Reading Corked: A Memoir, you may find that you don’t much like author Kathryn Borel. And it will probably have nothing to do with her being a Canadian (sorry, Canada… just poking fun at you because you won all of those Olympic hockey gold medals…).
She is, by her own fearless admission, not the best of traveling companions. Neither is her father, with whom she travels to some of France’s most famous wine regions in an attempt to connect more deeply with him while they still have time together on this planet. Even a healthy proportion of the storied French wine producers that the Borel clan visit in Corked are portrayed as, to put it mildly, difficult.
Corked isn’t about wine appreciation, but it touches on the topic frequently and views it obliquely, as if through a funky, tilted lens; it circles the topic as if both wine and Kathryn were old cats in some new territory – familiar, but with a sense of fight-or-flight caution. Let’s put it this way: Kathryn describes her new book (also her first) as being about “wine, France, my father, existential dread, and death.” So you know the viewpoint on wine is going to be different.
As it turns out, wine plays a minor, but important, role in Kathryn’s sometimes hilarious, sometimes quirky, sometimes painful recounting of her journey through French wine country – at turns a vehicle for connectivity, and an insurmountable and intimidating barrier.
And it’s exactly because of that unique viewpoint that I was so stoked to read Corked and to interview its author (if you need further convincing of Kathryn’s unique view on life, just check out how she introduces Corked on video, or visit her craftily quirky – or is that quirkily crafty? – blog).
If Corked reveals a truth about the human condition, it’s that coming to a shared understanding as adults – to a place where we can truly appreciate one another – isn’t always as simple as sharing a glass of excellent vino; sometimes it takes a gut-wrenching rite of passage. That probably mirrors the relationship some of us have with wine at one point or another in our lives.
Read on for the interview, which is mostly full of wine-related topics but, thanks to Kathryn, is totally full of awesome – just prepare to be entertained, a little moved, and a lot impressed by his woman…
1WineDude: First, congrats on the Canadian Olympic hockey gold medals. I can only imagine what it would have been like if the U.S. won those gold medal games… I mean, if Canada beat us in Football, there would be a lot of people walking around like zombies down here, questioning their own realities…
Kathryn Borel: Hockey is actually referred to as “ice lacrosse” in Canada. But thanks a million for the props. We would have had to revoke the passports of the Olympic hockey players had they failed to win gold in Vancouver. They would have then had to sharpen their sticks into tantōs and committed hari kiri. We are a cruel (but fair) people.
KB: Corked is about a trip I took with my father around four of the major wine-growing regions in France. It was indirectly motivated by the first big trauma of my life. I had been contemplating mortality in a rather obsessive way for a couple of years because of a car accident I had. An old man had been jaywalking across a main thoroughfare in Quebec City, where my parents live. He stepped out in front of my car — I tried to swerve to around him, but clipped him on his side and killed him.
A few years later, my father’s knees gave out and I had that jarring moment when a parent goes from someone of endless strength and wisdom to a person who is frail. He was falling down a lot. One afternoon, he fell down the set of stairs to his wine cellar — all the way down 20 or so steps. After helping him up, I went down to the cellar to fetch the bottles of wine he was getting and had a real Class-A freakout. Looking up and around at all the bottles I realized that he would never be able to drink them all in his lifetime. There was this giant living liquid legacy that would be bequeathed to me — someone who had ignored a lot of the wine information that my dad had imparted to me throughout the years.
So I asked him if he might be interested in going on a wine trip with me — so that I could learn, once and for all, why wine had been such a crucial theme in his life. I thought if I could develop a language framework for the wine, I would better understand my dad.
1WD: I wouldn’t call Corked a wine book, it’s squarely in the Memoir category, and in wine seems to play a background role in the overall development of the story of your trip through France. Having said that, it seems through your videos that you’re getting more into wine? Has your appreciation for wine developed more since you wrote Corked? Or was it downplayed a bit when you were writing the memoir?
KB: I had one of those “oh DUH” cast-iron-frying-pan-to-the-back-of-the-head moments when I was writing the final draft of the book. I had been treating wine like a technical component of the book — a thing, as opposed to a character. Three months before my deadline, I rewrote EVERYTHING having to do with wine. I personified it. The good Pinot Noirs I drank in Burgundy became grand dames… the wines I tasted in Languedoc were these joyous, handsome young men. Once I changed my thinking and made wine MY subjective sensual experience, as opposed to something that exists in an objective realm, I suddenly had the confidence to express how I felt about it. And once you start a dialogue with anything, really, you’re bound to grow.
1WD: You do a great job in the book of capturing how scared shitless people can get when they’re attending wine tastings; I thought that your internal dialog in the book probably mirrored that of many people who find themselves stepping into wine tastings. Do you think people in general have more fears about wine appreciation, and feeling stupid if they don’t say the “right” things about wine, than they do about existential dread and the fear of dying?
