Nov 13, 2020 • 22M

A Conversation with Katherine Clary

Listen now | She is the editor of The Wine Zine and author of Wine, Unfiltered.

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A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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When it comes to wine, I admittedly try to keep myself a little bit ignorant. This is because I love wine so much: I don’t want to over-intellectualize it; I want to keep it special. One of the magazines that feels organic (no pun intended) in its approach to writing about the subject is The Wine Zine, published independently by writer Katherine Clary, whose book, Wine, Unfiltered, is similarly approachable in its voice. Both come from a perspective where enjoyment is centered, and it’s understood that enjoyment happens most when the wine has been made well, without much interference, by people who give a shit. We discussed her upbringing, how she got into wine, and her editorial approach.


Alicia: Hi, Katherine. Thank you so much for being here.

Katherine: Thanks, Alicia. How are you? Thanks for having me.

Alicia: I'm good. 

How are you? How's life? Are you up in Hudson Valley?

Katherine: I am. Yeah, I've been out of the city now pretty much since March. I'm up in Kingston, New York, which — it's beautiful up here. It's an amazing time to be up here too, because the leaves are all changing. And yeah, it's been really nice.

Alicia: That is probably the best place to be in quarantine, I think. 

Katherine: Yeah, I think so. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Well, actually, I wanted to talk to you about — Diane di Prima passed away this week, the poet. And you posted about her food writing on Instagram. How did you encounter her food writing? And why do you think it's significant?

Katherine: Yeah. So, gosh, rest in peace, Diane. We've lost so many people this year, obviously. And for some reason, this — her death just really, really hit me yesterday. 

I have read her work, probably since, I guess, my late teens or so. I came across her for the first time actually through City Lights Books in San Francisco, where I was living when I was 18. And it's a great, kind of iconic bookstore. And it's owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who's one of the kind of pioneer Beat poets. 

And I had never really read much Beat poetry or Beat writing from female writers. And so when I came across her book, Dinners and Nightmares, I mean, one, the title just kind of stuck out to me. Like, ‘Oh, gosh, is this — what is this going to be about?’ 

And I started reading it. It chronicles her early days as a Beat poet in New York, the places she lived, the people she lived with, and what she ate. And it was just such a cool, kind of effortless feeling, chronicle of — almost like a daily food diary. But she really weaves a lot of her poetry in and out of it. 

And it's just — yeah, one of my favorite books ever. And like I said, in that post, I really just wish that she had written about food more. [Laughs.] But as it stands, I'll just cherish this book Dinners And Nightmares.

Alicia: It's interesting, because I didn't realize she did any focused food writing. But I know in her poetry, food does come up so much. And even in a memoir — I quoted her memoir, where she was talking about being taught to cook at a young age, and the scars from the hot oil being part of the pain of being a woman. And so, it was so interesting to see your piece, ’cause I was like, I knew that there had to be some more, just food writing from her.

But yeah, we haven't heard enough about her. And I hope that now that she has passed — and unfortunately, we'll probably hear so much more, and see the books reissued, etc, etc. 

Katherine: For sure. I hope so.

I mean, I've already — I immediately got on eBay and was like, ‘Ok, what of her anthology am I missing?’ And there was actually so much that — I maybe own Dinners And Nightmares, Memoirs of a Beatnik,’ and then she has a book of poetry, really beautiful, called This Kind of Bird Flies Backward. But beyond that, she put out so many small, self-published books. And, yeah, as soon as you check on eBay, those prices are going up. [Laughter.]

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Katherine: Yeah. 

So, I grew up between Phoenix, Arizona, and San Francisco, mostly. Bounced back and forth quite a bit when I was a kid, but those are kind of the two main homes. 

And yeah, in Phoenix, our — my eating style, and how things were in the home, were definitely much more suburban. My mom loved to cook things like chicken and dumplings. And we had some family recipes passed down, for things like yorkshire pudding. And it was just kind of — I mean, don't get me wrong, totally delicious. But, it felt like a pretty kind of standard suburban diet for the time, the late ’80s, early ’90s. 

And I should give my mom more credit, though. Actually, one of her favorite books was — Sunset magazine issued this Southwestern cookbook. I think it came out in the late ’70s. And so we did on occasion have enchiladas and her — she loved making chimichangas, which was a fried burrito essentially. So, there was some variation in there. But it was — yeah, it was delicious, kind of comfort food. 

My mom and I moved to San Francisco. And the culinary landscape, I guess, so to speak, and also just cooking style at home completely changed. Because she was then a single mother raising me. And she was working full-time. And so, I really kind of was put on my own in terms of like, ‘Let's figure out how to get dinner on the table’ and all that. 

