Hungry for wine

Seeing the World through the Lens of a Wine Glass

Hungry for Wine is maintained by Cathy Huyghe, wine writer for Forbes.com and author of Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World through the Lens of a Wine Glass.

First Impression of Hungry for Wine, and Why it Bowled Me Over

We're a few short weeks away from the publication of my first book, Hungry for Wine, and I've been sharing a few chapters with close friends whose opinions I value and who know viscerally how very much this book means to me.

One of those people is my friend Ms Julie who lives up the street. I gave her the Introduction and first chapter, about living a wine life with no regrets, and after reading them she said that she feels like she knows me so much better now. (The Introduction explains quite a lot about how I came to devote so much of my life to writing about wine.) And then she said this:

"I felt like it was something that I could do, too."

Which made me go, Ah...

We talked more about this, and I don't think she meant that writing about wine was something that she could do or was interested in doing per se. I think she meant that she could see herself growing into something, something that's other than what she's doing now, a little at a time each day. (That is also something I explain in the Introduction -- that I wrote my first drafts on wine topics in little snippets of time, in the 20 minutes or so that I could snag here and there while also being a new Mom to twin boys.)

I never intended this to be a reaction to the book, and I was frankly pretty flabbergasted that it was a takeaway for Ms Julie. This happens with writing: you don't know, until you write. You don't know how something is going to work itself out in a piece of writing until you're in the thick of it. And now I see that you also don't know how that writing will affect a reader until you release it into their hands, until they're in the thick of it too.

Hearing Ms Julie's takeaways -- whatever they might be -- was one of the reasons why I shared the chapters with her in the first place. Sure, she belongs to my "target demographic" and I'm curious about the impressions of that particular group. But I also knew that Julie would tell me what she felt in her gut. And if what she felt was connected to the process, even a process where wine itself isn't involved, then I'll be moving toward one of the reactions that I did intend for this book: for readers to see what's universal about wine, and to see some of the ways that wine is interconnected with the private and global interactions of our days.

If a reader gets the resonance of that... it would be Wow.

Wine Reboot, and What Happened Next. It Ain't Pretty.

In my last blog post I wondered if I could still find pleasure -- simple pleasure -- in a single glass of wine.

I wanted to stop thinking and just drink the damn wine.

Would that be enough?

A few days ago, I wasn't sure. But I wanted to try.

Here's what happened next. Spoiler alert: it ain't pretty.

There was this wine in front of me, and only this wine -- two or three fingers' worth of 2004 Ontañon Bodegas Reserva from Rioja, Spain.

I picked up the glass, and right away all of my "wine training" wanted to rush back at me.

The core is opaque, with a dark cherry-colored rim.

(And are there legs? What about the saturation?)

I smell black fruits and olives.

(What kind of black fruit? What kind of olives?)

 I smell woodsy herbs, and smoke. Or ash.

(What kind of herbs? And which is it? Smoke? Or ash?)

GAH

I don't know where this is coming from, this "tasting note voice." Yes, of course my wine teachers urged me to be specific. Yes, they encouraged me to push further with my descriptions, beyond what the others in the room were saying, beyond agreeing with the power of their suggestions.

Why did I even shift into "tasting note mode" was all I wanted to do was enjoy a few sips of wine?

That's force of habit, most likely. 

But here's what wrong with that, IMHO. I've always felt that tasting notes are like a script I should be following. There's a formula to it, like a grid. Color. Nose. Palate. Finish.

I know the rules, and I can follow them, though I feel much like a dancing bear when I do.

Plus there's no section of the grid where you can indicate pleasure. There is no space for WHOOPEEEEE!!!!

All very objective, it is. Very precise.

Which is why sometimes -- and for me, most times -- tasting notes seem too analytical. Tasting the wine sometimes becomes over-tasting it and thinking about wine, as I can see in myself, becomes over-thinking it.

There is not much room for the give of circumstance.

This is the danger zone that I am in: over-tasting, over-thinking, defaulting into analytical notes even if they're utterly inadequate.

This is the danger zone that I am in: losing sight of the pleasure of wine.

I am in danger of not enjoying wine the way I started out enjoying wine -- simply for the joy of it, for the way it made me feel, because it connected me to the people I wanted to be connected to.

Losing touch with that is, indeed, GAH.

Friends I know, other wine friends, take measures against this hazard. They "take off" the whole month of January, for example, and don't drink any alcohol. At all. They're recuperating their taste buds, I think, and letting their palate rest. They're recalibrating it. But it's just as useful I think to let your brain rest too.

It reminds me of the very first teacher who taught me about wine writing, who taught me this:

Just drink the stuff.

My teacher's name was Richard, and this lesson was passed down to him as well.

He had been interviewing the Baron de Rothschild, many years ago in France, when Richard was a young man and the Baron was not. What advice would you have for me, Sir? Richard asked at the end of the conversation. What advice can you offer someone who's just starting out, who loves wine, who truly wants to know more about it, who wants to maybe even devote a good part of his life to it?

"Richard," the Baron said. "Just drink the stuff."

