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The conflict of growing up in Alaska defined life for me well into my thirties when I warned a friend, “this summer I’m likely to start speaking as if I want to move back. When you hear this, you have to remind me, don’t.”
The place for me carried the intense devotion of family, or family like connections. Our ancestors and the people my parents knew spread across the entire state, and even to every stop along the West coast of the United States we ever took (we’d bump into people my dad knew in the middle of no-where-we-knew California as likely as we would in downtown Anchorage). It felt as though family was everywhere. When it came to literal family, my great grandparents were the people I felt I’d do anything to help. They’d cared for me every summer till I was 10 when I started commercial fishing full time. Their presence also provided a constancy and sense of protection that comes with having older generations near by. When they entered their 80s still living alone, though by then one blind and the other almost deaf, I called the high school in their town of less than 600 to find out what it would take to graduate there so I could move in with them and help. (They moved into Anchorage with my parents and I instead.)
At the same time I grew with a deep thirst for science, literature, art, and culture that I felt was deeply alien to Alaska. That was likely unfair on my part. It’s not that these things weren’t there, but the ways I wanted to find them I couldn’t locate in my hometown. I had a hunger to travel and live elsewhere that wouldn’t leave me. The truth is, though I feel devotion to my sisters and parents too, when my great grandparents died in my early 20s I realized one of my primary goals was to stay away from Alaska long enough to find for myself a sense of clarity amidst the tension the place had established inside me.
Something I strove to articulate during my graduate work in philosophy, and my brief tenure as a creative writer too, was the formative attachment to place that arises out of living a culturally Native lifestyle. Though my family spent 3/4 of the year in Anchorage, we based the foundations of our lives in the force of the land–not just the simple ground but the broader environment of climate, and seasons, and tidal influences, and people too. It is not that only Native people live this sense of place (indeed the French idea of terroir I take to be something partially resembling it), but that this robust sense of place is somehow definitive of what it means to really understand the term indigenous. That is, indigenous as a claim of being fully both from and of somewhere.
So, for someone with my particular background, setting a goal of staying away from a place that so thoroughly defines my roots and way of being is a kind of personal abuse even as it is simultaneously a demand for personal freedom.
In dealing with the continual pull I’ve felt through my adult life to return to Alaska, I’ve developed too a fault of arrogance–a sense of pride in being the one member of my family that has lived away for decades.
It’s funny, then, now to finally take my sister Melanie’s advice and read Jay McInerney‘s recently published book of wine writing in the style of wine travel memoirs plus smart wine reflection. Funny because, in my arrogance, I consistently rebuffed her suggestion, skeptical I’d like it, and she steadily encouraged me to consider it anyway. Funny too because it is in realizing she was right, I’m forced to see the pride, and, in the same moment, watch it de-puff a little (thank god).
(To be fair to myself, my resistance to his book largely arose out of my own need to recover from over a decade of life spent in intensive textual analysis because of my career in philosophy.)
In reading McInerney’s book, The Juice: Vinous Veritas, I found myself smiling, intrigued, and lured in by that projective fantasy offered by the best writing, of imagining I somehow know the person. In his brief accounts (each based on columns from the now defunct House & Garden, or the more recent Wall Street Journal), McInerney manages that delicate balance of narrative focus blended with intelligent revelations of the wines themselves. To put it another way, he presents a collection to be enjoyed from which any of us can also learn.
The truth is, McInerney’s book has also earned scathing critique, much of it reading as a sort of retaliation against his perceived cult of personality, rather than as substantial disagreement with the quality of the book itself. Though moments when the critique has verged on disagreement with the quality, I’ve been inclined to push the question of the book’s purpose. That is, it is only in recognizing what sort of book McInerney is offering that we can really judge how well he’s succeeded in the project.
There is some portion of The Juice that is likely possible because of his well-known personal history, and other portions dependent on his own thirst for the rich side of American life (cars, travel, and attractive women, though honestly what’s wrong with any of us that don’t appreciate at least two of those). That said, what works in this writing is its narrative focus. McInerney’s style is not that of a wine textbook, or even that of a wine critic. Instead, he invites the reader to share in his experience of discovering new wines, or going deeper with others he’s encountered before. In his version of the experience, the context deeply counts. The point here is not to remove himself from the story to give an apparently objective analysis of wine, nor to teach the reader wine knowledge, but to go another other way by delving further into the subject and subjective both–McInerney drinking wine. It’s, as I said already, wine memoir. What makes this approach work though is the narrative’s grounding in wine facts. While heavily taking that memoir approach, McInerney is sharing, what my sister would call, kernels of insight into each of the regions, or varieties, or wine makers he writes about. You leave each column charmed, and with at least a piece of information too to take away. If your goal is to learn everything you can about wine, this is not the right book. If your goal is to read about wine, and also take it easy, McInerney is for you.
McInerney’s stories here include a full section of wading into Burgundy; an escape from the big names of Napa through visits with more cult-like figures of the region including Schoener of Scholium Project, and his buddy up the road, Matthiasson, along with the steady figure Petroski; a charming reflection on a career of travels with fellow House & Garden alum Lora Zarubin; a visit through the seemingly contradictory stylings of Santa Rita Hills chardonnay–and that’s when it hits me…
I’ve planned my entire summer of writing about wine, and its regions in the United States, for my own sake, surely, but more deeply out of some sort of devotion to Melanie, and her very particular loves in wine. Most of the trips I’ve decided to take are those she’s either lived in herself, or wished to better understand in wine. I’m even returning to my family’s fishing grounds in Bristol Bay, the home of my great grandparents, to walk (and weep, I’m sure too) in the quiet place of half my family’s history all the way back. I’ll be there during the fishing season, to take pictures and write about the work my family still does, now five generations deep.
Growing up, Melanie would excitedly give me a gift for a birthday, or holiday, or whatever, and she’d tell me just after I opened it that she’d chosen it, yes, because she thought I would like it, but also too because she knew she did. I always understood this as a deep compliment to me on her part. Still, it took me years to be able to explain it to others. For Melanie, the joy is in the sharing of appreciation, even if the person isn’t physically there with you right in that moment, though often better if they are. Just like in wine. Just like in McInerney’s approach to wine writing.
Thank you to my sister for putting up with me.
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