Book Review: Alice Feiring’s For The Love Of Wine

30 January 2019

Image courtesy of Amazon

I felt sad when I finished reading “For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture.” Sad and frustrated. I’d purchased the book to help me prepare for my trip to the Republic of Georgia last year. Published in 2016, it’s on many people’s suggested reading lists, and it’s still the first search result if you Google “Georgian wine book.” For the moment, “For the Love of Wine” seems to be the most important English-language book about the wines of Georgia.

When I read a wine-travelogue, I want two things. First, I want lots of good information about a place’s wine, culture and history, related in a readable way. Second, I want to wish that I had been traveling along with the writer, living vicariously through her experiences. “For the Love of Wine” provides the first, certainly, and most certainly not the second.

I agree with much of what she wrote about Georgian wine, and wine in general. The country’s wine is special, made from an array of unique indigenous grapes vinified using techniques that can be traced with startling directness back to the Neolithic era. Clay vessels that held wine some 8,000 years ago bear a striking resemblance to traditional Georgian qvevri, amphorae-like containers used to ferment wine to this day. And it really would be a shame if that heritage were to be cast aside in favor of more standard winegrowing and winemaking techniques.

What’s sad is that I found myself wanting to disagree with Feiring at every turn, because she has such a moralizing and combative tone. I very much enjoy the natural wines of Georgia as well as those from other countries, and there’s a case to be made that natural wines — made organically and with minimal intervention in the winery — deserve more attention and support. But for Feiring, natural wine is good and conventional wine is bad, full stop. The (conventional) wines of France are “weak,” for example, but the natural wines of Georgia are strong, wild, complex and full of emotion. I don’t trust a wine writer who dismisses 98-99% of the wines on the market (estimates suggest natural wines represent 2% or less of wines on the shelves).

Her uncompromising views unfortunately spill out into her interpersonal relations, and her descriptions of the interactions were painful for me to read. One young man she meets, for example, expresses a desire to make conventional wines. She proceeds to shame him:

“You just want it cushy,” I chided him, and he good-naturedly laughed. “You can get a job with a big factory, but would you be able to sleep well at night knowing you were making wine you didn’t really want to drink? Wouldn’t you rather make wine like Kakha’s?”

He may have laughed good-naturedly, but I suspect he didn’t enjoy the conversation. Feiring claims to be an old lefty, yet she doesn’t seem to grasp how unpleasant poverty can be. She describes herself as “a writer with poverty always at the door,” but she has an apartment in Manhattan. It hardly seems fair to expect this young Georgian gentleman to follow a traditional agrarian life if he prefers to do otherwise, in order that Feiring can get the kind of wine she prefers to drink while living in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Unfairness becomes hypocrisy when a winemaker complains that he has trouble finding people willing to clean his qvevris. Feiring, who criticizes Georgia’s young winemakers more than once for wanting it “cushy,” does not put her money where her mouth is and volunteer to help. Instead, she nominates her traveling companion: “‘Here he is; here’s your guy,’ I said, offering up Jeremy for the task.” It’s difficult to empathize with Feiring’s judgmental attitude towards those unwilling to clean qvevri when she never does the dirty work herself.

Feiring shames other Georgians over the course of her travels as well. In this example, she shames a winemaker for not giving his wife some qvevri in which to make her own wine:

“And where’s Marina’s qvevri?” I asked, eager to see the continuation of his wife Marina’s wine. Iago looked hangdog. “But why!” I gasped. It seemed incomprehensible. The wine was so very good. It was so important for women to be seen in the wine world, as it can in truth get to be too much of a boys’ club. “There was no room; I needed all the qvevris this year,” Iago explained. “Marina and Téa didn’t get their qvevri?” I repeated. I mean, how could he? The doting husband Iago? How could he not take care of his wife? I was crushed. He looked crestfallen.

Of course he looked crestfallen. In this situation, Feiring exhibited no empathy towards Iago. All that mattered were her own feelings about the subject. Feiring admits in the book that her emotions are “too raw and intense for [her] own good.” She writes how she often feels “…too emotional to live in the real world, but in Georgia everyone seemed like a mythical human who felt first and thought later. [She] felt at home.”

But the problem is not emotions that are too intense. Everyone has feelings, often strong ones. The trick is to express one’s feelings, however strong they may be, in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way. It’s not easy for most of us, but it’s possible, and it’s necessary.

I’m calling out Feiring’s behavior because she, like all travelers, is an ambassador. I want representatives of America, and more specifically of American wine writers, to represent their constituencies well. It helps future travelers. On the other side of the coin, I also want the wonderful wines of Georgia to have the ambassador that they deserve.

