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Originally published Saturday, November 13, 2010 at 10:01 PM

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After near tragedy, wine connoisseur Catherine Reynolds is back

Considered one of the most sophisticated connoisseurs of wine on the West Coast, Seattle's Catherine Reynolds was devastated by a brain injury that nearly cost her her life, as well as her memory and refined sense of taste. But after a long battle, the support of medical and rehab teams and her faithful husband, she's back in business in every way, hosting wine dinners, advising a growing cadre of friends and customers, and gratefully tasting life all over again.

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photographed by Ken Lambert

ONE DAY, Catherine Reynolds was a vivacious 38-year-old wine seller with a promising new business. The next day, "I woke up and I was 5."

Fighting through the mental haze left by a ruptured brain aneurysm, she had lost everything that defined her career.

Reynolds, named one of the region's top "up-and-coming" sommeliers in 2006, was a poet. She was also a food-lover and a traveler, a social connector, a writer and teacher.

She could nail the descriptions of a vintage in the glass, whether it spoke of green nectarines or plum cobbler or even turnips.

At some level after her injury, Reynolds knew she was lucky just to be alive. Ten percent of people with ruptured aneurysms die before even reaching the hospital. Half die within a month. Among the survivors, two-thirds suffer permanent neurological damage.

She would have to relearn how to walk, how to dress herself. But she wanted more.

"I need to get back to business," she told her husband, Ken O'Hara.

He told her, "Hold on."

At that point, she wasn't even allowed to drink.

CATHERINE REYNOLDS was wine manager of The Spanish Table for five years before venturing out on her own with Queso y Vino in 2008. It was a "virtual specialty-wine store" where she wrote her top picks in a weekly newsletter, specializing in Spanish and Portuguese wines, and delivered orders to farmers markets and front doors.

Her fan base was big; her personality and self-taught expertise had magnetized countless Spanish Table customers and turned them into friends.

"She is the most knowledgeable person on the West Coast when it comes to Spanish wines," possibly the best in the country, says Jeffrey Hall, buyer at a California wine shop. She makes independent, budget-friendly choices, not influenced by the latest 98-point ratings, says wine writer Chris Nishiwaki, another customer-friend.

And, not incidentally, says Hall, "Catherine Reynolds is one of the nicest people in the wine industry."

The business would rise or fall on her alone.

She pasted an orange liquor-license application in the window of her home in Skyway, where she and O'Hara grow heirloom tomatoes out front and organize wines in a cool storage cellar out back. She held wine dinners with local chefs. She scribbled tasting notes at her kitchen table, recommending pairings like one for an $11.99 Paul Anheuser Riesling and chef Vikram Vij's Indian Lamb Popsicles.

Queso y Vino was off and running.

Then came Feb. 24, 2009. At a gathering of wine-tasting professionals, pain stabbed Reynolds "like a screwdriver going down inside my head."

USUALLY, REYNOLDS says, "I'm Miss Bastyr Naturopath." This time was different. "We have to go to the hospital now," she told O'Hara.

He followed an ambulance through the snowy night as it transferred her from the University of Washington to emergency surgery at Harborview Medical Center.

Dr. Laligam Sekhar, director of cerebrovascular surgery, would lead her operation, and he wanted to know what Reynolds did for a living. Saving her life was paramount; but saving her quality of life mattered, too.

Over the next nine hours, Sekhar did his best to preserve her sense of taste and smell as he repaired the damage caused by the burst aneurysm and defused another.

Then, the wait.

After a few days, Dawn and Eric Wright, friends who had been her first customers at Queso y Vino, were allowed in the ICU to bring her soup — her first real food since arriving at the hospital. She detected hints of galangal, and lime leaves, and lemon grass.

But it was a fleeting taste of hope. The weeks to come brought nauseating pain, spinal taps, angiograms, a seizure, a shunt to drain fluid from her brain. Reynolds remembers none of it.

For two months, O'Hara slept in a chair by her bed. He left just one evening, to host a wine dinner she had scheduled before the aneurysm struck. Her parents had rushed here from New York, renting a house to stay as long as needed.

When she was finally transferred to inpatient rehabilitation, speech, recreational and occupational therapy filled her schedule like a 9-to-5 workday. She was told to use a "memory book" to write down detailed information about even the most basic functions like cooking spaghetti.

By the time she left the hospital, her memory still misfired enough that she had forgotten she was being discharged. She tried to read, but after making it through 100 pages of a novel, she couldn't remember a word.

The lovely blonde hair that had been shaved for surgery grew back gray. She dyed it.

