Robert Parker Goes Under the Feiring Squad


It's hard to read the title of Alice Feiring's new book without construing the work as a well-aimed character assassination on the world's most prolific wine critic, but she makes it fairly clear throughout that she is crusading against on an icon, and not the man himself. For a war-monger, Feiring writes charming prose, extolling the virtues of simple, natural wine-making, and exposing the cruel, technical methods that have robbed many wines of character. In parts, it reads like a Sinclair exposé of the horrors of modern viticulture, and in others, she reminisces over the fleeting loves of her life, be they vino or vir.
In The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, Feiring's travels and discussions with hundreds of wine-makers points to a truth that has been lodged into conventional wisdom for many years: much of today's wine production is geared for the palette of one man, Mr. Robert Parker. Throughout her travelers, Feiring was accustomed to being asked what Parker would think of a wine, whether she could arrange a visit, etc. Homogeneity is a standard when it comes to processed foods in America, but applied to something delicate and complex like wine, and you have a sacrilege. This is how Feiring sees it, anyway, and she tells tales of reverse osmosis, drip irrigation, genetically modified yeast, and poisonous fertilizer, all incorporated and engineered to cut costs and please the Parker palate.

As for Feiring's remedy to the whole mess, it is simple, reasonable, and fair: veritas in vino. She doesn't suggest the banishment of highly technical practices in wine-making, on which the Californian, Australian, and increasingly European wine industries may be highly reliant. What she demands is clear print on the bottle: what techniques were used? what kind of yeast? were there actual grapes involved? I personally support the move for openness; more data for us to get our Snoothy hands on!

For voicing a dissenting opinion and advocating natural wine-making, the likes of Matthew DeBord have branded Feiring a “Terroir Jihadist”: a fear-mongering, post-9/11 pejorative offensive to anyone with half a sense for decency and rational thought. She believes that many modern techniques rob a wine of its essence, the natural characteristics of which the earth expresses itself. In expressing this belief, she has come out against much of the California industry, and in doing so, garnered some rather serious enemies. This is an indication of success by some accounts.

In rattling the Parker cage, Feiring may have gone too far. She recognizes that Parker holds a great power in his hands, and in one of the final chapters, she considers him a victim of his own toasty machinations, a man who has unwittingly become a symbol, and now must take responsibility for his influence on the world of wine. She could have made that idea clearer in the title; it was reported that Parker considered this book a “disgrace”, and refuses to comment on it. He further suggested (hoped) that Feiring would “fall into obscurity.” For the world's most powerful critic, his skin isn't very thick.

Perhaps Parker would take solace in the fact that Feiring thought of him as her own personal “Moses,” and had a great potential for winning her admiration, if only he would accept the burden of great power. The fact is, both of these individuals are in the wine profession because they are passionate about the product, and a healthy dialog between the two would be good for those of us who prefer great wine to mediocre drama.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 6,476

    Good review, thanks. I want to read the book to hear about these insidious winemaking processes alone.

    “…incorporated and engineered to cut costs and please the Parker palate.”

    Those are two extremely different (and disparate, I think) goals! Hmm… how to disconnect the wine industry from Parker's palate? Sorry, Feiring, I don't think clearly labeled bottles help that problem.

    Jun 30, 2008 at 3:39 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Carpita
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    33093 5,532

    @Mark: the goals aren't disparate: cutting expenses and increasing revenue both drive up profit. Certain techniques, such as the use of added yeast, may accomplish both goals simultaneously.

    Truth-in-bottling won't de-couple the industry from Parker, but it will add a social cost to mechanization. People should know what they're drinking. As a benefit, Parker might think twice about giving 90+ to a bottle with scary stuff written on it.

    Jun 30, 2008 at 3:52 AM

  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 6,476

    Added yeast means increased alcohol content and a bigger wine, right? Is that a cost cutting measure? How are they genetically modifying the stuff?

    Agreed, increased profit is the link between the goals. But cost cutting measures are tangible gains. Making a more Parkerish wine carries no guarantee that he will drink, review, or even like it.