In other words -- Stop. Thinking.

When do I do this? When I do stop thinking, and just drink the stuff?

The answer, for me, is when I'm in the kitchen, as I'm cooking dinner.

"Could you open a bottle of wine, please?" I ask my husband.

"Of course," he says. "Anything in particular?"

"Something white," I might say, though I'm just as likely to say something red, or something sparkling, or something sweet, or something he chooses on his whim, or something that's just arrived by delivery to the front door.

And he'll go and pull something from our collection, open it, and set a half-glass full next to the chopping board as I peel carrots or dice squash or season and stuff a chicken for roasting.

He has sensed by now -- I have sensed it too -- that I am a much better cook when I have a glass of wine in my hand than when I don't.

It's kind of a joke, except it's also completely true.

I relax. I am intuitive, with seasoning the food, and with what's happening with my family as they pass and sometimes tumble through the kitchen.

These are the people -- this man, these children, often those friends -- I want to be with, as we sit at the table for dinner. These are the people I love, whose lives I want to be part of, who have a way of living that I also want to have.

Wine hasn't made this possible, exactly. But wine has helped to guide the meal to the table, and it has most likely made the food taste better, and look better, and smell better. All of that brings the people -- these people I love -- within arm's reach and encourages them to savor it and to linger, to say more and to listen longer.

This is my own hunger for wine.

This is my reason why.

At this point I don't always remember the vintage or the producer of the wine off hand.

That's actually a compliment to the wine.

Because at this point -- the best point -- wine has become a seamless layer of flavor in our lives. There's an echo of it to our conversation, and our children integrate it the way they integrate other lessons of the table, like how to make a joke or how to engage someone in conversation or how to express compassionate sympathy to a neighbor.

So.

Can I still enjoy the simple pleasure of a glass of wine?

Yes. I can.

I just have to remember to do it in my kitchen, with people I love.

How to Reboot, One Sip at a Time

I am in the practice of putting wine in context.

It involves looking up and looking out, and seeing the many (many) hands that worked to bring a bottle of wine to the table.

It is what I do, and what I enjoy.

These past few weeks, however, there’s been a problem.

These past few weeks, the context of wine – the news of the world that I normally derive so much energy and inspiration from – has become a bit exhausting, a bit overwhelming, and a bit too much for me to take in.

This will pass, I’m sure.

I am away from home. I have been away from home for too long. I am untethered, disoriented, and tired.

I will be home soon. I’ll rest and reboot and return to what is almost always most compelling for me about wine.

In the meantime…

Can I come back to just the wine, in and of itself?

Can I come back to the pleasure of wine, for wine’s sake?

Just me, and the glass.

Is that enough?

At the moment I’m not sure, because most normal things aren’t normal right now.

Normally I find the news compelling. These days I am fearful of it.

Normally I rely on my body’s strength and flexibility. These days I feel betrayed by it.

Normally I can find quiet, wherever I am. These days the jitters at the edges of my mind are relentless. And noisy.

Normally I love to travel, to step into another place and another way of living.

But right now I am craving the stability rather than the whirl. I crave my own bed rather than a hotel’s even when that hotel is lovely beyond lovely. I crave home.

By now I should know how to maintain my stability while on the road. Regular exercise. Regular periods of meditation. Regular practice of writing. Upkeep of correspondence. Time dedicated to the big projects as well as the daily commitments.

There are more fractures than seams, and more gaps than fill.

I am spent.

There is one way I know that helps in a situation like this: to do the thing that is in front of me to do.

Only that.

If that thing is a glass of wine, it is only that glass of wine.

What will rejuvenate me in a time like this is, ironically, taking that narrow and focused view that is so opposite of what I normally take.

Just me, and the glass of wine.

Will it work?

I believe it will. Either way, I'll report back.

30 Lessons in Wine Communication for Italian Brands

At VinItaly on Monday I was part of a panel called 30 Lessons in Wine Communication for Italian Brands. Other panelists were Robert Joseph (who spoke on packaging), Damien Wilson (websites), Reka Haros (advertising), Rebecca Hopkins (public relations), and I spoke on social media.

What, I asked the #winelover community and others on Facebook, would YOUR "lessons" or advice be? 

For ease of reference, especially for anyone not on Facebook to access, here is the discussion thread with full commentary from the #winelover community:

Fabien Lainé If you have most the key informations on the front label on a quite large label then I think it helps consumers as being in front of many references a consumer won't turn back all the bottles to read infos or get websites adresses, QR codes and so on

Elena Roppa If we consider wine communication in the world, the real values are already expressed and put into practice in the Italian wine world. The Italian wineries need to focus on their way of life (the Italian way of life): our vineyards are gardens, our wineries are stylish and comfortable, our villages are nice, wines and food are excellent. We have to improve our self confidence. The prices of our wines have to be the right prices (yes, I know that some wines are very expensive, but they are "exceptional case"), but it’s impossible if we follow the crowd (for example, screw cap is a good alternative, but it’s not our tradition and it is often affiliated with young and cheapest wines). Italy is one of the centers of wine culture and we have to tell our history. My advice for every winery is to trust in themselves and to meet winelovers with the simplicity of their story.

