I never dreamt of being a winemaker. I never knew that was even a thing, a job, a profession. For me growing up, making wine was something everyone in the Macedonian villages did each fall when the grapes were ripe, along with roasting peppers for ajvar, fermenting vegetables, drying tobacco, distilling whiskey, burying chestnuts and hiding apples in straw for safekeeping. I grew up on these stories and the wine my dad made in our Michigan garage. “First, you take the grape,” he is famous for saying. He told me how in preparation for harvest, my grandparents would clean their barrels with steam from hot rocks fired over an open flame. They would time their picks to ferment on clear days so the weight of the clouds wouldn’t burden the wine with haze. The barrels were positioned on their heads for fermentation. Grape skins were kept in contact with the juice by a tightly woven wreath of branches floating on top of the must anchored by stones. At some point during the ferment process when my grandfather deemed it ready, the first batch of slightly sweet wine was bled off through the spigot at the bottom. This was called “shira” and the ladies loved it.
In some homes the must was kept with the juice all winter long. In others, it was pressed off into different barrels. There was no topping. You simply pulled what you needed from the spigot each night from the barrel kept in cold storage. When spring arrived and the wine supply was low, the remaining dregs were distilled into whiskey. It was rare to bottle any wine. As a kid visiting Macedonia each summer, wine was not a normal addition to the lunchtime table in the village. The meal always started with whiskey and most of the time ended with whiskey with some beer thrown in to keep everyone honest. Only in recent decades has the wine culture trend permeated Macedonia, as has every other global trend, and Macedonia today is now building on its history to craft a reputation as a premium wine producer.
Which brings me back to the purpose of my thoughts today as I write. My parents are coming to visit for Thanksgiving and I am making my mom her favorite whole-wheat pita bread. As I gently stirred the yeast into the warm water to start a sponge the smell of fermentation struck me right in the third eye and I was instantly transported to the midst of harvest surrounded by fermentation bins, grape samples and barrels. This was a very difficult harvest for me. I started July 25th with Pinot Noir from Malibu and ended November 11th when I pressed Cabernet Sauvignon from Happy Canyon. I also run two businesses and try to make sense out of this world in the process. I am not complaining and I am fully aware that my story is not atypical. Just to say that I am reminded now of just how exhausted I was in mid October when I met my parents in Washington DC for a Macedonian conference where I was the emcee.
As they picked me up from the airport I tried to hide my stained and calloused hands from my mom who would at some point make a comment on them. In the hotel room where we snacked on the delicacies she brought from home in archetypical Macedonian mother fashion, we were in conversation about the conference and its attendees. (As an aside, I studied political science in undergrad and journalism in graduate school and I received a Fulbright scholarship to study ethnic issues in Macedonia in 1998-1999. I imagined during that time I would be a journalist on the front lines toward peace. But we all know what happens to the best-laid plans.) As I am biting into a slice of my mother’s creation, she looks at me and says, “After all of your schooling and two degrees all you are is a winemaker.”
I sat silent and continued eating, letting the conversation swirl around me. It stung at first. I am not sure if she knew what she meant or if she meant what she said. I do know that she worries about my work being so physically demanding and she doesn’t really know how this fits in with her worldview. As I mentioned before, you made a living doing something else and you made wine for living. My parents, along with almost all other immigrant parents, wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer - the two professions that seem the most stable and lucrative. Personal fulfillment was never part of the success equation. As people who left their homes in search of better futures for themselves and their children, sacrifice and hard work were the only two things that made sense. Yet, here I am sacrificing and working hard exactly as they taught me every day of my life.
I never retorted to her comment and the weekend slid by with all the other familial fat elephants. And today as I knead this pita for my mom I am flooded by that moment and the emotional tailspin it sent me in. What I wanted to say is, “Why isn’t this enough if it makes me happy?” when I realize that perhaps it is precisely too much. They taught me too well. My parents are conditioned to only see the hard work. I don’t know how to explain to them the joy driving hidden roads in search of new vineyards. The peace of the afternoon silence walking in the shadow of grapevines. The pleasure of sorting cold fruit on its way to the destemmer. The sweet smell of wine filling up a clean barrel. The headiness of buzzing winemakers at the height of the day. The satisfaction of holding a complete year of your life in a bottle and sharing it with others.
They don’t see that in each bottle of wine are my self-portraits – all they see is their reflection along with the stains, calluses, stresses, struggles and missed calls. Today I make wine for a living and make a life out of wine. It was a path that guided me without revealing the road. Thankfully I was blind to the challenges and propelled by forward momentum. I just keep moving straight ahead, like my parents did when they began their life here in America 46 years ago.