December 03, 2008

Reading Feiring

I'm never too up on things here. Nevertheless, I just got through reading Alice Feiring's sort of recently published book, The Battle for Wine and Love. It's a damn good book, well worth reading even if you hear strong opinions to the contrary elsewhere. I took it on my recent Thanksgiving trip and it did what great wine writing does -- it made me thirsty. I also envied her writing ability. All the more reason for a drink.

People seem to have lots of opinions about Feiring. So much fuss for so petite a person. Her pen is razor sharp though, and that's part of the fun. Yet some people don't get the passion behind her writing. And some people can't help but take her words too personally. Easy for me to say, I'm obviously not mentioned. Maybe next time Alice? Actually, never mind. I'm good.

The book's subtitle is OR How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and it's essentially about Feiring's struggle to find the authentic wines she adores in a world she sees ruined by Parkerization. If you don't understand that, read the book to learn more. Suffice it to say that Parker's not a fan, and not only is she banned from participating on his onling wine discussion group, her last name will not even appear on the site. Write the words "Alice Feiring" in a post on the board and all you get is Alice.

Which is a fine name, nothing to be "saddled with" in my opinion, to use the author's phrase from the book. Would she prefer Tiffany or Jasmine?

But how weird is that? Her name is essentially against the law there. What would Woody Guthrie say about that?

Where this book really succeeds for me is the writing and the narrative. Feiring's writing is like the red wine she loves. Authentic to the source, translucent, fragrant, pure, acid at times but balanced and long, not in pages but thoughts and ideas. This book made me question assumptions I have about wine and winemaking, and even though I'm not in agreement with Feiring all the time, that's not the point. She writes it herself. She's looking for wines that have something to say. This book has that. You don't have to agree to get that.

The narrative is another high point. Again, like her favorite wines, it's all about texture, what I might compare to high thread count bed sheets. You can just feel the fabric, and you want to climb in and bury yourself. The story arcs and characters are wound and unwound brilliantly. The voice so clear. There's terrific irony and self-deprecation throughout the book, which some readers and reviewers seem to have missed. The book is tremendously funny. I actually laughed out loud repeatedly, no kidding.

To me though, if the book has a flaw, it's that all this wonderful writing leads us to a phone call with Parker. It's just not so interesting to me, maybe because I know the story well. And I wonder how interested non-wine geeks are by this point in the book. Of course, I read books about all sorts of things I couldn't really care less about (the race to the spice islands in Nathanial's Nutmeg, anyone?), but really good writing carries us far beyond our lack of past or future interest in the specifics. The Nutmeg was a delight.

Maybe I just don't have the gripe Feiring does with Parker, the weird name deletion thing aside. Even she shows mixed emotions about who he is as a person, referring to him as "a warm, personable man" on their first meeting. She later compares his to Moses (!), "wiser than other men." Her essential hope is that he be held to "a higher standard," to "embrace his power and use it for the good of the wine world." This is great stuff, true and funny and honest at once. Parker's not so bad. It's his influence. He might do something about it, but obviously he sees things differently.

Yes, the wine world has changed in the past twenty years. Yes, it's wise to, as Feiring suggests, "look to the grandfathers" if you want a taste of something authentic. Then again, thanks to people like "Big Joe" from the book, I have access to wines I never had even ten years ago. Things are complex. The world is closing and opening at once. You'll find yourself doing the same with this book.


Michelaccio said...

No question about it, it is a contentious book. Is it just dogma of another sort? Do we overlook shortcomings in arguments because the end result is closer to what we believe about wine? I'm not sure. But when the movie gets made I nominate Melanie Mayron to play A**** F******.

Vincent Fritzsche said...

I don't think Alice's argument is dogma. She has strong opinions and her communication style at one level suggests that she's right and, if you disagree, you're wrong. But the beauty of what she's communicating her, what's beyond the literal, is that she's not always right, that she's decidedly insecure, uncertain, and otherwise perfectly human. That's so much of what the book's about, the search for wine AND love. I think people either miss that or dismiss it because, you know, what's this love business doing in a wine book? The book's too vulnerable to be good dogma. So call it a good book but not good dogma. Rather, thought-provoking and, if you don't just read the incendiary stuff, much more complex and layered than dogmatic plonk ever is.

You made me look up Melanie Mayron. Could there be a passing resemblance to Woody Allen???