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Ridge Vineyards almost before they had any

Elaine goes to the mountain.

In California wine circles we sometimes entertain ourselves with questions like, what would you argue is the most American wine? Or, which wine do you think most successfully placed California wine on the world stage? Or, what do you think is the most respected winery in the United States? Inevitably, one winery – Ridge – is an answer, if not the answer, to each of these questions.

Ridge Monte Bello is considered by many to be among the best wines in the world, and certainly among the most, if not the most famous, from California. Through its Monte Bello Cabernet-based bottling, Ridge helped show that California wine could compete with the most respected wines in the world (check out our Judgment of Paris tag). At the same time, no other winery in California has done so much to elevate Zinfandel from its early reputation as jug wine to fine wine respectability.

Ridge Vineyards began working with old-vine, field blend sites planted primarily to Zinfandel (otherwise known here in California as a Mixed Blacks vineyard) in the mid-1960s. The producer’s treatment of Zinfandel was unique at the time. Instead of treating the wine as an after thought, they made Zinfandel essentially the same way they did their top wine, the Cabernet Sauvignon that would come to be known as Monte Bello. Since then, no other winery has worked with as many Mixed Blacks vineyards in the state. As an additional stamp of respectability, Ridge also bottled them specifically as single-vineyard wines. The winery has worked with such sites the entire length and breadth of California, including many vineyards that no longer exist, and some in parts of southern California where few remember that such vineyards ever existed.

Most of these wines are limited to bottlings made available only to members of the winery’s Advance Tasting Program (effectively their wine club). The Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines, both Mixed Blacks vineyards from Sonoma County, however, are released to a broader market. Thanks to their history and status, both of these can also arguably be included alongside Monte Bello for consideration as examples of the most iconic American wine.

In the last few months I have been able to do a series of in-depth tastings and all-day interviews with the Ridge team. The first of these was in October when 50 MWs from 16 countries descended upon California for a 10-day tour of the state’s wine country. I was lucky enough to be the only non-MW to join the entire trip and its tastings. After several days on the road we arrived at Monte Bello for a special visit with the entire Ridge team. Though he retired in 2016 at the age of 80, Paul Draper helped lead the visit. (Draper remains chairman of Ridge’s board.) He guided us through….

To continue reading this article, and see my illustration of the twenty-vintage vertical of Corison Kronos, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article appears in full here: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/ridge-vineyards-almost-before-they-had-any You will need a subscription to continue reading it.

A subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($12.20/mo or $122 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

‘Overstuffed’ wines analysed

A Purple Pager asked Elaine a question after her recent account of a vertical of Corison Kronos and the answer is surely interesting enough to share. 

Peggy Baudon wrote:

I absolutely loved the article about your vertical tasting of Corison’s wines. The tasting visual (see right) is a beautiful representation of the evolution of the wines.

I have a question about your paragraph describing some wines coming out of California as having a sense of ‘compression and compaction’ despite being picked early but not having the overt ripeness and alcohol of many other wines. I have been contemplating this type of character in wines I’ve been tasting from right bank Bordeaux and have been trying to:

a. accurately express the character of the wine and

b. determine what vinification processes are being used to achieve such results.

As a description of this type of ‘stuffed’ wine I certainly appreciated your analogy of stuffing as much as possible into a rucksack. When I taste such a wine, I often feel a bit claustrophobic, as though I am also being stuffed into the glass with no air to breathe. It was a relief to read such an astute description of this type of wine style.

As a wine student though, I have not ascertained the vinification process/es that have contributed to this style. I wonder if you might have some information or feedback about vinification processes that may be used in California to achieve this effect in wine (or even in France). Thus far, I have narrowed down my guesses to reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation as ways to reduce water content in the must/wine and therefore leaving more ‘stuff’ in the wine (and therefore less ‘space’ and making it ‘feel oppressive on the palate’ as you eloquently described). However, I am also wondering if flash détenteor thermovinification might have an additional hand in the process/es. It has been difficult to find information on the vinification of these types of wines – not surprisingly since they can be described as a ‘trick’ to adjust the wine unnaturally. Not many winemakers would wish to be called out in such a way.

