Over his 20-year career as a journalist, Kevin Begos has produced work on a variety of subjects for the Associated Press, the American Association for Cancer Research, the Christian Science Monitor and a host of other publications. His latest work, a book entitled Tasting the Past, explores the history of wine and the science of winemaking through the lens of Begos’ own personal quest to discover lesser-known wines.
Combining a journalist’s commitment to research with a novelist’s sense of narrative, Tasting the Past both engages and informs. We caught up with Begos to ask him about his experience writing the book.
A Journey of Discovery
HTWAB: You frame your discovery of the Cremisian wine you found in your hotel room in Jordan as the springboard that inspired Tasting the Past. What other elements of your experience with wine, writing and life compelled you to write the book?
KB: I had worked in newspapers for almost 20 years, and wanted to write a book. I also found many new developments about the science of wine that hadn’t been presented in a narrative, reader-friendly way.
HTWAB: The book structures itself around the personal journey you undertook to discover ancient wines. What benefits did this narrative style afford? What limitations did it present?
There were two parts to the journey – seeking the origins of wine and the science of wine. I felt combining the two created a certain dramatic tension, but it also made the structure more complicated.
HTWAB: “When I set out on all these travels, I wasn’t sure what I would learn,” you “confess” late in the work. What aspects of what you did learn surprised you most? How, if at all, did the book come to defy the initial expectations you had set for it?
KB: The story was far more diverse than I expected, and it changed dramatically during the writing process. I had never suspected that yeast plays a major role in determining wine flavors. And at first I didn’t even plan to write much about American wine grapes, or new technology.
HTWAB: You write that your “wine travels…changed the way I viewed history.” How so?
KB: I began to understand historical characters as individuals, on an emotional level, so that brought ancient history to life.
HTWAB: How has your experience writing this book changed the way you walk through a wine store? What goes through your mind these days when you pour a glass of wine or bring one to your lips?
KB: I’m not intimidated now. I have a sense of what I’m looking for, and how to frame the search.
Now when I taste wine I probably subconsciously cross reference everything to favorite glasses from the past.
Research, Not Epiphany
HTWAB: How did you find and connect with people like McGovern, Vouillamoz and the other experts, wine makers, etc. featured in the book? Have you built enduring relationships with any of them?
KB: It’s just basic journalism – do research with the PubMed site. Read books the people have written, then send emails or make phone calls asking for an interview. Then do follow-up interviews or actual in-person visits.
I am still in contact with some people in the book, but too soon to say where that leads.
HTWAB: Maybe you’ve heard the mythical tales of Kerouac pounding away at his typewriter in a Dyonysian frenzy while taking swigs from a bottle of rotgut wine. What role, if any, does wine play in your creative process? Did you drink wine while writing this book?
KB: Many people think (or perhaps hope) my experience was a glorious, long wine party. But writing a book is really difficult, and you can’t interview people well or read scientific papers when you’re drunk. In other words, while I tasted a lot of wine over the last few years, I don’t mix wine and writing.
HTWAB: In its style and its depth of research, Tasting the Past reads like the work of a journalist. How does the process of writing a book compare to that of writing an article, or a serial like “Against Their Will”?
KB: Creating a narrative arc in the book was very, very challenging. It is different from newspaper or magazine articles. The author voice in a book is also completely different from a news article.
A Trellis of Themes
HTWAB: You enumerate a litany of factors—music, imagination, DNA and preconceptions among them—that can affect the the way a person tastes something. Has your realization of the malleability and subjectivity of human taste buds led you to further research the way in which the senses experience the world?
KB: I expect to follow this line of research in the future, but no telling where it will lead.
HTWAB: What other avenues of further research did Tasting the Past open for you? Do you plan to pursue any of them in future work?
KB: Too soon to say.
HTWAB: The book explores the corporatization of the wine industry and the resultant homogenization of the taste of wines and, by extension, of consumer preference. You mention that similar phenomena have occurred across the agricultural sphere. Do you see such shifts in other spheres of business and culture as well?
KB: I see the same forces in food, music and art, but as with wine there are always a few people who break out to do something new.
The Spirit of Wine
HTWAB: You quote the Georgian monk Father Gerasim as saying, “Wine ties, and tied, the human being to his community, to his land.” To what degree do you see wine as a means of promoting community? How has Tasting the Past affected your view on the matter?
KB: The smaller wineries I visited fostered a sense of community, just as many small farms do. But the agriculture and wine communities tend to be somewhat separate. I was surprised to see how Cremisan and Alaverdi use winery profits to benefit the local community, but I think that is very rare.
HTWAB: You mention Sufi poets—Rumi specifically—several times throughout the book. What is your relationship with their work? How, if at all, has their influence shaped you as a writer?
KB: I had a fairly casual relationship with the Sufi poets before the book. Now I have a better sense of the times and places they lived, but they are not a major influence.
HTWAB: The epigraphs that introduce each chapter come from a variety of sources. How did you choose them, and why did you decide to include epigraphs at all?
KB: I began keeping a file of relevant wine quotes very early in the process, not knowing how or if I would use them. Ultimately I felt the epigraphs are a kind of literary/historical counterpoint that add depth to each chapter by illustrating common reactions to wine, even across centuries or millennia.
HTWAB: Would you care to offer any advice to emerging writers regarding the writing process, the publishing process or anything else?
KB: Research is very important but organizing the research is also crucial. With a book you may end up with hundreds of files or research citations, so set up a system in advance. I liked the Scrivener program, but there are others.
Still, realize that no one software program will solve your organization issues – just keep on top of it.
With publishing, PR plans should start at least six months before publication and perhaps even seven or eight. Tweet This Author websites, photographs, videos, and tour possibilities can’t wait until a month or two before pub date – that is too late. Tweet This
HTWAB: Would you like to say anything else about Tasting the Past?
KB: I hope the book illustrates how to combine science and history into narrative nonfiction.
You can find Tasting the Past on Amazon, or wherever you buy your books.
Featured image via kevinbegos.com