Image courtesy of Amazon

In addition, I want wine and travel writing that is clear and well-crafted. When Feiring writes, “Soon he would add a veritable tasting room as well,” does she mean that it’s a true tasting room? Or not quite a real tasting room? I also felt confused when Feiring “took a cup of nubile juice from him” and when she described “hunting down nubile, home winemaking talent.” Was the juice sexually attractive? Is sexiness what they’re really looking for in a winemaker? But Feiring left absolutely no doubt about a certain local baked good: “There was bagel-like bread that immediately made me think of bagels…” Got it. Bagel.

Finally, Feiring’s economic analysis leaves something to be desired. She writes, “It was then that everything crystallized for me: communism under the Russians and modern-day capitalism were twins separated at birth. Neither fostered or celebrated the individual.” It escapes her notice that the free market, specifically the market’s demand for the supply of Georgia’s unique wines, is precisely what has allowed there to be a renaissance of traditional Georgian winemaking. As a utopian ideology, communism allows only its ideal: proletariat-run factories making wine for the proletariat. Capitalism is non-utopian, which means the system has room for factories and small family-run wineries alike. Communism destroyed the Georgian economy and its wine industry, impoverishing the nation and prioritizing wine quantity over quality. Capitalism has started to bring wealth back to Georgia, and it has thus far encouraged individual winemakers to excel.

It’s so frustrating to read Feiring’s book, because so much of it is fascinating and heartfelt. She relates some incredible experiences, and her love for Georgian wine and culture is palpable. It should be an inspiring work, a paean to the joys of natural wine and feasting with friends and family. But “For the Love of Wine” left a bad taste in my mouth.

If you’re looking for a book about Georgian food and wine — and I highly recommend looking for a book about Georgian food and wine — consider instead Carla Capalbo’s lavishly photographed “Tasting Georgia: A Food and Wine Journey in the Caucasus.” It’s more of a cookbook with additional essays, whereas “For the Love of Wine” is more of a wine/travel book with additional recipes. Even so, it contains excellent, concise information about Georgian wine and cuisine.

Join The Gin & Tonic Revolution!

14 January 2019

A cocktail as basic and familiar as the Gin & Tonic might seem an inappropriate topic for a blog about drinking the unusual and the obscure. But there’s been something of a Gin & Tonic revolution in recent years. I first became aware of it only last summer, when I visited London, and I was reminded of it here, in southern Africa, where a Gin & Tonic is mandatory at sunset.

Distilleries now create all manner of delicious gins made from an array of different botanicals, far beyond simple juniper and spruce. You might encounter rose or lavender notes, green or pink peppercorn, or herbaceous flavors like rosemary or sage. I wrote some time ago about a New Mexico gin, for example, flavored with cholla cactus blossoms, cascade hops, white desert sage and osha root, all sourced from within a 30-mile radius. Creative distillers are experimenting with all sorts of wonderful aromatic combinations.

There has been a similar explosion in fancy tonic waters, ranging from relatively sweet and easy-drinking to bone-dry to floral to bitter. Tonics like Fentimans, Fever Tree, Q Tonic and Jeffrey’s, to name just a few, all have their partisans. And goodness, they can be rather expensive, costing almost as much, per liter, as cheap gin. Fortunately, Schweppes still makes a perfectly respectable mixer with gin.

Gin & Tonic menu from The Enterprise in London

Both in London and near Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls, I’ve seen menus offering a variety of combinations of gins and tonics, garnished with a range of citrus peels and other aromatics.

It turns out that a simple Gin & Tonic can get rather complicated! That gave me an idea for a party.

What fun it would be, to set out a number of different gins, tonics and garnishes, and have a little contest to see which guest could come up with the best combination!

I recommend having three to five different gins — perhaps avoiding the most obvious brands — depending on the size of the group, and a similar number of tonics.

The more “artisanal” gins often list the botanicals used, making it relatively easy to assemble gins with different characters. A good liquor store should have plenty to choose from on the shelf. Binny’s in Chicago, for example, has dozens from which to choose. I also count seven tonic brands.

The author, photographing wildlife with the aid of a G&T

Also be sure to provide an array of garnishes. I suggest some fresh herbs, like rosemary, basil and sage, as well as the zests of orange, grapefruit, lemon and lime. Gin & Tonic may seem like a summer beverage, but now is citrus season. In addition to the obvious fruits, you might be able to get your hands on some Meyer lemons, blood oranges, pink lemons or even Buddha’s hands.

The garnish is important, because its aroma and oils mingle with the botanicals of the gin, changing the experience of the drink. It’s not just for show in this case.

Have fun experimenting, and if you hit on a combination that you love, I would love to hear about it!

Three Great Wine Questions

29 December 2018

Instead of shooting Name That Wine episodes about whatever we felt like, as was long our habit, we decided to find out what our viewers wanted to know. What were the questions about wine they were burning to know the answers to?

We shot short videos answering three questions that we loved and that suited the season, regarding rosé in winter, bringing wine to a party and choosing the perfect wine with the help of an app. Liz and I give our well-considered (if perhaps not entirely sober) advice.

