How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead

How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead

From the dark night of the soul to the gleaming sunlight of Southern France.
By Adam McHugh

June 11, 2023

Excerpted and adapted from Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead by Adam McHugh.

I was ordained as a Presbyterian, but I grew up a Lutheran. I was an only child; my parents and I were a mildly churchgoing family, though most of the prayers offered in our household went up on Saturdays during University of Washington football games. 

Surprising to us all, during my senior year of high school, I found myself sitting in a Southern Baptist church. And not only on Sunday mornings. Southern Baptists have a lot of time for church because they are not out drinking on weekends. And those abstemious conservatives at that church taught me a more spirited experience of religion than I had known before. Ironic, because they tried to persuade me that the cup of the Last Supper was nonalcoholic.

The truth is the ancient world knew no such thing as unfermented grape juice. Grape juice doesn’t happen for long without refrigeration and airtight seals. And it was the eccentric forefather, Martin Luther, who said, “Beer is made by men, wine by God,” echoing approximately eight thousand years of religious tradition around the world which seemed to understand without much explanation that wine was a gift of the gods. 

But wine was not invented or conceived of by humans. Wine was discovered. All it takes to create wine are wild grapevines, sunlight to ripen sugars, and some peripatetic yeasts. There was probably a gatherer of wild grapes, who filled a basket to the brim and left it for a while. When our sober ancestor returned, the grapes at the bottom were crushed by the weight, and something had changed. It smelled different, it tasted different, and when drunk, the head felt a little lighter; the body a little freer.

Wine, you see, wanted to be found.

Over time the mystics, poets, and philosophers would come to celebrate wine for its ability to open the mind and free the body, to reveal the secrets of the heart, and to banish fear and worry. The ancient lyrics exult that “wine gladdens the human heart” and “cheers both gods and mortals.” As the Roman poet Horace encouraged his friends, “Smooth out with wine the worries of a wrinkled brow.” Is it any wonder that wine became the centerpiece of religious tables and a core symbol of heaven’s love for earth that continues to this day? 

At the time these wine revelations were first taking hold of me, I was leading a life that needed a tall glass of gladdening. I lived thirty miles or so east of Los Angeles, and I was driving the 210 to the 605 to the 10 to strange neighborhoods and nursing homes at all hours of the day and night. I was a hospice chaplain.

Hospice, if you are unfamiliar, is end-of-life care, a service for the terminally ill, for when the doctor throws up his hands and says, “There is nothing more I can do.” I was a minister working outside church walls, who showed up at death’s door to listen or pray or sit quietly at grieving bedsides. For a while I worked daytime shifts, but then I was moved to the on-call night shift, when my work schedule became midnight to eight in the morning.

Most of my work was what we called “death visits.” A patient would die in the night, and Telecare would alert me to go help the family cope with their loss. I would drive my black 2003 Honda CRV through the starless L.A. night, battling my grogginess with saccharine pop music, to the patient’s house to witness the death. I would walk in the door and everyone would clear a path. “Shhhh, the minister is here,” they would say. Sometimes the family would want me to sound official, to make a “pronouncement,” so I would put two fingers on the patient’s neck for a few seconds and then summon my best primetime doctor impression to say, “Time of death: 4:40 a.m., January 23.” Then I would close the patient’s eyes, call the funeral home, and then, if they wanted, sit with the family until the men in suits and white gloves appeared with a gurney.

In the years I did that job, it never got easier. In my work, I suffered regularly from what is officially called “compassion fatigue,” which unofficially feels like walking in ten feet of water. Everything is slow, exhausting, a little blurry. 

Shifts ended at nine in the morning, after which I would stagger home, curl into the fetal position on my olive-green couch, and sleep fitfully, dreaming of being anywhere else in the world. I did truly want to help people, to find genuine connection, to offer a teaspoon of comfort to these families on one of the worst nights of their lives. But I felt trapped in my best intentions to do good, flailing in a world that was slowly drowning me. 

