Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Alice in lala land.

My friends (well, Jill and Bob anyway) knows that I have been particularly upset by the choice of Alice Feiring as the new wine writer for the LA Times and I just feel like its time for me to write my opinions about it. 

After her celebrity appearance at the Wine Bloggers Conference (which I missed, but was informed about by a friend) I want to comment not only on her personal beliefs, but more specifically on her recent blog post for the NY Times, which you can read here.  

As the wife of a winemaker I find her presumptions to be overly romantic and misleading with little insight into what it really takes to make a good stable wine, and for that matter a wine under $10, which 90% of wine consumers in the WORLD see as their price point of choice. I also feel like she's continually spewing the notion of California bad, France good and its so misleading to the consumer. Yes, we all would like lower alcohol wines, so drink lower alcohol wines. But allow room for all types and styles of wine to exist. Her closed mindedness is baffling. 

The first quote which left me SPEECHLESS - literally - was as follows:

When I was in France, I picked alongside a seasonal mix of students, housewives and retirees, each assigned to his or her own row, and the others were all very eager to show me how to best pick out the rot and how to pick perfect bunches. We were all in it together. But the California picking crew was a team hired by the vineyard manager... I picked grapes, and when I was done I felt practically nothing in my muscles, and no sense of the effort in my back. My picking experience, instead of being meaningful, had been laughable.

(and from her blog the day prior comes this quote) It was difficult not to reflect on the difference between working on a small vineyard in the Loire and a small one in Dry Creek. No snacks of coffee, cookies and wine would appear. Instead of a man with a conical pack on his back collecting grapes, the vineyard manager followed us in his tractor. The vines, higher off the ground, made the whole task less of a physical workout. The pickers used hooked knives and worked rapidly, while I worked slowly with a small shear, a secateur, as I had at Clos Roche Blanche in the Loire.

I don’t mean to romanticize the picking on a small estate in Europe, but I did quickly see that the work here wasn’t an emotional experience; it was business. The workers picked everything. I preferred to select each bunch to make sure the grapes were perfect. Sure, it was slower, but I liked the idea of preselecting in the vineyard.

A "picking crew" is not an evil entity, it's not a sterile random choice of people that just enter the vineyard and work and leave. These are men and women who frequently work the same vineyard year in and year out and are PROFESSIONALS at what they do. They prune during the winter, replant what needs to be replanted in the spring, help with canopy management in the summer and may even help sort grapes during the day after picking. They get up at the crack of dawn or before and work long hard hours. Desiring aching muscles is a romantic notion that quite frankly insults the workers. Many of them are family or extended families and this is their life and their livelihood and its a hard life. They pick according to the philosophy and budget of the wine program and both of those things are very very important. It's the job of the vineyard manager to pick the people who are capable of doing what's required. 

Why should they embrace a woman whose only claim to the wine world is that she wrote a book about Robert Parker with NOTIONS that threaten their jobs??? 

As for the luxury of being slow and eating cookies in the vineyard, it seems that Alice has no concept of BUDGET and time. Picking slowly and languidly means losing money and it means that the day is getting hotter. No quality conscious producer wants hot grapes coming into their winery. AND wine production IS a business. One that Alice has no stake in. She makes her money from writing, not from production, it would be nice for once to see her understand that this is a way of life and indeed it is  a business. Winemakers, vineyard managers, vineyard workers and cellar rats need to make money, pay their mortgages, put food on the table, send their kids to college, not just loiter in the vineyard all day staring at the sunrise. 

And, one last comment about this, the vines are higher off the ground, because its DRY CREEK not the LOIRE VALLEY!! In the Loire it's colder and they need the vines close to the ground in order to reflect heat back onto the grapes. It's a bonus for the workers that they don't go home with sore backs every night. 

My great winemaking adventure was little better than working at one of those custom crush facilities...

Custom crush facilities are not an evil entity. Not everyone can be a wealthy Napa Valley winemaker who can build a multi-million dollar facility for making wine. There are young people who want to get involved in wine who cannot yet afford a winemaking space and custom crush facilities provide a way for people to get involved without a huge capitol outlay. Peter and I used one for elevage of our Oregon Pinot. It's 12% alcohol, was farmed organically, with only 20ppm of SO2 added before bottling and we only made 220 cases. Just the sort of wine that Alice advocates, BUT we do not own the vineyards where the grapes were sourced and cannot afford our own space at the moment. So should we not produce the wine because we don't have a home or a wine making facility on a sweeping vineyard landscape? Keeping the wine at West Gate allows us to sell the wine at a reasonable price, which is becoming increasing rare for domestic Pinot Noir. We can't all sell $45 wholesale Pinot Noir. Not everyone has the resources or the desire to consume at that price point.

