A Review of
Blood From a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back From the Dead
Reviewed by Stephen R. Clark
Faux wine shows up in many churches at communion in the form of grape juice. Welch’s being the juice of choice. In the first chapter of Adam McHugh’s most recent book, Blood From a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead, he shares the origin story of the juice that was developed in the 1860s by Methodist minister, Thomas Bramwell Welch. Bramwell’s motivation, according to McHugh, was “to take the alcohol out of Communion wine and put a swift end to the wild Sunday sunrise parties raging in churches across the land.”
And so begins McHugh’s book, packed full of interesting wine facts and dry humor.
This new book is quite a departure from his other two. His first, Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture was released by IVP in 2009 and a second edition in 2017. As an introvert, I cannot overstate how much I have appreciated this book. I have reread it, recommended it, and given countless copies of it to fellow introverts.
McHugh’s second book, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction (2015) was a Christianity Today book of the year award winner. It was also cited by Outreach Magazine as resource of the year.
His new book, Blood From a Stone, is a memoir. As I’ve written elsewhere, “memoirs provide fascinating insight into the writer’s life, experiences, family, and friends in a credible way that reveals the writer and their journey.” In McHugh’s book, there’s a lot about the journey which is mostly about wine, but somewhat murky insight into the author.
In the first chapter we learn McHugh “was ordained as a Presbyterian, but [he] grew up Lutheran.” There are glimpses of his youth, a little about his family growing up, that he lived near L.A., and, during much of the time chronicled in this book, was serving as a hospice chaplain and grief counselor. He shares that in this role he regularly suffered “compassion fatigue” where “Everything is slow, exhausting, and a little blurry.” He writes, “I felt trapped in my best intentions to do good, flailing in a world that was slowly drowning me.” Previewing what’s to come, he shares that he “left hospice and moved to Santa Ynez Valley” in California and explains that this book is “the corkscrewing tale” of how he got to where he is. He winds up chapter one saying, “You and I are going to take a long wine tour together…and we will make plenty of stops for a glass and some local wine history.”
The first long leg of the tour is in France. There is a brief explanation of how he was fired from his hospice job along with a few more personal details. Then a reference to wine kicks off a long discourse on winemaking and wine history. Scattered within this discourse additional personal bits show up. This is the pattern for the book.
After France, the tour moves to California. He dives into the history of wine growing and making, and the histories of the locations he lives in and visits. Of his own history, it’s there, but mostly in what feels like glimpses and asides.
It’s almost as if the wine-talk and history-telling is a way to avoid going too deep into his personal struggle. There are clear indications that McHugh was enduring painful internal transitions, echoed in the external: job losses, separation, and relocation. He admits, “a recurring theme in my own life is distance….social distance, geographical distance, and emotional distance.” So it makes sense that he keeps distance between himself and his reader.
When he and his wife separate, he leaves L.A. and takes on a series of wine-related jobs, and loses them. He recognizes his “dreams are crumbling like a dry cork.” Finally, attacking a labor-intensive task in 105 degree heat while working at a tavern in Los Olivos, McHugh declares, “I came apart.”
Later, he moves back to L.A. for what is a final attempt to reconcile with his wife. He writes, “I want to tell you about my divorce about as much as I want to pound a magnum of white zin. Not only is divorce excruciating and embarrassing, but it is an impossibly complicated story to tell….We each sustained a lot of damage and inflicted a lot of damage.”
Ultimately, McHugh comes to terms with giving up ministry and pursuing his growing passion for wine. Even with the lack of depth and detail often found in memoirs, it’s obvious that the transition was excruciating, raising a lot of questions about purpose and calling. At the end of the book and his journey so far, he has found new love, remarried, and is settling into a new role as a sommelier (lower case). He declares, “my faith has survived through it all, though it is quieter now and humbled, like pruned winter wines.” He feels at home and happy.
McHugh is an exceptional writer, his style somewhat akin to John McPhee. For those who are avid fans of wine and aren’t looking for a particularly “Christian” book, this will be a good read. For others, this is not your typical IVP title. In fact, it seems out of place for InterVarsity Press. There is some language not usually found in Christian books, including one totally unnecessary f-bomb. However, I can empathize with the pain of divorce. That alone is enough to throw anyone sideways. And I had to shake my head when he described how he was chosen to be laid off from his hospice job in part due to having just signed a contract to write his second book. I agree with McHugh when he writes, “It astounds me how the myth that writers make money continues to be so powerful.” Indeed.
I wish the best for Adam and his wife Kate, and lift a glass (of Welch’s) to them and their new life together. Cheers!
Stephen R. Clark
Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and a regular contributor to the Christian Freelance WritersNetwork blog. He has published three volumes of poetry and his writing has appeared in American Bible Society blogs, The Christian Century, Christianity & Literature, and more.
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