Home Miscellany Feet Made of Leather: The Wakawaka Chronicles, for Denise

Feet Made of Leather: The Wakawaka Chronicles, for Denise


Your feet look like they’re made of leather.
Let’s go walk around the farm. –Clare Carver

In Spring of 2001 I ran away from my ex-husband. My daughter was 18 months old, and he believed we were simply taking a trip North to visit family for the summer. I’d convinced him by planning to commercial fish for salmon that year, as I’d grown up doing, which meant I’d be paid, and he, therefore, would have more money. In the end, I never went back, and I haven’t seen him since the moment he dropped his daughter and I off curbside at the airport.

Our marriage began having trouble almost as soon as it started, and when Rachel was born problems escalated. Determined to do what I could to make things work, I tried various tactics for well over a year until first he told me he didn’t want me to leave the house (ever) for my own safety, and then added that he’d be filing all our money in an account with only his name on it. I’d been waiting for a sign of confirmation on whether I should leave or keep trying. The combination of isolation and lack of money seemed an obvious answer by that point. In the end, I spent the last month with him afraid he would kill me. Not by planning, but because the tension coming off his body was so high it seemed he could snap at any moment, and at various points he did snap, just not with me right next to him. Before our getting to me planning to leave in secret, I’d done the responsible thing and talked to him about us splitting up. At first he’d responded in a way far too reasonable. The next day he threatened me.

The departure from that relationship is a moment that has shaped my entire life. I pushed my way into graduate education with funding because I was determined that running from an abusive marriage wouldn’t be the marker that defined my life. Working as hard as I did to succeed in school, while living below the poverty line, and raising a young child, in my mind was no hard work compared to what I’d gotten myself out of with him. Strangely, how hard I’ve worked to transcend the limits of that marriage has simply affirmed what a gift my abusive relationship was. Not that I would ever wish it on anyone. (I pray daily we will all work together, to love openly enough that we may never witness another relationship or person so unhealthy again.) Still, I cannot deny my having been there rests in my past now as a gift.

I have spent the summer talking with people. Listening, mostly. It has been an incredible blessing. Earlier this week I had dinner with a woman I think and feel very highly of, Remy, of Remy Wine. She was asking me to describe to her how I understood my own work–this traveling around writing about wine. I outlined the bullet points of what I believe I do but finally said to her that again and again I find myself in moments of incredible intimacy with others. Moments where people open to share with me sometimes the best of who they are, sometimes their most precious values, sometimes the awkwardness of what they do, sometimes the uncertainty of why I want to talk with them at all. But where ever these pitches of conversation may point, in each case, I experience an openness asking me to listen. So, there I sit, apparently to write about a person’s wine, but what I witness there is a person present in front of me. What I listen for is their story.

My life has taken me through so many moments. It took almost two years after that curbside drop off, but finally I got through my escape from my husband with full custody of our daughter, and nothing else. I’d left our belongings behind. At the close of it I felt certain nothing else would ever be so hard and so I decided to try everything. I’d already trained camels for four years; worked as a 1-900 psychic for a time. So, I decided to go to graduate school. It turned out the daily exertion of thinking so hard towards unclear ends that a PhD in philosophy demands, while raising a daughter on my own, felt, after three years at McGill, far harder on me than my divorce had been.

Why do I write these things?

In listening to people there is regularly a point that appears in which the story depends on describing what, for the person, is a pivotal moment. What’s become clear is that at this point of a person’s story there is usually one of two differing, both incredible threads. On the one hand, there has been story after incredible story of a person there in front of me taking a seemingly insurmountable risk in order to follow their dream, or their heart. I can’t count here how many people in wine have a story like this, but many many of them do. A story of walking away from a well established job in order to choose what the person almost can’t help but do–make wine–even at the risk of no money and total failure. Or, of inexplicable, almost out of no where, a realization that they must make wine, even without a family history of doing so, and often without any real knowledge of how one even makes wine. Or, even the story of someone that fell into a wine making job after college and now has had their entire life passion shaped by it. In each case, there is a kind of unison present between what the person knows they want to do, and what they actually do–live a life of wine.

Then, too, there are stories of people’s fear, fear they will fail, fear they’re doing the wrong thing, fear people won’t like them or their wine. (Let’s be honest, I have heard a few rather boring stories of how people think about wine. But those really are few, and the truth is those lives look rather different from the others–less expressive, less focused, less interested.) All of us have fear. I’ve come to believe it’s important for how it guides us, for how it keeps us alert, but also too for how it drives us to seek connection–to god, to others, to love, to our deeper selves. The stories about people radically changing their lives for wine seem to make contact with the stories about how scared someone is at the place where risk and fear intersect. How the story I’m hearing goes–either into a total leap of faith pursuing what the person wants, on the one hand, or, into vacillation back and forth between desire and uncertainty, not taking the clear leap, on the other–seems to rest in which phenomenon, risk or fear, takes the bigger hold on the person.

For some of us, a moment arises when the need to step forward into what we must do is so great, the risk associated almost holds no relevance. Let me restate. It’s not that the awareness of risk falls away ignored. It’s that inasmuch as the person is still reflecting on the risk there, it simply helps to focus their choice all the more. In this way, the awareness of risk in the face of what we believe we must do makes us more determined to commit it all, believing that is the best way to secure a chance to succeed. Weirdly, in these cases, the person’s ability to pursue success seems to coincide with their ability to risk even more.

