Sunday, October 08, 2023

What I learned about wine writing from a Black female science-fiction author

When I graduated from college I moved back to the town where I was born, Altadena, California. Unbeknownst to me, one of my neighbors was a budding science-fiction writer. She lived one street above us, and she was on her way to becoming one of the greatest science-fiction novelists of our time.

I was working various jobs. In the morning I would head up the hill to work making custom furniture. After lunch, at our home workshop I would work on custom frames. And in the evening, I would drive to Pasadena or Hollywood where I worked as a waiter. We were starting a family, we were broke, the economy sucked, and I still entertained visions of becoming a great photographer. I had a full plate in my 20’s. So did my sci-fi neighbor, as she was also in her 20’s and no one had any idea the greatness she could achieve. Except for her. She was on a mission. Her name was Octavia Butler. And she changed my world.

When I would take my young son and our dog to Eaton Canyon to hike and walk, I came close to her house on the way. I wonder if she was in there typing away furiously, battling time and the demons writers must deal with on a daily basis. I had no idea I would ever be writing as much as I have in the last 20 years. I was a photographer, not a writer! But, it seems, the powers that be had other ideas for me.

Octavia was a force of nature. She was fearless, indomitable and courageous. But one would never gather that from a first glance. One of our mutual neighbors raised chickens and I would often go over there with the baby to pick up eggs, look at the goats and the chickens and talk to the hippie couple who were living their life on that little plot in a residential neighborhood. Altadena was like that.

One of our other neighbors was an artist who lived further up the hill. Friends with Picasso, and as libidinous. But he was a good client for the frames, when he wasn’t grabbing my wife’s breast or ass. She took it all in stride, as we did in those days. Today, he wouldn’t get off so easily. But he was a serious artist. Which is to say, he also had his demons.

But our sci-fi resident indirectly taught me some lessons about writing, even if writing about wine isn’t as glorious as fiction. Some of those lessons are:

Choice – We all have choices to make. Even if it doesn’t seem like it. If you are enslaved or incarcerated, it might appear that you are not free to choose your fate. But you are. How you react, how you go forward, how you choose to wield your personal power, albeit in an abbreviated or limited manner, defines the person you are. And with writing, the subject, the feeling one is trying to invoke, the information one is wishing to convey, they come from the choices you make.

The Big Picture – Ms. Butler wrote about big things like climate change, the rights of women, the political upheaval and the injustices minorities face in their daily lives. And she often wove them all together. When looking at big subjects, even in wine writing, remember to include things other than wine. Bring in culture, weave in the politics of the place, include injustices that prevail or maybe ones that have been overcome. And look at the picture from a wider angle. In other words, look at the big picture, even if all you re doing is writing about a Sangiovese wine or an Etna Bianco.

Power- so much of Octavia’s book relied on how power was used, or misused. In society and culture, power is always present and often prevalent. In wine, as well, power is a subject that often comes up.

Example: The other night I opened up a 40-year-old bottle of Napa Valley Petite Sirah. Now 35 years ago, that wine would have been a bowl-you-over powerhouse of a wine. An inky bucking bronco of a wine. 35 years later, though, that same wine has a different level of power. Now it is mellower, almost subtle, from a grape too seldom known for nuance in its youth. But power, when it ages, can soften. A velvet hammer. And it can bend in subtle ways that it might not have been able to when it was clamoring to get out of the chute.

The way it wielded power when it was young is different than when it was old. That was something I didn’t understand when I was young, because I had not experienced that much life time. Now, it’s much more blatantly obvious, to me. But if I try to explain it to someone two or three generations behind me, chances are I’ll get a blank stare, if they are even listening.

Octavia Butler, over time, taught me to listen to the messengers, about power and choice and the big picture.

Some people pooh-pooh science fiction. The New York Times has a Sunday feature called “By the Book,” interviewing authors as to their reading preferences. Many reject science fiction saying “Oh no, I don’t read that stuff. It’s not my cup of tea.” I get it. But for those of us for whom sci-fi is the bee’s knees, it’s another world. Or a world within a world. Or a multiplex of innumerable universes.

Thankfully, Octavia Butler’s worlds and universes are very approachable and tangible. And the lessons learned from reading her books and knowing she was just a stone’s throw up the street gives me great solace and comfort. Another traveler in time and space who got it, and who shared it, suffering through time and space like we all do. And giving back.

Giving back- something the wine world needs so very much more of these days – the whole world in fact.

Thank you, Octavia! 

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