A former Presbyterian pastor, Adam McHugh was living in Los Angeles when he first saw Sideways in 2004. The film was his introduction to the Santa Ynez Valley, where he now lives and works as a professional sommelier and vineyard tour guide.
“I actually got the chance to meet Paul Giamatti once,” said McHugh, recalling a 10th anniversary event for Sideways held in Los Alamos that he and the acclaimed film’s lead actor attended in 2014.
“I got to tell him that this movie was in part why I work in the wine industry and live here,” McHugh said. “It was a pretty cool moment.”
McHugh visited the Central Coast for himself shortly after seeing the film and fell in love with Santa Barbara County’s wine country scene. The domino effect that led McHugh to not only move to Santa Ynez but pull a 180 career-wise is the focus of his new book, Blood from a Stone: A Memoir of How Wine Brought Me Back from the Dead.
As hinted by the hedge maze imagery found on the memoir’s cover, the path between McHugh’s days as an ordained minister to becoming a certified sommelier was far from linear.
“As anyone who reads the book will discover, it was definitely not a straight line from where my life was down south to my life up here,” McHugh said. “It was—as I say in the book—a corkscrewing journey.”
For several years, McHugh worked as the chaplain and grief counselor for a hospice in Los Angeles, although he originally envisioned himself working in academia after finishing grad school.
Many of his shifts were from midnight to 8 a.m., during which he’d be available to console the hospice’s terminally ill residents and their loved ones in the late hours of the night.
Although he found the work to be extremely meaningful and rewarding, the job took a toll on McHugh emotionally. Originally from Seattle, McHugh also struggled with living in Los Angeles in general.
During this period, he’d often take day trips to explore the Central Coast, as he thought of the area as a temporary sanctuary.
“All of Santa Barbara County kind of became my refuge. This place was my escape,” McHugh said. “I would come up here as often as I could, to breathe the air and kind of let these big open landscapes sort of open my heart again.”
McHugh found tranquility at various wineries and tasting rooms along Santa Rosa Road, the Foxen Canyon wine trail, and other scenic routes. The people behind the wines he discovered intrigued him as much as the wines themselves. His newfound passion at the time inspired him to enroll in extended education courses on viticulture at UCLA, before taking a leap of faith to leave Los Angeles.
“When I moved up here, I was looking for that sense of place and belonging and attachment that it seemed like so many people [had] around here,” said McHugh, whose first job upon moving to Santa Ynez was a part-time position in a tasting room.
“I very much started from the ground floor, the bottom rung of the ladder, which was a hard process because I was in my 30s, I had master’s degrees, yet I was working for 23-year-olds,” McHugh said. “I probably didn’t have the best attitude throughout some of that first year, and I think I was kind of struggling with letting go of my old life at that point.”
But throughout the past decade, McHugh stuck with the local wine scene. After passing the Level 1 sommelier test and the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) exam, he eventually landed a tour guide job with Coastal Concierge—a Santa Barbara-based company that hosts private winery and vineyard tours.
“That’s when I really got into the history of wine and history in general of Santa Barbara County,” McHugh said. “I’d get so many questions from the tour guests—‘Why are these oil rigs out here? What kind of tree is that? Why is there a Danish village in the middle of the Central Coast?’
“So I learned a lot just through not knowing the answers to questions that people asked me,” McHugh said with a laugh. “I would go home and research … I became really enchanted with the history of this area.”
McHugh began work on his new memoir—his third book overall, after The Listening Life (2015) and Introverts in the Church (2017)—about five years ago, and believes he’d still be writing it if 2020 went differently.
“It was the pandemic that finally got me locked into my house to do nothing but write for about a year and a half,” McHugh said.
Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood would faint if he saw Paul Giamatti in person. Revive him at [email protected].