Our new German-wine specialist, nominated by her predecessor Michael Schmidt and pictured above with her eight-year-old Schafpudel Maisy, tells us a bit about herself.
We all tend to fixate on the finish line. But over time I’ve become far more interested in the journey that comes before the finish line comes into sight. Even in wine. Perhaps, especially in wine.
As much as I thrill to the liquid in the glass – and, believe me, I do! – what keeps me coming back is the collection of conditions that a bottle encapsulates. I want to grasp the intersection of place, people, landscape, culture and time. What challenges were inherent to the course, which unexpected turns forced a stumble, or recovery? Who showed true inspiration and grit, and who was forced to concede that it simply wasn’t their time? While I certainly appreciate a winner, that’s usually only a small part of a larger and much more fascinating story.
It’s no stretch to say that my own starting line with wine concerned story as well. Or, in my case, stories. It was 1999 and I was working towards my Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. Between semesters, we students were under orders by our professors to get out there and live, because observations of real life always ring truer. My fellow students worked jobs at bookstores, magazines and other centres of human activity. But after years as a book editor in New York City, I chose to pursue my studies from a working farm deep in the Virginia countryside, with stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, our corn fields, and not much more.
So when I saw a Help Wanted ad for a position in the tasting room at the nearby local winery, it seemed like a sign. Rather than running Hemmingway-style with the bulls, I would spend a summer in pursuit of inspiration as seen from the business end of a tasting-room counter. It was a plunge into cold water. The rows of bottles included names entirely unfamiliar to me – Rkatsiteli, Viognier and Norton. And because Google was less than a year old and the iPhone little more than a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye, I did what any self-respecting writer at the time would do. I opened the closest book and started with ‘abboccato’. (Even then, the Oxford Companion to Wine was a lifesaver.)
I passed the remainder of the summer learning my way through the alphabet. By September, I did indeed have a collection of stories. But rather than being my inspiration for the next great American novel, they became talking points for Horton Vineyards’ winemaker dinners. Because somewhere along the way my stories had become the stories from the cellar and the vineyard rather than the tasting room (although there were a couple of doozies I still remember!).
A few years later, fate would bring me to Germany. ‘More stories!’ I thought, unaware that mission creep in our personal lives would turn 18 months into 18 years, and counting. As in Virginia, I leaned in hard with the new information – substituting Riesling for Rkatsiteli. I pursued wine studies in both German and English, and quickly found myself slinging bottles at some of Berlin’s best retailers. I learned my way around a tasting room for real this time, made it through the Zs of the OCW, and – judging by my sagging bookshelf – added a few more sizeable tomes for good measure.
The deeper I got into the world of wine, the more I noticed a common thread in the stories I was drawn to: a sense of place. In many ways, this should have been no surprise. It was a bedrock of my own fiction writing. But there was a certain familiarity, even joy, for me once I came to understand its role in wine as well.
In my wine journalism, and in what I pour for my own table, the importance of reflecting a unique, recognisable origin – of being from somewhere – is paramount. Cheap or pricey, fancy or forthright, a wine ought to tell the story of the place where it began. One of my favourite choices is a humble gemischter Satz (field blend), inherently cultivated to ensure that place shines brighter than the noise of any single variety. A simple but authentic recounting will beat out elaborate-but-engineered every time. And Germany, which, for better or worse, fixates strongly on heritage and Heimat, was a perfect choice for someone with these predilections.
Perhaps this is simply a part of who I am and what I hold dear. I am a creature of wanderlust, yet whether I find myself in Mali or Malibu, Bonn or Berlin, I’ll always be from the woodlands of New Hampshire. I’ll never not know at first sniff the delicate green aromas of Queen Anne’s Lace, the exotic honey of milkweed, the dark magic of sugar maple in early spring. When my Sicilian-born grandmother emigrated to America, she changed her name and refused to speak Italian (except when she was truly angry). The only place she wouldn’t forget was in the kitchen: her fried eggplant, her beef braciole, her cassata. Each and every dish was infused with an accent that could only ever be home. From sourcing to service, place – her place – shone best and brightest. It was where she was her truest self.
I posit that vines and people are alike, that we are our most authentic when we reflect our roots, honour our origins, and embrace the decades of struggle and challenge of us and our ancestors. And so I arrive here with you, gentle reader. For all my travel, for all the bottles of fine wine sold, my roots are in words.
And words, as they have done all my life, eventually won me back.
For after 15 years in Berlin, I had begun to lose my sense of the seasons and in the process my sense of self. That city was an amazing place to sell wine, but ultimately I was selling stories not bottles. And so I followed the story. In 2016, my family and I left Berlin and moved to the Rhineland to be closer to wine, woods and story. Now I live in the Mittelrhein region with one fence abutting the Siebengebirge mountains and the other one overlooking the Riesling vines thriving on the northern wall of winegrowing along the Rhine.
In Königswinter, I continued to translate and write, as I had been doing since 2012, under the Weinstory moniker. And last October, together with my American partner Valerie Kathawala, I founded Trink, an English-language digital magazine focused on the wines of Germany, Austria, Alto Adige and Switzerland. Each story far more about the journey than the conclusion.