“It’s important to find your lens.” In conversation with writer Cathy Huyghe

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Cathy Huyghe is an author with an appetite.

In Cavalier Career, we explore the will to do good work. So what kind of work does it take–really–to bring wine to the table?  Consider:.

  • A harvest crew skilled not only at picking fruit, but hunting rabbits.
  • Courage enough to traverse war-torn Syria in a taxicab full of ripening grapes.
  • Nerve to skirt the law, particularly in Turkey, where it is illegal to market wine and the consequences may be harsh.
  • Patience as long as the life cycle of a koala bear: If eight years pass before you bottle your wine, then so be it.
  • Hunger. Voracious hunger.

That last bit, according to writer Cathy Huyghe, is key. Whether the ache of passion or of physical appetite, hunger drives the wine business. It also drives our own private pursuits. 

RedCoverHFW-1In Hungry for Wine: Seeing the World through the Lens of a Wine Glass, Huyghe uncorks bottles
and stories from around the world. With uncommon curiosity, she looks past the luxe labels and technical tasting notes to global socioeconomics. The resulting twelve “conversations about wine” (as she calls them) reveal the humanity behind one of the world’s most celebrated beverages–and the drive it takes to pursue one’s hunger. 

Huyghe, a wine columnist for Forbes, is trained in conflict mediation and previously worked at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School on a project in the Middle East. As a wine specialist, she brings a distinctively egalitarian perspective to the topic. Recently, she undertook a series on economic inequality in the Napa Valley.

At a boutique wine shop here in Sonoma, Huyghe has just spoken before a boisterous local crowd. Amid the clamor of the room, her focus is undeterred: listening is Cathy Huyghe’s superpower. It seems to be what has enabled her to mine stories like rare jewels from unexpected places. She is kind enough to share her treasures:

In your blog recently, you wrote that “non-wine” people are your target audience for this book. What made you want to reach out to “non-wine” people?

A: There are very few people who spend their entire days speaking about wine or reading about wine. I try very hard to meet people where they are—whether that’s in the world of business or entrepreneurship or technology. If we start there, maybe together we can learn something about wine along the way. And if not, that’s okay.

Again, the point is to meet people where they are.

You write that you started drinking wine simply because it felt good—that you relish the sparks that fly when people gather together. Who would you name as the most influential people with whom you’ve connected in the course of your wine writing pursuits, and in your pursuits in general?

Christine Amanpour is this hardcore journalist—so yeah, her. While 90% of the time I write about wine, the other 10% of the time, I write about women and peacekeeping.

There’s been an amazing role model for me named Elizabeth Rabia Roberts who’s dedicated her life to bearing witness. That’s an important lesson, because when I’m going into a situation or an interview and I don’t know what to expect, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know what’s coming. What matters is that I’m here. I’m here to bear witness to whatever is in front of me. All that comes from these influences of this very hardcore journalist and this peacekeeper.

You write of people in two categories: those who have choices, who are “hungry for wine”; and those who do not have choices, who may actually be hungry for food. You seem to be pointing out a class divide.  Can you talk more about that?

“Hungry” refers to passion, but it also means physical hunger. And I like that. I like that dichotomy very much. 

Part of it is where I’m coming from as a person. I’m coming from rural Pennsylvania, a family of 8, supported by my dad. It was the strength of that man’s back put food on the table. That was so formative for me.

Wherever I go, I’m thinking: Who’s doing the work here? Who’s buckling down and doing the work? I felt that way from a very young age… because it was hard.

Maybe that’s why the romance of wine only goes so far with me. I feel like most romance only goes so far with me.

You write, “I believe that there are people who love wine and want to know, sincerely, the story of where it came from.” You also talk about “aspirational advertising” or the effort of those in the industry to make the wine lifestyle seem easy, without recognizing its problems. How can consumers know when they are swallowing a quality story versus quality wine?

The aspirational advertising part only goes so far. The airbrushed idea of the wine lifestyle doesn’t resonate. You know how in the CIA they decode pictures? That’s the reading that I try to get. I ask: what’s the code?

To find out, I keep asking the winemaker: Why? Why are you doing this? There is this technique called “the five whys”. You keep going and asking: why?

For the book, you traveled amid considerable danger to interview a Syrian winemaker. Why was it so important to you to take that risk and find that story?

It’s hard to believe that wine is still being produced in a country at war. It’s incongruous on a lot of different levels. So understanding the motivation of the people on the ground opens a door, even for just that moment, to human interests in the midst of an impossible situation. Even in a time like that, in a situation that is worsening every day, there are moments of humanity.

 

Wine has always played into a certain class divide. Among other reasons, its materials and process are pricier than those for beer. Will wine ever be a beverage for the people, or will it always be for the elite?

Here’s hoping…! We should all be so lucky as to buy an $80 bottle of wine.

Wine will always be sort of precious and mysterious. And maybe that’s okay. There’s something to be said for waiting for an occasion. There’s also something to be said for creating an occasion.

You write: “What happens if you pick one thing that you love, and allow that thing to become your prism?” It’s as if you’re challenging readers to acknowledge our inherent hunger and find a way to satiate it.

It’s less of a prism and more of a kaleidoscope—because it may change, depending on the day. My lens is wine. It could be just as easily photography. Whatever turns you on, you know?

I love what happens when I drink wine. And I love what happens when the people around me drink wine. You might love something different. It’s important to find your lens.  

Hungry for Wine is available for purchase here. And it’s a fantastic read!

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