Robert Joseph Elena, you make some good points. But we were not talking about how to sell Italian wine v French or Spanish; we were looking at how one Italian wine producer can persuade a consumer to buy one of his/her wines than another brand of Italian wine.
You work in marketing, I believe; I'm not sure that 'trust in yourself' is quite enough as a marketing strategy, but 'meeting wine lovers' is definitely a good idea.

Elena Roppa Robert, "trust in yourself" is finally communicate what they usally do everyday and I think here it's not the place for marketing lessons 

Damien Wilson There's increasing evidence of 'the front label attracting attention', and 'the back label making the sale'. Remember that most of your sales will be with new customers. So overloading the front label with information just makes it more difficult for the new customer to determine what's important. Keep the front label clear, consistent, and distinct.

Fabien Lainé 2 years ago I wrote a post on labels - http://vindeling.com/2013/03/17/a-somm-labelling/

Cathy Huyghe Thank you, @FabianLainé! Two points Robert Joseph made about packaging was adding a Call to Action to QR codes (if the brand uses them) and increasing the font size of website addresses. I'd add making the label easy to read/photograph and "scannable," in light of how many consumers now snap photos of labels with their phones in order to document their wine consumption via apps like Delectable. All good, simple, direct info!

Robert Joseph Damien, I think it depends hugely regarding the particular wine (style, quality, price) and the situation. In supermarkets, where the majority of wines are sold, most are bought without recourse to a back label. Ironically, however, in specialist stores where purchasing is often more considered and back labels are of greater value, European producers often prefer not to have one.

Cathy Huyghe Elena Roppa, thank you for your feedback here. I completely agree with you that the Italian way of life is compelling and appealing! What will happen when wineries go further than that to distinguish themselves individually, within the Italian lifestyle umbrella? How COULD they go further? I'd encourage wineries to identify what makes them distinct and unique, and then use that as the foundation for communicating in a dialogue with consumers.

Damien Wilson True, Robert, but I'd suggest that the purchasing experience explains that observation. In supermarkets, there's (almost) no personal service at the point of sale. As such, the back label provides more assistance. It was also in a wine retail study that they found that almost 90% of wines picked up off the shelf and examined end up in the trolley. The difference at independent retail is that the staff are on the spot to help/inform/advise, and back labels are less useful.

Robert Joseph Yes, Damien but… Your wholly reasonable point overlooks two crucial aspects: 1) a lot of wine shop customers prefer not to ask for advice. Indeed it's a reason why some successful retail shops leave wine books and guide around for customers to peruse. And 2) with over 500 wines in some shops, the level of knowledge of the manager (or his assistant) is often less than satisfying...

Elena Roppa Cathy Huyghe there is no “magical formula”, but in my experience the unique for a winery is the place where it’s located. In Italy that means wine + food + culture + art + tourism: so it’s important to communicate this 360° image. How? Every tools can be good: NFC for the label (more interesting than a qr code, because it will be connected with the winery ecommerce and more for example), short videos that show the life in the vineyard and in the winery, a good monthly newsletter, a wine club (not something exclusive, but occasions to meet the consumers): all tools and events that can create a contact, so the consumers knows that if they need more information they can get in touch with the winery thanks to tech. In my last panel with winegrowers, I suggested them to start to use whatsapp as costumer care: someone told me they already use it, and it very good also to sell the wine directly to consumers. I don’t need more infos on the label, if I can have real time infos from the winery (and I want it, because now it's possible).

Reka Haros Elena, but if all or even 20% of Italian Wineries started communicating wine + Italian food + Italian culture + Italian art + Italian tourism; don't you think that US consumers (as the session was US focused) would continue feeling confused? These topics are huge, and confusing to Italians let alone to foreigners. Cathy is looking for a key distinguishing point for communications. Sometimes, and I would argue always, the distinguishing point is not about the product/history/territory/culture. Those are points that Italian wine communications for the US use already, not always effectively I would assume. Italian lifestyle as concept can work, but not very distinguishable. Label is crucial for 1st - 2nd- and 3rd hand passing on of the bottle. But what in your opinion could be the true key factor for an excellent brand communication?

Magnus Ericsson Informative back labels are one of the most underrated tools in the trade. If you are in a store or are drinking at a wine bar you might get very handy info from the sommelier or the store owner. But you can remember just so much verbal info - especially if you do not know much about the subject. If you hold the bottle in your hand and can read the story about that wine - that's worth a lot.
Another underrated tool is no bullshit informative home pages. Be transparent - tell all you can in an as straight forward way as possible. Information and a feel for the product must go hand in hand. 
The San Leonardo label is a good point. For a new customer - where the f%&€ is it from (btw - I love the wines!  ).

Reka Haros Authenticity is a key point Magnus! Website design for usability is another key point!

