Barstool: The poetry of wine


by Eric Ginsburg

In most respects, professor and poet Joseph Mills is a wine guy. He and his wife Danielle — who he met while teaching in Bordeaux, France — wrote a guidebook to North Carolina wine, and he’s published two editions of a poetry book thanks to local outfit Press 53. But when Mills looked over the extensive wine list at Krankies coffee on an unseasonably warm mid-afternoon recently, he asked the bartender for the new pale ale from Hoots instead.

Mills said he’s constantly disappointing people who’ve discovered his extensive wine knowledge, saying he doesn’t like when people ask him what they should be drinking or obsess over tasting notes.

The wine world can be overly snobby and descriptive, he said, mimicking people describing a wine as tasting “like a cherry left in the sun with hints of football.” That’s just not his style of writing or enjoyment, Mills said, comparing it to the lack of interest he has in picking out paint swatches with names such as “sea foam at dawn on the river.”

Mills, a professor at UNC School of the Arts who has published several books of poetry with Winston-Salem’s Press 53, grew up in a beer-drinking family in Indiana. The kind where his dad’s can might say “BEER” on it, he said, adding that his father would scoff at even a relatively straightforward craft beer like the pint of Hoots he was holding.

Mills began nurturing his interests in wine and poetry in college, the former with the help of wine and cheese events in his University of Chicago dorm. There, he realized nobody would drink the reds, and if he could train himself to like the darker wines, he could elope with a bottle or two. Later spending a year teaching in France during his English PhD program, Mills and his future wife spent as much time as they could exploring wine regions and enjoying picnics.

From there, his interest picked up.

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 2.13.48 PMPress 53 published the second edition of his book, Angels, Thieves and Winemakers in 2015, though Mills radically reworked the collection before its rerelease. For those familiar with his work, such as the 2014 poetry book called This Miraculous Turning, the wine-themed anthology provides the same level of astute and profound commentary and storytelling. For the uninitiated, Mills is absolutely a must read.

Given his lack of pretension — wine snobs are generally not experts but rather the ego-driven middle ground with something to prove, Mills said — Winemakers is readily accessible for those with no knowledge of, or even interest in, wine. Throughout the well paced book, Mills provides moving analogies between wine and human relationships that readers will easily find themselves immersed in.

“If only people wore labels,/their foreheads clearly displaying/ their appellation, their varietal,/ their alcohol content,/ think of the time it would save,” Mills writes in the opening poem. “…We would have a better idea/ who might improve with age/ and who we should enjoy right now.”

There are pieces that are lighthearted, as suggested by names like “The Gospel According to Bob” or “Wile E. Coyote Circles the Winery Aisles, His Optimism a Pure Distillation of the American Dream.” Winemakers even includes a poem called “Dirt” in which the words form a wine glass on the page. Others are deeply moving, or transporting, whisking readers to a moment where a bottle is upended in the French countryside or two lovers lace their fingers together and silently float upstairs.

The tone is lighter than This Miraculous Turning, which came out between the first and second edition of this collection, giving both their place without diminishing the quality of either. Like two wines, maybe, both deeply satisfying and yet pairing better with differing moods.

Next month, Press 53 releases Exit, Pursued By a Bear, which Mills said will be his final book of poetry. He’s not entirely sure that’s true, he admitted, but the ideas aren’t flowing. A work of fiction, taking place on the bleachers of a children’s soccer match, will follow, possibly signaling more fiction — or hell, nonfiction — to come, Mills said.

The balding yet spry professor likes to try new things when he’s out for the evening, admitting that he succumbs to habit and patterns at home with wine and beer. Those same tendencies lead him to experiment creatively as well, but the desire to avoid repeating himself could keep him away from poetry for a while.

It’s quite possible the well has truly run dry, or that his prose will merit the same acclaim as his poetry. But Mills does carry a small, black UNCSA notebook around with him wherever he goes, pulling it out of his pocket to jot down lines of overheard dialogue, drafts of poems, notes, lists and a smattering of other ideas. That’s the sort of creative mind that will likely never fully be at rest, and though it may be a while before Mills uncorks another round, I have to believe that the bacchanalia isn’t over.


Join Joseph Mills for the launch of his new book Exit, Pursued by a Bear at ArtWorks Gallery in Winston-Salem on April 7. More info at