Any feedback or guidance about vinification methods to achieve these effects in wine would be so greatly appreciated!

Elaine Chukan Brown replied:

Thank you so much for your kind email. I am so happy to read that you appreciated the article and that that description of the wine style made sense to you. I’ve been confronted by that sort of ‘overstuffed’ wine repeatedly and had spent time thinking through how to explain the experience of tasting them. It is good to know that the description of the overstuffed rucksack I used obviously made sense to you with your own tasting experience.

In terms of how such wines are made, I can offer explanations on a few possible cellar choices that might help give some perspective. Of course there would be variations on which techniques are used depending on particular wines but here are some thoughts that could help with the overall picture. More technical information ….

To keep reading this article, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where it appears free-for-all to read. Here’s the direct link: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/overstuffed-wines-analysed

Napa Valley Premiere and the 2017 Vintage

Elaine Chukan Brown reports on the annual Napa Valley Premiere – a preview of Napa’s latest vintage – where buyers bid on wines made specially for the auction

WORDS BY ELAINE CHUKAN BROWN

The crowd erupted into cheers. Winemaker Aaron Pott stood on stage and grabbed the microphone. “Are you ready?” he yelled. “Let’s get it on!” More than 1200 wine trade professionals – winemakers, sales people, buyers, and journalists – filled the upstairs hall of Greystone, home to the Culinary Institute of America and one of Napa Valley’s most venerated historic buildings. Dance music burst through the speakers and the crowd cheered wildly. The annual Napa Valley Premiere auction, with Pott as this year’s honorary chairman, had officially begun.

Over the next four hours 185 auction lots were sold to raise almost $3.7 million “to help the Napa Valley Vintners and their ongoing effort to promote, protect, and enhance” California’s most renowned wine region.

Napa Valley Premiere is a preview of Napa’s latest vintage. It’s a model originated by Bordeaux and brought to a level of indulgent celebration only possible in California. The day comes with surprise musical interludes, and snack breaks of artisanal foods made in the region.

Unlike Bordeaux, buyers at Premiere bid on unique wines made specially for the auction. Buyers range from retail giants looking to score coveted brands at ….

To keep reading this article, head on over to Club Oenologique where you can read it in its entirety free-for-all. Here’s the direct link: https://cluboenologique.com/story/napa-valley-premiere-and-the-2017-vintage/

IWSC Wine Communicator of the Year Shortlist – that’s me!

Every year, the International Wine & Spirits Competition, one of the most prestigious wine judging groups in the world, requests nominations for their prestigious Wine Communicator of the Year award. Writers, speakers, educators, and broadcasters from all over the world are considered and then a shortlist of who they deem the top five are selected based on their contributions in wine for the previous year. The most respected wine communicators in the world have won over the last two decades. I am deeply honored, grateful, and a bit overwhelmed to announce I have been named as one of the top five based on both my writing and speaking/seminar work. Enormous thanks to the International Wine & Spirits Competition for the recognition. Thank you too to those who nominated me. I am so grateful.

Here’s a link to their quick article announcing my inclusion: https://www.iwsc.net/news/iwsc/iwsc-wine-communicator-shortlist-elaine-chukan-brown

Corison Kronos – a vertical of Napa restraint

Elaine was treated to the unique luxury of tasting every vintage of Cathy Corison’s very special single-vineyard Cabernet. Cathy herself was due to taste them the next day but Elaine was the first commentator ever to do so. 

One of Napa Valley’s most celebrated and respected winemakers, Cathy Corison, launched her eponymous winery in 1987 with a single wine – Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine reflected Corison’s commitment to elegance and restraint, a style that would soon become uncommon in her region as the power wines of the 1990s and early 2000s took over. However, even as trends changed, Corison maintained course, focusing solely on wine made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards planted in the well-drained, gravelly bale loam soils of the Mayacamas bench in what has since been named the St Helena AVA.

The St Helena AVA constitutes a particularly distinctive portion of the Napa Valley in that temperatures throughout the area are high enough during the day to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon adequately to make single-varietal wines of distinction. At the same time, in most vintages night-time temperatures drop below vine respiration levels, thus preserving the potential for freshness and acidity in the wine.