After years of hospice work, I had hoarded enough vacation days for a summer wine adventure to France. Leading up to it, just the thought of two weeks away made me feel drunk with anticipation. Then, at eight in the morning on the first day of May, my boss called me into the conference room, where I was greeted by Human Resources and a purple folder containing instructions on how to apply for unemployment and extend my medical benefits. It was a very cordial layoff. 

My wife and I thought about canceling our trip to France—we would largely be spending money we didn’t have—but I had never been to Europe, never been anywhere outside the United States except for a couple of highly controlled excursions off a cruise ship and a high school band trip to Victoria. I had to go. 

I had enjoyed wine for years, thanks to the generous cellar in my family’s basement in Seattle, mostly back then a collection of Napa Cab, which I first started to partake of during breaks in college. But the more I drank wines from countries I had never been to, the more I wanted to see them for myself. 

Over time, I became enamored not only with tasting the wines of the world but with the history of wine and the people who have made it for over eight thousand years. I began to learn that the story of wine is nothing less than the story of Western civilization and the Mediterranean cultures that shaped it. From the village with the earliest known evidence of winemaking—deep in the Caucasus Mountains sometime around 6,000 B.C.–wine spread throughout the cradle of civilization. It would become the lubricant of empire, as Egypt, then Greece, then Rome, told the world of their power and culture with a steady flow of wine, and with it they toasted military victories, healed their sick, met and placated their gods, aroused fertility, and fueled philosophical debate. Some even ferried their dead to the shores of the afterlife on a river of wine.

I longed to stand on those holy and ancient soils, the hillsides where history and wine poured together. No drink inspires such pilgrim zeal for the places the raw materials are grown like wine. Yes, the Guinness brewery draws hearty crowds, and scotch devotees weep peaty tears on Highland moors, but when it comes to beer and spirits, it is the process that makes the real difference. When it comes to wine, it is the place. And for me, the heart of wine culture beats in the stone villages of the French countryside. I needed to drink at the source.

That summer Paris was enchanting, magical, and perfect. I drank the best espresso of my life each morning looking across the Seine at Notre Dame. I shopped for books with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I ate cake with Marie Antoinette. I took all kinds of opium in Montmartre with Picasso and Monet and Degas. I drank Bordeaux and Champagne with fromage and escargot and moules frites and boeuf bourguignon and bazooka-sized baguettes nine hours a day. Paris is a miracle.

But it had been up to me to decide which French wine region we would visit after Paris, and I knew I wouldn’t be content dabbling for a day or two in multiple regions, so I had to choose one. I chose Provence. 

Heading south on the TGV, the cityscape of Paris is quickly replaced by green hills capped with outcroppings of white rock, sprawling meadows, and dense forests, broken up occasionally by weathered stone villages and men dressed like old-time sea captains mingling with herds of cows and goats. 

As we passed one particularly large woodland, I recalled that the great forests in the center of France were once planted to build up the French naval fleet. In the mid-1600s, the French finance minister reported to King Louis XIV that the Dutch fleet outnumbered the French navy thirty to one. To supply an armada he hoped would rival the Dutch, the envious Sun King ordered the planting of vast oak forests in the heart of the country including the Troncais Forest, which our train must have passed near on the journey south. 

The reason I know this little piece of history is because Troncais is now among a select handful of French forests that supply the timber for French wine barrels. The French never became the looming sea power the Sun King hoped for, but the trees he planted make the best and most expensive wine barrels in the world. 

In the end, I didn’t choose Provence based only on wine. I chose where Vincent van Gogh used to paint. I wanted to see horizons and lights and trees like he did, alive and talking to us. Like Vincent, I was beginning to find more life in landscapes and night skies than in religious buildings.

Back in the day, like every other college student in the Western Hemisphere, I had a print of “Starry Night” tacked to my dorm room wall. But now there was something about Impressionism, in this less sophomoric stage of my life, that was drawing me in again, something more existential.

