The following is an excerpt from Blood From a Stone by Adam S. McHugh. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
“It’s incredible to me that vines can grow out of rocks,” I marveled as I traveled through the French wine country.
My French wine guide, Antoine, responded, “That’s why the local expression here is that making wine is like squeezing blood from a stone.”
“I know, I just—wait. What? Say that again.”
“Making wine here is like squeezing blood from a stone,” he repeated.
I wobbled on the smooth stones beneath my feet. These words struck me with a force I didn’t understand. It was as though a thousand Champagne corks had popped inside my head at once. My brain whirled, until I felt a little dizzy.
Blood from a stone. This phrase came to me like the voice of someone from your past calling behind you, when your heart leaps out of your chest before you can even name the voice. It felt like some sort of conversion experience. This was my Damascus Road, my “take and read,” my vision at Mecca, my “by this sign shall you conquer” moment. The jolt of that phrase was enough to wake the dead.
There was life in the stones. There was life in the stones! Somehow, these smooth, rounded, ancient corpses were giving blood, coursing under miniature trees of life. Had they been listening to the centuries of holy mass performed in this place? Here at the pope’s altar, when the bread was transformed into body broken, the wine into blood spilled, had the stones also been changed? A deathbed of rocks was now beating and bleeding like hearts.
I wanted to stand there forever. The rocks were alive. I was alive. This valley of dry bones had a pulse.
I have seen more than my share of death as a former Hospice Chaplain. I am drawn to wine because of the life in it. The French have a saying: La vie en la vigne. There is life in the vine. Grapes should rot, juice should spoil. Yet life refuses to surrender, and wine is the resurrected heart of the grape. Some people use wine to deaden their senses. Wine was made to enliven the senses.
In every civilization blood is the sign of life. Lifeblood fills you and warms you, coursing through you even when you are still. When it dries up, life is extinguished. And wine has long been associated with the blood of gods. The stories of wine gods are often violent, with deities torn limb from limb like branches ripped from vines, since that is how you release their blood and receive their life. You have to squeeze the stones to get the blood out. For believers, we drink a wine that reveals blood shed for forgiveness, a cup of suffering emptied for love. As we partake of the blood of crushed grapes, we discover union with the life of Christ in the deepest places. We experience not only the God of wine, but the God in wine. More than the God of us, we meet the God in us. We share the same blood, and we are family. To drink wine is to participate in a divine life.
The stones shared their secrets with me. I never would have heard them if wine hadn’t drawn me there. The more I discover about wine, the more I learn how much it involves hidden mystery. The story of wine is a chain reaction of transformation, carried out under a veil. Roots reach for water and nutrients in invisible places. Microscopic yeasts lurk in juice, prepared to carry out their work of secret change. Aromatic compounds are hidden in long equations, their wild fragrances masked until yeasts break them apart in fermentation, and then they rush for the air. In dark bottles wine changes and evolves, taking on new textures and flavors that taste like nothing you have ever had.
That’s always been the nature of sacraments, hidden mysteries of grace and life squeezed out of ordinary objects. Baskets of bread and goblets of wine, vials of oil and pitchers of water, even rocks can play host to heaven’s surprise visits.
So can place. I have been thinking about this particular place among the stones ever since. I think this was my first experience of what the ancient Celts would call a “thin place.” They would say that there is more than meets the eye to a particular piece of dirt. A thin place is where the ground you are standing on is elevated into an altar, where dirt becomes revelation. The Celts believed there are places where the veil separating the spirit and the soil is particularly thin, where heaven looms close, eager to reveal itself and pierce the skin of the world. Heaven is always nearer than we think, but there are some places where it feels closer. I think a thin place is where we are simultaneously grounded and uplifted, where we experience heaven at its most heavenly, and earth at its earthiest. The modern take on terroir says that a place has a climate, slope, and soil. A thin place says that a place has a spirit.
Celtic Christians spoke of another type of thin place. You would be summoned to take a long pilgrimage away from the security of home, and you wouldn’t return. It was a type of martyrdom, because where you landed would be the place you would die, and where your bones would await resurrection. This was the place of resurrection. When you encounter a thin place, it is not usually a restful feeling. I felt like my soul had been pierced, and that this place had taken a magnet to my internal compass. But I felt alive, for the first time in a very long time. Naked but alive. I was done denying the things and desires that make me feel most alive. This is my place of resurrection.
Vive la France!
Praise for Blood From a Stone
“Adam McHugh has not just written a terrific book about wine, he has pioneered a whole new genre of wine writing. At once funny and sad, his book is a deeply personal exploration of how one man finds himself through his relationship with the world’s most remarkable beverage. This book made me laugh, cry, and want to share a bottle of wine with Adam McHugh!”
—Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible and editor of WineSpeed
“Adam McHugh is one of the most effortlessly funny writers I know. In his new work, Blood From a Stone, Adam combines his wit with a tender vulnerability to tell a story as poignant as it is funny.”
—Susan Cain, author of Quiet and Bittersweet
“For an avowed introvert, Adam McHugh lets it all hang out in Blood From a Stone, a very personal, soul-searching tale about a dying career, difficult divorce, and ultimately, inspiring rebirth thanks to Santa Barbara County wine country. Along the way, McHugh educates the reader in an engaging, accessible manner about the great sagas of wine, both those from Old World antiquity and more recent stories from the Santa Ynez Valley. This book should entertain wine neophytes and experts alike, or just about anyone who’s pulling for the underdog.”
—Matt Kettmann, author of Vines & Vision and contributing editor, Wine Enthusiast
“A sparkling delight, laced with deep and earthy emotion but ultimately finished with notes of hope and love. In Blood From a Stone, Adam McHugh gives us a cultural history of wine alongside his own story, letting us taste the cycles of grief, darkness, and joy that mark every life. With good humor and hard-won depth, he coaxes us toward the attentiveness that great wine, and great writing, can foster―and the result is nothing short of wonderful.”
—Alissa Wilkinson, author of Salty: Lessons on Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women
“What a treat to read a wine book about something other than ‘tasting notes.‘ Who cares whether you find that a wine smells like cherries or berries or Ethiopian coffee beans? How boring! Adam McHugh is after a more interesting game. History, religion, and his passion for one of his God’s greatest gifts, for example. Page by page his wine pilgrimage, as he calls it, grows more interesting, humorous, and soulful.”
—Kermit Lynch, wine importer and author of Adventures on the Wine Route
About the Author
Adam McHugh is a wine tour guide, sommelier, and Certified Specialist of Wine. He is a regular contributor to Edible Santa Barbara & Wine Country and a happy resident of the Santa Ynez Valley. A former hospice chaplain and Presbyterian minister, he wrote two books while in professional ministry: The Listening Life and Introverts in the Church. He was featured in Susan Cain’s bestselling book Quiet, and wrote articles on introversion and listening for Psychology Today, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and Quiet Revolution. Adam is a graduate of Claremont McKenna College and the Princeton School of Theology.
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