Famed winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff called the gravelly bale loam soils of the Mayacamas bench on Napa Valley’s western side ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. All Corison Cabernet vineyards, as well as the winery pictured below, are planted ….

To continue reading this article, and see my illustration of the twenty-vintage vertical of Corison Kronos, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where the article appears in full here: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/corison-kronos-a-vertical-of-napa-restraint. You will need a subscription to continue reading it.

A subscription to JancisRobinson.com is £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($12.20/mo or $122 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the new 4th edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the 7th edition to the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.

All change for Qupé and the Lindquists

photo by Fran Collin
From Lifetime Achievement Award to a brand new enterprise.

On Wednesday it was announced that Bob Lindquist, one of California’s most respected winemakers, will no longer be making Qupé wines, and as of 1 March he will no longer be involved with the winery. Vintage Wine Estates (VWE) has taken sole ownership of Qupé and is moving its winemaking from Santa Maria to their newly purchased Laetitia winery. Laetitia is located in San Luis Obispo County, and together the two winery purchases – Qupé and Laetitia – represent VWE’s first expansion into the Central Coast. Previously VWE was focused entirely in the North Coast making brands such as B R Cohn, Layer Cake, and the cheekily named Game of Thrones wines.

Lindquist and his wife Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist will instead be launching a new project, Lindquist Family wines. The new winery will be focused on Rhône varieties, as well as Chardonnay, much as the original Qupé did under Lindquist’s leadership. Lindquist’s plan for his new winery, however, is to remain small. ‘I only want one partner this time, and that’s my wife, Louisa,’ he says. The couple will also continue making Verdad, a small-production label focused on Spanish varieties.

All Verdad and Lindquist Family wines will continue to be made in the winery tucked into the back of Bien Nacido vineyard that Lindquist and Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat, and Clendenen Family wines have shared for decades (see Au Bon Climat – lunch and more). The first Lindquist Family wine, a 2017 Grenache from the Sawyer-Lindquist vineyard (a biodynamically farmed site in the Edna Valley), will be released later this spring after being bottled in April.

Partial ownership of Qupé was originally sold five years ago as part of a long-term succession plan. Terroir Wine Fund founder Charles Banks approached Lindquist with an interest in helping to expand production of some of ….

To keep reading this article, head on over to JancisRobinson.com where it appears free-for-all to read. Here’s the direct link to the article: https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/all-change-for-qup-and-the-lindquists

Turn-back Tuesday: A Visit to Haute-Saône, France – Drinking wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre

Drinking Wine with the Captain at Chateau La Barre

It’s a rare thing to find a friend with whom you can stand in the middle of a huge group of people and passionately argue (in total agreement with each other but arguing nonetheless, you know what I mean) about the importance of sci-fi as part of the mechanism for building a culture’s ethical understanding and then go straight into just as passionately discussing wines from all over the world. That level of curiosity and appreciation is a valuable gift to find in anyone. At the end of this week I fly to Texas to see a bunch of friends for work. It is one of my favorite trips of the year largely because there are more people in this group that share that innate, impassioned curiosity for all sorts of subjects in the world, as well as genuine interest in all aspects of wine. In tribute to them, and most especially to the several of whom I have honest to god love-yell argued passionately about the merits of Star Trek (and the recent horrors of Infinity War), I am re-publishing this turn-back Tuesday blog post that I originally wrote and published in April 2013. It was inspired by my friend, Annemarie, who shares my deep abiding love of Star Trek, and whom I love very much even if she doesn’t give a lick about wine. 

Touring the Vineyards of Chateau La Barre

Chateau La Barre Vineyards
climate meter at Chateau La Barre Vineyards

It’s warm when I arrive for the visit of Chateau La Barre. The weather is a relief for the region after fog and cold for several weeks. The area is known for its continental climate but can also get hit with bouts of severe chill due to the mountain influence from the North. Though the Vosges range is in the distance, it still weighs influence on the vines.

