When I first finished grad school, I moved to Portland, Oregon, to pursue the life of a creative. I had high hopes of being a copywriter for an ad agency, or maybe a creative writing instructor. I found very quickly that this life was already being lived by thousands of other young people, that there wasn’t room for one more gainfully employed poet, and that I’d have to join the ranks of the countless other unemployed poets. This was the bottom of the recession, in 2011, and the unemployment rate in Portland was at 9 percent – even higher for younger folk. I worked odd jobs, I was an extra in an episode of the NBC series “Grimm,” I helped move antiques, I taught after school art classes, I dabbled in content creation, but nothing could really get me through. I blew through my savings, I blew through my parents’ money, and when “Portlandia” starting airing that winter, I realized I was a walking, talking cliche: a 27-year-old retired poet living in Portland. I knew I had to get out of Portland, so I moved back home, into my childhood home for the first time since I was 18.
Moving back to my hometown of Farmington, New Mexico, after 10 years, was a shock to say the least. All of my friends had moved away or started families. I was living with my youngest brother, who had just turned 21, and I had no real interactions with actual humans. Even though I very quickly got a job teaching at San Juan College, I still didn’t connect with the community. My life was lived on the Internet, streaming movies and shows on Netflix, talking shit on Twitter, and curating the appearance of a full life on Facebook. The closest thing to a friend I had was Anthony Bourdain and his show, “No Reservations.” I traveled, ate, and drank vicariously through his show. I partied in Iceland, I tripped on Ayahuasca in Peru, I gorged myself on wine and little fish in Sicily. Diving into his life gave me a creative outlet I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and it intellectualized and beautified a part of my life I had never thought about: food, and drink, and travel.
This living vicariously couldn’t be maintained. I knew I had to travel for myself, get out of Farmington as often as I could, eat and drink with as much variety as possible. Most of the time that ended up being Durango. Drinking delicious beer all over town, eating insanely good food in so many different styles, and meeting people who were just as passionate about travel, food, and drink. And meanwhile, I was getting more and more disillusioned from teaching. Who would have thought that a place that has a mission to create passionate learners could totally lack passion? Not only was there a lack of passion, but it was being sucked out of me daily. I realized that I would rather do something that used my body, my senses, and my mind, not just the part of the brain you use to grade 75-150 freshman essays a week. I found the first job that seemed like it could do all of that: winemaker at a small winery in Durango. I applied and got the job. It was a challenge at first, learning all the ins and outs of the equipment, process, and facilities, but what was really awesome was all the expanding sensual connections that started happening. My poet brain and my taste buds, my olfactory neurons, and the way an angle of light would trickle through a liquid and into my retinas, were all lining up. I could differentiate between 10-plus varieties of grape, I could lead impromptu tastings, and could spout poetic descriptions about even the most benign liquids. It was as if I had gone to grad school for poetry, but all the tools grad school gave were actually built for tasting wine.
While working at the winery, I moved to Durango full time, and kept traveling and writing. I kept eating and drinking as much variety as I could, and very quickly outgrew the winery (we were getting all of our juice from suppliers in California, and the process was so down pat it would take a real moron to mess up a fermentation). I knew if I wanted to do it for real, I needed to either move to California and work some harvests, or I needed to learn something else. I needed to grow or else I’d stall. I needed to keep those nuerons in the poetic portion of my brain firing when I encountered a new liquid, a new food, or a new place with new air. I chose beer, and it’s taken me all over the country. It’ll take me all over the world, I’m sure, but all of that started by hanging out with Tony, when I was lonely and lost at home.
Robbie Wendeborn is the head brewer at Svendæle Brewing in Millerton, New York. He is also a former beer plumber at Ska Brewing.