The wine industry, in case you haven’t noticed, has entered a moment of reckoning. Earlier this month, Silicon Valley Bank’s Wine Division released its 19th annual State of the Wine Industry Report, an authoritative forecasting and trend-analysis guide. The overview is unsettling:
We are at a point of oversupply…[but it] isn’t due to speculative over-planting. It’s due to the wine industry’s growing miss in not providing consumers what they want…Making great wine isn’t good enough for the consumer today. We are increasingly missing the mark on consumer expectations, and our results show it…Millennials don’t trust the rich, are skeptical about inauthentic and opaque marketing and don’t care about your family’s name on the bottle. They are more interested in what’s in the bottle — the ingredients and additives — and how you make the world better.
Enter natural wine and its foremost advocate, Alice Feiring. Her latest book, Natural Wine for the People: What it is, Where to find it, How to love it (Ten Speed Press, 2019), opens with a simple definition: ‘Natural wine is wine without crap in it.’ This truism means way more to drinkers under 40 than terms like Grand Cru, pH or Brix at harvest. Feiring (rhymes with FIRE-ring) isn’t under 40, but she’s simpatico with certain millennial values. She’s direct and opinionated and she’s righteously suspicious of the industrialization of food and drink. Her other traits, passionate expertise and a whip-smart nose for honest quality, are evinced in the mission statement of her natural wine newsletter, ‘The Feiring Line’:
I’m hunting the Leon Trotskys, the Philip Roths, the Chaucers and the Edith Whartons of the wine world. I want them natural and most of all, I want them to speak the truth even if we argue. With this messiah thing going on, I’m trying to swell the ranks of those who crave the differences in each vintage, celebrate nuance and desire wines that make them think, laugh, and feel.
I met Ms Feiring at ‘Beaucoup Beaujolais! An Evening of Natural Wine’ in Richmond, Virginia, and then we spoke again by phone from her home in New York City. ‘Not every wine triggers an emotional response,’ she said, ‘but natural wine just feels good in your body’. She’s not merely talking about the fuzzy buzz of trendy pét-nats (pétillant naturels) or the lower-alcohol glou-glou / vin de soif wines known for their delightfully fresh and funky carefreeness. As an assiduous watchdog over vineyard practices and viniculture, Feiring is pointing to the cumulative effects of soil nitrogen, dry farming, handpicking, native yeast, clay vessels, mindful fining and minimal sulfuring. Shepherded from the right terroir by capable hands, wines produced in the most natural way offer a wild aliveness that defies categorization. And they’re captivating an audience that, frankly, couldn’t give a schist about long, warm days and cool nights in Chablis.
‘There are so many wacky wines now that are amazingly beautiful,’ said Feiring, but not every hazy, farmer-made fizz is delicious. It’s those well-meaning, but flawed and mousey wines that give natural wine a bad rap. ‘I’m forgiving and accepting as long as flaws are in balance,’ she said. ‘I have toleration for volatility and reduction, but not for mouseyness,’ she added, referring to a common unpleasantness attributed to out-of-whack Lactobacillus and Brettanomyces. However, young sommeliers and consumers alike sometimes confuse what’s flawed with what’s interesting. ‘A lot of them are coming from craft beer and are looking for those flavours in wine,’ explained Feiring. ‘They’re looking at wine as style but not as place. They say, “Oh, this is f****d up, so it must be a natural wine and therefore I love it”.’
At her seminar in Virginia, Feiring highlighted Beaujolais, arguably the birthplace of modern natural wine, but she also touts discoveries from Argentina and Hungary. ‘And I’m super curious to see what happens in Bulgaria and Romania.’ Her book also spotlights Loire (‘The heart of the French natural wine movement’), Austria (‘Newly reborn natural wine scene’), the Czech Republic (‘some of the more exciting new entries in the wine world’), and Georgia (‘you can find luxe at affordable prices’).
‘We are seeing a whole generation cutting their teeth on natural wine. But, at this point, there are not enough natural wines. It will be wonderful when we have more.’ Hence, a conundrum. Natural wine, to meet demand, will have to go industrial. ‘It’s going to be hard to know what’s really what,’ she warned. ‘People are gonna have to be much more savvy. Especially if you’re shopping at a supermarket.’
Feiring’s latest book names 10 ‘Legends…the natural wines you must drink before you die.’ Maison Pierre Overnoy (Jura), Domaine Prieuré Roch (Burgundy), Emidio Pepe (Abruzzo), Martin Ray (California) and Château Musar (Lebanon) round out her top five. Akin to audiophiles who find new artists by following indie labels, Feiring also directs natural wine lovers to find importers they trust, since they’re the gatekeepers of natural wine. As for finding a natural wine shop near you, our snarky dear Alice offers three choices: ‘1 Shop the best shops in the country online. 2 Start your own shop. 3 Move.’ Even if you live in a natural wine hub like Paris or New York, ‘get used to the hunt’, she said. ‘Wine fanatics thrive on the sport. You’ll be no different.’
And who knows, if we all start caring more about what’s in the bottle — ‘and the dimethyl dicarbonate / mega purple / polyvinylpolypyrrolidone that isn’t!’ – we’ll not only make the world better, we’ll grow the market for those wines that make us think, laugh and feel.
ALICE FEIRING’S FAB FOUR
That she’s drinking right now….
- Marie Rocher 2018 Les Valseuses – organic bubbly rosé Gamay (Loire Valley)
- Marcel Lapierre 2017 Morgon Cuvée N – organic Gamay (Beaujolais)
- Vins Hodgson 2017 Faia – biodynamic Chenin Blanc (Loire Valley)
- Borachio 2018 Pinot Gris – organic Pinot Gris (Adelaide Hills, South Australia)
Based in Richmond, Virginia, Jason Tesauro is a writer, sommelier, and photojournalist with three books, four cameras, and five children. Look for his work in Esquire, Decanter, Travel+Leisure, and Food & Wine.