My visit to the winery is unusual, as the Chateau owner is known now for his privacy. He’s resistant to interviews but offered to meet me finally in recognition of his family winery’s up coming tricentennial. Owner and vigneron, Jean-Luc Picard, treats his vines now as an homage to his ancestors.

His invitation to meet arrived with a short but direct explanation: We’re not going to talk about his previous career. It’s the Chateau we’re there to discuss, and, though he’d rather avoid interviews, he respects the work of his family and wishes to celebrate their accomplishments. Prior to retiring to his homeland of France, Picard had had a distinguished career as a fleet Captain, but now he sees that recognition as a distraction from the work he’s trying to do for the region.

Meeting the Picards

Jean Luc Picard inspecting his vines
inspecting the vines with Jean-Luc Picard

Before I have the chance to sit, Picard ushers me out to the vineyard. It’s the vines he wants to show me. The Estate’s recent developments are exciting, thanks in part to Picard’s archaeological and historical interests as well.

Winemaking hadn’t been part of Picard’s imagined retirement. He’d grown up in the vineyards with his father Maurice teaching him vine maintenance but Picard’s passions took him away from home. With his older brother Robert devoting himself to oenology, Picard felt free to follow the decision of a different path. The traditions of the Picard estate would rest in his brother’s family.

Then, almost three decades ago tragedy struck when a winery fire killed both Picard’s brother, and nephew, Réne. The loss was devastating, and the future of Chateau La Barre seemed uncertain. Robert’s widow, Marie, was able to keep the winery operating successfully until a little less than 10 years ago when she fell ill. Around the same time Picard was first considering the possibility of retirement. With the news of Marie’s illness, and clear counsel from his friend, Guinan, Picard decided to take some time in France. Then the visit led to an unexpected discovery.

We’re standing in front of a special section of vineyard Picard wants to show me. What’s unique is that the grapes are entirely pale and green skinned, an ancient variety known as Savagnin. The region has been dominated by red wine production for centuries, more recently practicing in traditional techniques of wild yeast fermentations, and aging in neutral oak barrels. As Picard explains, the style is one resembling one of the oldest winemaking styles in France, with the most delicate of grapes, Pinot Noir.

Generations ago Chateau La Barre was instrumental in helping to restore the style, once called Burgundy, through the work of Picard’s great grandfather, Acel. Though the approach was met with resistance initially, ultimately, the family was lauded for their efforts to return to less interventionist winemaking based on the grape types that grew best on the land, requiring less use of fluidized treatments, and more reliance on the vines own unique ecosystem.

Prior to Acel Picard’s efforts, it was more common for wine to be made with the use of replicated nutrient intervention. Acel’s view, however, was that such an approach created less palatable, and less interesting wine. So he scoured the historical records for evidence of older techniques. In doing so, he found ancient texts left from devotees of an ancient religion known as Christianity in which it was believed that God spoke to them through the vines. Though Acel refused the more mystical aspects of the religious views, he found the vineyard practices of the texts insightful, and adopted the technique of tending and selecting individual vines, followed by simple winemaking. Chateau La Barre’s wines soon became known for their earthy mouth-watering complexity.

Picard’s own work builds on the efforts of his great grandfather to return to older techniques but in researching archaeological sites of the region, as well as ancient texts, Picard discovered a subtle mistake in Acel’s efforts. While Acel worked to restore red winemaking traditions known to Haute-Saône, he actually restored techniques native to an area of France slightly afield from the region. La Barre, it turns out, does not rest within the old boundaries of the ancient wine region of Burgundy, but instead a political shire of the same name. Picard himself does not believe this historical reality lessens the importance of Acel’s efforts, it just changes their tone slightly, but he does want to see what can be done to explore the winemaking traditions that really were found closer to La Barre centuries ago.

Enter Vin Jaune and the Ancient Varieties

Jean Luc in his vineyards
Jean-Luc Picard standing in his Eline Vineyard

Through archaeological work Picard preformed a sort of miracle. He was able to locate still intact seeds from ancient vine specimens known once to have covered this region of France, Savagnin, as well as seeds for the red variety that had once covered the wine region of Burgundy, Pinot Noir.