On the other hand, there was no doubt that I was having an impact. I had been joking that I was going to have influence on the winemaking world, one winemaker at a time. Maybe I was starting here. 

Having an impact? On what I don't know. On my belief that the LA Times can produce a reputable wine writer for sure. The lower alcohol, organic, low SO2 movement started long before Alice Feiring and her rant against Parker came on the scene. Like Chardonnay with tons of new oak, the high alcohol trend has been swinging in the opposite direction for all sizes and styles of wines. Everyone is doing their best to compete in this terrible economic time in an overly saturated wine market. There are many different types of consumers and there is room for all types of wine. Homogeny is what most of us lash out against, so let's allow room for high alcohol and lower alcohol wines, fruity wines and earthy wines. 

And, one last thing, if I can please say something about SO2, another evil entity in Alice's eyes. It's an incredibly important component in winemaking. The discovery of SO2 and its uses caused a revolution in the wine world. Stability is important!!!!! Using less SO2 means knowing the alternatives inside out. You must be vigilant in managing oxygen exposure, topping up barrels, keeping wine under 60F and free from microbial contamination. I don't mean SO2 should be dumped in without thought, I mean that this is a really important decision to make and not using it requires a lot of care. 

So that's my rant. I took an hour and a half from my MW studies this morning to write this. It was that important for me to finally say SOMETHING PUBLICLY. I was actually was going to have a stroke, as my friend Bob put it, if I didn't get this out there.  

For my friends who worship Alice, well... I welcome your comments. 


Anonymous said...


Very well put. The vineyard and winemaking issues you mention are "real." We can only hope in the future that Ms. Feiring will take the time (other than the coffee breaks in the vineyard) to add some depth and diversity to what she decides to write about. I was also at the blogger's conference and was very disenchanted(as were many other attendees) at Ms. Feiring's superficial and narrow thoughts of the wine world.

Thanks for voicing your opinion.

Finn Anson said...

Dear Amy,

I applaud your taking time out from studies to highlight a frankly disturbing and annoying situation that unfortunately affects many of our pseudo illuminati within the wine world.
That said I would rather, and do, read your blog almost daily to maintain a healthy understanding of the wine world.
So here's to you!!!!
Love to you both

Jeff Zimmitti said...

Why can't the old world be more romantic? They have older stuff and they have been doing it longer?

Stirring the pot...

Finn Anson said...

Having worked for many years in vineyards throughout France and having assisted at differents stages in other parts of the world, I am not certain that confining 'romanticism' to one particular country (or set of countries) holds any point whatever.
France at present, in the viticultural domain, is living anything but a romantic ideal with small holdings fading in droves and viticultural workers doing their utmost to face up to a struggling economy. Idem Italy and Spain.
However, should one wish to garb oneself with a shawl of romanticism I certainly believe that consistency is a good thing and the ridiculously named 'new world' environments hold some of the finest poetic and romantic essence that I ,for one, have ever seen!!!

Amy said...

Finn, I love your Irish / French passion - well said! Are you back in Bordeaux????

And as for Joey Bag-o-Donuts - you know we both love that 15% alcohol wine from the Sierra Foothills!!

Anonymous said...

They serve cookies in French vineyards?

Amy said...

I know, right? cookies??? I laughed out loud at that one. This isn't Romper Room... I mean this blog is, but the vineyard isn't.

Anonymous said...

Amy. Great job with creating a clear perspective for this silly woman. I believe you have displayed Knowledge, Understanding and perhaps a little agility here. I can't wait to see you pass the exam. You put Finn and I to shame!


Alice said...

Hello Amy, a thoughtful response to my postings but It reminds me of selective reviews for misrepresentation.

Nothing of what you said is actually wrong, but the emotion and value and opinions and reflections you assign to the writer are extremely inaccurate.

It might help if you put aside reasons to be angry with me, stop looking for proof to support your platform, whatever that is, and actually read. For example, there was a sentence of too not were I stated that if I really picked, I would be taking the pickers money? As it turns out, all my fruit when into their basket so they were quite happy about it. Free hep. And they were lovely to me. I just really don't like the picking by the pound instead of the hour concept. It breeds bad fruit.

There will be more reflections on my own site but I just did want to chime in for the record and thank you for reading.