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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Angels & Thieves

Writer Pens Anthology of Poems on Wine
An Interview with Angels, Thieves & Winemakers Author Joseph Mills

As an avid city dweller who was born and raised in the urban jungle, I'm not fond of the outdoors.  I don't take much of an interest in nature, barely noticing the myriad of greenery prevalent here in Northern California.  But my passion for wine has compelled me, a number of times, to hike the sometimes steep slopes of dusty vineyards, peering closely at vine shoots and leaf canopies, and examine with fascination and reverence the clusters of curiously small berries hanging from them.  With that same enthusiasm, I was recently drawn to another area of otherwise complete disinterest for me: poetry.  I never was a fan of it, frankly hated it in school, and honestly can't remember the last time I voluntarily read any as an adult.  But because the subject of Joseph Mills' recently published Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers involves the subject so near and dear to my heart, once again out of sheer curiosity, I felt compelled to suspend my aversion and begin reading some of his work.  What I found was an experience that tickled, touched, and in some cases, totally transported me.  In writing about wine, Joe's sensitivity, humility, creativity, and imagery are perhaps the closest I've come to experiencing wine, without actually drinking it.  I spoke with the author from his home in North Carolina, where he's a full-time professor of English, about his book of poems and his own unique perspective on wine.

NM:  What prompted you to write poems specifically about wine, and then ultimately to compile and publish them into an anthology?

JM: The poems about wine actually emerged from a project that's much more informational.  When we first moved out here [from Oakland, California] to North Carolina, we were immediately told about a local winery, Westbend Vineyards in Lewisville.  And when we went to visit it, just to check it out, it became immediately clear that they needed help.  Since my wife was looking for a job, she thought she'd help them in the tasting room, which is how she started working in the North Carolina wine industry altogether… about ten years ago.  Right about that time, a lot of wineries were opening up here; a kind of boom was happening.  And people kept coming in [to the tasting room] and asking my wife if we'd been to some of the other wineries here, like Shelton and Raylen — but she hadn't, since she was so busy working two jobs and I, myself, had a full-time job [at the university].  So, she came home one day and told me she felt that there really needed to be a guidebook, and —long story short — we ended up writing the book ourselves, for a publisher that does guides for the South.  It was the first edition of A Guide to North Carolina's Wineries.  Now, when we did the second edition last summer, the wineries had tripled in number.  And so, as I was starting to write about wineries, I decided very quickly that I didn't want to write about the wines themselves — there's a lot of small batch wines, so the wines would be gone immediately, anyway; plus there are other people who already do a wonderful job of describing wines.  I just wasn't really all interested in doing that.  Instead, I wanted to write more about people's stories.  But this was still a non-fiction book; it was a guidebook and so it was fairly straight-forward.  [Nevertheless,] I found myself just falling in love with the language that winemakers talk about, the phrases that they use… And so [with some of these phrases] I started creating fragments of poems.  I completed some of those poems, [and published them] in another book of poetry.  But even after that, the poems kept coming, and eventually I realized that I was going to have a lot of them!  So I went to the publisher of the first poetry book (which is a different publisher from the wineries guide) and I said, "I think I'm going to have enough for an entire collection."  And that was seen as a good way to have a coherent volume, rather than a scattered bunch of poems that I wrote over time.  It now had a theme, allowing us to put the second book together [Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers], which came out in the spring.

Angels, Thieves, and WinemakersNM: You're a dyed-in-the-wool writer — you've published not just about wine, but other subjects as well.  Given that, did the inspiration for your wine poems come to you in other contexts, or were they borne of direct and immediate experiences with wine itself — perhaps in opening a bottle, drinking from a wineglass, or interacting with a wine professional?

JM: I find that most of my poems were inspired by other people, talking to winemakers, traveling around, and thinking about my experiences of  drinking wine in the last ten years.  So, most of it came out of an actual experience, rather than thinking, "Oh, I have this idea; I think I'll write a poem about it."  A winemaker would say something to spark it off, a phrase perhaps.  In that case I might think something like, "I wonder… that's a really odd term — 'a wine thief' or 'the angels' share'," or whatever it may be.  And so, I would start to think about those images.  When we wrote the wineries guide, I realized very quickly that the cool thing about wineries, to me, is that they're not all the same, even if they might appear so.  They have different stories about different sorts of people and how they came to be there — that's what really fascinated me, their stories and their narratives.  I sit and watch people go by, and I want to ask every one of them, "How did you get here?"  That's what drives me!  My wife often says, "You're writing these to figure things out.  You're writing because something is gnawing at you, or you want to figure out how you feel about something."  And yes, that's what I do with my writing, whether it's about wine, my family, a literary text, or whatever.