Elena Roppa Reka Haros the 360° image has to be linear and referred to the winery, not to Italy in general of course (no confusion, but richness). The disorganization creates confusion, and this is an Italian problem. Wine is different from other products, so I don’t agree with you: the distinguishing point in this case has to be the territory/product/history/culture and maybe "family". The value of a wine is connected with a territory (soil, land). If there is no communication of the territory, the wine is an “industrial” product , so a very different message to create.

Reka Haros And what if the brand value is connected to consumers' values instead of territory/product/traditions/family? What happens if the brand value is connected to consumers' emotional world instead of the glorification the winery itself?

Fabien Lainé It reminds me of a great Ted speech http://www.ted.com/.../simon_sinek_how_great_leaders...

Elena Roppa Glorification? You are too dramatic. Every brand is a glorification (beacuse it tells its story or its point of view). I know very well what you are meaning, and it's important (to tell a story that can be also your story, sharing economy / "sharing branding"), but not the only (it depends on the tactic and on the subject) 

Cathy Huyghe One of the points I made in the presentation was about WIIFY -- What's In It For You, "you" being the consumer, rather than the winery. The consumer needs a reason to see the winery/brand as relevant to them personally. It's why they think, I'm going to buy THIS beautiful Italian wine rather than THAT beautiful Italian wine. Try turning the lens around. Relating the narrative to the consumer's interest, I think, rather than the winery's can be a key differentiator for a lot of brands.

Reka Haros And this was leitmotif our presentation, from packaging to SM.

Reka Haros Fabien, a more complete concept about this is Leo Burnett's HumanKind principle for content development.

Cathy Huyghe And IDEO's user-centered design http://www.designkit.orgThese are obviously not concepts traditionally applied to the wine industry but I do think there's a lot to learn from them and apply.

Annette Lizotte The question is really what is the "added value" of your product for the consumer and find the adequate way to communicate it. It can be a certification: Bio, Demeter, Vegan etc... no added sulfites and you might just want to put a sticker on the bottle, or maybe just put the information on your homepage and brochure? It maybe the information that the product is extremely rare, limited and unique for a reason you'll have to explain. Famous awards are key to enter some markets. Maybe the wine-food-pairing information is seen as added value. I agree with Cathy Huyghe - the producer HAS to learn to put himself into the role of the end consumer when he decides on the content of his communication, visuals etc... Be authentic and coherent, don't make your story too complicated. Every communication tool should express the same base message, only in a different manner.

Reka Haros Yes Annette, first you need to know who your consumers are, understand their "why"-s and real motivations for purchasing your brand. Then deliver your message on what is important for them.

Robyn Lewis Is this question about selling Italian wine in general or one individual brand?

Cathy Huyghe Individual Italian brands, Robyn Lewis. Would love your input!

Jennifer Gentile Martin It's a matter of education, especially with the lesser known grapes. This is part of the reason why I write my blog as well as others. It's a matter of getting some of these wines into the states to begin with. Then when they are on the shelves I feel it's the labeling. They all can't be hand sold and some labels don't tell enough to the uneducated consumer.

Sean Piper They should communicate that they are real humans making drinkable wine in another unique place on the planet earth and care deeply about the quality of their product. 

Then - if they're feeling frisky - they should say that they got massive awesome number scores from critics and that they only employ the master masters of wine.

Cathy Huyghe Thanks, Sean Piper! One idea that came up in the VinItaly session yesterday was "real humans" and showing the imperfect sides of wine too. Maybe not what you'd want in a print mag ad, but very appropriate for social media sharing. Yes, Reka Haros?

Sean Piper I almost forgot, they should also say that their wine regions and areas and wine blends are better than anywhere else on planet earth. 😎

Sean Piper And they should cite history and tradition to reinforce the fact.

Sean Piper And they should ignore the bliss and loveliness of being alive and touching the flavors of life.

Ole Udsen I'm not the right guy to ask, because I seek out the wines, they don't have to come to me, but a few thoughts I have wrestled with in respect of how I would do it myself: 1) Track record. Do verticals, if you can. Show a constance of quality and purpose. Show an evolution towards an ever better product. Show your (humble) ambition and passion through the wine, and how that happens over time. 2) (and closely related) Keep your selection simple and constant. Don't add new wines all the time. Take the time to build a following for something that remains constant. Do away with all the "fantasy names" (which are not vineyards, but are family, history, stories etc. - only a select few can remember and keep track). Keep the labels simple and constant through the years. 3) Show team spirit. Speak well of and promote your area, your neighbours; build an area and/or variety presence. 4) Go to where the consumer is, literally/physically. They want to meet you, look into your eyes and observe your body language as you show your passion and pride, your constance of purpose etc. 5) Maintain an active social media presence. Wine is - deeply and essentially - a social thing, as lubricant, conversation piece, identity builder, prestige object etc. People want to communicate it, and they want to be communicated to about it. Use that to your advantage. 6) Avoid BS. There is too much BS in wine, too many "perfect soils", "perfect climates", "chemical/additive-free wines" etc. etc., which doesn't stand up to scrutiny in the long run - not because it is not true (it might be), but because too frequently the grasp of both the wine producer and the consumer of the real science involved can be a bit weak. Instead, communicate the soul of your wine. What's it like, why, can the consumer expect it to be such going forwards, what are the choices made (but simply!), why are YOU doing it etc.? I realize these aren't quick fixes, but wine is very much a time thing also. You have to be in it for the long haul. There are no quick bucks out there in wine land.

