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Monday, April 18, 2016

"The New York Times": A fierce toast from Alice Feiring’s drinking horn

by Ligaya Mishan

18.04.2016. There are certain criteria for guests invited to dinner at Alice Feiring’s railroad one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up in a former tenement on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan.

They must be comfortable dining next to the bathtub, which sits in the kitchen. Adept at extemporizing poetic toasts. And ready to down, in one gulp, all the wine that can fit inside a ram’s horn.

“Like a shot of vodka,” said Ms. Feiring, a champion of natural wines who writes a blog and a subscription-only newsletter called “The Feiring Line.”

The horn, or khantsi as it is called in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, has a lip cuffed in silver and a finely wrought raven’s head at the tip. A slender chain joins the two, for hanging on the kitchen wall — or “from your sword belt,” Ms. Feiring said. “Georgians are very fierce about their wines.”

In 2011, she made her first trip to Georgia, where traces of wine residue have been found dating back to 6000 B.C. She was struck by the number of vintners who, despite decades of Soviet industrialization, still make wine in buried qvevri, giant earthen vessels sealed with beeswax.

They shun sulfites, which are often added to wine, in part because of sulfur’s tinge of the devil. “It’s religious for them,” she said. “Are you saying that God hasn’t given the grape everything it needs, to make wine naturally?”

Her khantsi was a gift from John Wurdeman, an American who, alongside an eighth-generation Georgian winemaker, runs the vineyard Pheasant’s Tears in Sighnaghi, in Georgia’s east. He made no concessions to her drinking habits, which are slightly less lusty than demanded at Georgian feasts: The horn is deep and daunting to drain. “Couldn’t you have got me a smaller one?” she asked him.

She keeps it on her kitchen wall until guests arrive. “You don’t drink from it on your own,” she said. “It’s only for company.”

Her first wine was likely Manischewitz, which her mother used to caramelize onions for chopped liver. Her family lived in Brooklyn, then Long Island, and Ms. Feiring hasn’t strayed far: She moved into her NoLIta rental in 1989, a short walk from the store on the Bowery where her mother has sold jewelry for more than 40 years.

She chose the apartment because she wanted to be able to host 10 people for dinner. That’s possible (if quite intimate) at her dining table, which is equidistant from the bathtub and the apartment’s one sink.

The tub has housed wine bottles, watermelons, impromptu go-go dancers and, one evening, two carp bought in Chinatown. (They did not survive.) These days, her parties culminate in the passing of the horn and ritual toasts in the Georgian style, which at their best mix philosophy, wit, gratitude and memory.

The wine in the khantsi is always Georgian, as is often true of the accompanying food, like lobio, a kidney-bean stew steeped with blue fenugreek and marigolds. (Ms. Feiring, an occasional contributor to The New York Times, includes recipes in her new book “For the Love of Wine: My Odyssey Through the World’s Most Ancient Wine Culture.” )

She doesn’t make her guests lock arms as they drink, another Georgian custom. But all must press lips to the same horn, one by one. She said, “People have balked, but nobody’s said no.”

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