    I think people should always know what they're drinking and eating, but unfortunately you'll find most produce these days is genetically modified (even if it's only to remove its reproductive capabilities), pesticides and fungicides abound, and technology is employed up and down the supply chain.

    It can't be as simple as slamming technology — some techniques are very good for the winery and don't negatively impact the wine at all other than making it slightly less romantic (mentioning use of the gyropalette I posted about a while back, for example, would scare people unnecessarily). Maybe I need to read the book to get more specifics, but I'm pretty sure it's no worse than what happens to our food…

    Jun 30, 2008 at 4:08 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Carpita
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    33093 5,532

    @Mark: I should really hand you the book. We're talking about designer yeast here: special breeds of yeast that are added to wine to impart certain flavors, such as banana. A lot of what makes a wine particular to a certain region is the local yeast genetics.

    And the Parkerishness of wines are closely related to sales, should he choose to review them: 90+ sell big, the rest not so well. Feiring interviewed many, many wine-makers who harbored this perception, and that has a huge effect on their production technique, regardless of whether they are actually reviewed by the Advocate in the end.

    Feiring is careful not to slam technology across the board, but she is very cautious of the way it is used to homogenize the process. You are right in saying that it is “no worse than what happens to our food.” But do we want wine to go the way of Pringles? It's not just romanticism, it's diversity.

    Jun 30, 2008 at 4:18 AM

  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 6,476

    I see. This is a big issue for our little industry, and definitely worth discussing. I simply wish Feiring would provide us with something more we could use to try and combat this. She's ostensibly an expert on this topic.

    The problem here is not Parker, it is that people don't know where to turn for their recommendations, so they turn to Parker. I think this is what we're trying to fix here at Snooth. If we successfully democratize the process of wine reviewing and put it in everyone's hands to collectively decide what's good, there is no longer any one palate to please.

    And perhaps this will be controversial, but I have a hard time demonizing Parker. He's only doing his job and his wild success has some knock-on effects that the rest of us can recognize as detrimental. I wouldn't expect him to pack up shop and go home on his own — so it's up to the rest of us!

    Jun 30, 2008 at 6:26 AM

  • Snooth User: hipergas
    Hand of Snooth
    74309 230

    Beware of the “native yeast” propaganda my friends.
    There are many strains that may live in the vineyard and most get there on truck wheels and soles of vineyard workers coming from the wineries. So the winery “seeds” the vineyard with whichever yeasts live there.
    Unfortuntely there is no deep relationship between the vines, the terroir and the type of yeast that live on your grapes, and often the native yeast make for a crappy wine, stuck fermentations and off aromas. “True” wine, some might say. You taste it and tell me how much you appreciate “truth” in wine in those cases where things went wrong.

    Some vineyards have a blessed situation and are populated with colonies that work magic on those grapes and many wineries choose to go natural. Other wineries can't rely on native yeast to produce large quantities of consistently simple, clean wines which consumers buy in massive quantities and wine writers sneer at.

    Genetically engineering a yeast to synthetise more of this or that aroma may be super high tech (and it has the scary “genetically modify” moniker in the title!), but:
    -drying grapes in the sun (like amarone)
    -toasting a barrel (or oak chips) to a certain toasting profile to release these or those aromas
    -adding brandy and or sugar to adjust a sparkling (dosage)
    -reducing tannins through fining with egg whites, gelatin or fish guts
    -reducing alcohol
    -big, long etc.
    …are all common practices in winemaking. The winemaker chooses which one suits their needs and their philosophical position regarding winemaking.
    Most of the time, the consumer doesn't know half of what's being done to the wine they drink, and that doesn't change the way they like the wine blind tasted. Ever walked into a kitchen in a restaurnat you wish you hadn't seen?

    It is a philosophical discussion at heart, the matter being “enhancements”. I am taking this to a new post, to not clutter this post about the book.
    Ooof! Thanks for reading.