Reka Haros Sean, authenticity is key for communications, scores and critics' endorsement need a different context.

Patterns I've Been Noticing...

I've noticed the pattern that learning about coffee is similar to learning about wine. Start with less potent iterations (lower alcohol for wine; more milk for coffee). Understand origin (of the grapes for wine; of the beans for coffee). And narrative assists memory, always.

I've noticed the pattern that many people smell so similar. It is a pattern of sameness. But, really, shouldn't we all be smelling... like ourselves, rather than like each other? 

I've noticed that asking the same question of motivation -- why? -- several times in sequence strips a dilemma down to its essence. It is revealed.

I've noticed that, almost immediately afterward, the pendulum swings back the other way and the essence is covered back up again. The layers are added back in. It's sad, but necessary. Because we cannot, any of us, operate from a place of persistent essence. It would be too raw.

I've noticed that none of us have the luxury of being raw, at least not for many moments beyond the quick, hot flash of true, naked essence.

I've noticed that on the rare occasions when I rely on my subconscious to create a solution overnight, while I sleep, I am taken by a brazen sense of triumph when I wake and access the solution that has presented itself. The triumph is completely out of proportion to the scale of the test -- it is always only one discrete solution to one discrete problem. Yet it fuels my momentum for weeks and weeks, that this ability exists and can be practiced. It is a gift I seek infrequently, so as not to dilute its power.

I've noticed that when I travel I share the dinner table with many different people for many different reasons. The common variable (the pattern left on the table...) are empty bottles of wine.

I've noticed that what holds my attention is assertion. Of belief. Of opinion. Of desire. Of the expressed ability of my companion to Live.

Rome. And Blood.

I'm just coming down from three days of meetings this week, in Rome.

Rome.

The best word I can think to describe those days?

Bloody.

Dinner the first night was at Campo de' Fiori -- historical site of executions and torture -- in the shadow of the statue of Giordano Bruno. He was burned at the stake for ideas that were "dangerous" and, at the time, heretical.

Maybe that set the tone.

Coffee another day was with a friend of mine, another writer, who these days is having a hard time making ends meet. He said that the flow of his energy for his work, the flow of blood to the heart of it, is slow. Very slow. 

It is a very difficult time in Italy, he said.

(Has it ever not been a difficult time in Italy? I wondered.)

After that, the momentum for this metaphor -- of blood and the life-giving energy it is meant to carry -- gained steam. 

Over another coffee, a different friend told me about an opportunity... It's a good opportunity, an interesting and challenging one, the kind I normally love. But there would be a lot of drama to it, drama that I know -- because it is a familiar drama -- would sap the iron out of the energy, of the blood, from the opportunity. I left the meeting not yet agreeing to the project, but already feeling anemic.

Can you really feel anemic after only a conversation?

Maybe my imagination was getting the best of me, I thought.

But then there was another meeting, this time with a very strong undercurrent of intrigue. Maybe he was telling me the truth but it was his version of the truth with many (many) sinuous layers of meaning hidden underneath.

As for the metaphor of this meeting? 

The blood flow was clotted, hindered by the obstacles of multiplicity. I'd swear his skin seemed more pale, more lifeless, than normal. I left feeling confused. A little bit spooked. And exhausted.

I was rejuvenated, paradoxically, by a conversation with a diplomat. Even though they are extremely difficult things -- women's role in the church, sex trafficking -- they were at least concrete, tangible things and I can take hold of them, and take action, rather than play catch-up to slippery words and motivations.

Another coffee, a final one, was with an amazing woman, who is very young, with a spine of steel for the perfectly contrarian work she is doing. You have a sense, looking at her initially, that she is a lamb surrounded by a pack of wolves.

And guess what? The metaphor is here too. Those wolves think that they could smell her blood in the water. But she has a heart of her own, a powerful pounding one that beats for a mission. She survives. And so does the mission.

Yes, I am still coming down from these three days in Rome.

And I am carrying a question around with me, because I know that Rome can be a Place in the future of my life's story.

The question is whether I have the heart for this, for this Rome?

Do I have the reserves to replenish all this bloodletting? 

Yes, I believe I do. I believe my heart can stand it. I believe my heart can shape that way. 

The question is whether I want it to.

When Writing about Wine Isn't about Wine...

I’m in the midst of writing my first book, called Hungry for Wine. It is exhilarating, and extremely hard, and every time I work on it something prickles… in the best way.

The idea is to tell stories, unexpected stories, that open a whole new set of touchpoints for people who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily pick up a book about wine. Each chapter is a touchpoint, and each touchpoint is illustrated (so to speak) by a particular bottle of wine.

There is the chapter about meeting a bunch of migrant workers in a vineyard, who had just caught a rabbit to take home and cook for dinner. 

