Wearing something resembling pyjamas, she spat into the plastic bucket repeatedly, which she held up to my face with a gesture that invited me to do the same. I shook my head, wondering at what point I’d feel comfortable spitting in front of strangers. Next, she took loud, dramatic slurp-like sips. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the proper spitting or slurping technique (if there was one), and I was already completely out of my element. Knowing only how to order a macaron at a bakery, my French knowledge was minimal, as was my understanding of this culture. The production of wine, I was learning, was less delicate than I anticipated.
My original goal was to research resilience in Russia for Fulbright at varying healthcare institutions and nonprofits. As a result of the pandemic and now the war, this was cancelled. Therefore, I had to come up with a new project in a new country within a matter of a few weeks. Through conversations with Seattle wine shop owners, I discovered a group of women winemakers in Burgundy that I could interview. I pitched the idea, and it was accepted. I can’t say I expected much since I was personally suspicious if working in the wine industry would require any resilience. After all, my other work experience had been in disaster relief, a children’s hospital and end-of-life dementia. What I found in France was much different from this kind of survival resilience to which I was accustomed. Instead, the “art de vivre” or the “art of living” that the French embody creates resilience by instilling a sense of purpose, cultivating resourcefulness and adaptability.
A Sense of Purpose
“So… I have to tell you, I will be leaving on vacation for the rest of the summer in a few days, but tomorrow you will come to the conference with me.” Said my eccentric advisor, whom I’d just met. With espressos and eclairs in hand, we moved out of the sun due to my fair complexion, even though, according to him, his Greek heritage gave him the ability to “tan just by breathing”. Within one afternoon, I learned that he was a statistician/philosopher/musician and said he was interested in absolutely everything “except macroeconomics.”
Not knowing anything about this conference, I was brought into a room to taste wine from the Burgundy region. Am I supposed to spit? Do I swirl? The conference ended up being three days long, with wine experts from all over the world discussing changes in the industry. Topics like moving towards organic wine production and sustainable wine tourism were predominant…and were discussed almost as frequently as the exchange of many of the world’s best wines.
While I know very little about wine, I felt energized and somewhat like I was in the right place. I realized this when I had a conversation with one Russian-French winemaker who said, “Wine people do what they do because they’re passionate about it; it’s usually not for the money.” Even though I wasn’t a wine expert, I knew what it was like to work with value-driven people. Resilience isn’t built through shallow pursuits; it’s built through exemplifying your deeply held beliefs. When you have a purpose, you have the foundation for enduring happiness. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you can also indulge in some great wine.
The wine industry doesn’t just consist of vineyards since there are many steps in getting a bottle of wine from grape to table. One of the lesser-known steps is the research that goes into developing sustainable wine and grapes. On a rainy morning in July, I biked to learn more about this type of research at the Institute of Wine at the University of Burgundy.
While many buildings in France are beautiful architectural masterpieces, the institute was not one of them. Marielle, an elegant woman, met me at the industrial-looking door and brought me into her office. In our interview, she told me that in order to cultivate wine well, you actually have to know how to bring out the best qualities of the grapevine itself. The vine and the soil need someone to nudge them in the right direction. With the proper involvement, you can create a long-lasting vine that produces the fruit you need. With this approach, you can prevent disease and increase longevity, increasing the vineyard’s profitability. Resilient people know that you can often increase your resilience by understanding your resources and applying them. As the researchers learned with the grapes, working with our inherent gifts gives us the confidence and ability to overcome challenges.
I knew I was going to like Camille from the start. She was genuine and had a contagious positive energy that wasn’t overpowering. We sat down in the vineyard office for our interview as her brother’s French bulldog plopped on my feet, occasionally interrupting us with his need for affection. Camille went on to describe her family history and how they were actually first and second-generation winemakers. French winemakers typically inherit the vineyards from their parents, so it’s rare to have “new” vineyards. Her mother’s parents gave their vineyard to her brother, so she decided to purchase her own. This was a bold and risky move in France thirty years ago. Now, three decades later, they have a recognized brand, and Camille’s mother grew the winery from producing 5,000 bottles to 60,000. Additionally, they’re now an internationally renowned vineyard and the only women-run vineyard in her village. Camille and her mother showed the ability to adapt, despite setbacks, which is a key trait in creating a resilient life.
Wine, as I mentioned, isn’t beautiful in every stage of its development. In fact, it has to undergo a process of fermentation and ageing, which neither smells nor tastes pretty. However, through this process, it becomes a refined, nuanced and beautiful product. From the wine industry and those who work in it, we can learn that by allowing ourselves to get “messy”, we can transform our lives into more meaningful experiences, constantly aiming at something greater. With an understanding of the past, the ability to stay in the present and an eye on the future, the wine industry teaches us that resilience is a continuous process.
Written by Liza Kotar