A few details in the personal life of Vincent van Gogh have been thoroughly rehearsed. Yes, he presented his ear in a napkin to a lady of the Provençal nighttime. And he died of a festering revolver wound to the abdomen, which was assumed for decades to be the suicidal action of an unwell man—though in recent years that theory has come under scrutiny. No matter how unbalanced, who tries to take his life by shooting himself in the stomach? The prevailing theory goes that he aimed for his chest but missed, much like how sometimes I try to put my fork in my mouth but end up stabbing myself in the arm. Plus, at the time Vincent was painting in a flourish, producing almost a work a day, and he seemed to be in high spirits. Vincent’s recent defenders have proposed the alternative theory that the local teenagers who harassed him out in the fields shot him, but Vincent, the sad, kindly man he was, covered for them by saying he shot himself. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I deeply wanted this explanation to be correct. 

Vincent lived his life in the shadow of a great rejection, a spurned marriage proposal when he was young. As a promising art salesman in London, he devoted his heart to a young woman named Ursula to whom he proposed. She replied, “how extraordinary that you shouldn’t know. I have been engaged for over a year.” 

The marks made on Vincent’s heart were permanent. He changed into a man who seemed to identify himself with pain. As his biographer Irving Stone observed, “Pain did curious things to him. It made him sensitive to the pain of others. It made him intolerant of everything that was cheap and blatantly successful in the world about him. . . . The only pictures in which he could find reality and emotional depth were the ones in which the artists had expressed pain.”

This could easily be the description of the inner life of a hospice chaplain. When you start to see life through the lens of death that will one day mercilessly take us all, ordinary human behavior has a way of looking rather odd. The eccentric passions that humans devote themselves to, the inconveniences that cause such outrage, the relentless hours of work at the expense of intimacy, all of it starts to seem quite idiosyncratic and futile. 

But the problem with viewing life with the end in mind is that it leaves you with nowhere to go. It has always been the peculiar glory of human beings that we live and work and have sex and play music and drain wine glasses while the sun is slowly setting on us all. As Vincent himself put it in a letter to his brother Theo, “However meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth . . . steps in and does something.”

After his great heartbreak, Vincent became a missionary. Dispatched to a coal-mining community called the Borinage, Vincent was much beloved by its residents, but then, as a local church chronicler wrote, he “lost his mind” in the wake of a mining disaster that befell his neighbors. 

His assignment to the Borains was revoked, and his time with the church was finished. It is not a surprise that years later, when Vincent painted “Starry Night,” the only building in the riverfront village that did not have lights in the windows was the church.

But Vincent did not leave the Borinage immediately, and instead wandered through the town with paper and pencil, sketching the residents who would still welcome him into their homes. This was the beginning of his grand passion, revealed by pain, that would take him to Paris, then to Arles, where he hoped to start an artist’s colony in the dazzling light of Provence.

On the second morning of our visit to the south of France, we disembarked at the train station in Arles. It was pouring rain and I was sans umbrella. The dark clouds veiled the bright light of the Provençal horizons that fueled so much of Vincent’s inspiration. The city of Arles has set up easels to mark where Vincent painted many of his most famous works. I walked the entire path of Van Gogh in the unrelenting rain. The way of the pilgrim requires suffering.

I wanted to believe that Vincent didn’t take his own life. I wanted to believe that he died as a martyr, not as a patient. I wanted to know that you can leave ministry and find happiness in a new passion. I wanted to keep my soft heart, but I didn’t want to keep chasing pain down the mineshaft. I wanted to believe the change wasn’t going to kill me.

After much heartbreak and suffering, Vincent moved hopefully to Paris, but the somber gray curtains and drizzle of the northern city dripped on his already melancholy disposition. So he fled south, praying the breezy sunlight and the whir of Provencal color contained healing powers. I think that’s why I followed him down there from Paris. I was in search of a healing place. And wine. 

Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees (1889)
Vincent van Gogh, Olive Trees (1889)

Provence is at the heart of the Southern Rhône River Valley, as distinguished from the more rugged Northern Rhône region, where the river slices through narrow and inhospitably steep slopes, and the peppery Syrah vines planted there cling to the angular granite hillsides. By the time you arrive in the Southern Rhône, the valley has fanned out and the landscapes have relaxed somewhat, much like its sun-drenched residents, with softer, tree-topped hills and vast fields of lavender caressing your senses. The wine life of Provence is dominated by Grenache, a plump red grape which luxuriates in the unrelenting Mediterranean sunshine that sends northern folk like myself scurrying to local shops in search of wide-brimmed hats.

