Thinking about my first book
It was nine years ago — hard to believe — that I got the phone call. It was from Blake Edgar, at the University of California Press, in the People’s Republic of Berkeley, my neighboring city. He wanted to meet with me to discuss my writing a book.
Wow, I thought. It’s pretty rare for a publisher to ask someone to write a book. Usually, the would-be author has to find an agent and then write a proposal, often a very lengthy one, and the author has to pitch the proposal to the publisher.
I’d tried to write a book years earlier. Joel Butler, the well-known M.W., and I had one in mind in the 1990s. It was to have been a major work on grape varieties and wines. We worked hard on a sample chapter on Rhône wines. I focused on California; he focused on France. We got a pretty good chapter, but things stalled. We just couldn’t find an agent, and the project died.
After that, I gave up on the idea of writing a book. It was just too hard. I’d go down to Barnes and Noble and see all the shiny new wine books, most of them pretty awful in my opinion, and wonder how these bad books managed to get contracts, while Joel’s and mine, which would have been a very good book, couldn’t. It was just one of those things.
So Blake’s call came out of the blue. We met in downtown Berkeley at a Chinese restaurant (he paid), and he said, essentially, “You can write about anything you want.” I’d recently written a story for Wine Enthusiast, “Sonoma Sojourn,” in which I envisioned a four-day tour of the county. I broke it into four regions, one per day: Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Sonoma Valley. Readers liked it. I was remembering Coppola’s movie, Apocalypse Now, which was based on Joseph Conrad’s book, Heart of Darkness. Both had the structure of a journey up a river. As the plot moves forward, things get more and more complex, until it ends in a dramatic denouement. What if, I said to Blake, I wrote a story about traveling the length of the Russian River, from inland to the sea, having adventures all along and incidentally getting into plate tectonics, weather, history, culture and, of course, wines, vines, wineries and winemakers?
Thus “A Journey along the Russian River” was born (and don’t ask me why the scribes at U.C. Press decreed that the word “along” should not be capitalized). It was grand writing that book, but it was a lot of work. I spent a year traveling the river, getting up there from Oakland every chance I could, and I did work my way from the Mendocino County line all the way out to Jenner. (I ultimately decided not to include the Mendocino part of the river in the book.) I vividly recall my final visit. It was the first time I’d been to the exact spot where the river meets the Pacific. You have to hike in to get there. It’s literally a spit of sand, about a foot above the water. As you stand looking northwest, the river is to your right, the ocean to the left. Where the two commingle is a ferocious swirl of water, white-capped and filled with eddies; here, freshwater meets salt. The ecosystem is fantastically rich, and thousands of sea birds hunt there for food. I was exultant, thinking, “Here is not only the end of the Russian River, but the end of America, and the end of my book, as well.” It turned out to be nearly the end of me. A rogue wave suddenly came out of nowhere, easily my height, and washed over me, almost making me lose my footing and sweeping me out to sea. People along the North Coast get killed by these waves on a reguar basis. Scared witless and soaking wet, I hightailed it out of there.
The book finally was published in 2005. U.C. Press takes a lot of time editing their books in-house. They are determined that their publications be not only perfectly correct in terms of grammar and punctuation, but factually. The U.C. geology professors had to double-check my geology assertions, and they had lots of questions. My book was the first ever to posit a theory for the creation of the Russian River. I persuaded Karen MacNeil and Anthony Dias Blue to write puffy little things for the back cover. The book came out as my mom lay dying in the hospital. She’d been so proud that sonny boy had a book contract, and from a prestigious university press, at that. I showed it to her days before she passed. My cousin, Maxine, read her verses from it. I’m glad she got to see it.
I still love that book. I always describe it as “the terroir of Steve.” It’s pure me in style. U.C. Press recently republished it, with a new Intro I wrote. I hope you’ll check it out.