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A CHAT WITH AUTHOR KATIE GOMEZ

Katie was a wine pal of mine whom I kept in loose touch with. As it happens, wine is the thing she writes most soberly about.


You’ll see this when you buy her amazing book Honestly, I Think My Guardian Angel Drinks. Yes, WHEN you buy it, because you will thank me fulsomely for having urged it upon you.

 

The book is not about w



ine, or not exactly about wine, except as part of a holistic and sensuous view of what we might quaintly call the “important things in life;” in this case family (in terms of culture and ritual and physicality and love), food (in terms of how to fucking cook it), alcoholic beverages, cigars, music, and the life of the temperament at its extreme limits of expressiveness. Her writing, if it occupies a “school” at all, fits into the sensibilities (and styles) of Gabrielle Hamilton, Anthony Bourdain, and most saliently, Hunter S. Thompson. She uses the word “gonzo” profligately. And for all she writes about food, she doesn’t offer any recipes, but rather she instructs you on how to cook the stuff. My use of “instructs” really only scratches the surface. She hectors you, she’s terribly (if lovingly) demanding, she wants you to just do it right, and if you can survive her peroration on the proper way to sear scallops without writhing convulsively in shame, you have thicker skin than I do. But your scallops will forever come out better.

 

She has a little section called  “she blinded me with science” which is the clearest writing I have ever seen about improbable synergies. I own the book by Gagniere and This called Cooking; The Quintessential Art, and the book is amazing and superb in its Gallic hyper-conceptual way, yet I’m here to tell you that my pal Katie says most of what that book says in 1/100th of the time.

 

She swears a lot. I mean a lot. And her prose is incandescently high-chi, such that it isn’t easy to read more than ten pages or so at a time. This is another way if saying that Gomez somehow squeezes twenty pounds of perception into a five-pound bag.

 

I was moved to get (back) in touch with her. I’m very glad I did.

 

Rather than my “introducing” her by reciting her CV, I asked her to do it for me.


TERRY: Please give me a sort of resumé of your progress through the wine business.

 



 

KATIE:  [Well], my cherry was popped when I started working for the Wine Enthusiast Magazine while I was in college. The magazine (versus the catalog) was in its infancy and I got to work under both the art director and the editor-in-chief (Tish) whom I developed a life-long working relationship with. I spent a great deal of time traveling and educating myself after I graduated and eventually Tish and I reconnected when he asked if I’d help work tastings for his company Wine For All. I spent several years working on and off for Tish, pouring and educating at his events. I started a blog in 2008 mostly because I missed writing so damn much and given the meteoric trend in wine blogging, it felt like I could build a home there. Once Casa Gonzo cemented itself, I started doing freelance writing (op/ed column) for Mutineer Magazine and also helping companies like Sacre Bleu Wine and Twisted Oak Winery with marketing on occasion. I also developed a friendship with Randall Grahm that we kept hoping would lead to us working together, but it simply wasn’t ever in the cards. Side note: I’m absolutely certain you don’t know this but I actually interviewed for Skurnik wines at one point…they said I was overqualified!


T: Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of your book. You published it yourself, right?

 

K: Indeed, self published. I got some serious interest from one publisher but they ended up passing. It’s insanely difficult to get a publisher if you’re a “nobody”. 

T: How long did it take to write?

 

K: About a year and a half since it wasn’t only a matter of writing…I was also honing the recipes. 

 

T: Did you have an editor or anyone to help with formatting and things of that nature?

K: Not at all. I was a one-woman band. I did everything. Formatting, photography, photo retouching, editing/proofing, cover artwork, you name it.


T: Would it be accurate to call it a “food book” in which wine plays an inseparable role? Or would you rather that food and wine are given equal billing?

 

K: I think “food book” is accurate, although when I describe it to others I generally say that it’s equal parts cookbook and memoir because the stories are an enormous part of the book. That said, there is an entire section at the end for drinks as well, so the recipes aren’t only for food. (Side note, I’ve gotten countless raves about the writing in the book but perhaps three or four folks at most gushing about recipes, which I find hilarious but at the same time reassuring, since that’s what my readership loved most about my blog…the fact that it was the work of a writer and not just a wine dork. In fact, someone was so engrossed in the stories that she missed her flight because she didn’t realize that they had changed gates on her.)


T: That’s some good writing. Oh, and I forgot to mention that music runs through your book as a sort of leitmotif. Another of your preoccupations!

K: Yes, I know - music too.  ;-)

 

T: What are you doing now (professionally) these days?

