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