I’m driving up to Occidental today, on the far edge of the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, for a book signing at a winery called Fog Crest. I’m not familiar with their wines, and I don’t know the proprietors, but they invited me up, bought a bunch of my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, and are putting me up for the night at the nearby Inn at Occidental, so what’s not to like about that?
That book was published in 2005, after a writing and editing effort that took about two years. Prior to that, I’d tried hard to get a book publishing deal. It was an era when having a book was the crowning glory to your reputation as a wine writer, but actually getting a book deal was hard. I’d written sample chapters, sent them to agents and publishers and worked the grapevine diligently, alas to no avail; nobody seemed to want my book.
Then serendipity struck, in the form of a phone call from an acquisitions editor at University of California Press. He invited me to lunch and, over sushi in Berkeley, informed me that I could write a book – about anything I wanted – as long as it was about wine – and U.C. Press would publish it.
Wow. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. But it did. I came up with the idea for Journey – based on Heart of Darkness (alternatively, Apocalypse Now), I conceived it as a year-long journey from one end of the Russian River to the other end, where it spills into the Pacific, exploring along the way the region’s culture, plate tectonics, climate, personalities, food scene and, of course, winegrowing areas and wines. Because U.C. Press didn’t have a large budget like some for-profit publishers, they couldn’t afford a photographer, so I took my own pictures – with a throwaway camera. In the end, the rustic nature of the pictures echoed the book’s artisanal nature: I call it “the terroir of Steve” from a writing point of view.
I wrote one more book after that for U.C. Press, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff, but by the time we started talking about a third book, I’d begun this blog, which, after more than six years, has amounted to perhaps two million words, the equivalent of many books. I always thought that said something about the nature of wine writing: that it’s migrated to the Web. Of course, wine writers still write wine books, and they still get reviewed, but somehow, a wine book doesn’t seem to have the glory it used to anymore. The times they are a-changing.
My readers know that I make a big deal of the art of writing. In Journey, something came over me that I can only liken to possession: I felt like it wasn’t me writing it, but some wonderful force that was expressing itself through me. It’s a terrific little book, if I do say so myself. When I proposed it to my editor, I told him, “I want to write a book people will read 100 years from now.” I was well aware of the brief lifespan of 99% of wine books: they come and go like gnats. Today, Eric Asimov is praising them in the New York Times: tomorrow, they’re in the remainders bin of the local bookstore. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to capture a moment in time, in a particular place (the valley of the Russian River), in such a manner that later generations would read it and go, Ahh, that was an interesting time and place.
I haven’t been up to Occidental in years, so this trip will have some nostalgia. Today will be quite warm and sunny; we’re in the pleasant grasp of our last heat wave of the season before the rains come and transform the Russian River Valley into a dripping enchantment I once likened to Middle Earth in a storm. That is, if the rains come: we all hope they do. I don’t want to see Guerneville and adjacent towns flooded, as they so frequently have been, but we all are hoping for torrents to fall and fill our reservoirs.
Have a great weekend!
I had a number of hours of downtime yesterday in Sonoma County between my noon lunch in Graton (which lasted about 2 hours) and my 8 p.m. dinner at John Ash & Co., in Santa Rosa, so, at the suggestion (via Facebook) of my old friend Rusty Eddy, I drove up to Healdsburg to hang out at the Sonoma County Wine Library.
I know the Library and its director, Bo Simons, fairly well, having given some author’s talks and done some signings for A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I had done a ton of research there as well, especially for Wine Journey. When I arrived, Bo was as the counter, working. The first thing he asked was if I’m working on a new book.
“No,” I said, and in answer to his puzzled expression, I explained, “Too much work, not enough money. Besides,” I added, “most of my extra creative writing (beyond my day job, I meant) is online, on my blog.”
Now, Bo is a print person. I suppose you have to be if you work in a library. He mentioned certain 18th century Englishmen as his ideal writers to read (thereby in his own, discrete fashion letting me know what he thinks of blogging), and then he said, with a sheepish smile, “I’m a book guy.” And here, he held up a hand and rubbed his thumb against his index finger, and he didn’t have to explain the symbolism. Bo likes the feel of good paper, of a properly bound cloth cover, and, unless I miss my guess, he also likes the smell of new printer’s ink and the sharp look of Caslon on a page.
At lunch that day I’d run into Laurence Sterling, from Iron Horse, who told me one of his daughters (or nieces? the fragility of memory) has a degree in magazine journalism and is living in New York putting a career together — a little print, a little online. I told Laurence I’d love to meet the young lady, to find out how she views the future of print versus, or vis-a-vis, online. Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit, and a young Millennial living in the heart of the world’s media capital must have some interesting thoughts.
