For the Love of Wine
My great grandfather died in the Spring. He was buried in remote Alaska. At his request, we clothed him in the gilded robe he wore as reader for the Russian Orthodox Church, a role he prided himself in, assisting the Priest during service.
His funeral was held in the Orthodox tradition. Incense burned during prayer and filled the air with the scent of amber and smokey beeswax with blossoms. At the graveside, Aleut and Yupik women from the oldest generation sang prayers in a language whose words I couldn’t understand. The tones of grief, and spiritual hope were familiar to me. We lowered his coffin and threw clumps of dirt on top. The first handfuls from the family hit the lidded metal box with echoing thumps.
My grandfather’s part of remote Alaska has long been an intersection of Alaska Native and Orthodox traditions. By now the two are so intertwined I have a hard time telling them apart. Some of my stories of Alaska Native life I cannot distinguish between traditions of the Church or traditions of the people. For my family the two were the same.
This is the way with older ethnic cultures, an inter-braiding of traditions that is the texture and life breath of every day. It’s a layering and complexity that differs from newer cultures like the mainstream United States. In a global economy we are greeted by flavors and imports from around the world. It’s a dynamic process that means our culture can seem complex, but the difference is a matter of what we hold onto and live through daily life, versus what we greet as yet another flash of another something new.
Alice Feiring‘s new book, For the Love of Wine: My odyssey through the world’s most ancient wine culture, offers us intimacy, albeit in the temporary way of a well-invested traveler, with a long-standing culture. Through her writing she shares an intricately inter-braided world, the culture of Georgia in which food, wine, farming, friendship, Orthodox religion, mysticism, a turbulent long-term and recent history, economic struggle, the effect of totalitarian politics, resilience, its grief and its stamina all weave as the textural richness of everyday life. In this way, her writing in this book is brilliant. At the same time, it also feels new.
Feiring brings to her writing on Georgia a simultaneous freshness and refinement that surpasses that of her previous books. Through it she has not lost the self-certainty and sense of righteousness that can flare in her other writing when she stomps against the homogenizing force of industrialized winemaking or the dumbing influence of globalization. It is that here the love that fuels her willingness to fight has deepened and we are seeing Feiring even more honestly than before. It is through her judicious use of memoir to deliver the story that we discover our intimacy with the place of which she writes.
For the Love of Wine follows Feiring through a series of visits in Georgia. Chapters, loosely speaking, showcase a different producer and a different region of her discovery. Each installment, then, becomes a kind of character study of the producers of Georgia, as well as Feiring’s travelogue, at the same time that she delivers facts on the country’s history and winemaking. Finally, each chapter ends with a recipe.
The recipe: it’s a move that in most cases, when used as a chapter endnote like this, becomes the marker of a less serious book. A moment when we find the writing is charming, and leave it at that. But Feiring pulls off the risk. Here in the recipe chapter-close the stories she tells us become tangible. We as readers peer through the distance into the meals she shares with winemakers and their families, and then are invited into the experience by seeing how to make the food they ate. In most cases wines to pair are also suggested, either by implication via the chapter’s content or directly. Whether we choose to execute the dishes or not, Feiring has, in a sense, offered us a way to bridge the gap of distance. The winemakers have not just poured her their wine, and shared their stories, they have given us the warmth of their own traditional recipes. And here I find an implicit tension in Feiring’s writing.
By sharing the culture of Georgia, Feiring seeks to help preserve it. In this way, she mobilizes a kind of cultural jujutsu using the force of globalization — writing a book that will be read internationally, encouraging international distribution of artisanal wines, inspiring international tourism by sharing insights of a unique place — to help make the winemakers’ economy strong enough to support its own local aims and afford its long-standing traditions. Where her writing before has rallied against the homogenizing force of globalization, here she has found a means to use that power for the sake of what she believes in.
Feiring is not naive to the gamble.
Integral to the tone of the entire book is the intricacy of grief. For the Love of Wine is dedicated to her brother, who we discover early in the text has been diagnosed with cancer. Through the course of Feiring’s travels we come to know the story of their relationship, and follow the progression of his illness as she comes to know it herself. At its first introduction, the inclusion of such a private matter comes as a starkly personal incursion in the midst of a book apparently written about wine. But as the story continues, the feeling of Feiring’s grief begins to echo the bass note harmonic that thrums in the background of any such long-standing culture.
A people that have survived wars, famines, epidemics, and colonization by an outside power forever hum in their song the chord of grief. It becomes not a mere burden but an even inspiring part of the culture’s life force. Inspiration — the sixth stage of grief after acceptance, when that bass note harmonic thrums us, not loose, but back into living. Feiring’s willingness to let us grieve with her, then, actually helps us more readily recognize the feeling of Georgia.
Ultimately, it is here in the thrum we find Feiring drinking in her love of wine. For it is the thrum that makes wine more than merely part of a meal. We see this in the Christian tradition where communal wine becomes the blood of Christ thus offering us new life through the forgiveness of sins. Or, as Feiring points out, in Jewish tradition, where wine serves as the blessing in a meal “from weddings to births” (43). Or for Georgians, where “the strength of the Georgian wine” rises from “the blood of […] ancestors” (21). In each case as we raise the cup, or in the case of Feiring and her friends, the Georgian horn, we enjoy not merely wine, but a drink that contains tradition, friendship, forgiveness, blessing, food, history, elixir.
This book was received for the purpose of review from the University of Nebraska Press.
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