“They say late bloomers are rare not because talent in older people is rare, but because talents that might develop when we’re older often don’t get a chance to shine. They lie buried beneath an earlier chosen career, a restricted identity or the lack of freedom to explore. Many die with the music still in them”
- Andrea Frost
In the last few years of my work, before it was unexpectedly curtailed, I felt for the first time comfortable in my skin. I’m not quite sure why; who ever knows these things with certainty? Adopted people, of whom I am one, often describe feeling bifurcated, as though we’re living on parallel tracks going in the same direction but not touching. Maybe true, maybe not, maybe I’m just a misfit looking for something to blame. Even if that’s not true, I often felt I was shaping myself to fit into whatever container I’d been assigned. Many of us feel that way. Still, these past years were marked by an unfamiliar sense of congruence. Who I was and what I did were connected. I didn’t know this consciously; I simply felt relaxed.
The tastings of the new vintages were essentially effortless. Suddenly my occasionally stroppy palate was cruising cooperatively. I grokked the wines and understood them in contexts of terroir, weather, personality and history. Even more surprisingly, words came easily, obediently. I freed myself of the need to say something new about the wines, as though this could be done at all after 35 years of tasting each new vintage. Still, no vintage is quite like its predecessors, and finding the precise word to depict its uniqueness was easier now. (Not that I was always correct, mind you, but at least I was articulately mistaken…) The decades had deepened my contexts, and a wine without context is a jewel without a setting.
It grew easier and sweeter with the growers too. Where we had long histories together, there was an implied sentimentality that wasn’t slushy or maudlin. Indeed, growers my age seemed to be aware, as I was, that we were on the downslopes of our lives and then our mutual history grew suddenly beautiful. The younger growers gifted me with the respect of being a friend to their parents. Where no parents were present we got along anyway, maybe because I felt so easy and serene and it seemed simple to be present to them and to their wines.
My catalogues (to which you can link on this site) started flowing out of me. Even their first drafts were graceful. Believe me, this hadn’t happened before. And thinking of it now, I am amazed by those corollary gifts of an integrated self, the many struggles that were melting away.
I hardly mean to imply that I’d become any sort of divine being. All my flaws were still at hand. But I didn’t have to pretend any more, and that was a huge relief, and relief makes us kind, and kindness is contagious, and so my profession was a place of welcome and ease.
In the last eighteen months of traveling to work with my colleagues and see my customers, it was comradely as never before, and we enacted a series of events not so much “tastings” as “seminars of revelation.” Most authentic wines contain embedded stories if we know where to find them, and I selected wines from my portfolio where those stories were explicit and numinous. I let myself talk about them without fear of seeming foolish. I was, I’m sure, often foolish, but who cared! The wines were beautiful, and my galoot self was letting it all spill out, and it was richly heartening to see that people were thirsty for connection to something beautiful and someone to hold open those doors. Afterwards I received no end of emails and letters saying, the seminars were “life-changing” or that their passion for wine had been renewed, or that they were reconnected to their reasons for being in the wine business at all.
I hadn’t set about to do any of this, consciously. I just wanted to immerse in the world of beauty and to share it without inhibitions. The ostensible “goal” was to get people jazzed about the wines by doing what I could to excavate their wonders, but then we found ourselves in a place of wonders, and then, at last, in wonder ourselves.
Please know, none of this felt like something I had attained by dint of effort or virtue. It was rather a gift I’d been given unexpectedly, one I felt responsible to put to the best possible use. Taste the wines with my whole self. Be loving and present to the growers. Write about it as simply and helpfully as I could. Be present among my customers as an entire person, with as little “personage” as possible. At some point I started to feel that the work was going well. I was happy. The final years of my career would be the lyric coda I never dared to hope for, thankful for the chance to be in my entirety, as I did the work I had come to cherish.
The only times that felt discordant were the big trade tastings, which I could only manage in those last years by lusty doses of cbd. I never liked them, and I always sucked at them. I wanted to taste as many wines as I could, but tasting at tastings is inherently superficial and cacophonous. I knew I had to schmooze-and-cruise but I always felt wretched because I’m awful with names. Hour after hour of noise make me crabby. If anyone formed an impression of me based on how I was at tastings, they were right to find me aloof, distracted, ill at ease and prone to say awkward or clumsy things.
But put me in my element and I could soften and shine.
Finally I think the greatest gift of these recent years was the freedom from the temporal. Especially the short-term demands of the “marketplace.” Of course my catalogues were anachronisms, (yet they were beautiful) ; of course my tempo was the opposite of “aggressive” and of course I was slow to the new lingua-franca (if I spoke it at all), and of course I was the very avatar of the OK Boomer, and yet I was sprung loose from giving a shit. Yup, I was a fuddy-duddy (as is that very phrase!) yet I was connecting to people of all ages not because I was trying to be hip like them but because I was proudly the utter emotional weirdo I knew myself to be – and allowed myself to be.
Like most of us, I don’t know what comes next. The pandemic will alter the world. What place I might find for my work in that world, remains to be seen. I’d love to resume tasting and discussing the new vintages in some form, as it seems like something that would be helpful to everyone: the producers, their salespeople, their potential customers, and me. Whether that can take for form of a concrete plan, I’m not yet sure. But I do know this: There is no time to waste, none, not for any of us, on being anything but who we most naturally and essentially and deeply are. We do not need to rope off our lives into compartments where we need to be a simulated person in our work lives. We have a human right to desire (and demand!) that we bring our entire selves to our work. I’m sad that such grace was disrupted for me as it has been for so many of us of late, yet I am grateful to have known it at all. May all of you get to know it too. It is as sweet a gift as could ever be.