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The Freewheel line with a couple of English friends.

It takes a lot of beer to keep the wine business running smoothly. Here in Redwood City, we are very fortunate to have a great English style ale producer right in our backyard: Freewheel Brewing Company. The staff of K&L are fictures at our local pub, and it is a rare moment when one of us isn't there having a pint and a bite of their excellent food. We are also lucky enough to be the first place to offer their bottled beer for sale. If you have never had it, the Freewheel Brewing "FSB" Freewheel Special Bitter, California (500ml) is the benchmark in fresh, balanced, smashable ale. We will do our best to keep some in stock for you, the customer too!

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Alice Feiring: 95 Points, Expressive, Spicy, With a Long Finish

The homogenization of world culture has been a real concern of many people for quite some time. The idea that everyone in the world will start buying, eating, wearing, working for, and (most importantly) drinking the exact same products freaks some of us out, not only as world travelers, but as a world citizens. Starbucks serving coffee in Columbia and McDonald’s making Big Macs in China, while entirely profitable for both companies and perhaps interesting for the international audience, is also the first step towards a global Americanized palate (not to mention a corpocracy), and if you find diversity appealing, then this is not good news. To think that this trend would exist in the wine world, where regional style and flavor are a strong source of pride and prosperity, one would have to believe that the French would be willing to drink Napa cabernet over their beloved Bordeaux, or Rombauer rather than Chassagne-Montrachet. As many of us know, the thought of doing so for many patriotic Parisians is too horrible to even mention. In Italy, regional cuisine and local wines are a way of life. The Spanish could never take a proper siesta if they drank Turley Zinfandel instead of Muga Rioja, and besides, Euro-Disney was a terrible flop! While other aspects of Americana may have found their way into certain foreign societies, the world of wine would appear safe inside of its cultural and regional practices. Unfortunately, Alice Feiring presents quite the opposite scenario in her new book The Battle for Wine and Love, and, as you can expect, she’s not too happy about it. While the tastes of the citizenry in cherished winemaking areas around the world may not be changing, the taste of the wines themselves certainly are. The influence of new oak barriques, post-production practices like micro-oxidization and reverse osmosis, as well as designer yeasts, long a part of New World winemaking, are starting to appear in Old World settings. Some champion the usage of modern technology, but whether it is a sign of progress is open for debate. While Feiring clearly aligns herself in opposition to these technological “advances,” the influential wine critic Robert Parker Jr. has come out in support of these practices so long as they result in good wines. Therein, says Ms. Feiring, lies the problem. The formula Feiring lays out is simple: wine + Parker Points = $. The inherent problem with Parker’s influence is that it leads winemakers to alter their wines to a style that Parker prefers. If a producer naturally makes a light-bodied cabernet sauvignon and Parker prefers a heavier style, then perhaps certain measures will be taken. The conversation inside the château would then be as follows: “If Parker likes the taste of oak, then we age the wine in oak. If Parker likes a certain color, then we do whatever it takes to make our wine that color.” By doing so, a winemaker can hopefully grab the attention of the Wine Advocate and, with it, superstardom, cult wine status, and loads of dough. Now one might ask, “How can you blame a business for trying to raise profits?” The same question can be asked of Starbucks and McDonald’s and the same answer is: you can’t. A company has the right to legally explore all options to increase its earnings. You can however ask, “At what expense does the quest for profit come at?” If that is a question that you would like to ask, then Alice Feiring is more than happy to answer it for you. While jet-setting and Ambien-popping her way to Europe and back, usually with a feisty friend or lover, Feiring finds herself face-to-face with some of the Old World’s most respected names in traditional winemaking and searches for the truth behind their rationale to either adapt to Parker’s style, or stick to their own tried and tested procedures. She finds herself heart-broken at times (by both men and wine), and frustrated at others, but nevertheless she soldiers forward in the name of terroir and natural winemaking. Before long the purpose of her mission becomes clear and one can’t help from being entirely swayed by almost everything she writes. Alice Feiring is fighting to protect the soul of wine because in her mind, it