It dawned on me in the wine aisle of the COOP one early October evening in 2016, that “something” was up. I didn’t fancy a glass of wine with dinner. A few days previously whilst holidaying in Rome, I had gone off red wine. I thought it was just a whim, and an honest preference for white. But now even white wine had lost its charm and none of the bottles on the shelves could tempt me. I began to panic. What was happening to me?
There had been some physical changes I had wondered at with vague curiosity in September. Enough to encourage suspicion. But suspicious I was not. Until that night in the COOP, Castel del Piano.
Neatly, pregnancy tests are located on the aisle after wine and spirits and before the checkout. Where the bottle might have been instead went a little white box, and all the ingredients for ribollita. The ribollita never happened; it’s impossible to prepare a soup with shaking hands. According to the sticks I was six weeks pregnant. I had only met my partner three months previously at a yoga studio in Florence. I had a ton of Prosecco to taste for a magazine article. There wasn’t a centime in my savings account. Worse still, what was my mother going to say?
Pregnancy is an interesting process, particularly when you have no idea that you are almost two months into it. Your body does its best to send you signs to cut out the booze. Eight months without alcohol? This would be the first time in two decades that I would go so long without drinking. I have worked in the wine trade since 2004, and yes, it’s a pretty boozy industry.
But no alcohol meant no hangovers. Or so I thought… Within days of the blue cross appearing on the white sticks in the white box, Morning Sickness arrived. AKA all the cruelty of a hangover without your having touched a drop. A month it lasted. A month-long hangover. I lost a lot of weight. Nothing I cooked I wanted to eat, which had the up side of my fitting into a couple of super slim dresses for a friend’s wedding in Morocco, but I looked veramente grigio. My eyes, hair and skin took on the pallor of cement.
During the sickness period my sense of smell became very acute. I remember sitting by the kitchen window one warm afternoon, able to smell herbs being picked in the next-door neighbour’s garden. This heightened sensory awareness was cool. I wanted to get to work, lining up the wines and churning out the tasting notes, but my stomach turned at the thought of alcohol. When the sickness was over, my sense of smell sadly returned to normal.
What to drink at the birth of your baby? I had talked this over with female wine-loving friends. We all agreed: Vintage Champagne. The ultimate indulgence. I had dreams of floating about in a birth pool, babe in arms, adoring partner tilting a flute of Krug 1988 towards my mouth. Our story turned out to be rather different. The birth pool looked unlikely from our 20 week scan. A “natural” birth would not be possible. Our baby was in intensive care for three weeks after he was born at the amazing Ospedale delle Scotte in Siena.
Eating and drinking was an uncomfortable affair during that time. When we were told he was well enough to be moved out of intensive care, then the Champagne cork flew. It wasn’t a vintage bubble; it was a bottle of Moet and Chandon NV bought at that same good old COOP—and one of the most memorable wines of my life.
In February I got back to work, attending a tasting of newly released Rosso and Brunello di Montalcino. I was nervous. Could I still spit the samples of wine out in a moderately elegant fashion? Would my palate still have the same sensitivity? I felt like a pianist who hadn’t sat to play for 20 months. And in those months, I had done nothing to train my palate. I had happily consumed a lot of cheap sfuso wine, two euro for two litres type stuff.
It was wonderful to put on smart clothes, to be the “me” again who’s a wine taster and writer. But within minutes of arriving at Benvenuto Brunello, tears were burning my eyes. The first stand was that of a friend, a winemaker of fine Brunello, who had asked me how I was, and behind the “very well, thank you” there was a whole torrent of truths that I wouldn’t admit: I can’t focus. It must be obvious that I’ve been out of the game. These tiny tastes of wine are making me light-headed and I’ve got loads to get through. I’ve just spent the last ten months eating pecorino and milk chocolate: I think my palate is screwed.
From table to table I moved, a fragile figure, scribbling notes that actually turned out to be very good. Short but to the point, capturing quickly and efficiently the wine in the glass: I didn’t spend hours swirling and sniffing. I had to get home for his next feed. I didn’t rethink or overthink my initial intuitive feelings about the wine. Wines, as so often is said, are like people, and very often our primary response to a person and a wine tends to be pretty accurate.
Motherhood has made me more sensitive and more efficient. And fortunately the diet of cheese, chocolate and coffee has not hampered with my palate.