Through the Grapevine Losing My Religion and Finding Faith on Spanish Vineyards
My family’s understanding of religion was too individualistic for my liking. But I still wanted to hold faith in something bigger than myself.
This is Through the Grapevine , a column by Meg Bernhard about wine and power.
The sanctuary of the United Methodist church in Temecula, California, was relatively unadorned, with a few paintings on the walls and a light burgundy carpet covering the floor. The choir, composed mostly of middle-aged women, sang simple hymns like “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” while a pianist plunked along. As a child, I attended Sunday school, and when I was older, I joined my parents for the main service. Neither of my parents was formally Methodist—my father describes himself as a “recovering Catholic,” and my mother was raised by two members of the Church of Christ. They decided on our church because the congregation was friendly.
The sermons usually made me fall asleep, though a few Bible stories—Jonah being swallowed by a fish, Jesus walking on water—piqued my curiosity. Every once in a while, we’d get to eat small squares of bread and drink a shot of grape juice, for Communion. Unlike Catholics, Methodists believe the bread and juice—our congregation’s stand-in for wine—are symbols of Christ’s sacrifice, rather than his literal flesh and blood. I’d stick my tongue into the small plastic cup to salvage every drop of juice.
When I was nine or ten, I began to doubt God’s existence. I couldn’t articulate why, exactly, but something about unquestioning devotion to someone I couldn’t see or feel was unsettling to me. I confided in a church leader at the Good News Club, an after-school Christian program. She reassured me that doubt was normal. As I grew older, uncertainty gradually took over. Busy with school and sports, I didn’t have the mental energy to interrogate the nature of my doubt, and I became indifferent. To attend church was to fight against inertia. Instead, I spent Sundays playing soccer or doing homework.
Still, God was a specter in my life, his teachings bound up in the unspoken moral code with which my parents raised me. In our household, there was no cursing and very little drinking. Family time was more important than other social activities. Sex was never discussed. Hard work was a moral act, and those who didn’t work were a burden. I tried, always, to be good, but I didn’t reveal my faith was faltering.
There was rarely alcohol in our house. This was strange to me; my friends’ parents all drank in front of us. But my mother never touched it. Neither did my grandmother; the Church of Christ strictly prohibited social drinking. Sometimes my father drank beer at friends’ barbecues, but I never saw him drink elsewhere. My grandfather was the only adult who drank regularly in front of me, and only at his house in the mountains—a Pabst Blue Ribbon at the kitchen table with lunch or while watching baseball games on television. Once, when I told him that he seemed to enjoy beer, he quit drinking for a year—out of guilt, I later learned. We didn’t openly talk about alcohol with one another, so I couldn’t grasp why few people in my family seemed to drink it. But I did gather that alcohol, like work and family, was imbued with moral meaning. It would take me years to understand why.
When I was in college, my mother began to open up to me about her thoughts on alcohol. Drinking, she argued, made people embarrass themselves. She disliked any place and occasion in which drinking was the central activity. She loathed, too, the smell of alcohol on breath. Because drinking was not welcome in our house, my father, I learned, had made a ritual of going to a local pizza parlor, ordering a pint of beer, and watching sports alone. He hid beer around the house and drank when no one was around.
Alcohol, like work and family, was imbued with moral meaning. It would take me years to understand why.
On campus, I initially avoided alcohol. Even though I lived far from my parents, I still perceived drinking as taboo. Instead of going to parties, I studied in my dorm room, disgusted, yet curious, as I heard my hall-mates stumbling up and down the stairs on weekend nights. Some vestige of Christian morality also kept me from drinking, just as I’d promised myself I wouldn’t have sex until marriage. Even if I wasn’t sure about God, I was sure about goodness.
But college social life revolved around drinking, and, thousands of miles away from home, I was lonely. During the second semester, I started going to parties. As the only sober person in attendance, I felt awkward and self-conscious. I’d only gone to church once or twice since I’d been in college, and my dwindling religious beliefs weren’t strong enough for me to rationalize abstinence. In the late winter, I suggested to my roommate that we might drink together sometime.
