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Book Review: Naked Wine By Alice Feiring

by Marisa Dvari

Naked Wine by Alice FeiringReviewed by Marisa D'VariIn this colorful narrative vaguely similar to Kermit Lynch’s Adventures on the Wine Route, Alice Feiring tackles “natural wine,” currently one of the hottest subjects in the wine world. Most people think that like buying the freshest produce in a greenmarket, the more natural the wine, the better. Yet many respected wine critics are against natural wine, and even some winemakers famed for their natural winemaking practices agree there may be limits to how “natural” a wine should go.So what is natural wine, anyway? Basically, it refers to any wine made with natural yeast and a minimum of outside chemicals, including sulfur. Sulfur is a naturally occurring byproduct of the fermentation process. The problem is that in the past, producers across the globe have been too liberal in its use, adding a surplus of sulfur to keep oxygen and bacteria from spoiling the wine. Today – outside of large-scale commercial wineries, this is changing slowly due to the ‘natural wine’ movement.Naked Wine centers on Alice Feiring’s journey to discover for herself and her audience the viability of a truly natural wine. Beyond prohibiting (or lessening) the use of sulfur, ‘natural wine’ to Feiring means letting grapes ‘do what comes naturally.’ This means no additions of any kind, even water to lower the potential alcohol of a wine grown in a hot region.This narrative dramatizes Feiring’s quest to see, through her own winemaking experiments and in conversations with other winemakers, it is possible to make a natural wine. In the end, she ultimately discovers that the natural wine issue is not truly black or white.The story opens as Feiring is presented with the opportunity of making her own natural wine in California, as in the past she had blasted the state for wine that is “overripe, over-manipulated, and overblown.” She is to make her own wine, in its own tank, from the tannic Sagrantino grape in Sonoma County under the guidance of a seasoned winemaking friend.With enthusiasm, Feiring hand picks the grapes, drives the forklift that takes the grapes to the de-stemming machine, and begins to stomp the grapes with her bare feet over several days to start the fermentation process. The work is harder than anticipated, yet the wine ultimately begins to ferment. The only glitch is that Feiring wanted to make a low alcohol wine like the French wine she prefers, and the brix (sugar level) is so high her winemaking friend advises her to add 10 gallons of water to reduce the potential alcohol.The very idea of ‘altering’ her hard-won natural wine with something as simple as water is deeply disturbing to Feiring, and drama ensues when she discovers that her friend performed this necessary task for her. The California experience seems to demonstrate that as much as one tries to be completely natural, winemakers are faced with situations like this (high alcohol) that force them to weigh the benefits of intervention.Feiring then goes on an adventure in search of natural winemakers, both famous and those just starting out, to discuss the natural wine movement. First she travels to France to meet with pioneer Nicolas Joly, whom she calls the ‘Deepak Chopra” of wine dynamics. Joly made a name for himself in the 80’s by returning to his family’s winery after working a banker, and being one of the first to embrace biodynamics (winemakers treating the farm as a cohesive, interconnected living system).Feiring is with Joly to judge wine for Joly’s Renaissance group, which awards stars to wines they accept in their traveling show. The basic entry requirements include no synthetic chemicals allowed in the vineyard, and no allowance for genetically modified or aromatic yeasts.During the tasting, Feiring felt many producers misunderstood the requirements, as many wines from Germany reeked of what seemed to be factory-created yeast (versys indigenous) and excess sulfur, and some of the California Pinots tasted out of balance and overripe. When one California winemaker learned he did not make the cut, he retorted: “I had not known the group was looking for bacteria-ridden wines that were so natural six bottles out of twelve had to be thrown out. I don’t make that kind of wine. I have a business to run!”And with that statement, the California winemaker reveals the crux of the natural wine controversy. In the course of this book, one discovers that it does seem possible to make natural wine, without any additions, in a perfect vintage with excellent terroir. The challenge is that few winemakers have the luxury of producing wine only in perfect vintages, and face tumultuous economic risks unless they can take some preventative measures (using a little sulfur, adding water, etc) to save the wine from heat, rain, rot, etc. In the course of Feiring’s many interviews with small ‘natural’ winemakers, many whispered in apologetic tones about how they had to add sulfur or risk losing the vintage … clearly feeling some shame in doing so.Feiring’s colorful story introduces the reader to vibrant, real-life characters such as famed winemakers Nicolas Joly and Eric Texier, as well as the small, dedicated, winemakers we may never meet or even hear of, such as American Matt Kling and Amy Lillard, who moved to the Rhone Valley after meeting at Kermit Lynch’s wine store in Berkeley. Definitely recommended for readers who enjoy learning more about winemakers, the art of making wine, and the intricacies of the natural wine movement.Naked Wine: Letting Grapes do What Comes Naturally, by Alice FeiringDa Capo Press $24ISBN 978-0-306 81953-7

About the Author

Marisa Dvari - Fine Wine Writer and International Wine Judge Marisa D’Vari publishes the exciting online wine magazine and writes for prestigious publications such as London’s Financial Times, Robb Report, and more. Visit and sign up for her complimentary monthly newsletter, where you'll learn "insider secrets" of getting the best wine for the least cost.

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