NM: So, what I'm hearing from you is that writing these poems was your own way of thinking out loud about the complexities, nuances, and convoluted emotions that experiencing wine brings out.  But I wonder if it's also a form of catharsis that provides no concrete answers, but rather help in processing some of the raw material in your mind generated from these experiences with wine.

JM: Yes, I think, definitely: it helps me process my experiences the way I think about them.  As much as I don't want to say that it's a cathartic process, I think it really is.  Now, I don't know what to make of this, but ever since I published the book [Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers], I haven't written a single wine poem.  I've been writing poems about something else — I've actually been writing about my mother who has dementia, and I think I'm trying to figure out how I feel about that. Also, there's a enormous difference between writing the guidebook — which has a very definite audience (because with that I think, "Okay, what do people need?") — and writing poetry.  [When writing poems], I never think about the reader.  I never think of what the audience needs, because in that particular case, I think, "What does the poem need, and what do I need?  And how do I make it good, as an artistic work; how do I shape it?"  I don't get that same sense with writing for a reader.  In fact, I never expect anybody to read my poems, quite frankly.  I never know what's going to happen with them!

NM: Oh, now, that's interesting!  That, to me, further suggests that this collection is, in many ways, a way for you to work through some of the mysteries of wine and the inspiration brought about by your interactions with wine professionals.

JM: I would say yes, that's probably an accurate summation of what I'm doing here.  I have enormous respect for winemakers and people in the wine industry, and their attention to craft and discipline.  I feel it's very similar to teaching, very similar to writing.  And it's interesting for me to explore these things in my poems, and in other works.

NM:  I definitely see a parallel.  Winemaking is very much an artisan-driven craft, one that balances art with technique and, of course, a great deal of discipline.  Now, another thing that struck me in reading a few of your poems, is that while some of them are narrative, others go a little deeper with a lot of symbolism.  Can you speak to your choice of using wine as a metaphor for people or things, or even entire experiences in our lives?

"Most of my poems were inspired by other people, talking to winemakers, traveling around, and thinking about my experiences of drinking wine in the last ten years."

JM:  I think that was what really appealed to me so much about wine — how it can be so metaphorical, how so many major religions put wine at the center, because of the way you take a fruit and it transforms itself.  I love that idea of the vineyard, where you cut down [prune or trim] the vines and they come back stronger, or even in rocky soil they can grow and flourish.  Certainly, wine becomes an actual physical product, but also a metaphor for something else: of aging, of taking care of something, of craft, of all the possibilities of life.  When people talk about the romance of wine, that's one of the things they're talking about, whether they know it or not.  It seems to have all of these possibilities that we can become, or we can take part in a beautiful, artistic process.  And it's also such a social act: sure, it stems from the land, but when I picture a wine bottle, I always picture a couple of glasses; and whenever I think about drinking wine, I always think about drinking it with people.

Author & Poet Joseph MillsNM:  …Helping us celebrate our humanity.  Which brings to mind my next question: can you name a couple of things that your experience with wine has taught you, things that have stayed with you even as you go about your daily living?

JM:  Good question!  I would say the one thing that immediately sprints to mind is generosity.  The rituals of wine, of sharing with somebody, of toasts, of coming together and saying 'Let's all partake in this' — there's a communal aspect to it.  And that communal aspect has within it a generosity that really appeals to me.  I have found that most people in the [wine] industry, who are in it long-term or doing it seriously, are generous with their time, with their product.  There's a real sharing there: 'Let's sit down and spend some time together, and I will share with you what I have.'  You know, it's funny because, really, a lot of wines I've had, I don't remember the wines themselves, but I remember the moments.  When I was very young — I was probably about ten, perhaps — this old neighbor, 'Grandpa Joe' (he wasn't my grandpa, but we all called him our grandpa)… he made wine.  And every Christmas, he would bring down the crystal glasses, and get out his homemade wine — and we would include me.  And I was very young at the time, but [his attitude] was, "We're all equals here; you have a right to partake in this toast.  It's not to get drunk; it's to share."  And that always struck me, the generosity of his inclusion and treating me, if not like an adult, at least as somebody who should be there.

NM:  Yes, generosity and the act of bringing people together — that's a huge one.  Can you think of another?  Can you think of any other way in which your experience with wine resonates with you in other parts of your life?