 

K: I’m a creative director so I’m ultimately responsible for managing all the work our marketing department cranks out…the copywriting, the photography, renders, print design, web design, mobile apps, point-of-purchase materials, you name it. 




T: You may have noticed, when being interviewed, that no one seems to ask the question you most deeply want to be asked. What would that question be, and how would you answer it?

 

K: :  I love how you say, “when being interviewed” as if it’s a commonplace experience for me. But I guess the one thing I wish people would ask me about is the music. For anyone that’s been awake for the entire Gonzo filmstrip, they know that every single piece I have ever written—whether for the blog or the book—has been titled with a song lyric. Hell, even the social media posts of my meals and my pours are all led by a song lyric, and no one has ever asked me why. 

 

T: Seemed self-evident to me. But okay, why?

 

K: I’m an even bigger music dork than I am a wine dork, mostly because I’ve been at it longer…nobody was handing me a glass of Grand Cru from the Côte d’Or when I was in the single digits, but my memories have always been steeped in music. When I taste, whatever it is I’m tasting or smelling, my thoughts come through in the form of music. I dunno, maybe it’s some crazy form of synesthesia? 

 

T:  I think if we feel those inputs intensely and internalize them automatically, it stands to reason that one of them may make us think of the other. Not to mention, music and wine are the two most ineffable things, and because of that, the vocabularies overlap to some degree. Tell me, what was the first great wine you tasted or drank? Did you know it was reputed to be “great,” and if so, did it fulfill your expectations? If you didn’t know it was supposed to be a great wine, how did you know it was great? (I’m more interested in the feeling-tone than in a more analytic explanation.)

 



K: I was fortunate enough to have worked for Wine Enthusiast Magazine while I was in college and the best part of that gig was being able to divvy up and take home the dozens of half-empty bottles that were left after tasting flights were poured. My dorm neighbors were drinking boxed Almaden while I was drinking first growths—and that was a priceless education—BUT there are only so many things you can teach a palate until it’s really matured enough for the “good stuff”.

 

Years later, while perusing the Chelsea Wine Vault, a saleswoman asked if she could help me, and I explained that I was looking for a few reds to turn my head. I liked earth. I liked funk. I liked that old-world, mushroomy, truffle-laced personality that was being all but eradicated by the contemporary wine world. And one of the bottles she handed me was R. Lopez de Heredia’s Viña Bosconia. She never touted it as being “great”, only that she was willing to bet the bank that it would tickle me in all the right spots. She wasn’t wrong.

 

When I cracked that bottle a few nights later and put my nose in the glass, it nearly clipped me at the knees. It was sensual—almost ethereal—in a way I had never experienced a wine before. The comparison is trite at this point, but it was akin to getting that long, deep, slow kiss you’ve been waiting impatiently for someone to plant on you. I melted. I spent the night emptying that bottle more slowly than I’ve ever emptied a bottle to this day because I didn’t want it to be gone. Every pour was different and every pour was better.

 

It pissed me off to learn that the winery was being scoffed at by the young guns who were then blazing trails in Rioja. They didn’t think it great at all. Its old-world mojo wasn't cutting it with the sterile, new guard who were poo-pooing the fact that these wines spent several years in a bottle under a thick veil of mold and cobwebs. I respect the hell out of Heredia because they continue to flip the bird at modernity despite the evolution/devolution going on around them. It doesn’t matter how many other “great” bottles I’ve opened; it is still my absolute favorite.

 



T: I’m with you sister. Back about 10-15 years ago Lopez needed to raise cash and started selling old vintages from their cellar for cheap. Those days are gone, but my memories are full of bliss for those wines. I even scored a 1947 which was so sexy it curled the toes on my neighbors feet. You know this already, but Muga and others are still flying the flag for that style, and all over the region there’s sentiment that the “modern” wave went too far. And you won’t be shocked to learn that one of my absolutely most beloved wines is old Rioja - we drank a 1959 Glorioso just a few days ago. What such wines have in common with (what I call) the “Bull Durham kiss” is the sadness and the swoon.

 

This leads me to my follow-up question.

You “melted.” I get that. Most people don’t. If we describe such powerful feeling created by a wine, they’re skeptical,  and suppose we are affected or pretentious, and are also themselves insecure, wondering whether there something they’re missing because of some deficiency they have. You are a communicator about wine. How do you reassure them that A) the experience is real, and B) it isn’t any sort of “goal” or sine qua non, and as far as wine is concerned you are always adequate and it will meet you where you are?

