Were it not for her sister’s wedding, Tarboro restaurateur, sommelier, and brewery owner Inez Ribustello would have likely found herself on either the 106th or 107th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center Complex on the morning of September 11, 2001. As the Beverage Director and Cellar Master at Windows on the World at the time, Ribustello (then Holderness) would have been high above lower Manhattan preparing for the day’s service or deep below the World Trade Center complex in the restaurant’s cavernous wine cellar. Her soon-to-be-husband, Stephen Ribustello, had just been hired as a sommelier. Both could have very well been two other victims to the tragedies of that historic day.
That sheer coincidence, the randomness of her, and her now-husband Stephen Ribustello, both being off work that day, and her being home in North Carolina, is the backbone that holds together the two seasons of her life, as told in her new memoir Life After Windows. In it, Ribustello traces her journey from naive, privileged Southern belle to becoming one of the most powerful people in the New York wine scene during the dot com bubble. When the September 11 terror attacks destroyed her world, in both a literal and spiritual sense, she found herself back in the very town she vowed to never return to, opened On the Square, one of North Carolina’s most heralded restaurants, and, eventually Tarboro Brewing Company.
Ribustello’s memoir is a microcosm of her personality — fast-paced, bubbly, with the occasional epithet tossed in to remind you that she’s not the proper Southern girl she once was. But it’s also raw and honest and at times gut-wrenchingly sad. For someone who lives and raises her family in the same small town where she grew up, that kind of brutal honesty, about her struggles to return to her Christian faith after 9/11, about how the restaurant industry both brought her some of her greatest joys and lowest lows, about any myriad of issues that “we just don’t talk about in public,” can be terrifying. Ribustello seems to approach the act of revealing her entire life to the world with the same pragmatic optimism she has leaned on to get her through the past 20 years. The book is woven through with opportunities to take a break from the dark stuff and laugh, and one would imagine that’s exactly how Ribustello lives her life. When things get hard, when the world gets dark, there is always family, friends, work, and of course, laughter.