Identity Politics

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I was born in Dearborn, Michigan a first generation American-Macedonian whose parents were from Yugoslavia.  My first language was Macedonian.  Today I hardly speak it, ever since my grandmother passed away.  It isn’t exactly like riding a bicycle.  Language, like everything, evolves and revolves around the currents of the day.  The Macedonian language that we speak at home is entombed in the 1968 version, the year my parents immigrated to Detroit.  They lived together cramped in a house near several factories that spewed pollution.  My mom remembers being covered in a thin layer of black soot each morning that collected prominently along the windowsills.  She worked as a keypuncher for a bank (the early version of data entry) and my dad made nylon jackets at his uncle’s textile factory.  He would cut thick layers of fabric strewn along a 50-foot long table with oversized stainless steel scissors the length of a child’s arm for the seamstresses to sew the jackets together.  They met on New Year’s Eve at a church holiday party and were married seven weeks later on February 22, 1969.            

Their first home was a converted garage apartment in Hamtramck, still within the site lines of the industrial pollution zone when one day they saw a commercial on TV about a newly constructed neighborhood in a suburb called Farmington Hills, about 45 minutes away.  Green, rural, open and clean.  They jumped in the car that day to visit and after a number of extended family negotiations they collected money for a down payment.  Within months they moved into their brand new home with my maternal grandparents and uncle by their side.  This was a fantasy world.  They worked very hard.  Raised two kids, my brother and me.  Everyone became U.S. Citizens – grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles.  Most summers they whisked us off to Macedonia to visit family, savor our culture and provide context for their lives.  They sent us off to college without having any idea about tuition or the rest of it – we were the first to go, after all.  Our lives were all about jumping in and asking questions later.  Making it work was the only unspoken mantra we lived by.

They wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or President of the United States (my mom still never gives up hope). I am a winemaker after attending undergrad study in political science and graduate school for journalism in pursuit of finding the formula for world peace.  Today I accomplish this through wine one glass at a time.  I started winemaking never having tasted Grenache.  Fifteen years later I am enamored and mystified with the challenges of this grape.  The first bottle of wine I ever bought was in December 1994 for a holiday dinner.  It was a Beaujolais Nouveau from a hippie corner market in Ann Arbor where I’d shop for groceries.  I haven’t had many bottles of Beaujolais since, though I still shop at hippie markets. 

I tell you this story because we are the sum of our parts.  Identity is malleable.  We change and evolve as our language does, learning along the way where we come from, what the pieces of our lives mean and how they all fit together.  My parents have lived in the U.S. for 50 years.  Are they Americans?  Are they Macedonians?  What am I?  It all depends on who is asking and where I am.  Yet, at the core, we are all the ultimate Americans.  My parents left their country for a new opportunity.  I can’t fathom the idea of moving to China, not speaking the language, and trying to figure out a life.  My father is the kindest, most gentle man.  The only time I have seen him truly enraged was when a customer walked into our Baskin Robbins ice cream store where we owned the building and the business and told him to go back to his own country.

I believe we can be many things at once and then nothing at all.  Shaping and shifting identities is normal for me.  I don’t adhere to any doctrines except the ones that are in my heart.  And yet we all want immediate, easy answers.  Blue or Red.  Real or Fake.  Black or White.  I was recently interviewed by Fast Company magazine about the increasing trend in natural wine.  The journalist approached me at a wine shop where I was presenting.  “To what would you contribute your growth over the last few years?” she asked me.  “Not to marketing natural wine,” I said.  “If you asked any of my wine club members about my natural wines they would look at you with blank stares.”  The wines should speak for themselves, I added.  They are merit based.  They are earned.  Not because they are natural or unnatural, whatever that really means.  She pressed on wanting me to bash “corporate” or “unnatural” wine for her storyline.  I asked her if she could tell the difference?  She admitted probably not.  Then why are you writing the story, I wanted to ask?  I didn’t.  I am learning to pick my battles.  I apologized that I was unable to provide the answers she was seeking for a clean and simple narrative.  “This is complicated,” I said.  “You should really come to Santa Barbara wine country to better understand the issues.  It is a short, beautiful drive from LA.”

The other question I often get is about being a woman in the wine industry.  I had a couple in the tasting room ask me the other day, “Are you really doing this all by yourself?”  I was uncertain how to answer.  What were they really asking?  Did they want to know about the boat my mom took across the Atlantic in 1968 with her family?  They had paid for first-class tickets but were shoved in third-class, as Slavs were considered untrustworthy.  How about my dad who left his village at 18 while his older brother was in the military?  He went to work with his uncle who introduced him to grapefruit for the first time. 

Were they really curious about my parents who trusted me with a loan to open a tasting room in tiny Los Alamos when my colleagues advised me against it?  “No one goes to Los Alamos,” they repeated.  Or about the hundreds of people (including you reading this now) who have supported me?  Through the evolution of Casa Dumetz, to the Western heroine I fell in love with named Clementine Carter and the incredible men and women who have helped me celebrate The Feminist Party in honor of this inclusive journey?

 “Yes, I do, all by myself,”

 I replied.For some reason we need this concrete delineation, identification, distinction, differentiation, labeling and hashtagging of every aspect of our lives.  Look at me!  Over here!  I suppose the simple answer is easier, albeit boring.  We seem to be defined by what we are not than by what we actually are – a messy combination of history, legacy, genetic mutations, hormones, secrets, emotions, successes and failures that create our incredibly complex and dynamic lives.  I am not only a runner who loves eggs but who also doesn’t like oysters.  I prefer to stay in the orange, purple and green areas of the color spectrum that become muddled and eventually vibrant when blended together.  This is where all the thought provoking, analytical and mindful conversations actually happen when we decide to listen to one another openly over a glass of wine. 

Sometimes I stand across the street and look back at the tasting rooms stunned at what you can accomplish when you don’t know you can’t do it.  Your participation in this journey is not lost on me.  Thank you.  Gray is my new Pantone “It” Color and it pairs perfectly with Grenache Rosé.