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.

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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.

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.

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.