JM:  There are things that I've learned in the wine industry that I bring in to my own students.  One of which which is the writing of tasting notes (which I really should do more than I do), the notes being this way to focus your mind.  One of the things that I admire and that I have shared with my students, and try to do on my own, is [to practice] that concentration.  I talked to a chef once, and he said that when he's tasting wines for his restaurant, there's no background music, he's not on his Blackberry or cell-phone, or anything like that; he is concentrating on the wines.  And that element of focus — of sustained focus, where you taste and taste again — I think is a wonderful example of concentration that can be applied to a variety of things, [like] the way we interact with artwork… or with other people.  I tell [my students], "Look, when I ask you a question, you don't have to answer right away; think about it.  Move that question around in your mind for a little while.  See what the implications are, and then come up with some kind of determination."  So, I love that idea of pausing and considering, and then, perhaps evaluating.  I think it's very useful.

"Certainly, wine becomes an actual physical product, but also a metaphor for something else: of aging, of taking care of something, of craft, of all the possibilities of life."

NM:  Hmmm… {long pause}

JM: {chuckling} What would be some of the questions you'd ask if I were a professional, if I were a winemaker?  Go ahead and ask me those, and let's see how I do with them!

NM:  Okay.  Now, here's something you can definitely speak to, given your experience of living in Bordeaux, a wine capital in a very wine-centric country, and (by being U.S. American) your deep familiarity with a culture that's decidedly not wine-centric: What do you feel is the best way for Americans to enjoy wine more, and remove the mystique that can often make it inaccessible to them?

JM:  That's a good question.  There's been enormous changes in North Carolina; they have a budding wine industry now that's really coming along.  And even in the last ten years you see this huge change.  Partly that change is in the cultural distrust of wine: people who have grown tobacco have had moral qualms about growing grapes.  But there's a real shift to this idea of a wine culture — that it's not to get drunk; it's part of your daily life, you work it in as part of your culture.  Accessibility, I think, is part of that; having it simply be accepted: 'This is not out of the ordinary, this is a part of my meal or part of my day.'  I think there are wineries in every state now, and as people become more comfortable with that idea, you start to see a shift.  I've seen it in my own family.  My brother is actually a minister and he's a teetotaler; he doesn't drink wine, nor does his family.  Although now, they're starting to shift — they don't drink wine as such, but they would at least engage in toast to try a little wine now and again.  It's not demonized as much, in their minds.  So, before there's a physical shift in consumption, I think there needs to be a cultural shift in the kind of mindset as far as what wine is and what it's all about.

Guide to North Carolina WineriesNM:  It's interesting that you bring that up, because it's something that we don't see out here in California or anywhere else in on the West Coast, for that matter: the legacy of moral prohibition of alcohol.  What's more, that which you've just described is juxtaposed against an increasingly viable wine industry in North Carolina.  Can you say a bit more about that?  What has your experience been with the local industry, and how does it compare to the more established wine regions that you've been to in Northern California and Bordeaux?

JM: The North Carolina industry is shifting enormously.  When we first arrived ten years ago, my wife (who's half French, half British) was told a story by a colleague about a British friend, an import who came over from England.  He wanted to try a local winery.  And my colleague, who's really a nice guy, told him, "Oh, no, no… if it's in North Carolina, you don't want to go there; let's not waste your time."  But the import insisted on going, and they ended up in Westbend Winery in Lewisville.  And when he went and tasted, he turned to my colleague and said, "This is the real deal.  I wouldn't mind looking into importing some of this."

So there are a few wineries here, and there have been for a long time.  Now, the industry here, as everywhere else, has started to boom.  Five years ago, when we did the first edition of the wineries guide, the question was, 'There are wineries in North Carolina?!'  And at the time, you couldn't even put up signs on the highway [local anti-alcoholic laws prohibited it].  That has all changed, so now it's recognized as a major tourism industry and the question now is, 'Well, are the wines any good?'  And as the years go by, and they figure out what to grow, the wines are increasing in quality.  So, as somebody told me, it's like watching it happen on the ground floor somewhere; it's fascinating.  And to me, what's fascinating is when you get people coming from California or Washington or Virginia, and deciding, 'Oh, I can go into that budding wine industry and really help put things together.'  You find that happening a lot more.  And that's been fun to watch, as well.

Now, if you drink a bottle of bad California wine, you don't say, 'Gosh, California wine sucks… I'm not going to try that anymore.'  But with the smaller states that often happens: 'Ooh, North California wine — I had a bottle of that and it was terrible!'  But I think it'll get to the point that that no longer happens.  It's slowly getting there; I think we have over 70 wineries now.

NM: Yes, that's a very good point.  In fact, let's be honest, there was a time where the wineries of Washington and Oregon were in that same position before they really began to understand how and where best to grow which varietals.  But as with anything, I think a critical mass of attention begins with individuals — in this case, the consumer.  Speaking of whom, what advice would you have for the novice wine drinker?  What resources would you suggest?

