I can remember being fascinated with the five gallon glass containers of fermenting crimson, which he had spread around his home. He grew his own fruit and pressed his own juice. It seemed so manly and exotic….but in the most domestically Appalachian way. Grandpa was different because of the self reliance and independence that his life’s hardness had produced, but he was as familiar as mason jars, tomato plants and cheap cigars.
When we went to visit, his wine reminded me of this foreign domesticity. The continual bubbling of the working must spoke of secret laboratories and occultist formulae; while the smell of fermentation lent the delicious allure of the forbidden, and the fact that it was taking place in the mountain home whose wooden walls, floors and ceiling had been cut, milled and joined by the practical wisdom in his gnarled hands, wrapped it in the romantic blanket of my own Southern Highlander moonshining roots.
Me, Dad, Grandpa, Deck… on back into the Welsh legends of ancient mountain folk.
The county agent was Grandpa’s source for information. Grandpa had seen the benefits that technology can bring to the truly poor, and it seemed to me that he was always proud to be someone who listened when the university spoke about tweaking traditional methods. I can still see the University of Georgia’s crest on juice stained pamphlets shaking up and down as he passed them into my preadolescent hands. (Those tremors of hands and head are another thing my brothers and I have inherited from this man.)
“You can make wine from anything, Philip,” he once told me. “Even a rock, if it’s got a little dirt on it for flavor.” That was a long time ago.
I’ve got five gallons of pepper wine working in one of Grandpa’s glass carboys. It’s my wife’s favorite recipe. After its done spewing and spitting in the laundry room, it will clear to resemble a delicate Pinot Grigio with the most wonderful warmth riding atop the crisp acidity- just waiting to drop over tongue after each swallow. If you put it in spaghetti sauce, ….oh!
It takes a while to make, though. There is an evening of cleaning the equipment and chopping the ingredients. There’s careful measuring and recording, and a week of stirring and anxious watching. Then you rack it off and wait for a few weeks- hoping the whole thing doesn’t die on you. That’s what happened with this batch, and it meant I had to back up a few steps and get the whole thing going again. Then more waiting, months of waiting and racking- probably six in all before the pepper wine is ready to drink. Even then it’s still young. Another six or more months of aging would be good for it.
My son Tommy helped with this latest batch. He wanted to know why I didn’t just buy it. The short answer is that I can’t. Where are you going to get Pepper Wine? The long answer is that it wouldn’t be good for me. He doesn’t know it, but it wouldn’t be good for him, either.
Too many purchased bottles and I’d forget and then he could never remember. I’d forget how to make it. I’d forget the effort involved in making it. The cost. The sacrifice. To the extent that each batch is a memorial to him, I’d forget Grandpa, too. The moment I forgot the story that wine making tells to the James family, I’d replace it with another. There’s simply no other way, and it would be an insipid tale- all the uglier for its ignorance and half truths.
Wine, it would say, like all other pleasures, springs ready made off a shelf. It would require that my unavoidable dependencies be transferred from a reliance on nature, knowledge, effort and mentors to expressed faith in money, business, faceless sources and the continuation of market supply. This part of the unique history of our family’s knowledge would be lost as we assume our place as individual consumers, powering the matrix of the market with our endless and helpless need to have even the refreshment we drink provided to us.
It’s hard to say how far the unraveling would spread, but it could travel everywhere and anywhere because that’s the truth of life. Reality isn’t a line of upright dominoes. It’s a tangle of roots.
Wine making speaks to me of an old man’s thickened knuckles grasping pruning sheers and stubborn vine, struggling to cap a jug against the tormenting shake of degenerative nerves, or lifting a bottle once too often to angry lips. It speaks of blessings. It speaks of cursing. Those berry stained fingers carried a rifle through the gates of Dachau, snapped to the rhythms of Swing, clung to the manes of unbroken horses and the sides of countless train cars from which rides were routinely stolen. Because those fingers knew my wine making equipment, Poland and railways and lovers unnamed are part of my kitchen, too. Wine making speaks of our dependence on nature and nature’s God; it speaks of the connections of knowledge, caring, and skill. In a word, it makes reality clear: the underlying web of communities, our glorious dependences on creation, and the unalterable fact that true feasting comes only through sacrifice. That, anyway, is the story wine making tells at the James house.
The world of my children is awash in a story of mealy pale tomatoes, store bought tea in plastic jugs, the boredom of busyness and celebration without interruption. Community is defined as only proximity, even disconnected proximity- our real connections travel through fiber optics, not along an old man’s shaking hands and into the pudgy grasp of an admiring pre-teen.
And so that’s what I told my son. We go to the trouble of making wine and growing tomatoes for the same reason we observe Lent. It’s what we do and who we are; and we’ve been taught to do it for the joy set before us. There’s never been a store bought tomato that can compare with the one you eat in the garden with a shaker of salt. There can be no feast without a preceding fast.
We do it for memories sake- our own, our families, and that of each glass we sip. These memories live in our minds, in the glass of Grandpa’s winemaking equipment, in the little notebook I keep of every winemaking effort. Life is about more than providing consumables; in the smallest acts we are creating and preserving a family.
This is a lesson I hope my son remembers.