There is the chapter about families in the Middle East who continue, determinedly, to produce wine despite the war that is literally at their doorstep.

There is the chapter about my elderly friend Arthur, who for 50 years kept saving wines for “just the right occasion.” And there is the moment when he realized that all those occasions seem to have passed him by.

Each chapter, in other words, is an Aha! moment. A moment of clarity, and understanding. A moment when wine becomes that thing that opens the world’s door and lets in a slice of light.

When I talk with “wine people” about it – people who are also wine writers, or winemakers, or who otherwise work in the industry – they right away think of what has brought wine to life for them. A particular family in Spain, for example. Or a mentor who opened a specific (usually old) bottle for them that changed the course of their life. Or etc.

The common thread is that their stories about wine aren’t really about wine. The wine matters, don’t get me wrong. But their stories are largely (largely) about memory, and occasion, and most of all people.

A similar thing happens when I talk with “non-wine people” about it. Since this is the primary audience for the book, I’m especially sensitive to what they say. Even more than the “wine people,” this group is interested in narrative, in the story, in the arc of events that move them from here to there.

Wine, in other words, is the clay. The people who sculpt it into something beautiful are themselves what's beautiful, and faulted, and therefore compelling, and the reason why someone will pick up the book in the first place.

The thing – the catch, for me! – is how many of these non-wine people want the main narrative to be mine. [Mine? Pause for GAH effect.] How did you get to do what you do, they ask. How do you make a living doing this? How do you make wine relevant, every single day? How do you go from not knowing anything about wine – my own starting point, and most often theirs too – to traveling to the farthest reaches of earth and society to write about, of all things, wine?

Hmm.

I admit, it’s an interesting question. (If it weren’t, I wouldn’t be doing it!)

But.

Immediately what jumps to mind is a piece of advice given to me by a mentor, Molly O’Neill, Pulitzer Prize nominee and long-time food writer for the New York Times. You must write for at least ten years before using the word “I,” she said.

What she meant, what she was advising, was to keep my writing non-solipsistic. I think it’s what I’ve do, or have tried to do, by and large these past years.

Yet I definitely do understand, and very much appreciate, the feedback from my potential audience. So writing this book has become for me a question of balance, between memoir and world events and inner personal narrative and outer commentary.

It is practically the hardest thing I have ever done. And I love doing it.

So please, tell me in the Comments or shoot me a message: if you’re a writer, how do you deal with this issue? If you’re a potential reader, how do you suggest I deal with it?

It would help me to hear from you.

A Love Letter --

Tonight I fell in love with you.

It had been a long day as tourists in a new city, and everyone – including my husband – was tired. But there was one more wine bar I really wanted to check out. I decided to go alone, and then I heard, “I’d like to go with you, Mom.”

I turned to you. My son Leo, age 9.

“Is that okay?” you asked.

Yes, baby. Yes, it was okay.

So you got dressed in the best clothes you brought. Your Dad whispered a few things in your ear. We left the hotel and walked northeast toward the French Quarter. We held hands the whole time. Sometimes we were the only ones on the street. It was dark, and misty, and you talked to me about the architecture and the alleyways, and how you thought the lights made it seem creepy.

But you were brave.

At the restaurant, while we waited for our table, you talked to me about the mural behind the bar. You told me how you’d compliment the painter, and you told me the five reasons why.

Then they led us to our table, a banquette, and you instinctively took the chair so that I had the perspective of the room.

They gave us the wine list and we looked at it together. Immediately you honed in on the rosé section – they aren’t too strong, and they aren’t too soft, you said – and you picked the very bottle I myself would have picked.

The server, though he wasn’t supposed to, brought a glass for you too and he poured you some wine. We toasted. We smelled. We tasted. We laughed.

Then we looked at the menu and decided to share a main dish. You asked me which I preferred, the chicken or the steak. I said the steak because I knew that’s what you preferred. But you said no, Mom, let’s get the chicken, you like it better.

So we did. We ordered the shrimp cocktail in the meantime and you tried it. You were uncertain about it but you tried it. (I love that about you.) Then the cone of pommes frites heading to another table caught your eye. Of that you were certain! We ordered that too. The roast chicken came, and you compared it to what I make at home. I like your skin better, you said.

We ate, and we talked, and we shared. You had a lot to say, and very often you’d end it with, “Don’t you agree?” Sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn’t, but that is how a conversation works. As you know.

And so it went.

After dinner, we held hands again as we walked back to the hotel, and this time we took a better-lit, less creepy route. You noticed the homeless people, and wondered why they come to a big city rather than a smaller town, where people seem nicer and more likely to help.

It’s a good question, a good conversation topic, a good observation.

That’s one reason I fell in love with you tonight, Leo, and I’ll remember it just as well as the others. I am grateful for the person you are now, and for the seeds of the person you are becoming.

I love you, Leo.

Mom.

Winter Reading: The Garden To Be

Bread, and vegetables.

These are the two "home" projects high on my priority list for the New Year:

Making homemade bread regularly, and planting a vegetable and herb garden.

