Alice Feiring is no stranger to controversy. Her debut memoir, “The Battle for Wine and Love: Or How I Saved the World From Parkerization” (Harcourt), hit Page Six three months before its release this month. The reason? Feiring’s taste for natural wine brought her up against the world’s leading critic, the bulldog-esque Robert M. Parker Jr., whose trademark 100-point scale and preference for concentrated, manipulated wines can make or break a vineyard. Yet in talking to the petite, soft-spoken, 50-ish redhead — who, over wine and tea in the Soho neighborhood of Manhattan, where she resides, will reveal only that she is “old enough to drink” — all one sees is a warm, free-spirited, former dance therapist who listened to her own palate and is not ashamed to write about it with humor, passion and chutzpah.
Her memoir is a classic David and Goliath story of Old World traditionalists fighting “sanitized” standardizations. Feiring is for independent, local and varied winemakers, not the corporate and homogenous movement. She prefers delicate and natural flavors, like “chicken soup and dill,” over Parker’s “jammy fruit bombs.” It
is a highly technical account (she calls it “geeky”), but it’s filled with such graceful descriptions — “soft tannins melted into the purity of baking bread and smoke and a touch of lime” — that it’s no surprise her first published work was a poem.
Feiring grew up in an Orthodox New York home on Long Island and was a reader of the Forverts. Her grandfather, Samuel, a moonshine maker, gave Feiring her first taste of Manischewitz and also passed down his strong sense of smell. A delicate palate seems to be part of Feiring’s DNA, so it’s no wonder she became a critic of wine and fine, although the latter isn’t easy: Feiring, who refers to herself as a “kosher pescotarian,” doesn’t eat meat or shellfish.
As a teenager, she attended a yeshiva day school on Long Island, where she said she was shy but not afraid to speak out against anything she thought was wrong. The Talmud influenced her reverence of debate. Asked if she sees a parallel in her Orthodox upbringing and her adoration of Old World wines, she jokingly refers to herself as having a “shtetl” mentality. Her first bottle of fine wine was introduced to her while she was in graduate school by her lawyer father’s mistress, “Madame Chauchat.” And though Feiring resented this new woman’s intrusion into her family, she adored her 1968 Barolo.
“When I see a wine that I really love, I want to meet the person who made it,” Feiring said. In her battle for wine and love, she embarked on a journey across Europe, cutting it short in France for Yom Kippur. She left to heal her broken heart with the tepid “Owl Man,” and the story ends with a mysterious “Mr. Bowtie” waiting for her in New York. Along the way, Feiring has purely platonic love affairs with natural winemakers, most married, each who has his own seductive oenological yarn. More love is felt with her female tasting companions — with such names as “Honey-Sugar” and “Skinny” — yet Feiring is deeply drawn to the luscious grape-handlers.
“Drinking a great wine can almost feel like falling in love. It is sensual, it is full of discovery and magic,” Feiring said. Effectively battling Parkerization, Feiring has won her battle for wines that speak the truth even if they argue. As for wines that make one “smile, think, laugh, and feel sexy,” Feiring is still searching, and readers may find themselves rooting for the “wine cop,” hoping she finds her Bacchus.
In Feiring’s questioning of Parker’s monopoly on the wine critic market, she said it’s not that she is not setting him up as the “hit man”; it’s simply that his tastes have become bigger than Parker himself. What she truly wants is room for discussion, and maybe a little old-fashioned grass-roots protest: “Go into wine stores and ask why all their wines are manipulated. Walk out; tell them you can’t drink it.”
Alyssa Pinsker is an essayist and writer living in New York City.