Mother Culture 

[As it appears in Issue 08 of The Wine Zine]

When I talk about her, like I’m doing now, I get emotional. But maybe it’s me faced with her, my reflection, that makes me emotional.

                                        – Marguerite Duras

My mother has hazel eyes and black hair. Her name is Marianna. She was born wealthy, the daughter of Italian construction tycoons. She has two sisters and two brothers. She studied political science and then psychology. She is an alcoholic. She has struggled with her alcoholism all of my life, and nearly all of hers.

On the vineyard where I’m learning to prune grapevines – I’m twenty-five and I want to help someone else make wine – she calls me. To say hello and to tell me she relapsed. I’m not surprised (it’s been two years).  I’m surprised (it’s been two years). I’m not upset. I’m upset. It’s her life, her sadness, her burden. I’m in another country, I’m living another life. I don’t know what to say. That’s what I say to her.

When I was still a child, I found a big bottle of wine in our fridge. We had just gotten back from a family vacation and my grandfather was in the hospital, dying of cancer. It was a magnum of the red garbage you can buy for $5 a bottle. I looked at it, next to the orange juice and rotting apples. I shut the fridge and opened it again. It was still there, insolent. While she was drunk most of the time, it had always been a question, a secret – vodka bottles stashed in the bathroom cabinet or tucked into a shelf with her loafers. Slurred words I tried to make sense of, acetate breath, the right side of her lip sagging when she tried to smile.

I checked once more, for good measure, to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating or dreaming or nightmaring. I went to her and told her what I had found. I was very afraid. She told me it wasn’t hers and that she would dump it outside, on the lawn. Of course, we both knew she would drink it.

In the end, I think motherhood makes you obscene. A mother indulges in all of her games.


Ten months ago I started working professionally in winemaking, mostly by chance but also by choice. In fact, I had fallen in love and he had said I should try to harvest grapes if I could. That makes it sound haphazard, when the truth is I had been waiting for someone to suggest I try to actually work in wine. I needed to be told by someone who wasn’t worried I would become my mother.

The child of an alcoholic will have spent most of their life not in control and also not safe. They will spend a great deal of time at the whim of an erratic, sad drunk. Things are so generally out of control that they learn to control whatever they can, obsessively and studiously. They develop a compulsive need to understand. Understanding wine has always been a way of understanding my mother. Like, if I can understand what has changed, what has made alcohol where there was juice, I can forgive her. Like if I can understand the “mother” implied by fermentation, wild but not really spontaneous, I can see her a little more clearly. 

Just today, I found a poem I wrote when I was in high school:

“The world would be much better / If / When I smelled fermented berries, / I thought of roses a boy once gave me / Instead of wine on my mother’s breath.”

I don’t think of her breath anymore when I smell wine. Now I think of the full moon in Catalonia or my first friend in the Hudson Valley, and how we laughed the winter away on her porch.

Wine is juice, and it’s not. It has changed. Wine, transformed, is the realization of that change. Usually it changes unpredictably. Sometimes this goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. To make wine with minimal intervention, control must be ceded to the juice and the world around it. But not too much.

I believe that I loved my mother more than anything, and that it came undone all at once.


The debt of being a daughter is that we are made of our mother, and so even when we try to draw a line or look away, we always end up finding what we wanted to forget: in the mirror, in the dark quiet behind our eyelids. That even when she changes, when we change, we can still trace ourselves back to the raw juice, the sugar in the grapes at harvest, the summer heat that lasted too long or not enough.

A few days before she called, a lamb was born on the vineyard. She romps around the enclosure in erratic leaps and half-bounds, and her mother follows dutifully, reverently.

Quotes taken from: “Motherhood Makes You Obscene” by Marguerite Duras