What my Alaskan Native grandmother taught me about wine writing

Elaine Chukan Brown is the newly crowned IWSC Wine Communicator of the Year, and will be appearing regularly on Club O over the next 12 months. Here, she tells us what we can expect – and how her heritage inspires her work

Words by Club Oenologique Editors

Photography by Elaine Chukan Brown

Elaine and Grandmother Lead
Elaine Chukan Brown (right) and her Alaskan Native grandmother

My grandmother gave me two dolls when I was young. The first was handstitched from seal skin and fur, dressed in traditional parka and mukluks and made by one of the Inupiaq elders of our region of northern Alaska. “So you know our people,” she said. Then she sat with me on her bedside and told me about the village where she was born.

The second she gave me shortly before she died. It was a doll handmade entirely of yarn by a black woman she befriended years before on one of her trips in another part of the United States. The body of the doll was brown yarn, and her dress and hat were pink crochet. “So you know other people,” she said. Then she told me that eventually I would travel too, and that the most important things to remember were to be curious, and good at listening. I was eight years old.

My work in wine is inspired by that last conversation with my grandmother. She was an Inupiaq-Yupik woman who spent her life compiling the origin stories, myths and legends of our people. With this material, she published three books. The first on the origin story of the village where she was born, and the other two on the myths and legends of her community.

She was the first in her region to record these indigenous oral traditions in printed word. Her work helped instigate an Alaska Native heritage preservation movement that motivated a return to bi-lingual education in the villages (bringing back Native languages, the speaking of which had previously been illegal, alongside English), an Alaska Native Studies degree at the university, and recognition from both the President of the United States and multiple governors of Alaska. It also helped preserve our heritage, and in so doing, acted as a lens for people to recognise the value of our culture and act to save it. In this way, she set an example of how to remain indigenous in a changing world.

In emulating her, I don’t imagine my work will carry the cultural change and power she inspired. Instead, I take as a comfort that I might follow her advice even as I now live outside Alaska, in California.

Alaskan Grandmother
Chukan Brown's grandmother, who instilled in her the importance of listening

It is common for Indigenous communities to have a tradition of storytelling. In the culture in which I was raised, the storyteller emerges as the person who is best at listening. Anyone may hear the stories of a region, but the storyteller listens to understand rather than merely to answer questions. They want to hear what others want to share – without agenda, except for the desire to learn. In this way, they are guided by patience and curiosity.

These were the deeper lessons of my final conversation with my grandmother. Not only to be curious and good at listening, but that such qualities are about patience, and recognising the value of learning from others. Her urging was also about seeing listening as a form of service.

By gathering understanding of a community, the storyteller becomes a sort of cultural archive as well as a lens through which people may better understand their own heritage and what choices they want to make because of it. In this way, the storyteller’s work acts as a service to the broader community.

Elaine CB and JR
Elaine Chukan Brown (right) with Jancis Robinson MW

As a point of contrast, a journalist serves a community in a different way. The journalist knows in advance what questions they need answered, and once they have gathered that material, their job is to deliver it in a balanced and straightforward manner. They are delivering information.

But the storyteller cannot know in advance what they are going to learn in their encounter with a person or community. They go into the situation open to discovering it. Their questions emerge in response to what has been said, in an attempt to understand clearly. But that approach also allows the other person the opportunity to share their views and experience in a more intimate way, a way that may offer them new insight into themselves.

With this approach, it takes a long time to uncover potential articles to write, or insights to deliver through films, snippets, books, or other forms. Only after extensive listening can the storyteller begin to share the connections, trends, values and stories of a person or community in a way that is accessible to the rest of us.

Even so, this approach served as the basis for my work this year developing what became a 32-episode webinar series on California Wine. Having spent so much time listening not only to winemakers across the state, but in other regions of the world as well, I could draw on the unexpected stories people had shared with me and use those to help uncover connections and highlight how dynamic the wine community is behind the scenes.

In wine, we need both forms of service. We need the journalist gathering facts and information; delivering them to improve our knowledge of current events and help us think through our opinions of them as well. But we also need the storyteller who is able to take the time to help us understand ourselves as a community.

Through my work in wine, my hope is to continue to grow into the storyteller. The most important thing is to be curious and good at listening.


Elaine Chukan Brown is the new IWSC Wine Communicator; for more details of her award, see here