But for many of us fear stands as a guidepost against which we cannot choose–fear acts as the thing that tells us when we must not risk failure even in the face of wanting all our dreams. For many of us, fear acts as the thing that makes us stop and not move forward towards what we want. From listening to these stories, what I’ve learned is that those of us that convince ourselves not to follow these heart dreams do it by believing and telling others that our fears are justified, because, the story goes, we’ve suffered through something insurmountable and unique. That unique thing proving we are right to shut down and not choose for the sake of what we want. We’ve suffered before and now believe we will suffer again.

I was raised to understand the best way to communicate lessons and truth was by telling (and, more importantly, living) stories. So, let me again say part of mine.

At the start of Summer 2012, I made a decision. Some of my friends believe I’m crazy. What I knew was that I felt compelled to write about wine, but not just wine, about the people and their stories connected to it. I also knew I wanted to travel, and I wanted to talk to people face to face, to enrich my wine knowledge by being present on the ground (which I always hope to do–I’m someone that needs projects and believes any of us can always be learning, even if we’re already experts in a field), on site with the places themselves that make wine in the United States. And so I set out to have a summer in which that’s precisely what I did. I’ve been lucky. IPNC invited me as a media person this year, which got me to Oregon. Others extended guest housing, and an interest (or willingness) to have appointments with me to talk to them. And I’ve had now almost two months of 10+ hour average days doing precisely what I set out to do–listen to people. Ten weeks on the road, minus 10 days of that visiting family, the whole time spent meeting people, or driving to meet someone. So, I’ve put a lot of work into this choice I’ve made. But I chose it just the same because it’s what I wanted.

The crazy part is that I have no idea what I’ll do really after the summer is up. I’m not being paid for any of this, and currently I have no actual job. I left a career teaching philosophy at the end of the Fall 2011 term. Teaching, and philosophy, both, were things I am good at, but I’d reached the moment when I had to choose to risk what might still be an insurmountable leap. The first step was away from a reliable job. The leap through the air I’m still in the middle of making. I have enough money to get through my summer. But none of this has been funded on a millionaire’s money. I have very little actually. And in a sense all of it has been scary. But more than that, it’s been what I’ve wanted to do. I’m talking about it now because so many people have asked me either what I’m doing, or why, or how I’m funding it. And even more have asked me how I got here from there, that is, wanting some sense of who I am, and why I live the way I do, ten weeks on the road.

Getting out of my marriage in the way that I did affirmed for me the importance of fear–believing he could either kill me or stalk me after–and that it does not actually rule what we may do. Leaving my marriage in the way that I did showed me that in the grip of the most consuming terror we still can choose for the sake of what’s bigger, for the sake of what we care more about. Going to graduate school made me realize the all encompassing, grind your soul out pressure of hard work can be important, can get you closer towards what you want in life because of how it shapes and trains you. And, again, that the fear of working so hard is no reason to avoid what we wish for. In the midst of both I’ve been in circumstances surely too severe to raise a child well on my own, and yet my daughter is a remarkable person. Her heart, it turns out, simply needs mine to be dedicated to hers. And so I am lucky. Having come through these things, I find myself now choosing something rather simple. To listen.

Living these moments with others, and a glass of wine, where all I can do is listen, and often listen as hard as I possibly can, while people tell me about the risks they’ve taken to get to where they are, or their view of the wine region in which they live, or how they came to use whole cluster or not in their Pinot production… living these moments is exactly what I have wished to do. It’s a life I believe brings together so much of who I am and what I’m good at. It’s what I intend to keep doing. Honestly, I am so grateful. I learn so much grace from these moments with other people. And sometime soon too I’ll step into whatever way I’m going to get back to making a living, both for me and for my daughter that I’ve raised on my own since the moment I left the curb at the airport, more than ten years ago now. I don’t know yet where that living will come from, but I can’t wait to find out.

There are so many things to be scared of. Many of them are legitimate fears, fears we can be grateful for because of how they focus us. In the midst of them, I ask, what would we do, each of us, if we could recognize that our dreams, our own determination, and our ability to do hard work are all so much bigger, and so much stronger, than what we’re scared to do.

Amen, with so much thanks.


Thank you to William Allen, to Don Beith, and to Dan Fredman.

With love to Meg, Stephanie, Neile and Katherine.

Copyright 2012 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com


  1. You describe so beautifully those moments I’ve experienced at wineries and estates in Europe, South American, Australia, the West Coast, those points of friendship and intimacy — with people I may never see again — about their love and discipline and hard work and disappointment, not so much in regard to the finished product, the wine in the bottle, but about the land and the soil, the vineyard, the grapes as they burgeon through the growing season. There’s something indescribable about that brief closeness when a farmer or producer or winemaker talks about the inextricable connection to the earth and the process of nurture and harvest that makes writing about wine the most worthwhile, because in that connection and that talk lie the truth of what we’re all after, if we’re serious about wine and writing. Thanks for this, and I hope it serves as inspiration for others to face their fears and to exrtend themselves into the unknown…

  2. going gently and recognizing how we touch and effect each other is such a good end game – thank you for sharing … I meant the leather feet as a compliment – I saw in you a woman of strength and carefully placed feet at the same time….. I so enjoyed your company at the farm… I look forward to the next time we get a chance … best wishes in your adventure…

    • Clare, thank you! Our time at the farm meant a lot to me, and I definitely took your comment as a compliment. Thank you. Being seen as you describe here … it is so valuable. Thank you. I have been showing your wines off throughout California. Had a long conversation about you with a shop owner in Calistoga; have mentioned your label design work to a number of people; and celebrated your Riesling as one of the stand outs at a recent Riesling tasting party I went to here in Napa. Miss you. Come visit. I know Abe would love to see you here too.

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