is the spirituality of place that is ultimately lost when a wine is doctored and altered for mass consumption by the global palate (which has become uncannily in tune with Parker’s). If place wasn’t important to a wine, then why pay so much for Burgundy over an Oregon pinot noir? If great wine can be made anywhere, then why aren’t Florida’s wines getting any attention? While Parker himself does believe in the idea of terroir, he doesn’t feel that modern processes eliminate it from the palate’s perception. However, he states in a phone interview conducted by Feiring, “In a blind tasting I can tell the grape—you can taste a Bordeaux from a pinot noir, but a piece of land? I’ve never seen anyone do that.” Unfortunately for Parker’s argument, I have seen someone do it and so has Alice Feiring. Anyone who has ever been in a room with a Burgundy expert and multiple glasses from different vineyards has probably been bludgeoned with information about how each little detail of soil, location, and exposure alters the wine’s flavors. Our own Burgundy buyer, Keith Wollenberg, will tell you that if given five glasses of wine by a single producer from five different vineyards, he can definitely pick out which wine comes from which site, so long as the wine has not been altered to the point at which these characteristics are no longer recognizable. Feiring also uses Burgundy as an example to punch holes in Parker’s various arguments, but by that time, it doesn’t take much more convincing. The globalization of wine is apparent in every bottle of Old World Bordeaux that tastes like New World Napa. The scary part of this development for me is the fact that I can always cook my own food, but I cannot make my own wine. Just like Feiring, any lover of the traditional wine culture is facing the threat of Parkerization in their beloved bottles. For now there are still a plethora of options, but it may only be a matter of time before these winemakers decide it’s time to stop merely squeaking out a living, and start getting paid. It’s Philippe Pacalet, a Burgundian winemaker, who makes perhaps the most obvious, and yet contemplative statement in The Battle for Wine and Love. In a moment of frustration, he states, “Do you need a book everyday to show you how to feel something? Can you learn from a book how to feel?” The influence of sources like Parker’s Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator can be infuriating because it seems that many people rely on their point systems and reviews to decide what they do and do not like, rather than trusting their own palates. More and more often consumers are simply looking at a number, and know little about how the wine is made or where it is from. It is from this lack of reference that Parker gains his influence. It is the development of these point systems that has helped to drive wine sales through the roof and allotted so much power to so few people. Just advertising that a particular wine has received Parker Points can move it off the shelf. If a wine isn’t rated by either Parker or Wine Spectator, customers can be reluctant, thinking that must mean the wine isn’t good. When Feiring finally confronts Parker with the question, “Is there room for other critical opinions in the world of wine?” he is furious. While Parker sees himself as open-minded and tolerant of all opinions, what Parker seems unaware of is the effect that his opinion has on the wines that he doesn’t care for; wines that, while maybe not his particular style, are wines that others appreciate and enjoy. The real lesson from The Battle for Wine and Love is the damage that the point systems have caused. While I may have believed that giving a wine 95 points was silly and subjective, I had no idea how far the effects were being felt. At every turn, Feiring encounters yet another winemaker who is trying to receive Parker’s blessing. What happens to the wines that are not the darlings of wine critics, but at the same time are absolutely delicious to me? What if Joseph Swan one day decides to filter and fine their pinot noirs? There is the old saying that if you love something, you have to fight for it, and that’s what Alice Feiring is doing. Perhaps, I should be doing the same. —David Driscoll

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Reader Comments (2)

Solid review. The combination of Alice's strong personal conviction, obvious journalistic talent, and access to key people in the industry make this a must read for anyone interested in wine. Even folks who are just casually into wine will find this to be a quick, lively, enjoyable read.
July 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoe
Excellent, excellent post. You have just raised the bar here with an intelligent, independent and well written position on a subject about which we all feel incredibly conflicted. I am going to check out the book and then check back in with you.

Great job!

July 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMulan Chan

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