Our home base for our stay in Provence was Avignon, a large town encircled by a 25-foot-high medieval wall that guards a palatial Gothic castle inside. But housed within Avignon’s imposing walls is an easy welcome. Life here is enchantingly slow. Meals are leisurely, languid days follow the long arc of the Mediterranean sun, and the walking pace is a stroll. Walking the cobblestones on an early summer evening, within the quiet created by the city walls, I was starting to breathe the longer, deeper breaths of a past era.

It was a long lunch in the courtyard of Avignon’s grand palace that began to reawaken something in me that had been dormant for some time. 

I started with pastis, a milky green aperitif and afternoon ritual among locals. If you are unfamiliar with pastis, imagine that someone made a scourge of black licorice vines and smacked you in the face with it repeatedly. 

Fortunately, a carafe of rosé was not far behind, practically a staple of the Mediterranean diet, as at home on Provençal tables as ketchup at a burger joint. The south of France is known for two types of wine: muscular reds and spritely rosés. Here rosés are lively, zesty, and dangerously easy, not unlike the particular class of ladies Vincent was acquainted with down here. They are red wines made like white wines that enjoy a mere dalliance with the grape skins before the juice is pressed out, and the result is a bone-dry, carnation-colored wine that alights on your palate like a swan on the river.

The house wines appear in a large carafe with a slash marking the fill line, and you are charged based on how far the wine drops from the line during lunch. The waiter will charge you about five euros per foot of rosé, and for the right food pairing he will suggest everything on the menu, and he is not wrong. But the perfect alchemy happens when you put rosé next to salad niçoise, which came next in my greedy march toward locavore nirvana.

Salad niçoise is all the goodness of Provencal gardens and seas piled high on one plate. Fingers of potatoes, green beans tossed with butter and herbs, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and crunchy lettuce are scattered with capers, those most adventurous of briny flower buds, and then topped with thinly sliced tuna and anchovies straight from the stalls of Les Halles, the town’s central food market that Peter Mayle called “The Belly of Avignon.” The salad is finished with its namesake niçoise olives from the nearby town of Nice and doused in olive oil whisked with Dijon mustard, garlic, lemon juice, and white wine vinegar, all soaked up beautifully with the crispy pillows of bread teetering at the platter’s edge. I declare to you today it is more than food. It is the Garden of Eden on a plate, an exultant celebration of life’s bounty, presented by a people that heaven and latitude have smiled on.

On this stretched out afternoon, something began to stir in me. It felt somehow like my heart was resurfacing after years of being buried in my chest cavity. In these years of hospice work, I wondered if I had been experiencing symptoms similar to what people with a terminal diagnosis undergo—a slow detachment from their lives, often losing interest in things and people they were once passionate about. 

For a while now, I had become a stranger to my own desires that once made me feel alive. Through no real intention of my own, I had awoken to the pain of the world, and I knew I could never go back to sleep. How do I live my life when so many are dying? How can I skip through a world where so many limp? There was something in my belief system that was convinced that if I wasn’t suffering, I wasn’t doing something meaningful. If I wasn’t pouring myself out on the altar of broken humanity, then I must lack faith. 

What I was coming around to, here at this meal, is that to celebrate life’s pleasures and occasions has always been not only an act of gratitude but of epicurean defiance—future loss and uncertainty make today’s dishes that much richer, tonight’s wine all the more decadent. 

During this afternoon-long lunch in the Avignon courtyard, something was changing inside me, but it was hazy. The image I couldn’t shake was that I was wearing a nametag with “Reverend McHugh” scrawled on it, but during my rainy pilgrimage to Vincent’s easels in Arles the ink had started to run.

Adam McHugh is a wine tour guide, sommelier, and Certified Specialist of Wine. He is the author of Blood from a Stone, The Listening Life and Introverts in the Church and a regular contributor to Edible Santa Barbara and Wine Country. He lives in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.

Adapted from Blood from a Stone by Adam McHugh. ©2022 by Adam S. McHugh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.