s
s
Sections
Sections
Search
Subscribe

LeBaron: When wine got its own library


The hook upon which today's bit of history hangs is the silver anniversary of the Sonoma County Wine Library. This occasion will be celebrated next Saturday with tours and refreshments and some speeches, I'm sure, in the library at the corner of Piper and Center streets in Healdsburg.

The establishment of this archive in Healdsburg's new branch library was a milepost on the road to Wine Country — that address, title, designation, that industry — which demands so much attention in the present day.

Think about it this way: If you were born in the 1960s, you probably don't remember when this wasn't Wine Country.

If you had told a gathering of prune farmers, apple growers or chicken ranchers in Sonoma County in the 1930s that it would one day be a world tourism destination predicated on some 400 wineries, and that Healdsburg, the "Buckle of the Prune Belt," would bring scholars, historians and wine writers to visit a wine library, such ideas would get you laughed out of the Grange Hall.

Change isn't linear. It comes in fits and starts. The changes in Sonoma County's agriculture did not burst full bloom upon our landscape. We morphed into Wine Country gradually.

Jet planes made it possible for people to eat fresh fruit all year long — apples from New Zealand, berries from Chile, melons from Mexico. The canned and dried fruit market — dare I say? — dried up. Prunes came to be regarded with a snicker. The demand for dried apples and canned applesauce diminished. By the mid- to late 1960s, prune orchards had begun to fade away. Apples hung in longer, but the die was cast. Farmland became available. And wine consumption was on the rise. Outside money took note. Wealthy people from many surging industries, like computers and aerospace, cast investment eyes at Napa and Sonoma counties.

By the early 1980s — maybe 15 years from the first big push to boutique wineries and 10 years out from the landmark "Tasting of Paris," when Time magazine publicized the triumph of two Napa wines over the best of the French — California wine became a hot topic. Sonoma County was openly competing with Napa for the respect of the wine writers, collectors and growing number of imbibers. Comic Tom Smothers, a Kenwood vineyard owner, put it succinctly. "Sonoma makes wine. NAPA makes auto parts." And talk of a wine library began.

Bo Simons, the first wine librarian, tells the story. It started, he says, at Geyser Peak Winery and spread to the Russian River Wine Road, a consortium of vintners and grape growers created to call attention to the wines produced in the northern part of the county.

They envisioned a designated spot where information about wine, its science and its history would be assembled and available to the industry and to the public. It would be funded by the wineries and their support system.

The idea fit perfectly into the skill set of a remarkable woman named Millie Howie, a writer and publicist who lived in Alexander Valley but was well-connected in the Bay Area, being one of the pioneers of San Francisco television. Both Geyser Peak and the new organization were clients.

When the inevitable jockeying began for which lucky winery would house this archive or whether it should take turns in the different viticulture areas, it was Howie who settled it.

"If you want a library, go to a library," she said."

The vintners, while surprised, agreed. But David Sabsay, director of the county's library system, wasn't such an easy sell. He hooted at the idea. Public financing was way down, he said, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving had become a national force. An alcohol library seemed to him a bad idea. So bad, in fact, he reportedly laughed aloud. But Howie kept talking — and she could be very persuasive. This would not be shelves filled with bottles, she pointed out. Nor was it about alcohol. It was about support for an industry that was rapidly becoming significant, that was generating tax dollars. It was about information and education — and history. Sabsay came around.

That was the key. Like Howie, he was a force to be reckoned with. And together, as Simons puts it, "they were dynamite."

First there was that matter of location, location, location. Sonoma Valley, of course, felt it should be in that domain, since it is the birthplace, thanks to "Count" Agoston Haraszthy, of California viticulture. But, as it happened, the library system had selected a site and approved the plans for construction of a new branch library in Healdsburg. That building could include a wing that would house the wine library and Healdsburg was the more central location, being at the confluence of three major wine valleys.

Sabsay came up with a formula of dues to be paid by wineries based on case production and grape growers based on acreage, with flat fees for related businesses, such as cooperages, graphic artists and wine buyers.

Howie and her crew of volunteers went to work and raised half the money needed before the first nail was hammered in the new building.

It actually opened in 1988 with the dedication of the new branch library, but the "coming out party," as Simons terms it, was in February of '89.

Simons is now branch manager. Jon Haupt, a former music librarian who first "found" Healdsburg as one of those "food and wine" tourists that make the wheels go 'round, is the current wine librarian. Simons calls Haupt, "a great gift — he's young and plugged into the social media."

Indeed, a hope expressed by Howie at the outset that the day would come "when someone in Germany who wanted to know what grapes grow in Sonoma County, could punch it up from our library," has come true.

Haupt says that in addition to the 500-year-old books and treasured collections and oral histories and the best wine periodical library ever, his archive draws the Internet crowd on Twitter and Facebook, with hundreds of "likes."

But the majority of his "customers," he says, are the local winemakers and growers seeking industry information and the international wine writers who are particularly interested in the extensive periodical files.

There is also the occasional tourist, who makes it a vacation stop and just wants to chat, perhaps asking about the particulars of his favorite wine. Neither Howie nor Sabsay will be present to celebrate Saturday. Howie died in 2011, Sabsay a year earlier. But you can bet their names will come up.

As for those of us who dwell in this place called Wine Country, we can look back from this milepost, and make another stab at understanding how it all happened. I suppose you can call it history.