Rebirth: new or second birth; spiritual regeneration — Merriam-Webster
Paul Giamatti’s portrayal of a depressed, wine-loving school teacher/writer in 2004’s Sideways wasn’t what did it. What sealed the deal for me was Sandra Oh’s wine steward character, pouring Cab Franc at Kalyra, tucked away on Refugio Road in Santa Ynez. I recall thinking, “I could do that. I could run off to California and pour at some winery.” I eventually did, some twelve years later.
Now, working as a food and wine writer in Santa Barbara County, I was fortunate enough to catch up with the author of one of Amazon’s top-selling wine books, Blood From a Stone. Not only are we neighbors, but Adam McHugh was also inspired by Sideways; the film prompted him to visit the Santa Ynez Valley two weeks after he first saw it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He made his way here from Pasadena, I made mine from New England. Our shared attraction to this region, with its green and gold rolling hills, eccentric locals, extraordinary winemakers, quirky shops, and Michelin-rated eateries is due in part to what’s known as the Sideways Effect. Wine lovers finding themselves at a crossroads seem to flock to this area in search of healing, as though it were some wine country version of Lourdes. To that end, McHugh shared, “Most stories about religion and drink are stories of recovery. I’m not sure if mine isn’t a story about recovery too.”
Before we dig into my conversation with McHugh, I’ll leave you with two things:
1. If you haven’t yet read Blood From a Stone, do so soon, but be forewarned: you’ll crave Coastal California Pinot Noir, so score some ahead of time and pair it with this book.
2. McHugh is a former hospice chaplain, turned wine steward, turned acclaimed wine author, so buckle up for his fascinating story Here’s what we discussed ( and no, we didn’t sip any “f*cking Merlot.”).
AM: Adam, many thanks for chatting with me. Do you remember the first wine that “did it” for you? Was there one bottle that really hooked you into the world of wine?
AMH: In my history with wine, it wasn’t a particular bottle that was the revelation; it was a particular place. Actually it was two places. The first was Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and I tell that story in detail in the first half of Blood from a Stone. The second was the Santa Ynez Valley, which I now call home, after a rather tumultuous journey to get here, which is the second half of the book. The wines of those regions, 6000 miles apart, may have first drawn me there, but it was standing on those soils and encountering the people who devote their lives to farming those lands and making the wines that express those places that made me want to change my life.
AM: What was it that first brought you to Santa Barbara County? And what was it that brought you here to stay?
AMH: That is quite a saga, and is the plotline that holds the book together. I first visited Santa Barbara after watching the movie Sideways in the theaters back in the fall of 2004. I was so taken by the film’s portrayal of this slow and bucolic valley with vines cresting the foothills of the mountains that I visited two weeks after I first saw the movie. By the second time I visited I knew there was some sort of relationship developing that would go far beyond “the Sideways effect,” which is what people call the impact that film made on the tourism of Santa Ynez for years after its release. I could tell my relationship with the valley was far more personal. I was working as a hospice chaplain in Pasadena at the time, and Santa Ynez became my healing place, where I would flee when burnt out and suffering from compassion fatigue. I had a fantasy of one day giving it all up and disappearing into wine country, but I never thought I would actually do it. The book tells how I stumbled my way here.
AM: In your opinion, what is it about the wines of California’s Central Coast that makes them special?
AMH: It must be that strange combination of southerly latitude and cold ocean. Our wines manage to hold together ripeness from long sunny afternoons with the electric acidity of knock-you-down marine winds blasting off the ocean. That said, wine is a collaboration of place, vine, and people and you can’t talk about terroir without talking about the humans who steward the land and create culture in these beautiful spaces. The friendships I have made here, with these plucky wine dreamers, are what truly make this place special to me.
AM: Does your background as a hospice chaplain and grief counselor inform your approach to educating others or writing about wine? If yes, how?
AMH: The line I use, when people express surprise at the dramatic career change I made, is “Actually it’s not that different. I used to listen to medicated people in my old career, and I listen to medicated people in my [current] career. They are just a lot happier now.” It’s a disarming line, but there is also truth in it, because the common theme I see in both fields is the centrality of listening. If I come into a wine sales situation with an agenda or an insistence to stick to a pre-rehearsed outline I am far less effective in selling wine than if I listen for what people need and are interested in. But it’s not just a sales technique for me; listening presents potential moments of genuine human interaction. People are thirsty for wine but even thirstier to be heard and treated as individuals.
AM: Are you still active as a wine tour guide, or are you focusing on writing these days?
AMH: I have taken some time off to focus on promoting the book, which is almost more work than writing the book in the first place, but I will be getting back into wine tours in the next few weeks. I led private wine tours out of Santa Barbara for five years with a company called Coastal Concierge, and through those tours I developed my passion for the history of Santa Barbara County, which I interweave with my own story in Blood from a Stone.
AM: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to begin a new career in wine? Advice for anyone looking to write about wine?
AMH: Be prepared to be humbled! I had to start from the bottom of the wine industry, and it was an agonizing path at times. But, at the same time, this is a joyful and convivial field, full of life and abundance, so have fun with it. If you are not having fun in the world of wine, you are doing wine wrong.
AM: What are you currently sipping? Do you have one varietal or specific wine that you love right now?
AMH: I am in the middle of a strange but passionate dalliance with Chardonnay. It’s strange because I barely drank California Chardonnay for 20 years, but now I can’t get enough Chard from the Sta Rita Hills and Santa Maria. That light bolt of acidity that cuts through the varietal richness and oak treatment thrills me, as does that slight briny or salty note that may derive from the marine influence of the frigid Pacific. In the winter I love to pair it with Julia Child’s roast chicken recipe, that calls for the skin to be slathered in butter and then basted throughout the roasting process to get really crispy. An overly butter Chard would be overwhelming, but the purity and zip of Central Coast Chard cuts through the butter in the recipe.
AM: What’s one thing our readers might be surprised to learn about you?
AMH: I am happiest when it is raining.