Look for more Viewer Question episodes soon, with our thoughts about things like wine and migraines, and how to decipher wine labels. In the meantime, we tackle these three topics:

“Rosé is for summer only?”

“When you want to bring wine as a gift for the host but don’t know if they prefer red/white/sparkling, what are some great go-to’s?”

“Total novice stands in wine section of market. (Costco or Trader Joe’s, let’s say.) iPhone in hand. What internet site will help me choose well? Um. Asking for a friend.”

Do YOU have a wine question you would like us to answer in an upcoming episode of Name That Wine? Send it to us! You can click on one of the videos above and write it in the comments section, or send it via email to contact@oddbacchus.com.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

What To Buy The Wine Geek For Christmas

16 December 2018

Sparkling wine is always a welcome gift. I recently fell in love with this Keush Origins Brut from Armenia that I found at In Fine Spirits

I once held a party for a milestone birthday, and in contrast to the current fashion for “presence is present enough,” I requested actual presents. I had just started this blog, and I wanted some unusual wines. But I knew people needed a little more guidance than that. So I was very specific.

I said to please go into a wine shop, go up to a clerk and tell them exactly this: “Hello. I have a friend who writes a blog about unusual wines, and he has a birthday. He asked me to come into a wine shop, and ask an employee to help me find an unusual wine that costs $15 or less. Could you help me pick something out that he’ll like?”

It sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet only perhaps two or three people actually did what I requested. The rest quailed in apparent terror at the thought of going to a wine shop and speaking with someone, and so they brought vodka or wine-themed napkins or, in one case, a corkscrew.

A corkscrew? Are you f’ing kidding me? I have a wine blog. What do you think I’ve been using to open the bottles I’ve been reviewing? My teeth?

I mentioned this story recently to a therapist friend of mine, and bursting into laughter, she exclaimed, “No one is ever going to buy you wine!” But why, I asked, since that’s the only thing I requested, and I told people exactly what to do? “Ha ha! It doesn’t matter! They’re afraid they’ll get it wrong, and then you’ll judge them and shame them.” Oh dear.

Of course. I was bumping up against the deathless stereotype of the obnoxious French sommelier who looks down on anyone who doesn’t know their Yellow Tail from their Yquem. Many civilians (non-wine geeks) seem to think that anyone passionate about the nitty-gritty of wine might be like that horrible person. And certainly, I’ve met the occasional blowhard at the Wine Bloggers Conference — sorry, Wine Media Conference — that is more interested in tooting his own vinous horn (it’s almost always a him) than in connecting with his fellow wine writers. That attitude comes from a place of fear and lack of self-esteem (see here for more on that). Remember that fact, should you ever encounter this unfortunate sort of person.

Few wine geeks I know, however, resemble anything like that archetypal French sommelier. We’re just people passionately interested in wine, and we want to try lots of new, delicious bottlings.

I have enough corkscrews.

So let’s make a deal. Because wine geeks are, in fact, ridiculously easy to shop for. We just want wine. Not wine accessories, not wine-themed merchandise… just wine.

Here’s how to pick out the perfect wine:

Go to a wine shop — not a grocery store — find an employee, and say something like the following: “Hi, I’m shopping for my friend who loves wine, and he/she is especially interested in _________. I’d like to spend about _______. Do you have anything like that?”

I understand that it’s scary — it must be, judging by what happened at that birthday party — but 99.9% of wine shop employees and owners will love to hear you say something like that, because it makes you easy to help. It’s in their interest to be friendly, rather than judgmental. (Though, of course, you do occasionally get a bad apple.) Don’t worry if your budget isn’t very high. Most wine shops carry bottles at a wide range of prices. In Fine Spirits, one of my favorite wine shops in Chicago, has some perfectly lovely bottles for around $10. And if you’re not willing to spend that on your friend, perhaps you shouldn’t bother getting them a gift at all.

If you don’t know what kind of wine your friend enjoys, ask their significant other, or if that doesn’t work, just get some sparkling wine. Almost everyone likes sparkling wine. If your friend doesn’t, feel free to tell them that Odd Bacchus thinks they’re weird.

And wine geeks! Your part of the bargain is that you will not, under any circumstances, make judgmental noises about a wine that someone has given you. Even if someone gives you something rather less than exciting, you can always turn it into sangria or, if the season is right, Feuerzangenbowle. If we want people to be unafraid to give us wine, we have to make it safe for people to do so. If we act judgmental about a wine gift, verbally or non-verbally, we’re telling the person who gave us the wine that they did something wrong, and being told you’re wrong feels terrible. Wine, it’s easy for us to forget, is kind of scary for a lot of people. That fear is irrational, yes, but it’s real nevertheless.

So do we all have a deal?

Merry Christmas, everyone! Here’s my Christmas list: Wine. Happy shopping!

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