 

 Speaking of music, I can have something on in the background and attend to it sporadically, unless and until it surprises me, at which point I’m alert as a meerkat. And the greatest moments are those of tonal ambiguity, where the key signature (or any organizing principle) is lost and the music slips free of gravity. If there’s paradox or ambivalence that’s when I’m electrified, and - if the music is good - extremely moved. To me it feels like slipping through an incision in the membrane separating mind from spirit. I tell you this because it has happened with wine also. Not often, but quite powerful when it does.

 

I suppose my question to you would be - does this make a lick of sense?  If it does, how does it translate to the reality-of-being-Katie?  If it doesn’t, do you have analogous experiences with wine in which you have the “We’re not in Kansas any more” feeling?

 

 

K:  The moment I read, “the membrane separating mind from spirit” I was reminded of HST’s quote, “The balance between my brain and my soul and my body is as wild and delicate as the skin of a Ming vase.” 

 

I generally find it incredibly difficult to relegate music to the background. I’m always hyper-aware of its presence which is why I’ve always found it impossible to write while music is playing unless it’s instrumental. And even then, it’s never classical or jazz. It’s always lo-fi hip hop which is downtempo and somewhat hypnotic. But the moment words are involved, my brain can’t NOT pay attention to them, even if they’re banal. Too many neurons get fired in my brain’s circuitry. So, as a writer, I require lo-fi the way a racehorse requires blinders. 

 

But let’s put that aside because you’ve actually hit home with drawing a parallel between the experience of music and wine when it comes to PARADOX. I’ve always had this ongoing internal debate about both the aesthetic and intellect of wine and music. There are times when I find myself waxing eloquent about oh, I dunno, let’s say the brilliance of Steely Dan’s album Aja. I can gush about its complexity. Its sophistication. Its instrumentation. But none of that is visceral, right? It’s cerebral. I could argue that there’s just as much to admire about a Bee Gees disco tune. That sometimes we need to get out of our heads and be led by our soul…or our groin (hence, the membrane separating mind and spirit).

 

The same holds true for wine. I often find myself shutting down my own rhetoric and reminding myself that, at the end of the day, it’s also simply a beverage. Not every bottle I open requires acute attention. Sometimes, the greatest pleasure to be wrought from drinking wine is to turn the mind off. To stop reaching for tasting notes. To stop overcomplicating and overanalyzing it and just say, holy fuck, that is an incredibly yummy glass of grape juice. I think we sometimes do wine a disservice by intellectualizing it. 



T:  Steely Dan’s only cerebral if that’s where you stop. It’s true but not the whole truth, which is that so much of that music is beautiful, and (not so) incidentally addictive, so that I can marvel at the slip-and-slide harmonic movement in, say, Black Cow (in the “but where are you, tomorrow,” that elides into the chorus, so that “I don’t care anymore, why you run around” is utterly inevitable and irresistible, and then there’s that sly-as-fuck chord change at “….and get outta here…”), which is just one example of how that band is misunderstood. Incidentally, if you don’t know the song “Almost Gothic,” it’s as close to perfection as a “pop” song can be. As is “My Sharona,” in its own way.

 

K: And there’s the rub: “If that’s where you stop.” Because that’s the problem with most wine writing…it stops there. If we are analyzing music/food/wine intellectually then we are standing outside of it to a certain degree. What you describe above requires an act of submission…of surrender…so you can stand inside it. Thus, to stand outside of wine, you can tell me you’re picking up citrus notes or tobacco (and readers demand that, otherwise, they can’t make an informed decision on whether or not it’s a wine they’d like to try). The true beauty lies in surrendering to it, but how the hell do you describe that? Words fail. Language isn’t suited to wine (or music, or anything else we might deem “art”). That’s the wine paradox I’ve tried my best to tame in my writing. "Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

 

T: Yes, if we insist on intellectualizing each and every wine, obviously. That’s just ridiculous. But where I agree strongly with you is that we don’t pay enough tribute to those “modest” absurdly tasty wines that don’t demand attention but just keep us blissful company.

 

This leads to my new question: Agreeing that the Nth degree of cerebral attention is not warranted for every wine, how do we avoid slipping into an anti-intellectual “populist” trap? Can you write a little manifesto saying “This is when to pay attention” and “This is when not to pay attention?”

 

(I’d do it by saying “See what the moment is asking, and then give it.”)


K: What you distilled it down to is wholly on point, but it begs a slightly bigger question…how can they be sure what the moment is asking? I’m not entirely sure that can be taught. Neophytes generally have a voracious appetite for experience so they are always paying attention. How does a cab from CA differ from a Bourdeaux or one from Chile? They’re never going to know unless they’re intellectualizing, so every pour is an education. It’s not until they’ve got their sea legs that they feel comfortable turning that switch off and simply enjoying the wine without scratching out a litany of tasting notes like a cardiograph. How do you say to someone who loves photographing sunsets, “Dude, take the night off for fuck’s sake. It’s just another sunset.” Their answer would be, “Yeah, but it’s gonna be different from yesterday’s sunset.” And they’re not wrong. They’re afraid they’ll miss something monumental. So I’d argue that it’s not until you’ve paid a lot of attention that you know when not to pay attention. 