And lucky for us, we lived in Chinatown. And I went to school in Chinatown. So, by age 9, 10, I was exposed to so many, so much incredible food. Suddenly, I was eating egg custard tarts, and cha siu bao, and rice noodle rolls, and all — just all this great dim sum. So, I think, San Francisco really kind of expanded my mind, certainly, but also hers. Her culinary style kind of shifted, then. 

And yeah, I think, the way that I was eating in San Francisco kind of carries over to a lot of my curiosity about food now.

Alicia: Right. 

And how did you get into wine and natural wine specifically?

Katherine: Yeah.

So, I won't say that I was ever really into wine until I discovered natural wine. I moved to New York when I was 18. And I think like a lot of people that age, and then going into your early 20s, I was just kind of — I was going out to restaurants with friends, and going to bars, and would kind of just drink whatever was put in front of me. [Laughs.

I didn't really distinguish between ordering a vodka soda, or a beer, or whatever when we were out at bars on the weekend. And wine was kind of always this thing that was for quieter nights, maybe if we're sitting in a Italian restaurant. Or I'm having a nice night at home with friends and we would just get some generic bottle of red wine, usually not spending more than like $10 on the bottle. 

I just never really thought about wine. I enjoyed it. But I really, I never connected it to anything bigger than just this alcoholic beverage. And it wasn't until I started to learn about natural wine that this whole world kind of opened up and I understood like, ‘Oh, this is an agricultural product and wine is basically like food.’ And that happened mostly because of two things. 

So, like I said, I'm up in Kingston. And I've had the privilege of spending a lot of time up here the past ten years. My partner's from the area. And a really great wine shop opened about — think, about nine years ago. And it's called Kingston Wine Co. 

And it was the first wine shop that I had ever gone into that actually felt like my people were running it. And they were young people that were really excited about what they were selling. And suddenly I was seeing these bottles that had really creative labels, and the staff there just wanted to chat about things and wanted to know what I was looking for. And it just felt like this really warm, kind of welcoming vibe. It didn't feel like it was purely transactional anymore. 

And then, at about the same time, I was up in the Finger Lakes in western New York, where I have a bit of family. And, as you might know, the Finger Lakes is New York's kind of wine country, so to speak. 

And I came across this small winery called Bloomer Creek. And it turned out that Kim and Debra, the winemakers, were actually basically New York's pioneering natural winemakers. And so I had the privilege of kind of learning from them and understanding the whole history behind natural agriculture in New York. It changed everything in that kind of one to two year time. I really kind of couldn't look back at that point and keep drinking those generic bottles that I had been for the previous ten years.

Alicia: Then you launched The Wine Zine. There have been four issues so far. What inspired the creation of that? And how do you approach the creation and curation of each issue? Does each issue kind of have a theme? 

Or basically, how did The Wine Zine get started? And how do you keep going?

Katherine: Yeah, so they are unthemed. That was a pretty early decision for us, to keep them unthemed. Mostly because the content in each magazine, in each issue, really kind of just comes from, I think, what we are really curious about in that given time. Each issue takes about five to six months to put together. And so, I think I always felt that doing a themed issue would kind of stifle us in terms of what we were able to work with. 

And also, of course, in a six month span of time, so much can happen in — just culturally with wine, but also agriculturally or politically, with tariffs constantly changing and things like that. We kind of needed to be a little bit more on the edge of our seats with how we were coming up with content. And so, yeah, that's kind of why I stay away from themed issues. 

But, in terms of how we come up with content, I've mostly been on my own for these four issues in terms of our editorial direction. So, the magazine has always really been just sort of a fanzine by me, about what it is that I'm really curious about in wine. 

For the next issue — for issue five, I've actually brought on two wonderful editors. Nadia Pugh, who's going to be my associate editor. And she's based in California, and is going to be working kind of more generally on the magazine. And then Farrah Berrou, who's based in Beirut, and she’s going to be focused on that region. 

So, this is the first time that I'm kind of bringing in two outside minds to really start to curate the content and think about stories in a way outside of my own brain, which I'm really, really excited about. ’Cause I was nervous that it was maybe starting to look a little bit too inward. 

I really have my ear to the ground in terms of new producers and new wine shops and new wine bars and what people are talking about, but no matter how much I'm paying attention, things are always going to be outside of my vision. There are always going to be things happening elsewhere that I'm just not capable of knowing. So, I'm super excited to kind of expand my team.

Alicia: And how do you figure out who you want to write for each issue? Are you getting pitches, or are you mostly assigning?

Katherine: Yeah, I'm mostly assigning. For the next issue, I am opening it up to pitches. I've mostly only ever commissioned stories just because, one, I always felt like I had an idea of what I wanted to get into the magazine. But also, I was really terrified about the moment that I opened pitches — gosh, and this probably sounds so crazy, but — that I wasn't going to be able to handle the volume of pitches. Which is, of course, we're a tiny magazine. Come on. I'm not like Wine Enthusiast or something. 

