A firestorm has blown up this past week in the wine world that illustrates the impact that one article – and its resulting commentary – can have.
The incident involves a post written by Ron Washam and published on the website of Tim Atkin, a UK-based Master of Wine and respected wine writer. Washam, who had worked for 19 years as a sommelier in Los Angeles, writes a monthly satirical “inside baseball” column about wine people for timatkin.com.
His most recent article, on the occasion of the official retirement last month of influential wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr., targeted author and journalist Alice Feiring, a controversial figure in the wine world. Feiring’s book, The Battle for Love and Wine: Or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, was published in 2008. If Parker was at one end of the spectrum on the contentious topic of natural wine, then Feiring would be his polar opposite.
Feiring has long been at the center of debate around natural wine, of which she is a vocal advocate. [Feiring’s more recent books include The Dirty Wine Guide (2017) with Pascaline Lepeltier, Master Sommelier, and Naked Wine (2011). Her fifth book, called Natural Wine for the People, comes out in August.] The debate over natural wine has heated up in the past few weeks, with articles ranging from “Natural Wine is My Self-Care” in The New York Times (which some believe erroneously touts the category as a health beverage) to “Why is Natural Wine So Divisive?” in the Financial Times (republished on JancisRobinson.com) fanning the flames.
Washam’s latest article was yet more fuel for the fire that arguably grew out of control. On one hand, the article has been described by his supporters as Washam’s characteristic satire. On the other hand, it has also been described by Washam’s detractors as having crossed the line this time from satirical to malicious, demeaning and misogynistic.
A swell of support for Feiring resulted, and the article has since been taken down from Atkin’s website.
It’s been a polarizing difference of opinion, and much of the smoke of the firestorm has been blowing around those cross-winds of satire in one direction, and malice in the other. Though the smoke may soon clear, the incident provides an opportunity to consider the slower burn, so to speak: not only the published article itself as a discrete event, but also the build-up to it as well as what’s happened since it hit the street.
As Feiring comments toward the end of this interview (below), “We need more discussion about how sexism manifests itself in wine and other industries; celebrities and politicians can’t be the only people held to an elevated standard of intolerance of sexual harassment and sexism.”
Here is my Q&A with Feiring, which begins with the discrete incident of the article itself then zooms out for a broader perspective and its implications.
Cathy Huyghe: There is a history of highly-charged critical response to The Battle for Wine and Love: or How I Saved the World from Parkerization, and to your writing and opinions in general.
Alice Feiring: As Bette Davis said, “”When a man gives his opinion, he’s a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she’s a bitch.” I never really understood that truth until I voiced opinions in the wine world. If a man had written a book that took on Parker’s paradigm and influence, the response would have considered, and perhaps criticized, his assertions but not reduced him to a sexual cartoon character, attacked him personally or dismissed him entirely. This is how many have responded to my writing, including Washam on his supposedly satirical blog, Hosemaster of Wine.
Look at some examples of Washam’s writings, where he pretends to be speaking in my voice. In 2010 he wrote, “I want my wines natural. Think pubic hair. Think armpits. Makeup is OK, only a little, but no animals tortured. Unless they’re my critics who don’t get it.” In 2017, this: “Alice Feiring seems either repulsed, or slightly aroused by the senseless shooting of [wine critic James] Suckling.”
When Parker was still in the game, he hired Washam to write posts for him. His first subject? No surprise—it was me.
CH: Which brings us to the current occasion of Parker’s retirement, and Washam’s most recent post.
AF: Now, I was too tempting a target. This could have been done with good humor and satire mined from my books and other writings if he had read any of them. But instead he opted for tropes of the scorned woman presented in a haze of soft porn and misogynistic indulgence. Not that he asked me, but I would have much preferred the retirement home or alien comparisons that the men were treated to. I was not his only female target but I was the most frequent, to the point that it seemed obsessive. As someone pointed out on Twitter, one attack might be satire, ten times is bullying.
CH: You’ve said you purposely didn’t read Washam’s latest piece last week because you didn’t need additional vitriol in your life.
AF: That’s true. But I had to take it on in order to accurately respond to your question about what he had hoped to accomplish by posting this latest rant. It wasn’t as awful or as overtly sexually objectifying as others he’s written about me, but it might have crossed the line on libel and was certainly mean-spirited. He can, of course, write what he wants. What I cannot understand is why Tim Atkin, MW, a senior figure in the UK wine trade, published it. Perhaps the most upsetting (and perhaps actionable) aspect of this post was that many readers actually thought I wrote it since it was written in first person as “Alice Feiring’s Tribute.” Even skilled readers often fail to read the fine print.
CH: Since I first learned of your work many years ago, I have appreciated the rigor of your perspective and your opinion as a “benchmark” around natural wine. I realize, as do you, that that opinion is not always the most popular one. But why has it become so contentious, and so polarizing? Why has it aroused such animosity?
AF: The natural wine movement challenges the current commercial establishment for wine.
It holds the moral higher ground, being about organic viticulture and rejecting additives instead of incorporating any of the 72+ allowed in winemaking. The movement has been a bigger success than anyone expected and is changing the way wine is made today. People committed to the corporate wine culture are being forced to look at their practices.
More significantly, it threatens the entire wine education system because natural wine cannot be judged by the currently accepted standards. No one wants to hear that they’re wrong, and the natural wine movement has made a lot of people defensive. This animosity, I feel, is part of the pushback.
CH: What has been your own experience of this incident, from the article’s publication to the reaction to its subsequently being taken down?
AF: Whoa. I was deeply touched by the rush of support from the community. How to express this? I’m used to being bashed. Haters are the loudest, right? And I get a lot of that. But there was an absolute crush of readers and peers, who publicly declared their appreciation of my work and me and condemned the tone of Washam’s post. I was stunned, affected, appreciative. My heart is a warmer place for it.
CH: Did you communicate directly with Washam or Atkin about the article?
AF: I finally emailed Tim to ask that he make it extremely clear that I did not write that piece. Moments later Ron’s article came down. I have mixed feelings because I imagine it came down not because it was wrong but for legal and reputation reasons.
[Note: Last week Atkin also republished his book review of Feiring’s The Battle for Wine and Love, which originally appeared in The World of Fine Wine in 2008.]
CH: You also have an awareness of the underlying (and bigger picture) issues.
AF: I can’t lose sight that those were far more important than my feelings. For example, one guy jumped in to suggest that I’d “asked for it.” That even got some attention from members of the press. But that tweet was shot down and a useful discussion ensued about how you cannot ‘satirize’ a woman in 2019 by reducing her to the tired stereotypes that have been used to keep women “in their place” for centuries and expect to get away with it. We need more discussion about how sexism manifests itself in the wine and other industries; celebrities and politicians can’t be the only people held to an elevated standard of intolerance of sexual harassment and sexism.
I hope some consciousness was raised but so much more needs to be done. If this moves the conversation forward on what is sexism and if it results in us seeing less of it, then discomfort aside, this will have been a very positive moment in our little world of wine.