RIP Terry Wright, a great wine geologist
I have just learned of the death of Terry Wright last month.
Terry, a Ph.D. (his website is here), was a longtime professor of geology at Sonoma State University, in which capacity he was of great help to me during the writing of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. In addition to his academic work, Terry frequently consulted for wineries on vineyard soil issues.
In my book, I had determined to tell the geological history of the Russian River, since no one apparently had ever done so. Everyone knew that the river’s turn west, below Healdsburg, was hugely crucial to the terroir of the Russian River Valley; but no one knew quite why the river made that strange turn (the only one in California to do so), or when or how the river had begun flowing.
In the book, I wrote about all this, with the help of several geologists, none of them friendlier or more interesting than Terry. He was “a real character,” a larger-than-life guy with an Indiana Jones canvas hat, big, booming voice, hearty laugh, bushy Mr. Natural beard, an off-the-grid lifestyle and a gourmand’s love of wine and food.
Terry lived in a funky little wooden shack in the hills above River Road, in the heart of the southern Russian River Valley. Not just his yard was filled with rocks and dirt: the house, too. It was as if there were no dividing line between “indoors” and “outdoors.” Terry loved rocks with a crazy passion. On our frequent excursions around and about the river, I liked to pick up interesting stones and hand them to Terry. He could identify them at a glance, telling me what they were made of, how old they were, and how they came to be in that spot.
Terry also was an adventurer. He’d rock-climbed, hang-glided, shot whitewater rapids and in all respects lived a pedal-to-the-metal life. He invited me one spring day to take a canoe trip with him down the Russian River. We figured I could get a unique perspective on the river and its terroir from that vantage. We met up one morning at the Geyserville Bridge, where we parked our respective vehicles. Terry had arranged for one of his SSU students to drive us north to near the Mendocino County line, where we dragged a canoe down to the water and shoved off for the 15 miles or so back to Geyserville.
It was a cool, clear morning. The river was running high; there’d been near record snowfall that winter in the High Sierra, and all that mountain snow was rapidly melting. There were even whitecaps here and there. It made for some bumpy moments, but Terry reassured me that he was a consummate outdoorsman and knew what he was doing. I believed in him and relaxed, despite the fact that I, Bronx-born, am not an outdoorsman, and the life jacket he had lent me was missing most of its clasps.
We got to just south of Asti when we passed a sandbar upon which a few people were waving to us. We paddled over to them and they explained that they’d capsized in rapids; their boat was lost. Since there was little we could do to help them, we wished them well, and moved on. A moment later, we heard rather than saw what was ahead. It was the sound of a dull roar, like a subway train in the distance.
Suddenly I saw the white water. It looked like detergent, foamy and bubbly. The wave crests had to be two or three feet high, and we were plowing right into them. I had one oar and Terry had the other. He began shouting directions: “Right! Left! Paddle harder!” Time became very shortened, as things sped up. We were no longer headed straight down the river’s middle, but were veering rapidly toward the bank. I had just started to ask him, “Terry, why are we headed toward the bank” when the canoe upended and I found myself underwater, upside down, the top of my head scraping the gravelly bottom, in what is called “the rinse cycle.”
It took Terry and me 30 minutes to extricate ourselves from that mess. He ended up stranded on a gravel bank. I managed to grab onto a fallen tree, or “strainer,” by the bank. By a stroke of luck, I’d snagged the back of the canoe, which was rapidly being swept away, with a leg. I was hanging onto the strainer, holding onto the canoe, while the water kept trying to undo me. The bank to my back was eight feet in height, all scummy, muddy slipslide.
Both of us easily could have died that day. That Asti stretch of the Russian River has claimed lives before. As it turned out, being trapped in the cold snow-melt water for half an hour (and then it being another two hours in my wet clothes before I got home to Oakland) gave me a case of hypothermia that permanently discombobulated my body’s internal thermostat.
Terry, of course, was profusely apologetic. I took it all in good humor–actually, good stuff to write about–and teased him about it for years. He was a funny, loving, smart, sweet, eager guy, making his way through this life. There are lots of people who will miss and mourn him.