I've already begun experimenting with bread recipes, from whole wheat flour to spelt flour, from popular current recipes to a multigrain recipe I picked up from an old (old) French cookbook.

It's an incredibly satisfying thing, to knead bread into the smooth, elastic dough that, set to rise near the lit fireplace, magically emerges into the bread that eventually I will slice and lift to my nose, to smell the grain and inhale the texture next to my skin.

But the garden? Growing my own vegetables and herbs?

Somehow it feels overwhelming.

Even though it isn't, exactly. That is, i've enlisted help -- my friend Jonathan, an experienced gardener who for decades made things grow in the forbidding environment of Vermont. And I've grown things before, to some degree of success -- a tomato-basil garden during graduate school, and herbs planted in boxes on our porch on Cape Ann.

Still the overwhelm -- or, more accurately, the anxiety -- chases me.

What to plant? How will it thrive when I travel so often? Where to plant? And how?

So I do what I always do when I have too many questions causing too much anxiety.

I read.

At the moment it is a book written by Alice Holden, a gardener in Wales. It is called Do/Grow: Start with 10 Simple Vegetables, and I picked it up a few weeks ago in a bookstore in Sydney. I didn't know that THIS was the book I was looking for, until I found it on the shelf and thought Well. Of course.

Even 10 simple vegetables feels like too much to me to start, and I pare down the list to what my family and I actually consume and want to consume more of.

Kale

Endive

Carrots

Tomatoes

Thyme

Beans

Enough! For now, anyway. To start. Let me just start.

I would like to write about this garden, and this bread. I would like to sow the seeds, and test the recipes, and coax it all to nourish.

I would like to be patient with the process -- of growth, of taking root, of rising, of the timetable of nature.

I would like the process to teach me patience. And how to be where I am, on this piece of earth.

A Trail of Breadcrumbs, and How to Read Them

Being a journalist wasn’t what I set out to do.

I thought I would teach. Or do research. Or travel for a career in international business. Or, as I got older, I envisioned how I could put my training in negotiation to use in a diplomatic capacity.

Along the way I became a journalist, which is work I absolutely love for its constant challenges and variable set of demands. I love that asking questions, and coming to know people and what motivates them, is such a big part of my job.

Along the way, I’ve ended up doing many of those things that I thought I would do.

More and more often, I am called upon to teach. Research has become a regular part of my everyday life. And I travel – sometimes too much – internationally and I write very often about the businesses I find there.

But it is the last idea – negotiation, diplomacy, advocacy – of what I thought I’d do that has been most on my mind this past year.

Sometimes I imagine looking behind me, at the very curvy path my life has taken, and noticing certain stops along the way. These are stops that are like breadcrumbs. Seen one way, they’re barely significant, and ephemeral, and able to blow away at any moment. Seen another way, though, they compose a trail, a very marked trail, from point to point to point.

Point: training as a negotiator. (While I was pregnant. With twins. Both boys.)

Point: working for two years on a cross-cultural, multiple-religion project based in the Middle East.

Point: training as a multi-media journalist. Significant experience with public broadcasting stations.

Point: training with the Op-Ed Project, meant to diversify voices on the opinion pages of major media outlets.

Point: service on non-profit boards and fellowship with advocacy organizations.

Point: active involvement with organizations like the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Ribbons of Hope, and the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

And today: writing multiple times a week, within my specific industry, about issues of business and politics around the world. Areas of conflict. Migration. Labor. Disruptors in technology.

Where is all of this leading? If I follow that trail of breadcrumbs to the position of my feet at this moment, today, what does it tell me? And if I turn 180 degrees, and look forward, what do I see on the trail ahead?

It isn’t clear yet. I have some ideas, and some forms are beginning to take shape. But what’s most apparent is that the momentum is building, and my pace is becoming stronger.

Patagonia, at the Micro Scale: A Photo Essay

There is every reason to think of Patagonia on the MACRO scale.

It's where two of the earth's major oceans converge. There are massive glaciers. Major implications for the world's geology. Maritime studies -- of hundreds of thousands of penguins and whales and anchovies and sardines -- that help us understand the origin of our world as we know it.

For this photo essay, I took the opposite approach.

That is, I focused (literally) on the wonder of Patagonia at the micro scale.

Most of the images below fit within a two-by-two inch frame. They include edible fruits along the trail of a national park. "Waves" of geological formation within a rock. Vegetation from all over the color scale. A decaying vertebrate bone from a sea elephant. A translucent piece of seaweed so thin you can see the grains of sand underneath it. Lichen shaded in perfectly complementary colors of gray and yellow, and the underside of lichen that sparkles like diamonds.

This kind of zooming in, and this kind of deep dive, is a helpful strategy too, to approach the current state of Chile's wine industry: not only this wine, but this wine, made from the same vineyard, from the same grapes, by the same winemaker, for the past 25 years. And etc.

Stay tuned for that. But for the moment, here's a look at Patagonia, on the micro scale.

