Winemaking Lesson #28: Your Kid Thinks You Suck

“You must not be a very good winemaker, mom.” I swerved around to face my 6 year old daughter. It was instinct. Of course I paused to put down the 10 inch Santoku first. “What did you say?” I fake chirped, prying the knife from my clenched, white knuckles.

“I said, you must not be a very good winemaker. Use your ears, mom.”

Hold up, sassypants. When did they retire the eye roll and the ennui-ridden “Whatever?” Curious what would follow, I egged her on. “Why do you say that?”

She chewed her apple deliberately, swallowed, and replied, “Because you always have to ask Mrs. X for help.”

Nothing sucks as much as hearing your kid tell you that you’re a loser. And she was right. Mrs. X is a rock star wine maker. She trained in Australia, New Zealand, and France. She makes cult cab from Oakville. Her daughter also happens to sit near mine at school so she’s an easy target. I fire questions at her every morning before class, as she’s simultaneously settling her first grader, entertaining her preschooler, and balancing a toddler. I try to be thoughtful that way.

I conjured the ghost of Fox News. Where are you Bill O’Reilly? It’s me, Kerith. I took a deep breath, straining to spin my sobering reality into a teachable nugget, like a made-for-TV movie where moms don’t wield culinary machetes.

“Just like you, I’m always learning. Mrs. X knows a lot about making wine, so I ask her for advice.” No reply from the kid. She was too busy chewing her apple into clover shapes. It occurred to me that my kids never knew me as a doctor, back when I was a competent professional. That was before my current dead-end gig as quesadilla cooker and hair braider. The fact is I spent 8 post-college years learning to be a pathologist. I took 6 winemaking courses at U.C. Davis. It’s no wonder I always feel like I’m drowning.

In medicine, you’re only as good as the docs around you. We had daily, twice-daily, and thrice-daily conferences. I worked in a culture of academia and collaborative learning. If I needed a second set of eyes on my microscope, I asked. You only get in trouble when you don’t. Once when I was the “hot seat” fellow, the head and neck surgeon asked my opinion of a thyroid tumor before my attending had signed it out. (That’s doctor code for “before my boss looked under the microscope himself and gave me the answer.”) I told the surgeon it was benign. So he told the patient.

You can guess what happened next. That afternoon, I showed the case at conference; everyone shouted cancer. A janitor emptying the trashcans turned to me and said, “Seriously? You thought that was benign?” He’d slept at a Holiday Inn Express.

And for every case I correctly diagnosed during my 365 day tenure as a “hot seat” fellow, what sticks is The Big Mistake. Doubt plagues me. Today I worry as much about each barrel of wine as I did about that woman with thyroid cancer. Both keep me up at night, second guessing myself. I’m not sure what that says about me as either a doctor or a human being. Either I value wine as much as human life. Or I bring the same rigor and diligence to the winery that I brought to the microscope. At least now I’m smart enough to steal free consultations when I need help. If enough people read this post, I may have to credit Mrs. X on the 2012 label.