Before the destructive effectiveness of the technology was properly understood, Thalaron radiation was tested as a soil cleaning technique during the last agricultural age. The bio-effects were irrecoverable with vineyards throughout the Vosges zone being destroyed and then unplantable for a generation. As a result, a collection of indigenous grape varieties were believed to be lost, including Savagnin, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir. Once the soil recovered well enough to replant, large interests in inter-global varieties took over and any attempts to recover the original grapes seemed over.

During the Restoration period scientists attempted to re-engineer Savagnin as well as other ancient varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but Savagnin proved too susceptible to geraniol instability to engineer. When funding for the project was cut, efforts to restore Chardonnay were deemed the least advantageous and ultimately only Pinot Noir vines were genetically manufactured.

Through intensive research Picard was able to find a cave in the Vosges range containing ancient wooden vessels that proved to have a few small seeds inside. Through similar research he also located similar containers in the area of Gevrey-Chambertin within which he located Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Cabernet remain extinct.

With the seeds Picard was then able to develop new plantings of both Savagnin and Pinot Noir. The process depended on intensive plant selection to identify which of the new off spring matched the characteristics of the historic varieties. Grape seeds do not reproduce the exact same match as the cultivar from which they originated, but instead a range of possible varieties. With some genetic work, ampelographic research, and a bit of radiographic selection at germination Picard’s work was successful. With the new plants grown from the ancient seeds he was able to restart sections of his vineyard growing Savagnin and Pinot Noir. The area with these plantings he has named Eline. It is this he wants me to see.

Thanks to Picard’s efforts we now know there is significant difference in the flavor and aging potential of wines made from the engineered Pinot Noir versus the naturally grown variety. Picard has also discovered evidence from old electronic documents known as The Feiring Line: The Real Wine Newsletter of unique vinification techniques known as vin Jaune that were once used for the grape Savagnin. Through further study he has already discovered the steps to make vin Jaune and is five years into the aging of his first vintage.

I ask if we can taste his Savagnin but he explains it has only been under veil for a little over five years, and needs at least another year before he’s willing to show it. The veil, he explains, is how vin Jaune is made. It’s a film of yeast that covers the surface of the wine and helps it age slowly. When the wine is done it will be named Ressick, he tells me, for a planet that aged too fast.

***

Thank you to Jean-Luc Picard for giving so much of his time.

Post-edit: Since the publication of the original post Picard shared further information on his seed recovery efforts. That additional information has been added to this re-publication of the article. 

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Texsom International Wine Awards Submission Deadline Approaching

Photo from Texsom IWA
Texsom International Wine Awards (Texsom IWA) has extended its submission deadline until February 10. Entries can now be registered by Feb 10 through the Texsom IWA website. Entered wines must be shipped and received at Texsom IWA by Feb 12. The submission fee during this period is $105. The deadline was extended due to the inconveniences of the recent government shut down as well as unusually cold weather across the United States in January. Late expedited entries can be submitted and received to Texsom IWA by February 14 for a fee of $145.

Texsom IWA has been recognized as one of the most important wine competitions in the United States, with uniquely high consistency in determining quality among wines. In a study reported in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2017, Texsom IWA was considered the most selective of wine competitions examined. A smaller proportion of gold medals were awarded at Texsom IWA than other competitions, but those awarded were considered a stronger arbiter of high quality. The study also showed, that the evaluation procedures followed at Texsom IWA were more rigorous than other competitions.

Co-founder and director, James Tidwell MS, credits both the caliber and camaraderie of judges, as well as the rigorous verification process for wines entered as helping to set Texsom IWA apart.

“The goal at Texsom IWA is to present the right wine, in the right place, at the right time, to the right person, and in the best possible condition,” says Tidwell. The caliber of judges for Texsom IWA surpasses that seen from any other US-based competition. Sixty to seventy judges are selected each year from countries around the world, reflecting ….

