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In praise of the Sonoma County Wine Library


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.

That new conjunctive labeling law in Sonoma


Back in December, 2009, I blogged on “the Sonoma County label war,” a proposal by the Sonoma County Vintners by which every bottle of wine produced in the county would have to bear the words “Sonoma County” on the label. That meant, if the wine came from Russian River Valley, it would have to say “Russian River Valley – Sonoma County.” Ditto for all of Sonoma’s other 12 AVAs.

I expressed some doubt at the time whether this was really the best thing the county could do to promote itself. It seemed like a too little, too late approach to make up for the diluted Sonoma County reputation the county caused by creating so many appellations in the 1980s.

Over the weekend, the California Legislature unanimously approved a bill that essentially enacts the Sonoma County Vintners concept, dubbed “conjunctive labeling,” into law. Since there’s no reason to think Gov. Schwarzenegger won’t sign it, the new law will likely go into effect, although not for another three years.

Three other California wine regions have conjunctive labeling laws: Napa Valley, Lodi and Paso Robles.

I asked my Facebook friends, many of whom are California winemakers, what they think of this law, and the response was pretty negative. I can’t explain that; I simply report. A few examples:

“Capture winery is totally opposed.” — Tara Sharp

“My label is Dane Cellars and I oppose it also.” — Bart Hansen

“Horrible law.” — David Grega

“Dumb, dumb and dumber. I have withdrawn from the Vintners in protest and won’t participate in any of their marketing efforts.” — John M. Kelly

“…we are also considering withdrawing.  Most upsetting: we’ve voiced our concerns to the Sonoma County Vintners in a detailed, thoughtful way and they’ve completely ignored our points.” — Tara Sharp

“F’n ridiculous, moronic, and other words not fit to type.” — Hardy Wallace

“It’s a bad idea, and it sets a bad precedent for other large geographical AVAs to ram the same sort of requirement through their state legislatures.” — Randy Hall

“it’s silly” — Mark Clarin

Although to be fair, there were a few defenders:

“I think its great personally, strength via solidarity, and seems plenty of industry concurred; just b/c SVVGA didn’t follow your concerns doesn’t mean they weren’t listening.” — William Allen

“Is the Napa law ridiculous too? What about Paso Robles? How about Lodi? The one thing Sonoma County (wineries) ALWAYS gets criticized for is that they can’t come together for a common good… and a lot of the comments above illustrate that point exactly.” — Kelly Keagy

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