Driving the backroads of Sonoma, vineyards viewed on the fly are comfortably familiar — armies of trellised vines, marching in precision lines along a valley floor or charging up a hillside. The only change seems to be with the season, when the leaves after harvest turn gold and then drop, leaving the vines to look like barren ghosts until budbreak in the spring. From a distance, one vineyard, however pretty, may seem more or less like the next.
But a new book by photographer George Rose shows how dynamic and diverse a vineyard can be. Through his lens, Rose captures changes in the light and in the sky. He documents the wildlife, from a great white egret near the Russian River Valley to a rabbit in Bennett Valley. And he shows that an extreme close up of a leaf can be as breathtaking as a panorama of a mountain vineyard in autumn bejeweled with platinum and ruby.
“Vineyard: Sonoma County” is not just a collection of beautiful shots. That would be too easy in California’s premiere Wine Country where it’s hard to take a bad photo. Instead, Rose takes us into vineyards through the seasons at times when most people would never be there — in the pale pink before dawn, or in the blood orange at twilight, veiled in fog or beneath smoky plumes of wildfire, illuminated by spotlights long before dawn at harvest, or dusted with snow.
The 175 pages of photographs were culled from thousands of frames captured by Rose over 25 years exploring the vineyards of Sonoma County for some of the region’s top wineries. A respected press photographer who carved out a reputation as a crack chronicler of sports and pop culture for the Los Angeles Times and for major magazines like Rolling Stone, Time and Newsweek, Rose in 1990 was seduced by the Fetzer family to trade glitz for a quieter life as its communications director. He never looked back.
Over a quarter century he has explored 600 to 700 vineyards, maybe a third of them in Sonoma County, including many of the most-storied vineyards, from the rugged, volcanic soil of Rodney Strong’s Cooley Ranch near Lake Sonoma to Grist Vineyard at the crest of the coastal mountains bordering Dry Creek Valley.
“Believe it or not I’m still going into and discovering vineyards I didn’t know existed,” he said.
At 65, Rose, who maintains a boyish face beneath a thatch of white hair, is still enthusiastically finding new angles from which to view the 60,000 acres of grapes in Sonoma County. “Each vineyard has its own personality,” he said. “When I walk into a vineyard, which I do a number of times in the course of a day, I’ll just walk through to understand how the light hits it; to understand if this is going to be a better summer photo or is this going to be a better winter image.”
He digs in, returning many times to gain an intimate understanding of the terroir of a vineyard — how the sun hits it at different times of day, how the water flows through it and the animals traverse it, when and how it is shadowed or draped in fog. How land is farmed also has an affect on its appearance, he said.