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Strange Fruit

Reaping the oddities of the Sonoma County Wine Library

By David Templeton

ROWS OF AGED BOOKS stand waiting, the numerous leather-bound volumes neatly positioned behind a barrier of glass, warm and glistening under the touch of the mid-afternoon sun. With a chimelike rattle of keys, librarian Zita Eastman unlocks the cabinet and rolls the doors aside, as the sweet, unmistakable scent of cowhide and 100-year-old paper and glue wafts up from the shelves.

"Here's one that's almost two centuries old," she announces, reaching for a slender, dun-colored volume with a brittle exterior. She slides the book out and into her palm, displaying its title embossed in crumbling gold-leaf: A Few Practical Remarks on the Medicinal Effects of Wine & Spirits, With Observations on the Economy of Health.

Printed in London in 1799, the text is stately and formal, a collection of anecdotes. Before returning the book to its place, I read the author's opinion that port wine is too expensive to give to 5-year-old children as a sleep tonic; he suggests instead a spoonful of laudanum--a now illegal tincture of opium.

Welcome to the Sonoma County Wine Library, a vast, one-room treasure trove, appropriately located smack in the middle of California's wine country, in the heart of downtown Healdsburg. A rich repository of both historic and up-to-the-minute information on wines and the wine industries of the world, this 11-year-old institution, occupying a wing of the town's public library, has built an international reputation, resulting in hundreds of requests annually. Among Eastman's chores is tending to the countless daily calls from around the globe, fielding questions on everything from the chemical makeup of certain libations to who does the hiring at which wineries.

"We get a lot of heavy-duty questions. We had a call from Francis Ford Coppola once," Eastman recalls. "He was about to direct the movie Dracula, and he needed to see a picture of a 19th-century Hungarian wine bottle. We told him that the count probably wouldn't have been drinking Hungarian wine. He'd have had French wine, since he was a bit of a snob." Nevertheless, Eastman located the picture.

The Sonoma County Wine Library is the potent brainchild of Alexander Valley writer Millie Howie. While working as a publicist at the Geyser Peak Winery, she was given the task of developing ways to educate the public's viticultural palate and to simultaneously sing the praises of Sonoma County wines. Howie had already developed an extensive personal library and had accumulated thousands of clippings on wine-related topics.

"The idea of a public-access wine library seemed like a natural," she explains by phone. "There were already two notable collections of wine information at that time--the wine industry research library at UC Davis, and a fine but limited collection in Napa, at the city library in St. Helena. We decided that we wanted a world-class wine library. We wanted it to serve the local industry, as well as to help agricultural students, wine connoisseurs, whomever."

To raise money for the project, the Wine Library Association was formed. After a series of fundraisers put money in their coffers, Howie and company began acquiring books. They were able to purchase an extensive collection that was put up for sale by the Vintner Society of San Francisco, an impressive assemblage of 700 volumes in nine different languages, most of them dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Donations of smaller collections make up the rest of the library. Though a large number of the books and periodicals are not released from the premises, there are hundreds of titles that can be checked out with a library card.

"The Wine Library is an incredible, and somewhat odd, assortment of things," offers Bo Simons, its first official librarian. Though he's now moved on to another post, Simons' knowledge of the collection is impressive.

"There are a lot of the frou-frou, bibliographic treasures," he says, "The things you saw in the cases. But the bread and butter of the library are things that people use on a day-to-day basis: crush reports, statistical things, official methods of analysis. It's got the most complete source in print for descriptions of obscure French and German varieties of wine.

"The collection is often used by people who may have an interview at XYZ winery," he adds, "and maybe they want a little background to impress the human-relations folks. Then a lot of winemakers come in to check the wine-rating publications to see how their wines are doing. It's a very practical collection."

BACK AT THE LIBRARY, Eastman leads me over to a shelf opposite the glass cabinets. "My favorites are the oral histories," she says. "We've got transcripts of local winemakers from way back. Some of it is fascinating history." We browse the hardbound volumes a moment, then she unlocks another cabinet, displaying stacks of multicolored film canisters.

"Wine movies," she smiles. "We've got one of Vincent Price tasting wines, we've got various documentaries. There's even a rumor that one of these has Ronald Reagan drinking wine with the Playboy Bunnies--but I haven't found it yet."

A phone call summons Eastman away, and I am left alone to peruse the rest of the library. Among the circulatable books I am drawn to one titled Hic, Haec, Hock! by C. R. Benstead, published in London in 1934. The book is subtitled A Low Fellow's Grammar and Guide to Drinking, a Low Fellow Being Anyone Who Is Not a Connoisseur or a Teetotaler. In Chapter 4, "The Art of Drinking," there is a humorous description of what Benstead has termed "The Connoisseur's Technique: A finicky, squinting, Polly-I-have-toyed-and-kissed technique."

Returning the book to its appointed slot, I search the neighboring titles. Removing a book at random, The Aesthetics of the Greek Banquet: Images of Wine and Ritual, an innocent-looking 1990 text published by Princeton University Press, I open to a chapter titled "Drinking Games."

"Treated as bodies," I read, "Greek vases can be used as erotic partners, too."

Hmmm.

What follows are several lively illustrations, taken from urns made thousands of years ago of various randy and spectacularly well-endowed Greeks pleasuring themselves with wine bottles, some of which are equipped with vase-stands in the shape of male genitalia. One illustration is devoted solely to demonstrating the dual-use function of such a device.

Apparently the ancient Greeks were not the "Polly-I-have-toyed-and-kissed" type.

"Finding anything interesting?" Eastman asks, returning from her call.

"Oh, just Greek drinking practices," I reply, quickly tucking the book away.

"I have one more thing to show you," she says. "I think this is the most charming thing." She locates a row of loosely bound county records, each wrapped in paper and encased in a cardboard slip. "These are the records of who was growing what grape, what town their farm was in, dated all the way back to the turn of the century."

She opens the book, exposing a roster of hundreds of winemakers and vineyard owners, almost all of them running small family-owned operations. She runs her finger down the list.

"It's amazing to see all these names," she says. "A lot of them are people no one has thought of in years. Most of them were wiped out during Prohibition." She returns the book to its place. "Sometimes someone will come in and say their grandfather owned such and such a vineyard, and want to see some record of them.

"If for no other reason than that," she smiles, "I'm glad this library is here."

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From the December 12-18, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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