KB: That is a crazy and perfect question. I think it’s similar to the idea of people being more afraid of public speaking than they are of death. I can say with certainty that I was always more afraid of wine tasting than I ever had been of dying. People are generally not inclined to snicker at you or make derisive comments on your deathbed. Also, conceiving of your own death is far more abstract than the reality of being stuck in a room full of people who might think you’re stupid for saying the wine tastes like ballpoint pens and dirt. Abstract concepts are always the most fearful ones.
1WD: You don’t pull any punches in this book – on your father, yourself, or the storied French wine properties that you visited. Madame Nudant at Romanee Conti comes off as pretty bitchy (or at least impatient). Were you concerned about how those wine personalities would see themselves portrayed in the book?
KB: Madame Nudant was a little terse. Then again, she was in the middle of the harvest. Her hands were black with grape juice and dirt — it was obvious she’d been working tirelessly for several days. And my interpretation of her was also largely based on my own insecurities about being in one of the most — if not THE most — celebrated and revered wine region in the world. When she was standing there, surveying one of her vineyards and machine-gunning me with the structure of the region’s AOC system, and I was expected to keep up and engage her in an intelligent manner, I wanted to swallow cyanide capsules and disappear. I felt stupid and out of my depth.
1WD: How pissed off were you that RUSH didn’t play in either the Opening or Closing Olympic ceremonies in Vancouver? I was livid, personally…
KB: I played Subdivisions 800 times in a row and sobbed and shaved my head. (Did you know Geddy Lee is a massive wine connoisseur and has one of the largest private wine collections in the country? Geddy Lee! Call me!).
[Editor’s note: SRO Management (Rush’s management company) has yet to respond to any of my (several) requests to interview Geddy Lee about wine. Also, you should check out this way-cool acoustic cover of Subdivisions! Wacky!]
1WD: Did you have a favorite among the French wine areas you toured with your father? And did any of the wines surprise you? I got the feeling from the book that you know more about wine now than you did when you were taking the trip, and you were (successfully) trying to recapture the anxiety of that time?
KB: I definitely know more about wine now. I mean, I LIKE it now. And I’m not scared of it anymore, which is key to understanding anything. I treat every open bottle as though I’m meeting someone new at a party. They’re either going to do it for me or leave me cold. My biggest happiness coming out of the trip was understanding Burgundies better. It’s my father’s favourite region and has become mine too. A great Burgundy, with all its power and romance and nuance, will leave me speechless. Not much in this life leaves me speechless. I’m a blatherer. You’ve likely noticed this.
1WD: What’s been the reaction to the book so far? A lot of the Amazon.com reader reviews haven’t been kind, and at least one of them wrote what seemed an entire dissertation on why the book wasn’t any good. It seemed to me that they missed the point somewhat, or were focused too much on the wine angle. Any reaction to those?
KB: It has only just come out in the US, but it seems as though it’s attracting positive attention from media types. I had a great response and turnout at my New York book launch, and I’m putting on what I think will be a fun event in Atlanta soon. I have a bunch of interviews lined up with NPR stations and have received good press from magazines like Marie Claire, Elle, Sherman’s Travel magazine, etc. And in Canada it was reviewed very well too.
I’m not paying too much mind to the amazon.com reviewers: I think the reviewers may be suffering from an expectations/classification problem. I don’t think its fair to present the book as a “wine” or “travel” book. There are certainly elements of both but if folks are expecting a wine or travel education… they may feel disappointed with what they will be reading.
Also, I think when a character — in this case, me — is presenting the uglier qualities in themselves, many readers want that character to have already learned their lesson. To already have identified and synthesized their ugliness so that the reader is not dragged along the difficult process of development in ugly, horrible (but funny, I think!) real-time. I tried my best to be as brave and honest as I could. I was a little hurt that the amazon folks didn’t at least see the virtue in that.
Also, it’s really easy to be a total jerk anonymously, on the internet. [Editor’s note: we wouldn’t know anything about that…]
1WD: I’m a (relatively) new father, and I suppose that some day, like your dad, I will bequeath a large volume of wine to my daughter. Any advice for me?
KB: Just don’t corner her in your cellar at age 6 and get her to recite the main varietals grown in Alsace every Sunday afternoon, as my father did with me. Get her sipping early and make sure you’re having a laugh while doing it. [Editor’s note: deal!]
1WD: Finally, can you teach me how to saber sparkling wine? Because that’s totally bad-ass and I am ready to unload a case of bubbly bad-ass-ness at my next party…
KB: Let’s start an online funding drive to fly me down to where you are and we will have an astonishing night of Dom-sabering. If this plan goes bellyup, here’s my helpful instructional video! http://www.vimeo.com/6567397