To continue reading this article, head on over to Wine Business Monthly where the article appears free for all to read. Here’s the direct link. 

https://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataId=209358

Down to Earth: Sustainable Winegrowing in California

Interview with Elaine Chukan Brown

Photo by Photographer Robert Holmes
The California Wine Institute interviewed me this month about how California’s efforts around Sustainability compare to other such programs worldwide. They also wanted to hear more about how such sustainability efforts showed up in the Masters of Wine tour that traveled the state late last year. They published part of the interview in brief this morning. To read the interview, you can find it here: https://us10.campaign-archive.com/?u=2cff3f94229ec1de06fa0e504&id=8d595e3e8b

The Irreplaceable Listener: the importance of listening and self-doubt

illustration from 2011 when I was first getting started in wine
I am riddled with self-doubt. By now it’s developed its own personality. I imagine it an ethereal presence, more aura than substance, but it does have a voice. It speaks in whispers. When other people describe me, they often say I am confident, but inside that doubt is whispering.

When I work the whispers disappear. It’s a paradox, it seems, to lose the voices while doing the very thing the voices talk to me about. But there it is. Work for me is a kind of peacefulness. There, I live in a space of simple joy. Joy for me is a kind of surrender to the action.

Much of my time, I travel the world tasting wine and interviewing winemakers, walking vineyards and listening to those who farm them. There is a moment when something in these interviews shifts – the other person begins to share more freely and my self-doubt falls away. It is a moment when a level of rapport between the two of us clicks on, and how they share their work feels like not just a glimpse at the work they do but them. In those moments the whispers stop, as if even the self-doubt is fascinated by whoever I am there to see.

Elsewhere in my work I also spend time speaking or leading seminars, and writing but it is when listening to people I love my work best. When listening what I am doing seems to have little to do with me. Instead, by being fully present, absorbed in the other person – the insight they are sharing, the way their mannerisms and ways of speaking may reveal their inner world – my life becomes a mechanism for witnessing and absorbing them.

The joy of listening remains long after as I drive away. There is such intimacy in sharing that individualized space with whomever I am interviewing, of stepping into the world they are offering me, that much of me for long after feels stimulated and fulfilled. Excited by what I’ve gotten to witness. It’s an experience where in the joy afterwards I feel surrendered to some grander plan, as if the main reason I live this life is for these moments between me and one other person when I am there listening.

illustration done in 2011 of my birthday wine that year, when I was first getting started in wine
It is later, when the joy calms, that it begins to appear otherwise, that self-doubt returns. It is difficult to translate those shared moments, so small in their scope, to a larger world, or to turn such work into income. Reflecting on that, my work begins to seem irrelevant. From the perspective of broader reach, it largely is. There is no way to commodify and sell the act of listening. Counselors, psychologists, I suppose are a sort of listening profession. They have found a way to sell the time they spend listening to people share their sorrows or confusion. Priests through the confessional have done something similar. They are not paid by confessors but by the Church. Beyond such examples, it seems silly to imagine listening as relevant work worth paying for.

In the 1970s, Studs Terkel proved an exception. Today, some podcasts do as well. But in 1974, Terkel’s collection of transcripts, Working, from conversations with people discussing their work across almost every profession and level of fame – movie actor to garbage man, famed writer to house wife – was a kind of revolution. The transcripts were inspired by the radio show Terkel had interviewing both regular and famous people. Working was not the first or the last in his series of books compiling such interviews but it was the first to become a best seller and focus entirely on working life. Before it he’d compiled interviews with jazz performers, with regular people about their life in Chicago, and a more historical text on surviving the Great Depression. Terkel spent most of his life gathering interviews and transcripts in this way. Over time, his vocation gave him insight into the values and choices of everyday people. In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, Terkel offered the then-President elect advice based on Terkel’s own lifetime of listening. Listening had given him insight befitting of a President.

