This is the question I get whenever I mention I’m starting a career in wine. It’s a question I love to answer, as opposed to: “You dtf?” or, “Are those real?” (Thanks, OK Cupid!)
So, here’s the story:
In the spring of 1995, I was on my second year of living in Los Angeles and had become fond of gathering friends from across the city to learn new stuff. Wine is all about learning new stuff and drinking, so taking a wine class made solid sense. I found a two-hour “Introduction to Wine” class held in the cellar of a posh Beverly Hills wine shop, and our group of 10 took over the joint.
The teacher (“wine educator” if you’re nasty) was an eminently knowledgeable, semi-British gentleman in a three-piece suit and bow tie who would express his every delight with a giggle, a shrug, and a one-footed hop. It was as though he’d stepped (or rather, hopped) right out of a Monty Python sketch.
For the first hour of class he had everyone’s attention as he showed us around a world map, had us smell vials of freshly cut grass, raspberry oil and cat pee, and encouraged us to identify sensory differences between pinot noir and cabernet. By the second hour, as my increasingly drunken cohorts devolved into gossip, singing, and reciting lines from Friends (did I mention this was 1995?), it became clear that my instructor and I were the only two folks in the room who wanted to talk about wine rather than guzzle it. I side-stepped the table with my giggle-hopping muse, me peppering him with a flood of questions, he answering with the most fascinating facts I’d ever yet heard.
You know that thing where you look at something and everything else seems to fall away, like there’s a spotlight on the object of your desire? That was me absorbing the names of the world’s major grapes, what terroir meant, the different ways wine could smell and taste, and why — all for the first time. As far as I could tell, wine was a giant puzzle, and if you pieced together its regions, vineyards, soil, weather, history and grapes, you could construct an entire alternate universe.
Wine, I then realized, is The Matrix of booze.
This quest for the alternate-universe-puzzle soon led me to wander through wine shops and restaurant lists, to play wine trivia games like a great big dork, and idiot savant my way through blind tastings. Amidst exploring all of California’s wine regions, I branched out to other reaches of the wine-making Earth, running my fingers gently over grapevines, sifting soil through my fingers, and tasting everything on offer. For two decades, I dilettanted my way in and out of eleventy-thousand-some-odd bottles of wine, only to find there was still a lot I didn’t know about this thing I loved a lot.
Flash forward to January 2017. I’d been living in my hometown of DC for just over a year, propelled by my then-ailing father’s impending death. With a curiosity cabinet full of careers already behind me —assistant in TV development and movie special effects, personalized clay-figure sculptor, and socio-political diorama artist — plus a heartbreaking divorce, I was entering my ninth year as a travel writer. I’d schlepped over much of the Earth and had fabulous, fascinating, semi-tragic and hilarious experiences, but what had once inspired a fiery passion had waned into a career defined largely by loneliness and disappointment, peppered with fleeting moments of elation via transportation and publication.
So there I was, tucked into the Quiet Car of the Amtrak Northeast Regional and hurtling toward The New York Times Travel Show, questioning if I still had a career I actually wanted. I mean, what else on Earth would bring me joy if not the global pursuit of “best of” listicles??
From somewhere deep inside my solar plexus, a clear thought rose to the surface:
Wine has always brought me joy.
Whipping out my trusty and ever-present notebook (dude, I’m a professional), I began heatedly scribbling a pros and cons list about pursuing a new career in wine — and in my 40s, no less. By the time the train pulled into Penn Station, I’d identified a course of wine study, a local DC school and an upcoming class schedule, a handful of local DC wine shops and bars where I might like to work, and a general idea of the skills needed to be a sommelier, wine sales rep, and an importer.
(I mean, hey — I don’t believe in wasting time. Unless there’s Netflix involved. Or if it’s raining. Or very cold out. Or very hot.)
Looking back on that New York minute, it wasn’t the greatest travel show I’d ever attended. But you know what has been great? Studying my way to WSET level 2 and 3 certifications, finding a brief but rewarding job at a beautifully curated DC wine shop, meeting lots of other wine people, amassing a kick-ass wine library, and having semi-mundane dreams each night about pruning canopies, testing soil samples, cleaning tanks, perfecting my hose coil, designing wine labels, and comparing barrel tastings.
Turns out my subconscious has been trying to tell me I want to become a winemaker, and I’ve decided to listen. I’m now actively seeking a harvest internship at wineries in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, and this coming May I’ll be moving to California wine country to start yet another brand new life.
Just like in The Matrix, we all have the choice of the proverbial red pill or blue pill, but I’m choosing to stay off pills altogether…and instead I’m drinking deeply, straight out the bottle.