    Jun 30, 2008 at 8:00 AM

  • Snooth User: hipergas
    Hand of Snooth
    74309 230

    From the winery side of the issue, consumers often overtestimate how much they care about some intrinsic elements in the products they buy. Proof: people everyday buy at WalMart products they know are in many cases low quality, made in China (bad labor conditions, trade imbalance) and made with little or no respect for the environment. All of that and consumers in the US still don't rally behind alternatives to this with their everyday dollar spending.
    Oh, they will buy their “fair trade certified” coffee, but that's just because a smart brand (Starbucks) has been voluntarily facing the issue and doing something about it.

    In the end, consumers as a group do NOT accept to pay a large premium for organic or biodynamic wine. It's the sad thruth for the producers who put in all the effort and cannot carry a serious premium. They can be proud of what they do, but not make extra dollars.

    The organic labeling requirements in the US are pretty strict (though far from perfect). One of the biggest stupidities in the rules is that they limit the amount of added SO2 that can be added to the wine.
    This makes US organic wine somewhat sketchy and wineries that farm organic still don't push to go “organic” on their winemaking and on the label because of the reputation and because very few winemakers that want to age their wines in oak barrels will go without any SO2 additions (”sulfites” for noobs). It is very dangerous and a gamble that doesn't pay good odds.

    Why can't I write shorter posts?

    Jul 01, 2008 at 1:53 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Carpita
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    33093 5,532

    But a premium does exist, right? Everything organic I see in the supermarket costs 50-100% more. Are you saying this specifically doesn't apply to wine?

    Jul 01, 2008 at 1:59 AM

  • Snooth User: hipergas
    Hand of Snooth
    74309 230

    Check it out yourself: organic wines do not carry an inherent premium the same way produce does.

    Jul 01, 2008 at 3:37 AM

  • Snooth User: Chris Carpita
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    33093 5,532

    To respond with something from the book, Feiring was talking to one of the Loire growers who was really adamant about biodynamics, and lamenting that people liked artificial flavors and spoofed wines, and her friend Skinny replied, “Is that such a problem?…There are limited resources for natural wine; there is not a whole lot of it around. More for the people who care about it?”

    Not everyone can afford organic, natural products, and I think it's good that we have mass-produced consumer goods; it raises the quality of life. I think what gets Alice “Feired” up is when spoofulated wine is passed off as perfectly natural or rustic, when in fact there were oak chips tea-bagged into the fermenters.

    You can't put everything on the label, but a strict standard for earning the USDA “Organic” or “Natural” label would allow the luddites to have their natural wine that they adore, and I'm sure they're willing to pay a good premium. In fact, there are some natural winemakers who manage to pull it off and produce good wines at low cost.

    Jul 01, 2008 at 10:44 AM

  • Snooth User: oceank8
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    55708 2,029

    I am reading this book right now and am half way through, so maybe I can't say much, but I feel I can talk about some of it. I don't agree with Alice in a lot of things she feels, but understand where she is coming from. I don't think she dislikes Parker, I think she dislikes how everyone responds to him, but maybe not the best title for her book if she didn't want to tick people off.

    Alice likes the “natural” wines and she has sought them out. She readily admits that these tend to be the wines that others do not like. This all seems fair to me. The only times I have been angered by her book is when she specifically puts certain wines down, like California and Australian wines and Yellow Tail specifically.

    On the other side, many of you are talking about these “altered” wines that she doesn't like. I was very surprised by what things are done to wines. I found this to be very interesting. Doesn't mean I am going to change what I drink, but I think most of us on this site like learning more about wine and I feel this book teaches a lot.

    I don't recommend the book to people that aren't interested in the making of wines and how they get to be what they are; but I do recommend it to those that want to learn more. Try to let go of any anger about the fact that Alice doesn't like the wines that so many of us drink and just enjoy the story of her travels, that is what I have had to do. It is also a really quick read, so no worries if you don't like it, it didn't take up much of your time.

    Jul 05, 2008 at 1:20 AM

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