Alice Feiring Reflects on the State of Natural Wine Today | Wine Enthusiast
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Alice Feiring Reflects on the State of Natural Wine Today

“I haven’t done laundry in 30 years,” says Alice Feiring as we descend the steps of her local laundromat to drop her bag. “I wouldn’t know how to use a washing machine.” It’s a brisk, sunny day and one of natural wine’s most longstanding cheerleaders is utterly at home, not in the laundromat, but in Manhattan’s NoLita neighborhood. The author of six books, Feiring has been instrumental in bringing natural wine to America’s consciousness. Her travels often take her away to visit the small batch, lo-fi winemakers she so passionately champions, but New York City is where she spends most of her time. Feiring has lived in or just outside of the City practically her entire life. “This is my terroir,” she says.

On this particular Wednesday in early December, Feiring has things to do in lower Manhattan, only one of them laundry related. “I want to say hi to Jen at the butcher on my block who just got married,” the petite, bespectacled, red-headed Feiring tells me. “I need to give her a big hug and maybe a bottle of Champagne.” (Grower Champers, of course.)

Before we visit the butcher, we hit up an industry tasting just off Canal Street at the offices of Jenny & Francois Selections, a natural-wine importer that has been around since 2000, as long as Feiring has been writing about the subject. Almost instantly, Feiring is pulled aside by one of the company’s sales representatives. He wants her opinion on the state of natural wine today.

“I don’t think it’s anything different than what was starting to happen eight years ago, where, for the most part, natural wine has just become the new normal,” she tells him. But the road to normal has been a rocky one.

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Nolita New York, view of a man looking into a traditional butcher shop window
Nolita New York, view of a man looking into a traditional butcher shop window (Albanese Meats) in Elizabeth Street, Nolita, New York City. – Image Courtesy of Michael Brooks / Alamy

For Feiring, the journey started in 2001 when The New York Times published her investigative piece on winemaking technologies and their use in making wines to suit the then all-powerful critic, Robert Parker. The backlash Feiring received from the piece— threats from winemakers and doors slammed shut by mainstream editors—took her by surprise. “It was like it was an open secret that nobody was supposed to talk about,” she says. But, instead of scaring her off the subject, she was fueled to write more. In 2008, Feiring published her first book, The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization.

If the Times article made waves, The Battle for Wine and Love caused a tsunami, both in title and subject. “Sometimes you need to be a little bit outrageous and stake your claim,” says Feiring with a coy smile. We’ve made a pit stop at a brand-new Eataly outpost in SoHo, just three blocks from her apartment. Its existence, is, for Feiring, yet another sign of the gentrification that has overtaken her neighborhood.

“When I first came [in the late 1980s], except for the butchers on the block, there was no retail.” In spite of the looming presence of the Italian Mafia and the multitude of sprawled or stumbling drunks to circumnavigate on the sidewalks, Feiring remembers the neighborhood scene fondly.

“Everybody on the ground floor was an artist who lived and worked there,” she says, referring to the turn-of-the-20th-century building that houses the 650-square-foot railroad apartment on Elizabeth Street that she’s rented since 1989. “You’d come home at 4 in the morning, and everybody would be hanging out. The old ladies on the block would be having coffee together in the summer. There was always a party happening. You thought you were going to go to bed, but there was always a glass of wine in your hand. There was a real community on the block that’s not there anymore.”

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That natural wine has become so utterly on trend seems to baffle the idiosyncratic Feiring somewhat. She has spent her career promoting a return to traditional, pre-industrial winemaking, and her personal life— from her pre-war-era apartment (complete with a bathtub in the kitchen) to her hobbies, which include Morris folk dancing, fiddle and accordion playing and bread baking— reflects this penchant for a lo-fi lifestyle that isn’t exactly trendy (except, perhaps, for the bread baking).

Sometimes you need to be a little bit outrageous and stake your claim.

Alice Feiring

Ever since that first controversial article, Feiring has experienced written and verbal abuse, even sexual harassment, from some of the wine industry’s male gatekeepers. It’s something she’s only recently come to terms with.

“If you asked me 20 years ago, I would not have been able to see it, but looking back, I can’t think of any man who has been given this treatment; I just can’t.”

We’ve walked the few blocks from Eataly to her NoLita apartment, past boutique perfume and cosmetic shops and eateries that are either “too cool or too expensive,” according to Feiring. We’re perched at her dining room table hydrating yet again with cups of herbal tea, five steep flights above historic Elizabeth Street.

The apartment—which, in its heyday, was frequently crammed with 50 to 60 winemakers and natural wine luminaries—has featured in several of Feiring’s halfdozen books. Her latest work, a memoir titled To Fall in Love, Drink This, sprinkles wine recommendations between intimate accounts of her life, from growing up painfully shy in an Orthodox Jewish household to her lifelong attempt to convert her mother, Ethel, to wines beyond Manischewitz; and even a terrifying encounter with serial killer Rodney Alcala and her confrontational visit with him years later in prison, where, on death row, he asked her for wine advice.

Collectively, Feiring’s tales paint a portrait of a woman who, while plucky and assertive in her writing, has battled more than just Robert Parker in her lifetime.

With teacups emptied, Feiring and I head across Elizabeth Street to Albanese Meats and Poultry to bring her newly married neighbor, Jennifer Prezioso, a fourth-generation butcher and the sole owner and worker at the 100-year-old butchery, that bottle of grower Champagne. Sandwiched between a high-end fashion accessories store selling handbags and a beauty supply shop, Albanese, with its original red storefront and sausages dangling in the windows, is the last of its kind in the Little Italy neighborhood. Inside, amid the knickknacks, old photos, newspaper clippings, and a table selling local wares (including Feiring’s books), the shop has a convivial, comfortable feel. A local resident, who, it turns out, is also named Alice, waits patiently for her ground beef while the other Alice chats amiably with Prezioso about the wedding.

Later we’ll hoof it in a cold winter wind up to Union Square and Feiring will buy veggies and eggs from the Greenmarket for the dinner she’s hosting the following night. But it is in this moment, in this mom-and-pop butchery steeped in history and traditionalism, with a forward-thinking female now at the helm, that Feiring, a lifelong vegetarian, seems most at home. Community, it seems, does still exist in her lower Manhattan neighborhood, and Feiring is at the heart of it.

This article originally appeared in the May 2024 of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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