that back then, it was completely idealistic. Completely 100% idealistic. Nobody was going out to try to make money off the backs of natural winemakers, and natural winemakers were not marketing their wines to a clientele. 

Back then, if you had a mousy wine, it was horrific. No natural winemaker liked to hear that their wine was mousy—or to see it. They wouldn’t release it. Now wines are being released really, really early because the market will bear it, and a lot of those flaws might be resolved in time, but they never get to.

So, I think that because of the commodification of the natural wine world now, the idealistic moment of the movement is gone. But natural wine is very much alive, and it is going to [stay alive], and it is presently changing the way the world will drink. The natural wine movement is an extremely powerful movement because it’s one that came from the people instead of a marketing machine. It will forever change wine in the future, so the movement lives on.

Alice and I wrapped up the conversation by talking about her upcoming book with all of its pretty illustrations. If you missed it in the interview, Natural Wine for the People: What It Is, Where to Find It, How to Love It will be released on August 6, 2019. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon, or you can subscribe to her newsletter at thefeiringline.com and visit her “Books”’ page to pre-order it there. Her website is a boon of information, and if you’re traveling and visiting some of her favorite cities, you can find suggestions for sips and bites under her “Where, Eat & Drink” page.

Essentially, Alice is or will become your natural wine manual personified. If you don’t know, now you do.