Anyway, back in the Wine Library, I saw shelves of back issues of every print periodical you can name: Decanter, California Farmer, Le Bulletin de L’OIV, Charlie Olken’s Connoisseur’s Guide, Wine Enthusiast and dozens, maybe scores of others. Behind locked glass cabinets are rarities: “Grape Culture” (1867), “Mead’s American Grape Culture & Wine Making” (also 1867), “Wines of the Ancients” (1775), “The Vine and its Fruit in Relation to Wine” (1875), “Clarets and Sauternes” (1846). Who wouldn’t want to tear into those? (Maybe “tear” isn’t the most appropriate verb to use concerning those fragile antiquities.)
Not behind glass are thousands of volumes on wine, on every conceivable subject. The business of wine, the art of drinking, the world’s wine regions, viticulture and enology, wine poetry, even wine-inspired mystery novels (“Death by the Glass,” “No Murder Before its Time”), and, yes, my own books. The Library contains drawersful of maps, of charts and statistics and oral histories. It is a cornucopia of wine information and knowledge.
And yet, like libraries across our country, it’s hurting financially. “Funding could be better,” Bo sighed. Grower and producer underwriting, upon which the Library largely depends, is stagnant. (Memo to growers and producers: go here for a subscription form or call the Library at 707-433-3772. And you don’t have to be a Sonoma winery to help.) The public also can assist, by joining as a Wine Library Associate ($20 a year). As Bo says, “Every little bit in these bleak times helps.”
Why should anyone care about the Sonoma County Wine Library? Because there are few libraries like it in California, or in this country. Because it’s important to keep knowledge alive, and handed down over the generations. Because “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” (Andrew Carnegie). And from The Tempest:
Knowing that I loved my books, he furnished me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.
I did a book signing and talk last night at the Napa Library in St. Helena for my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. The people who turn out for these kinds of things are book lovers, supporters of libraries (which need all the help they can get) and wine lovers. In a day and age when people are reading less and sitting at their computers more, it’s nice to see there’s still an audience who likes the old-fashioned pleasures of reading a book.
We didn’t get home until close to 11, but of course the first thing I had to do was check my messages. And I found an email, from someone commenting on my recent post Making wine blogging credible, who chose to privately email me instead of posting publically. (For that reason, I won’t identify the person.) The email said, in part, “It’s clear that bloggers think print is dead and that they’re the wave of the wine-writing future. But I’ll bet a bottle of Champagne that any one of them, if offered the chance to write a column for a mainstream print pub, would jump at it.”
Segue: About 10 years ago I moderated a debate between the owner of the famous Berkeley bookstore, Cody’s (which just announced it’s shutting down after 52 years) and the head of the new media center at the University of California, Berkeley. The topic: Is the paper-bound book dead? The media center guy alleged it was: too many dead trees, too much waste. He predicted we would someday read everything on high-tech portable devices that could download anything, anywhere, quickly. The bookstore owner begged to differ. No technology, he said, could ever replace the feeling of browsing in a bookstore, fondling books, flipping through their pages, curling up in an armchair with one.
Come we now to the age of the Internet, wine blogs and that email that was waiting in my computer last night. Let me make a few observations. Yes, I do think many bloggers — maybe most — think that print is dead. Maybe many of them want print to be dead. Maybe print is moribund, dying, on its way out. Maybe someday there will be no books or magazines or newspapers. But print is hardly dead now and it’s not likely to be buried anytime soon. Print still dwarfs digital. I would argue print remains more influential in wine than anything online. There’s probably no way to prove this, but I think this way: Take the world’s top ten wine publications (it’s not necessary to define what they are). How many people read them? How many other publications quote them? How many wineries use their reviews in their marketing and advertising? Then take every wine blog on Earth. How many people collectively read them? How often are they quoted?
End of debate.
Whether or not my correspondant is right about any wine blogger jumping at the chance to write a column for a mainstream print pub, I’ll leave to others to decide. That’s a third rail I don’t want to touch. But I will say this. At the book signing last night I met a 29-year old MBA, Courtney Cochran, an entrepreneur who runs two San Francisco-based wine companies, Your Personal Sommelier and Hip Tastes. Her entire mission is to make wine accessible to members of her age group who want to enjoy the lifestyle but are intimidated and put off by what they see as the snobbery and elitism. I’m guessing that a lot of people her age have never read a wine magazine and wouldn’t know Robert Parker if he walked up to them with a bottle of Petrus. What I’m getting at here is that I know things are changing and everybody’s moving online and Courtney Cochran represents that trend with eloquence and intelligence and I’m sure she’ll be hugely successful. But you know what? Courtney was at the Napa library to promote her own book. It’s paper-based, not digital, and I’m betting she’s hoping that all those 20-somethings will buy it, cuddle up in an armchair and read it. Too bad they won’t be able to get it at Cody’s. But I’m sure it’s available at amazon.com.