In the latest installment in our Book Club series, we spoke to Alice Feiring about her new book, Natural Wine for the People (Ten Speed Press, 2019), a compact illustrated guide to natural wine. While this category is becoming enormously popular, especially in the U.S., there is still a lot of confusion about what exactly natural wine is, where to find it and how to enjoy it. This easy-to-understand primer sets the record straight.
Feiring is the author of four other books, including For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture, which was the subject of a previous CB Book Club Q&A. A prominent figure in the natural wine movement, she also publishes the natural wine newsletter The Feiring Line, has written for numerous publications and received a James Beard Award for her writing.
Why did you decide to write a handbook for natural wine?
As natural kept on getting more and more popular, many misconceptions were proliferating: Wine shops were getting requests for “cloudy wines,” or “funky” or “messed-up,” as if these were actual wine styles. And after spending decades explaining the genre and protecting it, in a way, I realized there needed to be a concise, fact- and history-based, fun guide for people to read and reference.
As you write in the introduction, what is “natural” is debated and challenged. Do you see any common misconceptions about the definition of natural wine?
While I think the most natural word to describe the wines is ‘natural,’ people are still confused by it. Perhaps this is because for the longest time people believed that nothing could be more ‘natural’ than wine and didn’t know about the 72+ ingredients that could be used or the processing (at times highly unnatural) that could be employed.
Also, most still assume that ‘natural’ means organic, or that an organic wine is natural – not. Organic is the start, yes, but an organic wine can have any additive (except sulfur) that is organically based or made with organic ingredients. It will take a little more time to spread the word that, simply speaking, natural wine means starting with organic farming and then making the wine with nothing added or taken away, with one simple ingredient, grape. But we’ll get there.
Why do you think natural wines are becoming more popular and mainstream, particularly in the United States, at this moment?
In short, it’s due to timing, and Instagram.
The natural wine movement started in the late 70s, rapidly picked up momentum and has gained ground since 2010. Then Instagram came about and the category blew up. The picture swapping and hashtags made it easy for the word to spread about bottles. Marketers started to use the platform to promote their wines, and there was accidental and purposeful, albeit guerilla, advertising.
But people were very much emotionally and aesthetically ready for [natural wines]. Flavor-wise, a new generation was bred on craft beer. They were prepped to embrace some of the wilder, outside-of-the-box flavors that had been removed from wine over the past decades such as the sheepiness of Brett [Brettanomyces is a kind of yeast that is often used to ferment beer] or the nail polish remover-like volatility acidity [certain acids that, while present in all wines, are more pronounced in natural wines], for example. They were tired of the oak and the predictability of wine. They also resonated with the more direct connection to nature. I always quote the late Baldo Cappellano who said, “The more there’s fake, the more we need real.” And boy, were they ready for something real, real wine from real people. The wines resonated with the way they ate, organic and not messed with. So you had a perfect storm.
Climate change is bringing new challenges to winemaking. Do you think natural wine is more environmentally friendly?
Natural farming, not natural wine. One of the biggest trends in natural farming is natural or no till, which allows for absorption of Co2 and regenerates the soil. Also, natural winemakers are more open to the concept of doing the least for the biggest impact. This can mean that they are more likely to grow grapes in areas where they can grow more easily – and more easily grow organically – instead of choosing a grape for its commercial properties that might need chemical heroics to grow it.
A recent New Yorker article about orange wine claimed that they are “wines to suffer through.” What do you make of the backlash against orange wines/natural wines? Is this a new development or has it always been around?
Oh, that article. It’s hard to assimilate how that ever saw its way to print. You know the first time I had bitter melon I hated it, the second time I couldn’t get enough of it. So, the first time he had a skin-contact wine (a white wine made like a red so it has tannins and is also less ‘fruity’), he reacted like a child who only wanted to eat white foods and cried if an asparagus landed on his plate. It was shocking that he was allowed to write that without realizing it’s not a fad but a traditional form of winemaking that has gone on for 8,000 years and, for that reason alone, deserved more respect even if he didn’t have the palate for it.
You have a section in the book about how to be a natural wine tourist. What advice would you give someone who is going to Georgia and hoping to drink some natural wine?
Go to Vino Underground or g.vino and drink. Find the winemakers you love, and then ask the proprietor [of the shop] for help. You will need help. Most Georgian winemakers don’t have modern facilities in which to receive guests. Many of them don’t speak English.
If you had one piece of advice for someone looking to get into natural wine, what would it be?
Like any wine, taste as much as you can. Identify your preferences, which wines you are drawn to. Keep an open mind. Understand that natural wines come in all shapes and sizes, from fuller and higher in alcohol to low alcohol and easy to quench thirst. Understand that natural can be a wild ride or an elegant glass.
Click here to purchase your copy of “Natural Wine for the People” (Ten Speed Press, 2019), out now.