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Vines, wine, and family time: How my love for the drink took root

When most Southern Illinoisan kids hit age 21, we transition into adulthood with momentous ritual celebration. Our rites of passage into maturity include a ceremonious night to remember – if only our head weren’t throbbing so loudly the next morning that the memories were beaten out of our brains. Singing off-key lyrics to bad country songs and chanting broken verses of explicit rap verses between intermittent sips of alcohol-induced inebriation is generally on the agenda if we’re lucky.

Wine country in Bordeaux

For me, this college fantasy was far from manifestation when I reached this age of significance. Instead, I grew up in a “teetotaling family”, as my mother called it. Likely guided by the horrors of drunken youth that she witnessed during her own Midwestern upbringing, her policy was to drink not one drop. Ever. In your life. Even when you turn 21.

Wine country in Bordeaux

The issue with these unforgiving guidelines is that the other half of my heritage is staunchly European (or at least they were, technically, until Brexit happened). Although my father always countered my curiosity in alcohol with a firm, “Ask your mother.”, I noted a distinct flicker of longing in his eyes when my vocabulary expanded to “Chardonnay”, “Bubbly”, and other oenophillic words. As if by telepathy, I sensed that he felt something was missing from the family – and that something was a lovely glass of wine. Just a glass. Occasionally. With dinner. With company. All in the European tradition of moderation, of course.

Wine country in Bordeaux

Thus, for 21st birthday, I did what any sensible half-European girl does in this dry Midwestern environment. To me, that entailed a fruitless attempt to convince my teetotaling mother to jump on the wine-loving bandwagon, hoping that my entire family would then follow suit.

The result? Unfortunately, not quite la vie en rosé. On my ride home to our late-October family dinner (I lived across town in campus housing at the time), I pleaded my high school brother to make a quick pitstop at our local liquor store. After a very uncomfortable, squinted analysis at my ID, the merchant finally decided I wasn’t a fraud despite my 15-year-old appearance (okay, so I was also wearing a black wig and a White Stripes Halloween costume that may have looked odd next to the smiling blonde in my license). So he let me go with a $5 bottle of Pinot noir, which was supposed to be a good choice in grape varietal, according to the film Sideways (my authority in wine affairs at the time).

5 minutes later and 4 blocks up the street, my mother flung the door open in haste. The first thing she noted was my flowing black locks of rocker girl hair and matching bold black lipstick. The second was the bottle of wine. The third was my smile, beaming with the exhilaration of having legally purchased my first alcoholic beverage. My brother shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly with an "ope" as he bumped past my mother, who was hurling an intense fury through the opened door. She said through gritted teeth, “We do not drink alcohol in this house! Think of the message this sends to your underaged brother!”

Wine country in Southern Illinois

The evening escalated to a heated exchange between my teetotaling mother and the blossoming wine-lover that I had become (or the “budding alcoholic”, as my mother not-so-gently phrased it). And finally, the evening ended in me popping in my Sideways DVD, releasing a watershed of tears from my supposedly adult eyes, and drinking not a single drop of the Pinot noir that I imagined souring with my hot emotion.

Out of the spiteful ashes of young adulthood angst rose a fiery hunger for wine on an entirely new dimension. “Can I break through my mother’s distaste for the thought of wine?” This became the subject of my undergraduate thesis. In academic language, “How do wine culture and attitudes differ in various areas of the world?” The first inch toward this understanding was a comparative study of Nice, France and London, England. The second was a study of wine culture in my own backyard, from the perspective of local Southern Illinoisan winery owners. As a third, I am finally re-opening the can of worms by making wine a pinnacle piece in my Paris-based chapter in my first book titled Eat like a yogi: Global perspectives of eating mindfully.

Wine country in England

Several hundred pages of text digested, countless wines tasted, 50+ in-depth interviews conducted, one article published, one thesis approved, and one book in the making – after all my concentrated exploration, have I found the answer to my 21-year-old-self’s existential crisis of convincing her mother to give wine a chance? Well… Yes, actually. Not for herself of course, she wouldn’t dare touch that poison. But for the little piece of European that remains in my father and me, my mother's extreme hatred has defrosted to a somewhat reluctant but nonetheless present sense of acceptance.

Wine country in England

My mother may be unafraid to stand up with extreme certainty for what she feels is right, but I also learned from our wine wars that she is able to leave her mind open to possibility – two traits that I admire and attempt to adopt. 3 years after my fateful birthday dinner party, during a family vacation to wine country surrounding Bordeaux, my mother affirmed with genuine sincerity, “You’ve proven to me that you haven’t turned into an alcoholic, and you didn’t convince your brother to become one either.”

Wine country in Bordeaux

I truly had doubts during that summer’s post-Brexit aftermath, yet in that moment, my mother proved to me that the solution to my thesis came with an unexpected finding: that plasticity in the brains of adults truly is possible! My mother’s brain was not tied to this rigid mold, but rather could adapt to the ever-changing world around us. If the mind of my mother – the most stubborn being I’d ever encountered – could evolve from the traditions of her Midwestern mindset of alcohol, perhaps so too can politicians, decision-makers, leaders of influence, and anyone who sees the world in black and white.

Wine country in Bordeaux

Perhaps change is not always as simple as making a well-researched, poignant statement on our argument of choice. Maybe change involves something far deeper. For changes to be truly palpable in the world, it may require love at the level that exists beneath the angst of mother-daughter pairs. Regardless of whether family bonds place us in rosé-tinted glasses, my research has convinced me that while we jump on our soapboxes to preach our cause, a little wine doesn’t hurt our case. Just a glass. Occasionally. With dinner. With company. All in the European tradition of moderation, of course.


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