I had my first drink with her in Central Park on a cold March day. It was revelatory how the world softened, and how my head felt light. After that first taste, I drank frequently—in dorm rooms, at fraternities, at our student newspaper office. And I drank a lot: I’d wake up groggy with a searing headache and a constellation of bruises across my legs and arms. Guilt occasionally tugged at me after long nights. I was certain I’d made a fool of myself and that my peers would judge me. Sometimes, that guilt seemed inherently Christian. I felt overindulgent, gluttonous—a sin.
I drank more when I traveled to Europe the summer after my first year. I was writing for a student travel guide, and one of my assignments was to review nightlife in cities throughout southern Spain and Portugal. Most nights, I visited a bar or two, and every few nights I’d go to a big club, dark and thrumming with music. Those nights would start at midnight and last six or seven hours. Because no one had ever taught me how to drink, I wasn’t aware that alcohol doesn’t hit the bloodstream immediately, that it takes fewer drinks for women to get drunk, that not eating before a night out can be dangerous. I drank mojitos and tequila and tinto de verano. I drank red wine. I blacked out on more than one occasion. One night, two of my hostel-mates dropped a handle of vodka from our balcony, and it shattered on the sidewalk of one of Madrid’s busiest boulevards. Thankfully no one was hurt. Another night, bent over and bleary-eyed after a long pub crawl, I was lost for hours in the city center.
In July, a close friend died. She was also traveling in Europe for the guide, and we talked nearly every day. After her death, I decided, definitively, I did not believe in God. Back on campus, I spent weekend nights alone in my bedroom, drinking whiskey straight from the bottle. There are many nights I cannot remember.
Years later, I traveled to a monastery in Catalonia, in the northeast of Spain. Founded in the twelfth century by Carthusian monks from Provence, the monastery was called Cartoixa d’Escaladei, Catalan for “God’s Ladder.” It was said that centuries ago, a shepherd had come to this place, in the foothills of the Montsant Mountains, and dreamed that angels there had descended from the heavens using a ladder propped against a pine tree. The monastery was destroyed in the mid-1800s, after the Spanish government seized land owned by the Catholic Church to pay off debts. In recent years, the Catalan government has rebuilt much of the old structure, though crumbling arches and columns remain.
Like other monks across Europe, the Carthusians at Escaladei had introduced viticulture to the region as a way to make sacrament wine and raise funds for the Catholic Church. Today, the mountains and valleys surrounding Escaladei comprise a region called Priorat, which produces some of Spain’s most expensive wines. Most wines in Priorat are made of the red grape varieties garnacha and cariñena, planted in a soil called llicorella , which consists of layers of slate separated by thin layers of clay. Particles in the slate reflect and conserve heat, and the soil drains well, forcing roots to grow deep to reach water. Many of Priorat’s vineyards are farmed in small parcels known as terraces, cut into the region’s steep hillsides.
I sensed the quiet that drew the monks to the region in the first place. Theirs was a solitary life, and cultivating vines was part of a daily rhythm that involved spiritual and secular tasks, from reading Biblical text to tilling soil. Such repetition itself was an act of prayer.
This Catholic understanding of winemaking complicated what I, until then, had believed to be the moral meaning of alcohol. In ancient cultures, fermentation was mystical and intoxication was a means of transcendence; in Catholic doctrine, wine is a way to directly commune with God. In these traditions, alcohol was spiritually fulfilling, instead of diminishing.
I was, in retrospect, searching for something similar. My blackouts continued well into my final year of college, leading to weekends of exhaustion and lethargy. I was often sick, often unhappy, and sometimes felt I drank to distract from spiritual emptiness. After college, I moved to Spain to work on vineyards, where I hoped my drinking habits might become healthier. Vineyard work held the promise of making my body stronger—it required frequent heavy lifting and bending. I also wondered if seeing the process of winemaking, from pruning vines to stepping on grapes, could make me appreciate the drink more, respect it instead of abuse it.
In Spain, I tasted wine every afternoon and evening with the winemakers. Around the table, we’d discuss the wine’s flavor profile, the vinification methods—how long the juice steeped with the grape skins, whether it was crushed or left to ferment as whole clusters. Discussions like these required a focus and thoughtfulness I’d never experienced while drinking, and I rarely got more than buzzed. Drinking became study, meditation. Knowing where grapes were grown, I felt closer to the earth.
When I had time off from the vineyards, I took to visiting churches. I loved their great, spacious sanctuaries, the way light filtered through stained glass windows. I loved both the ornate and the plain—a cathedral in a small Catalan village shaped like a nearby mountain range; a modest church in Toledo home to The Burial of Count Orgaz by El Greco.