I've always been very slow and steady about the growth of the magazine. And I've always just kind of taken things at my own speed in order to not get too overwhelmed. This has always been a side project for me pretty much until last year, when it kind of became a little bit more full-time, especially with the book. 

But yeah, I've always just kind of wanted to take things slow. And for that reason, I wasn't accepting pitches, but now I think we're in a good position to, with the next issue. So, I'm excited to bring on some new writers.

Alicia: That's super exciting, yeah.

And your book, which you just mentioned, Wine, Unfiltered, is such a wonderful user's guide to the world of natural wine, which doesn't have an official definition. And so much of the coverage of natural wine and mainstream outlets has been dismissive to my — in my perspective. 

And I've always found it a little bit annoying. There was a New Yorker piece about natural wine, and it made it seem as though everyone in the world lived in Brooklyn and was having orange wine poured down their throat by force. 

But you were writing your book, kind of amid this mainstream awareness and gaze upon natural wine. So, how did you come to your way of writing about it and thinking about it? And what kind of guided you along as you were writing your book, and how you want it to approach the topic?

Katherine: Yeah, that's a great question. I was reading those articles as they were coming out, as I was writing my book. And I have to admit, I was totally freaked out. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, mainstream media is already making fun of this thing and dismissing it and writing it off as some trendy, hype-filled whatever and here I am about to put a book out on it. Is this just going to be, by the time this comes out, is — are people just going to be super dismissive of what we're doing?’ 

But the one super-grounding thing about that is, I knew that I had my community within the wine scene. And I knew I had writers there and readers, and people who really did care about the who and the what and the why. And they weren't just paying attention to what bars were pouring orange wine, or whatever. 

And in that way, I think it always felt really good to be writing a primer on natural wine, and kind of an introductory guide. Not that I could have written anything more advanced than that, because let's be honest, I'm very new to natural wine. So, an introductory guide was my speed. It was perfect for me. 

But I always felt confident in that approach, because I know that there will always be new people to this community who maybe need to have the basics explained to them. I was one of those people at one point, and I didn't really have a book like that. 

And, to your question, just regarding, I think, how I approached the book and how I — what my kind of style was with it. It was really the same way that I approach the editorial direction of the magazine. I always want to speak to people kind of at their level, and at a very kind of understanding, ‘learn with me, not from me’ approach. Kind of create a bit of a conversation, and ask questions together. 

I never wanted to be that kind of preachy wine person that's, like, ‘Drink this, not that. Or be drinking this, because it's X, Y, or Z.’ It's more like, ‘Let's kind of create this ongoing dialogue about maybe why we should be changing the ways that we drink, or what [do] these winemakers think about the way that they're farming?’ And just kind of keeping things a little bit more transparent, you know?

Alicia: Absolutely. 

And how do you define natural wine, if someone asks you?

Katherine: Yeah, so. [Laughs.] Oh, the question. [Laughter.]

So yeah, when I'm talking about natural wine, what I'm referring to is wine made with grapes that were not sprayed with synthetic pesticides or herbicides for the most part. It's minimally fined or filtered. 

So, fining is basically a process that allows a winemaker to strip sediment from the wine using a binding agent. And then a filter, the filtering process is just basically a physical filter that will remove sediment from a wine. And it has the benefit of clarifying the wine a bit, among other things. But so, no fining or filtering, no synthetic grapes. 

And what else? I should have my book in front of me. Little to no additives, let’s say. So, we're talking about no chaptalization, which is adding sugar to a wine in order to spike the alcohol content. 

Also, pretty crucial is the use of native or indigenous yeast. So, this is just using the yeast that is present on the grapes in the vineyard and in the cellar, and not using commercial or inoculated yeast to kick off the fermentation process. 

And then I think there are some sort of — there's a little bit of give and take elsewhere. But these are sort of the core things, I think, that most of the community would agree makes a natural wine. Or more simply said: nothing given, nothing taken away. Gosh, I just got that wrong. [Laughter.]

Alicia: For you, is drinking wine a political act?

Katherine: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, I think with anything that I think we consume, we can think of that as being a political act. With wine in particular, it touches so many aspects. How was the labor treated that was involved in the production of the wine? What were the agricultural processes? How does it look for the environment, or how does it impact the environment? I think there are so many ways that we can think of wine being a political thing. 

And also just for me, it's about where and how do I want to spend my money? Do I want to have it go to a small family farm in western New York as opposed to a giant, anonymous corporation in Napa? Absolutely. Or even spending my money at a small, locally owned shop versus a big chain. I think all of those things add up, you know.

Alicia: Thank you so much, Katherine, for coming on.

Katherine: Thank you, Alicia.