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Essay: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Essay: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Photo Credit: Cathy Huyghe

Rumi at the Airport --- and in a Tavern Buying Wine

One of the benefits of traveling for my work -- so far and so variously -- is time spent in the cocoon of airplanes. International travel, also, normally means no phone or internet access, which for me translates to long periods of concentrated time to write, to catch up, and especially to read.

Which is why I tend to linger, for as long as possible before my flight, in the bookstores at international airports around the world. They carry plenty of books in their native language, of course, but there is also usually an English-language section that carries locally popular books in translation.

It's an amazing opportunity to pick up books that are important in that place at that time to that population, and most often they are books I have not encountered at home in the US.

(Sidebar: bookstores, and consignment clothing shops, are vacuums for me. I'm drawn in and have a hard time pulling my imagination away from all of those STORIES -- no matter their shape, as text or images or scarf or hat. Especially hats...)

I pick up book after book. Fiction. Biography. Business. I put 96% of them back down. But when I find The One, I know it immediately.

That's what led me to, for example, Napoleon Bones by Jenny Hobbs (picked up at the bookstore in Johannesburg, South Africa). And An Italian Education by Tim Parks (picked up at the bookstore near the Delta gates -- right around G7, I believe -- in Rome). And, most recently, The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak, which I found at the airport in Istanbul.

Shafak is a Turkish writer, well-known in her own country but not in my reading circles at home. Forty Rules is about the poet Rumi, who I've long admired, and the imaginary retelling of his encounter with a Sufi dervish who helped him find his voice as a poet and not only as the well-respected Muslim scholar he was before they met. 

I knew immediately that Forty Rules was The One for my trip home from Istanbul. I wasn't disappointed -- far from it, in fact. But there was another layer of benefit I hadn't expected.

Since I've returned home from visiting wineries in Turkey, I've written about the religiously-motivated regulations imposed by the Turkish government against the promotion or marketing of alcohol. It's been on my mind, for lots of reasons -- not only the economic implications of the regulations on the wineries, but the pervasive insidiousness of the anti-alcohol, anti-wine sentiment.

Here, toward the end of Forty Rules, I found this scene where Rumi is sent by his dervish into the local tavern to buy two bottles of wine. It's a test, obviously, and Rumi handles it beautifully. Before he leaves, he is asked by one of the tavern's regulars:

‘You have seen us. We are not evil people, but that is what they say about us all the time. You tell me, what is so wrong with drinking wine, provided we behave ourselves and don’t harm anyone?’

Here's how Shafak describes the scene that follows:

* * * * *

Pensive, kind, sober, Rumi walked toward me, and here is what he said:

‘If the wine drinker

Has a deep gentleness in him,

He will show that,

When drunk.

But if he has hidden anger and arrogance,

Those appear,

And since most people do,

Wine is forbidden to everyone.’

There was a brief lull as we all contemplated these words.

‘My friends, wine is not an innocent drink,’ Rumi addressed us in a renewed voice, so commanding and yet so composed and solid, ‘because it brings out the worst in us. I believe it is better for us to abstain from drinking. That said, we cannot blame alcohol for what we are responsible for. It is our own arrogance and anger that we should be working on. That is more urgent. At the end of the day whoever wants to drink will drink and whoever wants to stay away from wine will stay away. We have no right to impose our ways on others. There is no compulsion in religion.’

* * * * *

I don't know if Rumi actually ever spoke about wine, or wine in relation to Islam. What is interesting to me about this scene is Shafak's having written about it, about her reimagining this element of society, and the implication that an issue so relevant in October 2014 was similarly debated 800 years earlier.

Winery Dogs of Turkey

Most days, when I’m traveling to different wine regions around the world, I try to go out for a run in the early morning. It’s led to an unplanned series of pictures and tweets in the “View from This Morning’s Run” category that I really enjoy – from Florence to Friuli to Napa and New Zealand.

This week I visited a winery on the Aegean coast of Turkey, near Suvla Bay. Over dinner I asked my host if it would be safe to run the following morning, and could he recommend a route. Normally he lives in Istanbul, so he asked the workers who live locally all the time. The cook reminded him to warn me about the dogs.

In this part of Turkey there are still shepherds, and there are dogs who protect the herds. Especially overnight, when the sheep are sleeping, the dogs become very aggressive to anyone who comes near the herd. So I may not even be aware that I’m running by a dog who’s protecting a flock, I was warned. But if I did, it would challenge and chase me and likely attack.

So that morning I drove to the coastline and ran along a paved path there. I did encounter a dog, but it was a town dog and not a herd dog. It ran toward me and then alongside me awhile, but not in an “attack” way, just in a “Hey, you’re running! Me too! Let’s go!” way.

Dogs have become one of the strongest impressions I’ll take away from the properties I’ve visited in Turkey. They’re incredibly friendly at the wineries, and well trained, and not threatening at all. They live outside and organize themselves by temperament and personality – loners, pairs, packs.

I see the dogs in Istanbul also, and in the smaller towns. They seem to be stray dogs in those places, and they roam free and fend for themselves. Cats too. One morning, running along a main street near the coast, I saw a black and white cat lying dead and with its neck broken, near a dumpster.