In my early twenties, I did two and a half years of professional actors’ training, primarily in Meisner Technique, though I also studied on camera acting, took a community college intro to acting class, and was a student actor for the same college’s directing class. I never had interest or the intention to be a professional actor and instead was trying to grapple with my own fears of being seen, and of speaking in public. It was there in the Meisner training I was introduced to Terkel’s work. In the second year of the program, we were asked to select from the collection Working to perform one of the transcripts as a monologue. I have no idea which one I selected. For me, the collection was far more fascinating as a sort of stained glass display of human life, each transcript a colored pane in the larger window. In truth, the extended study of acting did little to assuage my fears of being seen. I still feel skin crawling discomfort in getting attention. Instead, it shifted my perspective on both sides of the process – performing or speaking in front of others, and watching or listening to those that do. In either case, what I found through the training was an experience of great surrender, a way to give myself to the project at hand whether it is public speaking, or listening to others, to surrender even to discomfort and to move with it.

That sense of surrender is what I struggle to find in my moments of writing. The longer I have gone between writing sessions the more it feels like agony. Everything in me wants to avoid the work and the whispers feel more like screaming but instead of coming from some ethereal presence they feel like they come from the center of me. I rarely release actual sounds, though admit I sometimes do. Instead, it is as if I’ve learned to wrestle with myself, as if there really are two of me. And then eventually, if I keep at it long enough, the fatigue of wrestling gives way to surrender and I simply write. When I finish a piece, the relief is radiant and I move again into a similar joy I get from listening. It feels as if I’ve really accomplished something and witnessed a moment so intimate it is irreplaceable. By the time a piece is published, the joy has usually returned to self-doubt and I avoid thinking about it. If I let that shift to self-doubt hover too long I go back into a cycle of too much time between writing sessions and the process again becomes agony. It is from this experience I’ve learned the importance of wrestling. Agony is the doorway that can take me back to joy if I go ahead and wrestle through it. If I want to avoid wrestling, I can instead practice writing every day. But often, I don’t want to, and so I value wrestling.

illustration done in 2014 when I fulfilled my dream of drinking Salon by tasting every vintage made back to the 1970s side-by-side
Many writers I know describe a similar process of agony and retreat, of advance and exuberance. Then there are writers that seem to never have that experience. I think of them as journalists, invaluable hunters of facts and information. Even as they also reveal incredible insight into current events, and startling portrayals of human experience, somehow journalists seem guided more centrally by trust in their training than agony of the unknown.

For me, exploration of the unknown is what fascinates me about listening. It is in those moments, when two people have really found their rapport and speak with each other as people through their professions, rather than merely as two professionals doing their work, that that exploration begins. It is here that whoever is speaking seems to be discovering themselves and their work anew, even as they are sharing subjects they would seem to already know. The excitement of that discovery, or rather, of re-discovering the fascination we have with our chosen profession is what triggers my excitement for listening. It’s the same reason I like to listen to people re-tell stories of how they fell in love with their life partner or loved one. It’s like witnessing the spark of them falling in love all over again. Or, in interviews about work, the moment when new intimacy with the very thing the person has given most of their time to working on emerges. Besides the very subjects being discussed, what fascinates me about these moments is how the person listening helped inspire them, even as from another angle it seems to have almost nothing to do with who is listening precisely because it is about the person speaking.

Listening in this way becomes a sort of paradox – simultaneously creative and yet invisible, a profound intimacy that disappears in a moment, the moment in which the person listening becomes an irreplaceable audience rather than a simply exchangeable one. The particular listener is irreplaceable because it is their rapport with the speaker that helped the speaker re-discover their own story in just that way. And then the moment passes. The intimacy shared closes and the two people go on again about their lives.

If the self-doubt I suffer made me insecure – self-doubt and insecurity are importantly not the same – here is where I would bring in some kind of defensiveness. I could claim the moment never really disappears, that the intimacy matters, and becomes infused into whatever the person does afterwards, that they somehow imagine their lives differently after the experience, and that makes the listening important. In some cases, something like that might be true. In other cases it is simply not. Avoiding the trap of defensiveness matters. It won’t make the experience any more or less important than it happens to be anyway. And without it the self-doubt can offer a subtle lesson.

Self-doubt serves me partly because it is right. What I do is irrelevant from a large-scale perspective even as it also fascinates me for its specific moments. But it also serves me because my intimacy with self-doubt makes me, on the other side, acutely aware of those moments when I have surrendered to the action and helped foster something new.

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