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Sonoma County Wine Library a Haven for History Buffs

The Sonoma County Wine Library doesn’t serve wine. But don’t let that stop you from a detour to this fascinating archive of wine history.

Millie Howie blamed the moon for convincing her to move to Sonoma County.

It was the mid-1970s, and the publicist and wine writer was about to head home after an event at Geyser Peak Winery. As she made her way across the parking lot, her gaze lingered on the expansive view of Alexander Valley at dusk.

“I stopped and turned to get into my car, and the moon came up like a jack-in-the-box,” Howie recalled in an oral history recorded by the Sonoma County Wine Library in 2004. “It was the golden harvest moon … and it was perfectly round and enormous. I said, ‘Yup, this is where I’ve got to live.’”

Over the next 30 years, Howie became one of the most passionate promoters of the Sonoma County wine industry: the region’s first wine publicist, co-founder of the Wine Road, creator of the first Sonoma County wine map, curator of wine history and prolific wine writer.

But perhaps Howie’s greatest achievement was the Sonoma County Wine Library, which she envisioned and fundraised for over the span of 20 years.

Millie Howie, pictured at home. (Sonoma County Wine Library Collection)

“Millie was the spark plug and the driver of the wine library,” said Jan Mettler, Howie’s former mentee and retired co-founder of Boss Dog Marketing. “She loved the rich history of Sonoma County’s farm families and wanted to preserve the region’s agricultural roots. She wanted to create something for the greater community.”

What is the Sonoma County Wine Library?

Dedicated in 1989, the Sonoma County Wine Library doesn’t serve wine. But don’t let that stop you from a detour to this fascinating archive of wine history.

Located at the Healdsburg branch of the Sonoma County Library, the wine library’s collection features 5,000 wine books, including 1,000 that are rare, and one astonishing tome dating to 1514.

You’ll also find a generous collection of historical wine ephemera, local wine artifacts and a glut of historic photos, maps and posters. The library carries current subscriptions to 40 wine periodicals and trade publications and plenty of current research material.

A bottle of 1935 zinfandel from Simi Winery in a collection of vintage wine bottles at the Sonoma County Wine Library in Healdsburg. (Beth Schlanker/The Press Democrat)

However, perhaps the library’s most valuable collection is Howie’s brainchild: a compendium of 26 oral histories with Sonoma wine industry pioneers like Davis Bynum, Merry Edwards, Saralee and Richard Kunde, Mike Tedeschi and Howie herself. (You can find physical copies of the transcribed interviews in the library and digital copies online at digital.sonomalibrary.org.)

“All it takes is one generation to lose historical information about your family or an industry,” said Jeff Davis, the Sonoma County Wine Library Association’s oral history chair. “These oral histories are important to preserving Sonoma County’s wine history and making the information available to the public.”

In 2018, Davis began producing “visual oral histories,” or video interviews, for added engagement and insight. So far he’s captured interviews with wine industry icons Helen Bacigalupi, Jim Pedroncelli, Joe and Tom Rochioli, Gary Heck and others.

Premiere screenings of the interviews serve as fundraisers for the wine library association and include a Q&A with the guest. The next event is scheduled for June 9 with Hank and Linda Wetzel of Alexander Valley Vineyards. (Tickets are available online at sonomawinelibraryassn.org/events.)

“The 30- to 45-minute visual oral histories appeal to a younger generation who wants information quickly,” said Julie Pedroncelli, board president of the Sonoma County Wine Library Association. “Video is a format they understand, and that’s one of the main reasons we’re doing this.”

Bookplate for Libri de rustica. Dating to 1514, Libri de re rustica is the oldest book at the Sonoma County Wine Library. Author is Cato, Marcus Porcius, 234 B.C.-149 B.C. (Sonoma County Wine Library Collection)

A new generation

Compelling a young adult audience to visit and use a brick-and-mortar library is not a new challenge. So Peg Champion, the Sonoma County Wine Library Association’s media manager, is turning to local colleges and universities for help.

“We’re lucky there are so many wine studies programs in our area,” Champion said. “An internship program would be a great way for the library to connect with a younger audience who can carry on our work.”

But the legacy of the Sonoma County Wine Library doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of younger generations.

“We have a vision for the future of the library and need the community’s support,” Champion said. “The library is a key component of wine history overall, not just in Sonoma County. We have an incredible resource in our community, and we want to expand our reach, educate students and continue to grow our treasure trove of information.”

Howie’s legacy

Howie, who died in 2011, remains an integral part of the Sonoma County wine history she fought to preserve.

This June, on the 100th anniversary of Howie’s birth, the Sonoma County Wine Library Association will celebrate her legacy by launching the Millie Howie Century Fund, a campaign to enlist new members and gain financial support for library services.

“Many people don’t even know there is a Sonoma County Wine Library, and our biggest challenge comes down to spreading that information,” Champion said. “There is history embedded in every rock and every brick in Sonoma County. We just want to share that with the greater community.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com.

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