Worse, "I totally lost my sense of taste — not just for wine, but vegetables, vinegar," even cheese. When she braved pizza at Delancey with friends, the noise seemed so overwhelming she repeatedly left the room.

Doctors finally cleared her to drink. But all she could taste of wine was raw alcohol, as impossible to screen out as the clamor at the restaurant.

All this was normal, as was her depression and anxiety, in brain-injury recoveries. But there was no road map for what would come next, O'Hara says.

A wine-sales manager, O'Hara knew better than anyone how effervescent the old Catherine had been: He'd also met her as a customer at The Spanish Table, back when he was the chef known for killer curries at the Mandalay Café. Eventually she told him they were going to go broke if he kept buying wine and she kept visiting the restaurant just to see each other.

They honeymooned in Paris.

After the aneurysm O'Hara took regular stock of his wife's progress and concluded he could live with whatever happened.

It wasn't as simple for her. Her parents had gone home when she agreed to work with an aide who had herself suffered a brain injury. They were alike, the aide told her, both "Invisibles" — "normal on the outside, damaged on the inside."

No. "That is not going to work for me," she thought. "I am not an Invisible."

She offered wines for sale once more in November, nine months after the aneurysm burst.

Despite times of frustration and bewilderment, she wrote in her first newsletter, "I know that I am slowly finding my way back to myself."

IT'S HARD enough to run a business. Try to run one with short-term-memory problems. Reynolds might have talked with a customer during the day, then forgot the order.

O'Hara set up a system of white boards and invoices, took the wheel to deliver orders at farmers-market parking lots. And day by day, more of her old skills regenerated.

She thinks the boldness of the bartenders' cocktails at Poppy on Capitol Hill helped rewire her brain and reset her palate. She tasted new wines. She took long walks. Twitter became her "window onto the world." She chatted and drew in new friends — a virtual version of her in-person skills.

As she approached her February "aneur-versary," wine descriptions like this emerged again from her pen: "Pink grapefruit and clementine abound, bright and snappy, with a seductive scent of rose petals that lingers in the glass after the wine is gone. (Think ahead to Valentine's Day!)"

By the time she and O'Hara celebrated her year's recovery, she knew that clients were buying wine because she was Catherine Reynolds, not because they wanted to help the girl with the brain injury.

After a recent visit, her surgeon formally classified her status as "completely normal." In a six-hour procedure this past August, doctors looked for signs of new aneurysms brewing. The report: All clear.

Around her 40th birthday and fifth wedding anniversary, she and O'Hara went to the storied Herbfarm to celebrate the milestones she almost didn't live to see. The stratospherically well-stocked wine cellar in the four-star restaurant includes 225 choices of Bordeaux alone. Reynolds brought along a gift for co-owner Ron Zimmerman, a 2001 Rioja.

"Are you kidding?" O'Hara asked. "You're giving this guy a bottle of wine? He could have anything."

She laughed. "I don't think he's had this."

Vintage Catherine Reynolds.

TODAY, REYNOLDS sells out wine dinners again and drives her own orders to clients from the Georgetown Farmers Market to the back roads of gated communities. Regular assignments include the monthly picks for a wine-buying club, and filling case requests as fascinating to her as a dozen different tempranillos. People tell her she's so strong to have fought her way back to herself.

Does she feel strong?

Her eyes fill just hearing the question. "I know for a fact that I am not the same person I was before."

During her recovery, one woman said Reynolds would eventually be grateful for what she went through. "At the time, I was like, screw you, lady!" But there was some truth to it.

"I'm so grateful . . . for every small thing that I didn't appreciate before. It doesn't take that much to make me happy now."

It's hard to say how many changes were caused by the aneurysm, how much just evolved from her experience as naturally as wine ages in the bottle. Reynolds had always thought that observing a vineyard, seeing the rocks among the vines and the depth of the roots, was the best way to truly understand a wine. In her own evolution, luck counted for a lot. Intrinsic resilience and passion helped. But environment mattered, too. There was the speech therapist who "made me feel like a person again, not just a brain-injury victim." There were so many supporters, a strong medical and rehab team, and the support of O'Hara, who wrote "I love my wife" in her journal in the depths of her fear and frustration.

It hurts when people ask why she doesn't have children, which would now pose a medical risk. She flashes back to a photo of herself in the ICU, a handwritten sign attached to one side of her head warning "NO BONE."

But she does feel fortunate when she hears that a pick she made helped brighten someone else's rainy night or was the hit of a dinner party. When, especially, she helps someone choose wine for the night he's going to propose, a bottle to open the day their child is born.

It's not just her life she's celebrating, but all of theirs.

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle freelance writer and blogger. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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