Sommelier Michele Gargiulo shares the traumatic story behind her bestselling book – and her inspiring, healing journey.
by Melissa Jacobs
Wine and dogs? What’s not to love? Michele Gargiulo brings two of the world’s favorite things together in Pairing Paws: Dog Breeds And Their Spirit Wines, her gorgeously photographed, expertly researched book. What kind of wine represents the nature of your dog?
Millions of people wanted to find out, shooting Pairing Paws to the top of Amazon bestseller lists within hours of its June 2022 release. Pairing Paws sold so well that it spawned a follow-up, Pairing Paws: Cat Breeds And Their Spirit Wines, that will be published in June 2023.
Months after the book’s whirlwind debut, Michele Gargiulo sat down to reflect on her experience as a first-time author. Gargiulo was still taking in the experience and appreciating every moment of a literary career that almost didn’t happen.
Two literary agents dropped Gargiulo, claiming publishers weren’t interested in her manuscript. “One agent said my project was turned down by every publisher in the country,” Gargiulo remembered. “Publishers said no one would understand the concept, or that there weren’t categories for books like this.”
And yet, Pairing Paws topped Amazon’s bestseller lists in several categories, including dog books, wine and animal photography. Gargiulo smiles diplomatically, offering a small shrug and kind smile. “I’m glad that people are connecting with the book,” she said. “I do know a little about wine.”
That’s an understatement. Now the wine and beverage director for Fearless Restaurants, which owns the White Dog Cafés, Autograph Brasserie, Rosalie, Moshulu and other award-winning restaurants, Michele Gargiulo graduated with honors from the Culinary Institute of America, then became sommelier at the Four Seasons Philadelphia and a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, earning a slew of other certifications and accolades. It’s an A+ resume for anyone, especially a woman who just turned 30.
Gargiulo started creating Pairing Paws in March 2020 while sequestered in her 800-square foot apartment with her boyfriend and their dog Riesling. What started as a pandemic project quickly turned into a full manuscript and Gargiulo’s boyfriend fully supported her through the seemingly incessant rejections from the publishing world. “He’s the one who suggested self-publishing it because I had the right vision, but was hitting so many walls,” she said. “’Bring it to life,’ he said one night. I immediately knew he was right.”
A few hours later, somewhere around 2 a.m., Gargiulo was awakened by the sound of a shotgun blast. Stumbling in the dark, she found her 25-year old boyfriend dead, remnants of his brain splashed around their living room. He’d committed suicide, leaving Gargiulo to find the twisted flesh and pooling blood of the man she loved. Riesling was by her side, the two of them experiencing the moment together and trying to make sense of it.
That was in December 2021, and as Gargiulo recounted the story months later, her countenance changed. She didn’t cry. Rather, her speech slowed, her eyes got a bit unfocused and she moved her head and hands as if they weighed thousands of pounds. It’s clear that the weight is in her mind, the one that was left intact but nonetheless damaged after that horrible night. Apparently, this is what post traumatic shock can look like.
Gargiulo knows for sure that her boyfriend suffered from PTSD. He served in the Air Force and was medically discharged after suffering multiple injuries, including a traumatic brain injury. He was in physical pain every day, Gargiulo said. He was not inordinately moody, nor was he ever violent with Gargiulo. “It wasn’t like that. He wasn’t like that,” she said. “It was that he couldn’t keep going anymore.”
But Gargiulo did not think he was suicidal. Even scouring her memories for clues, as survivors inevitably do, Gargiulo hasn’t find any signs she missed. She’s gone over the story with a cavalcade of therapists and well-intentioned support groups, and even sought medical care when her body went into physical shock immediately after the suicide.
None of it has really helped, not significantly. Gargiulo knows enough about PTSD to know that, however intelligent she is, she can’t control what her brain is doing. “Your mind has neat filing cabinets and when something traumatic happens, your brain doesn’t know how to file it,” she said. “So you keep getting flashes of it because your brain doesn’t know how to process it. It’s a primal reaction, but this is what our bodies do.”
Writing helped. Gargiulo dove into finishing Pairing Paws, which proved to be part of her healing process. The featured dogs are from shelters, all of them rescued by families who shared their adoption stories. “At first, the dogs were skinny, skittish and completely unsure of their surroundings,” Gargiulo said. “They’d been through so much trauma being in the shelters, and even losing their original families. They’d been stuck, isolated and confused. It’s trauma. So much trauma.”
It’s unclear if Gargiulo sees the parallel between the dogs’ trauma and her own, or her boyfriend’s. But Pairing Paws is dedicated to him, and half of the book’s profits are donated to shelters and animal rescues in the Philadelphia area. She will do the same with the book about cats and wine, which she’s almost finished writing. It’s been much harder to photograph cats than dogs, Gargiulo said with a laugh. “Getting the dogs to pose – or least sit still – was far easier,” she said.
But Gargiulo keeps going, because that’s what she does. Actually, it’s what she has chosen to do. Gargiulo now lives in Manayunk and found love with a new man. Riesling is healthy and happy, still by Gargiulo’s side and possibly enjoying his newfound celebrity. That’s him on the cover of Pairing Paws, the bestselling book that no one believed in – except, of course, Gargiulo. She knew it all along.
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