Of the finer things in life, wine is the subject of which I am least qualified to write.
However, my cousin Alice Feiring has authored Naked Wine, a fascinating book. And because Alice and I practically grew up together in Brooklyn, and because Alice writes a beautiful prose, and because Alice defended my film A Stranger Among Us with an eloquent letter to the nasty if not anti-Semitic attack published by the Village Voice, and because I love and adore Alice I’m going to take a chance and examine my cousin’s book and the narrow, insular world of wine and the rather obsessive-compulsive characters who populate this fascinating subculture.
Confession: I do not drink wine. I do not drink beer. I do not drink. Full stop. Period. Vicious migraines, which come upon me like a locomotive and imprison me in a dark room for hours if not days, are triggered by, among other things, liquor. So, yours truly is permanently sober and cannot comment on Alice’s taste in wine or her theories—when Alice gets into the chemistry of wine she sounds like Madame Curie—of how wine should be produced in order to achieve the taste she demands.
Briefly, Alice believes in honest, naked wine. Wine that is natural, free of chemicals and additives. Though a touch of sulfur is apparently okay.
One of my earliest memories of Alice is at the dinner table. Back in the 50′s, we lived in a pre-war apartment building, 760 East 10th Street, in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Those were the days when Brooklyn was the whole world. I was surrounded by grandparents, uncles, aunts, and a constellation of cousins. We darted into each other’s apartments like hummingbirds and shared meals together several times a week. But while the rest of us kids shoveled food into our greedy mouths, Alice sniffed her food. She studied the morsels, turned them over, and sniffed again. This drove her parents, my Uncle Phil and Aunt Ethel, up a wall.
“Alice, what are you smelling for?” they demanded.
And Alice, tiny, with an explosion of Titian hair, shrugged… and kept on sniffing.
From the very beginning, Alice’s refined sense of taste and smell were calibrated as exquisitely as a sniper rifle. As a wine critic, Alice found a calling; her super human senses as work.
Naked Wine is blessedly not a check list of wines with four or no-star ratings. Alice spins a tale of adventure. She’s a woman in search of the perfect wine and her book is an almost mythic quest in which she seeks the past and present of the natural wine movement.
The book is a classic road trip. My cousin crosses paths with an assortment of colorful, oddball characters who feel like they have stepped out of 1930′s screwball comedy. These natural wine purists are deadly serious about their mission—curses upon the antagonist, influential wine critic Robert Parker—yet in their earnestness, their single-minded fanatic devotion to a platonic ideal of wine, these quasi hippie capitalists are, well, just plain adorable.
Most fascinating to yours truly is Benyamin Cantz, covered in the last chapter of Naked Wine. Benyamin lives on a hilltop in Santa Cruz. He is founder and lone employee of the kosher Four Gates Winery.
A former peacenik-hippie from the San Fernando Valley, Benyamin, now an orthodox Jew, in order to have kosher sacramental wine for the Sabbath and holidays, decided, with no previous experience or interest in wine, to become his own vintner. After much trial and error, and all done according to Jewish laws, Benyamin, says Alice, produces a very fine wine.
In Naked Wine, Alice refers to herself as a lapsed orthodox Jew, and that identity, that consciousness, keeps reasserting itself in ways that form a subtext of which my cousin is surely aware.
Orthodox Jews are only allowed to drink kosher wine, and my cousin’s career depends upon drinking yayin nesech, non-kosher wines. For Alice, it’s a tension that hints at a wider conflict that simmers beneath the surface of every line of prose and every sip of wine. And the wider conflict is this: though Alice writes passionately about wine, about her search for honest and true wine, she’s really writing about her search for G-d, spirituality and a community in which she fits and draws sustenance.
Thus, Naked Wine is just as much about Alice’s soul and her search for meaning as it is about mere taste and sensation.
So enchanting is Alice’s book that I called up Benyamin Cantz of Four Gates Winery—a delightful man, we shmoozed for half an hour—and ordered a case of wine to be sent to my sons-in-law, both of whom are wine connoisseurs.
On the holiday of Succot, my sons-in-law sniffed, chanted the blessing—
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam,
Borei p’ri hagafen.
Praise to You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.
—tasted, and pronounced Four Gates wine delicious.
Also delicious is my cousin’s book. Taste Naked Wine, savor it’s lovely prose and experience a grand adventure. Share in my cousin’s joy when she produces her own wine. Here’s Alice’s description of her first taste shared with Pascaline, a close friend. Yup, Alice actually knows people with exotic names like Pascaline.
The color was dark, dark blue-garnet. As if on cue, we simultaneously plunged our noses into the Riedel glass works. I swirled and smelled, and smelled again as if I couldn’t believe it. Actually, I couldn’t believe it. The Sagrantino was pretty. It made me laugh; it made me smile. “It’s gorgeous,” Pascaline gushed. “I’m very proud of you. I’d never have the nerve to do this.”
Water addition be damned. I almost started to cry, and there was no Tom Waits playing.
I asked Alice to recommend a few kosher wines and here, exclusive to Seraphic Secret, is my cousin’s top picks:
1) Four Gates Winery, Santa Cruz, California. Anything you can get is great. But you need to buy direct from his winery. My favorites are: Cabernet Franc and even his Merlot, true mountain and fierce fruit. Under $40. Very land driven wines, honest and serious stuff.
2) Golan Sion Creek Red, Israel, a blend of grapes, inexpensive and does the trick, under $13.
3) Segal’s Chardonnay Special Reserve, Israel under $15. I had really low expectations and it was surprisingly not bad. I know, faint praise. Not as complex as Four Gates but it’s a decent beverage, not a serious wine.
4) Lambouri Ya’in Kafrisin, Cyprus, under $20 Cabernet and Grenache Noir.