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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.

  1. Wow, Steve, your story about getting doused by that sneaker wave is incredible! Obviously, we’re all glad you survived. (C’mon, people, right?)

    You’re piece prompted me to go to my small library of wine books (about 70 titles in all) and grab yours. But it wasn’t there. I do remember reading it upon release and liking it an awful lot. I’d like to read it again. So to the person I loaned it out to: For it over.

    Finally, regarding “along” in the title: Your publisher was apparently following Chicago Manual of Style, which dictates lowercase for prepositions in titles. But I found an interesting story from CMOS itself about how in at least one case the University of Chicago itself didn’t follow that rule on a very famous book it published. I think your publisher would have been well advised not to follow the rule as well.

  2. correction: *fork* it over

  3. Doh, sorry for yet another comment! But I meant to include a link to the Chicago Manual of Style site where they talk about the time they didn’t follow their own rule.

  4. Steve
    Appreciate the mention– I think I still have a draft somewhere in the files of that sample chapter we worked on! And now, I am finally getting around to writing a book as well, 10 years later.

    And co-incidentally, it’s title follows the leitmotif of yours;’Following the Bible Wine Trail Ancient and Modern’ We seem to like the idea of travel and journey!
    On another topic (re your comments 2 days ago (annoyed producers), MW’s don’t say there is objective truth in tasting, merely that bringing a systematic, consistent method to bear results usually in a better defined, well-considered and generally received appreciation of a given wine or wine style.

  5. “Wow, Steve, your story about getting doused by that sneaker wave is incredible! Obviously, we’re all glad you survived.”

    Sheesh, these journalists will do anything for a hook. >:^)

  6. Hi Joel, nice to hear from you. When you say “a systematic, consistent method” to wine tasting, I agree. I think (not to split hairs) what I’ve tried to point out is that no matter how systematic and consistent the method is, it is still subjective, and the same person reviewing the same wine (from different bottles) over the course of even one year will produce inconsistent results. I think this is important to point out to consumers, but the MW approach suggests that tasting can be made almost scientific, which is to say, consistent and replicable. This is not the case, given human fallibility.

  7. Tom Ferrell says:

    Sorry for the length of this, but it touches on a project that I am much involved.

    Basically, I am weighing in with Joel. I believe the jury was in decades ago on the case for the importance of a consistent methodology producing better considered, better defined, more reproducible tasting results. It is well proven that sensory analysis and quality assessment of wine can be objective and reproducible. The catch is that you have to set standards for yourself to which most individuals(mea culpa)are unwilling to submit.

    On my desk, for the last 40 years, is a publication called Hilgardia, a journal of agricultural science published at UC Berkeley for its California Agricultural Experiment Station (now known as UC Davis.) The journal issue is titled Modern Sensory Methods of Evaluating Wine by M.A. Amerine, E.B. Roessler, and F. Filipello, June 1959. Amerine was the wine guy, Roessler was the mathematician, and Filipello was the food technologist at the experiment station at Davis. The journal was written because, though these methods were well known at the University, they were not the practices of the industry and the lack of uniform and reliable judgments were considered to be holding it back.

    While sensory science and tasting methodology has progressed since then, not much has changed in the industry regarding its practice. Winemakers are still the worst offenders. Most know and understand the required methodology, but are unwilling to submit to its discipline. I’m talking simple things like tasting blind with properly coded samples in a systematic way with the proper equipment in the proper setting using statistics to determine if the results are valid.

    In my experience, most winemakers just wing it. And if any of them complain to you, Steve, about your assessments of their wine, you can be reasonably assured that, except for a few, they have no higher standards nor would they do a better job than you.

    But, it is realistic to expect that if an individual rigidly follows proper technique they can accurately and consistently assess the quality attributes of a wine. They can reduce their fallibility to an acceptable level.

    A wine has a certain color, a certain aroma, a certain flavor, and a certain taste. These attributes can be accurately and reproducibly described and recorded if a taster is systematic and methodical. That’s half the battle. Now a taster needs consistent standards by which they assess the quality of those things they accurately measure. If the taster falls down on either step, he or she will be erratic in their assessments. This is why it is such a painstaking undertaking if done correctly.

    “Sensory testing is a costly and time-consuming undertaking. However, if worth doing at all, it should be done carefully and systematically to ensure the validity of the results”
    M.A. Amerine, E.B. Rossler, & F. Filipello 1959

  8. I bought it for my brother-in-law for Christmas and he loved it. I’ll have to buy the updated version for myself!

  9. Steve,
    Sorry about your mother.

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