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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.

  1. Kevin Hamel says:

    Nice post, Steve. The wine library is a little jewel…

  2. “Too much work, not enough money.” How true.

  3. Thanks Steve. It was a pleasure to see you yesterday, but (almost) just as great a pleasure to read this blog. The Wine Library is a great asset that I should take advantage of more often.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. Steve
    Very nice post on a wonderful place. Thanks for adding to public awareness of this great resource.

  5. Steve, you should check out the Napa Valley Wine Library in St Helena. Established 47 years ago, with a solid reference and research collection, a quarterly report to members and its summer tasting of 100 Napa wines for members as well as Books on Wine festival. Working with the growers and vintners to build a history of Napa Wine. A great place. Come visit. The industry has been supportive from the beginning but we all need more support and involvement.

    Barbara Insel
    Stonebridge Research Group LLC

  6. Bill Smart says:

    Steve – thanks for giving a shout out to The Wine Library. Bo is truly a cornucopia of knowledge. More good public relations professionals ought to consider Bo and the library as one of their key sources of information when doing research.

  7. Mr. Heimoff,

    Ironically the first wine book I read was yours, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, while passing idle time at The Gary Farrell tasting room. I never knew a wine book could be so exciting. Now some years later and many trips later to the Healdsburg wine library I still have the same fervorfor reading about wine. Just yesterday I pick up four new books from the Rohnert Park library. To anyone else interested in the subject check out the oral history books at the wine library, they are the books with a light blue cover. Thank you Mr. Heimoff for piquing my interest in something which has become my true love.



  8. My best memories as a student were from my access to the Dept. of Vit. and Enology Library at Davis. It is probably modern and sterile now, but then it was a little dark, dusty, and loaded with century old books on grapes and wine. I particularly liked gently leafing through the old hand painted appelographies that were both educational and beautiful. As a student it was a nice way to pass the afternoon, more fun even than the anti war demonstrations. The place was usually empty, but sometimes old Prof. (Emeritis) Winkler was there , white haired and bent over, and still learning. Years later I found out from Pierre Galet that perusing old ampelographies is exactly what he did when hiding out from the Nazi’s at Montpellier, and it was what inspired him to learn to identify grape varieties.

    I have no idea why so many libraries are in trouble around the country and yet big book stores and Amazon seem to flourish. Yet some libraries flourish and are treasures to their community. Our local in St, Helena is amazing. Not just the wine related collections, but the periodicals, magazines, journals, music CDs, DVD’s, internet access, nightly speakers, weekly movie night at the library, and book signings. If that weren’t enough access the combined 18 library Solano-Napa partners catalog make ordering any book as easy as Netflicks. And it is all free to the public.

    I think success of a library has a lot to do with keeping it relevant to the needs of the community.

  9. Dear D. Mil, thank you for saying nice things about my book.

  10. Bo’s Passion breathes life into the Wine Library yet without funding it’s a lost source. That reminds me that I haven’t paid my $75 the last couple years – I need to catch up on that!

  11. What a lovely day….

  12. Thanks, Steve for a thoughtful rallying cry. Napa Valley Wine Library is indeed a gem. The newish St. Helena Public Library Director, Jennifer Baker, is breath-takingly competent and dialed-in librarian. Morton above wonders why Amazon and bookstores are doing so well, and libraries are on the ropes. Here we are talking about public libraries. We libraries are doing more business than ever. In tough times people come to libraries and buy less books and get their DVDs and audiobooks from the library, but we don’t get a tranaction-based revenue. Public Libraries’ money comes largely from property taxes. Guess what has been going down, along with a lot of other things: property taxes. The Sonoma County Wine Library and the Napa Valley Wine Library are special libraries within public libraries. Napa’s funding comes through its support group, and ours comes partly from our support group, and partly from the industry directly in the form of dues (we call them subscriptions).

  13. Julie St John says:

    Steve, As a former board member of the Wine Library Associates, I enjoyed reading your comments about visiting the Wine Library. As a wine industry member, I especially have enjoyed researching the oral histories in years past (which reminds me I need to get in there and see new additions) and learning what it was like for our wine pioneers as they blazed their particular paths in Sonoma County. Thanks for the memory jolt.

  14. I’m so lucky to live in Healdsburg and do stop by frequently to get info from the stacks or insight from Bo.
    Thanks Steve for bringing the winery subscription to my attention. Check’s in the mail – actually my back pocket for a swing through tomorrow.
    Here’s to hoping others will join or re-up.
    Alan B.

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