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Buzzy summer beach read a Valentine to Sonoma County

Laura Dave

MEG MCCONAHEY, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Georgia Ford is in the midst of being fitted for her wedding gown when she looks out the shop window and spots her fiancé walking down the street.

Let’s just say in that moment her charmed world turns inside out. Ten hours later, the successful real estate attorney from L.A. is back home at her family’s vineyard in Sebastopol, still wearing her hip-hugging white gown and satin heels.

Thus begins “Eight Hundred Grapes” (Simon & Schuster, $24.95), a romantic novel that also is a love story about grape-growing and a Valentine to Sonoma County and its wine and tourism industries.

Released in June, the Sonoma-set story by best-selling author Laura Dave immediately vaulted onto an impressive array of hot summer and beach reading lists, everything from Glamour and Cosmopolitan to Marie Claire and USA Today. One writer suggested that reading the book itself is like a virtual vacation with “mouthwatering lasagna and breathtaking vistas.”

Serving as the setting in a popular novel — complete with references to familiar insider touchstones from the town of Graton to Highway 116 to La Gare Restaurant — is one more indicator of Sonoma County’s growing cachet as a wine-growing region and tourist and wedding destination.

While “Eight Hundred Grapes” is a light and fast 260-page read, it also tells an all-too-real story about the struggle of smaller, family-owned vineyards and wineries to weather the vagaries of Mother Nature and the powerful economic forces that are compelling many to sell out to bigger players. It’s a story playing out again and again in Sonoma County, most recently with the fall of the debt-ridden B.R. Cohn winery in Glen Ellen.

Dave, 38, who takes daily walks from her apartment to Cafe Luxxe in downtown Santa Monica, where she writes for about five hours, has already optioned the novel to Fox Studios and is writing the film adaptation herself.

Three of her previous novels — “The First Husband,” “The Divorce Party” and “London is the Best City in America” — have been optioned for the screen but have yet to see production. The fact that “Eight Hundred Grapes” has been picked up by the same charmed team that did the hugely popular “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Twilight” is a good omen, she points out.

Hollywood often takes the easy route when depicting Wine Country on the screen, subbing in closer spots like the Santa Ynez Valley. But Dave is adamant that no Southern or Central California vineyard view will capture the lush splendor of Sonoma.

“As a novelist turned into a screenwriter, I have less than no say,” she admits. “But I’ve told them that if you shoot this, you actually have to shoot it in Sonoma County because there’s no place in the world like it. In some ways, it’s irreplaceable.”

Dave is on her cellphone, waiting outside a classic 1920s Spanish style bungalow in Santa Monica that she and her husband, Josh Singer, are in the process of trying to purchase. Singer is a screenwriter and producer for “The West Wing,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Lie to Me” and the FOX sci-fi series “Fringe.”

The novel is set in a biodynamically farmed vineyard in Sebastopol called The Last Straw Vineyard. Georgia Ford’s father is depicted as a maverick, who staked his claim in what was then Apple Country.

Dave said she got the inspiration for the book after taking a tour of the small, family-owned Littorai winery in rural Sebastopol, where owners Ted and Heidi Lemon are dedicated to old school farming that is a mix of permaculture, agro-ecology and the edgy agricultural philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, the father of biodynamic farming.

“I listened to them talk about how a vineyard is like an ecosystem and that you don’t take anything out of the land that you don’t put back in,” she said. “The more he talked, the more I learned about the patience that is required to grow grapes, and the faith. It’s also a metaphor for how to try to build a life with something, and how you try to build a family.

“I put a family in the middle of their own biodynamic vineyard and ecosystem. I’ve always understood the world via relationships and via interaction and community, or lack thereof. I like the idea that the people around us are the same people who are both helping and hindering us to become who we are, who we’re going to be.”

A frequent visitor to Sonoma County who spent her honeymoon in Healdsburg, Dave wanted to go deeper than the surface beauty of the landscape and the glamor of the wine business. She wound up mining information from people like Shane Finley of Lynmar Estate in Sebastopol.

“We’ve always loved wine, but I didn’t know a lot about it,” Dave said. “I knew about what wine I liked to drink, and I had taken tours of wineries. But it was through writing this book and bending the ear of anybody who worked at a winery who would talk to me that I started to develop a reverence for farmers,” she said, “especially small batch biodynamic wineries, where it isn’t a factory. It’s your whole life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.