 

I realize that hasn’t at all answered your question which is a bit of a false dichotomy. Are we really in danger of slipping into a populist trap merely by insisting that not every wine demands our unfettered attention? But back to your distillation, perhaps it’s the wine that does the asking and not the moment. Perhaps we approach each wine asking, “What do you need from me?” and then listen to its answer.

 



T: As regards paying attention, a problem with the wine world is an implied insistence that the utmost attention must at all times be paid in order to gain entry into the fortress. I think that as a group we ought to reassure “civilians” that they’re not obliged to approach wines in any way except what comes naturally. Then folks like you and I end up self-selecting for deeper study because we’ve been charged by curiosity.

 

I also realize that my admonishments for people to “relax” more (with wine at least) is a privilege of mastery. Put another way, a virtuoso who’d sure his chops won’t let him down can just concentrate on the music because the instrument will obey him. But first, <sigh>, you gotta get there. That said, it has to be possible to speak reasonably with people at any stage of their wine knowledge, including those who don’t wish to obtain wine knowledge.

Another question : you wrote in your book that you got into some kerfuffle when colleagues objected to your use of “profanity” in tasting notes. I cordially invite you to defend your use of profanity in wine writing beyond the self-evident assertion that “This is just the way I am…” 

 

 

K: I’ll also circle back to paying attention one last time before answering that question… I think you’ve gotten to the crux of it by breaking the audience we are speaking to into 2 factions…those who wish to obtain knowledge and those who don’t. Because while I agree that “civilians” (love this choice of word LOL) are certainly not obliged to approach wines in any way except what comes naturally, we can’t expect that to be the case if they are trying to learn. I think perhaps that’s why my writing has always carried a voice that was informed but never stuffy. I think audiences respect someone who, for example, is wholly capable of going toe-to-toe with industry professionals about the pros/cons of malolactic fermentation but chooses instead to refer to a white wine as having a Michelle Pfeiffer body vs an Anna Nicole Smith body. It’s still the intellectual but painted with a more romantic stroke. It’s what I’ve always loved about your writing. There is often a sense of anthropomorphism you ascribe to wine. 

 

On to my language; I know we have to get beyond “This is just the way I am…” but I do want to give it its due attention, because it does matter…a LOT. If I am not being 100% myself in my writing then I am being disingenuous to my readers. Are my intentions pure? Is my voice sincere? Or am I forcing it for the sake of shock value? These questions matter. Profanity is part of my lexicon. I have to be me and that means being 100% me, not 75% me. 

 

Listen to what I say. How do I make you feel? Do I make sense? I tend to alienate those who take themselves too seriously but, honestly, I’d rather prune that part of my potential audience away so it affords me the ability to continue being me. I can speak eloquently without profanity. I can do the same with my writing. But it would be me holding back. Fuck holding back.

 

It’s never been about cursing with the intent to push buttons or garner attention. Nor was it ever to appeal to the lowest common denominator. When I use profanity I am conveying emotion. Let’s be honest, “Oh darn” will never carry the same emotional weight of, “Oh fuck”. I didn’t make the rules, but I like them. 

 

Why do I curse? Emotional weight.

 

T: While on the subject of language, what’s your take on the debate about using the words “masculine” and “feminine” to describe wines?

 

K: Admittedly, I use a ton of it and I make zero apologies for it. They can put me on the whipping post all they like, but I’ll never capitulate. The characteristic of a wine being feminine or masculine by the way it unfolds itself to me is a wholly personal matter. Thus, again we circle back to me being 100% me in my writing and not sacrificing a part of myself because someone deems my language offensive. That’s inauthentic. I’m not about to take refuge in the false security of consensus and a sort of comfort in knowing that whatever I write is bound to be “ok” because I’m in the moral majority. I don’t need someone to second me. My own perceptions, interpretations, and opinions are enough for me. Much the same way I unintentionally prune my audience with my use of profanity, if it happens with gender-based adjectives, so be it. I find the use of obscure fruit in tasting notes offensive but I’d never want to curtail someone’s ability to describe a sauvignon blanc as having hints of gooseberry for fuck’s sake.

 

T:That’s the Katie I know and love. Thanks for the chat.

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