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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Wine Travel GAH

The title of this post should really be Wine Travel YES and, by the end of saying what I need to say, it will be.

But let me work something through first.

I'm at that moment of a trip, at the very beginning, when I've said good bye to my husband and children, when I'm on board the plane, when I'm leaving on the first leg of the journey. The physical side of me is ready to go.

This particular trip, however, isn't to Napa or Oregon or Switzerland or New Zealand. It's to Turkey. And for that reason, it's taken the emotional side of me a few ticks longer to be ready to go.

Partly it's because the trip was almost canceled last week, when political protests intensified in some areas where we planned to be and, rather than postpone the trip entirely, we rearranged the itinerary around the sites of those protests.

Partly it's because of the sharp contrast of news coverage, between the sources I consult at home in the US and the sources my husband consults back in his native Belgium. He reads his news on the Belgian newspaper's app on his phone, and this morning he told me in detail about a US general's presence in Turkey, trying to convince Ankara to intervene in an aggressive takeover attempt of Kobani, a town along the Syrian border. (Belgium is home to a significant number of Turkish expatriates, and their national news addresses that population.) However, I had to dig -- deep -- for similar coverage in the US news sources that I regularly consult, which includes a website that claims to prioritize international news.

Maybe the US news sources are oblivious. Maybe the Belgian news sources are alarmist. Probably some of both. The bottom line is that I've got to cobble together information, which heightens my anxiety.

[several deep breaths and a take-off later]

There's something about starting, about stepping off, that adjusts my perspective.

This train has left the station and, since I'm along for the ride, my emotions need to recalibrate along with my physical location. It's a subtle shift but a critical one, from being anxious to being eager.

When I travel I am focused. I accomplish more work on the road than I do at home. I attribute this largely to my husband who, when we're both at home, is the biggest soaker-upper of my attention! (See what you get for marrying an incredibly interesting person??) And of course I miss our children, but the truth is that they've got fun and highly responsible people taking care of them. They are fine. They will be fine.

And so will I.

This is the kind of trip I adore. It is unusual. It will be challenging. I expect to learn things I won't learn anywhere else on the planet. I expect to meet people -- and taste wines -- that are distinct and unique in the industry.

So, yes, we have arrived at Wine Travel YES!

And for that I am extremely grateful.