Knowing where grapes were grown, I felt closer to the earth.
In a humble neighborhood church, I would sit on a hard wooden pew and stare at the altar, or at the ceiling, quieting my mind for a few minutes. Sometimes I attended Mass. Usually, though, I just relished the stillness, the sense of sacredness that permeated the space.
Although I couldn’t quite conceptualize a Christian God, I craved an outlet for my restless spirituality. After my friend’s death, I’d been vacated of all belief, a disfiguring sensation. It was lonely imagining humans left to our own devices in a vast universe. If I thought about it too much, life felt pointless. While my family’s understanding of religion was too individualistic for my liking, I still wanted to hold faith in something bigger than myself.
One of the winemakers I lived with, Carmen López Delgado, was a cancer survivor. When she was sick, she bought land in the village where she grew up, in central Spain, and planted vines in chalky clay soil. The vineyard was set among an olive grove, a field of cereal grass, and a smattering of fig trees. Farmland stretched for miles toward towering blue mountains, and its rolling hills were carpeted with white and yellow wildflowers in the spring.
Carmen said the vineyard healed her. She talked about the land as though it were divine. Nature, she said, gives energy, nurtures us. Spending time outdoors returns us to our truest selves. Working on the vineyards, I began to understand what she meant. In the mornings when we pruned vines, the soil was damp and cool, the sky big around us. We walked for hours up and down rows, stretching and bending and lifting our bodies, as if in supplication. My mind felt clear, my body strong.
I encountered a similar reverence for the land in the springtime, when I moved to another vineyard, near a nature preserve at the foot of the Pyrenees. Barbara, the winemaker, had moved to Spain from Italy a decade before and said the landscape was unlike anything she’d ever seen. Surrounding her vineyard was a dense oak and chestnut forest, and on clear afternoons, the Mediterranean was visible from a distance. On the vineyard, we touched hundreds of plants each day. We planted new vines, fertilized old ones, and tied their branches to protect against powerful northerly winds. The work was tender, intimate.
In these landscapes, time slowed. I could lie on a warm boulder, or listen to frogs, for fifteen minutes and feel as though hours had passed. I would rest in the branches of a tall fig tree and watch the light change, or sit at the farmhouse window and watch starlings flit between the eaves. Nature demanded I pay attention. To sunsets. The blue after dusk. Peals of rain on the roof. Daylight filtered by a forest canopy. The sweep of wind through a field. Dewy grass. Swooping birds. Cold rivers. Mountains. Crickets. Clouds. I didn’t need alcohol to distract me anymore. I’d found a spiritual outlet, unexpectedly: The world was precious. That, I did believe.
When I was home two years ago, I noticed my father sneaking sips of alcohol at unusual hours. I remembered his secret trips to the pizza parlor, his hidden beer. For the first time, I asked him about his drinking. By then, my relationship to alcohol had changed. I still drank often, but not the way I did in college. My drinking was not for getting drunk.
My father told me he was trying to quit. He’d been drinking for a long time, as a way to cope with loss. An older brother died before he was born, and a younger brother died when my father was in his twenties. The Catholic church, to which his family subscribed, did not provide a spiritual home, and the nuns and priests in his schools were cruel. Later, when he had his own family, our version of Christianity was such that suffering belonged buried within oneself. When I was ten, his mother died. My father told me he’d been drunk at the Sunday service in our Methodist church. Drinking dulled his pain. My mother, he told me, wanted to help him. I recognized that what I’d perceived as her judgment was actually a form of care.
I’m not sure if my father believes in God. But every once in a while, I’ll catch him in a state of quiet rapture. He’ll become transfixed at lightning storms, snow-covered mountains—the most quotidian of nature’s graces. Once, he and I were in a thicket of woods on a cape edged up against the Pacific. I went for a walk without him, and when I returned, he pressed his cell phone toward me. He’d spent the previous half hour trying to capture the sound of waves crashing against the cliffs. Listen to this, he said, a staticky roar crescendoing from his phone. Like me, I realized, my father has a grounded spirituality. He finds meaning in the world before his eyes, a world that is at once awesome and awful, capable of giving life and, in turn, taking it away.