"If we read a bunch of descriptions about wine, we're not going to feel any more competent."

JM: My first suggestion would be to talk to people.  Again and again, people come up to me and ask, 'Am I allowed to do this?  I want to have a white, but I already tasted a red; is that okay?'  People are intimidated and that's a problem.  The first way to get over that is to ask questions.  Though if they're too intimidated to even ask questions, then we have even more of a problem… in which case they should get online or read books.  But most of us love to talk about our past; we love to talk about what we do.  Whether it's at a wine store or across the tasting room counter, or simply asking other people, 'What it is that you're drinking and why?'… you just gather information that way, I think, and not be intimidated.  That said, then, what you do is try to find people's opinions that you respect, but you also look for the writers that you respect.  I love the writers.  But I'm not big on descriptions; I'm not that interested in reading through [them].  If we read a bunch of descriptions about wine, we're not going to feel any more competent.  I think once you develop an interest in the people and the process, and you find writers who've done the same, then you become easily more interested in the wine.

NM: It's interesting that you talk about the importance of making wine less intimidating, by seeking out resources that themselves make it less intimidating.  I actually think that your anthology is one of those.  I say that, in part, because something that struck me with a number of your poems is that you consent to a great degree of vulnerability by providing the reader insight into the rawness of your own process of thought and evolution of feeling in your discovery of wine.  You're very open in admitting things you don't know or don't understand, and what's more, seem comfortable to sit and simply be with that lack of certainty, and not feel compelled to distract from or even somehow fill that void of knowledge.  That was one common thread I found throughout your work, and I found it very endearing… in fact, inspiring.

JM: Oh, thank you!  And that may be simply be my personality.  I still fear, after almost two decades of teaching, that one of my students might get up and say, 'You're a fraud!  J'accuse!'  I think we all have that in our minds.  You know, I would never buy, say, an ice-cream from somebody who makes me feel like I don't have the right taste: 'Oh, you like vanilla?  Oh, you really shouldn't like vanilla; you really should like this other stuff.'  Or talk down to me — I won't shop at places where people talk down to me.  And I don't think that sort of thing should happen in the wine industry, either.  Now, I'm not saying that it does, but people feel that it would.  Whether or not it does happen — and I think it happens probably less than we think — the perception is there, that 'I'm going to go, and they're going to look down on me' or that 'I'm going to reveal my ignorance,' rather than 'I'm going to discover something new.'

NM: Alright, last question: You've just been told that the end of the world is exactly 24 hours away.  But you've also been told that during this last day, you can have as much wine as you like, from anywhere in the world, but of only one varietal or region.  What is your Armageddon wine?

JM: Wow!…  Well, whatever it is, I'd get it in a to-go cup…

NM: {laughing}

JM: Hmmm, what would I drink?… Well, before I answer that question, I'll tell you something else.  I often feel guilty, as somebody who writes about wine (occasionally, though not professionally), that we don't have a wine cellar.  We don't stockpile wines.  So, it's not like I can do down to my cellar and say, I've been waiting for such a moment.  And I've often felt guilty about that.  But then I realize that I have so many other things to take care of — my family and two small kids, our house that was built in the 1920s — I don't feel like I can establish another long term relationship with bottles of wine.  So, there's nothing that I would have that I've been waiting to have.  My fear is that I would pick a Bordeaux, or something I've heard about for decades, and I'd open it up and be disappointed in it.  And I'd think, "Is that what all the fuss was about?"  And so I have a great deal of anxiety about that, so I'm actually going to do a cop out and say: I would love to have a bottle of my Grandpa Joe's wine again as the last thing.

And on that poignant note Joseph Mills and I wound down our conversation about people, passion, and poetry… and a bit of the magic that brings it all together for him: wine.  With that, I was left with a sweet and fragrant reminder that amidst all the ins and outs of varietals and styles, the facts and figures of vineyards and cellars, the ups and downs of trade and marketing, the one thing to never lose sight of in my enthusiasm for wine is its power to transcend our separation from one another.  Or, as Joseph himself wrote to me, most eloquently, "To write about wine is to write about the complexities of human relationships. At its best, it also deals with philosophical questions — how do and should we live in this world."

[After being featured on Garrison Keillor’s “The Writer’s Almanac,” Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers earned a place on a couple of bestseller lists for poetry.  Recently, Napa's Robert Craig Winery has begun to stock the book of poems and include it alongside its wines in the gift baskets it sells.  I've reprinted a few of Joseph Mills' wine poems on the Vinterviews Gallery page.  On the rotating right sidebar of that same page, an image of Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers can be found, acting as a link to purchase a copy of the book.]