The ‘Grade-School Play’ Concept of Writing Wine Books

People in Traverse City don’t seem to understand the ‘grade-school play’ concept, at least when it comes to wine books.

Take the main branch of the Traverse City Library on Woodmere.  Please.

coverOn Wednesday, I made my dutiful, semi-annual trip to the Cherry Capital of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxy Groups to flog copies of Heart and Soil: Northern Michigan Wine Country to the very citizens about whom I spent a year-long tour-of-duty chronicling in order to promote the wine industry in my home state—at a time when they suffered two shitty harvests in a row.

Now, book in print, copies in tow,  I sought to place said chronicle into various tasting rooms and book stores throughout the subject terroir in order to bring to the huddled, thirsty masses the easily digested details of the characters and quirks of a fascinating wine region perched on the far edge of viticultural sanity.

Heart and Soil is a commercial proposition, for sure, although not a particularly good one as it turns out.  Even so, I am willing to split proceeds equally with all and sundry willing to offer the book in their venues.  I place copies with them on consignment, and after manufacturing costs (about five dollars each) I split profits with the seller down the middle —but require nothing until the books are sold.   Zip.

With the Woodmere Library, it was a different deal: I donated several copes of Heart and Soil so that little Johnny and Suzie Q. Public could borrow the book gratis (that’s how libraries work, right?) and learn for free about all the zany, crackhead-quality  lunatics pioneers who choose the Great White North, of all places, to plant their Cabernet vines. Whereupon, I was informed that the library reserves the right to either shelve the book literally or shelve it figuratively by selling it at a ‘Friends of Books’ sale.

In other words, my goal is to give the library free books so that over the years hordes of Traverse City-ites can shore up their knowledge of local lore in the grand and noble tradition of the bibliotheca, and that venerable institution informs me that instead, they may turn my magnanimity into their own paltry profit game so that a lone TC plug-ugly may—or may not— benefit from the book.

How do you say ‘Blow Me’ in Dewey Decimal?

Or take Lee Lutes, winemaker extraordinaire, co-owner and producer at Black Star Farms, to whom I turned over an entire chapter of Heart and Soil.   He offered me one of the most creative excuses I have yet heard for dodging the chance to offer my delightful tome at his sprawling gift shop/tasting room, which is about the size of a grade-school auditorium:  He already has ‘too many’ books to sell.

Really?  Riddle me this, Lee:  How many of them are about you??  I don’t recall pointing out in the numerous individual columns I have written about you over the years that there are approximately 10,000 wineries in the world that would enjoy focused, detailed, well-thought out coverage of their mission statements, yet, being a Michigan boy, I keep writing about you, over and over and over.

See, that’s the core of what I don’t get.  All of these winemakers carp and bellyache ad nauseum that they don’t get enough respect from the wine world; that they are overlooked in wine directories and pooh-poohed by a cognoscenti that really doesn’t understand how one can grow vinifera on Pluto.  Yet, when a volunteer steps to the plate and explains in excruciating-but-loving detail precisely how, precisely where and precisely who pulls off this viticultural triumph, the idea that those very winemakers are supposed to promote their own glowing portraits seems to have gone over their heads like an F/A-18 Hornet at the Cherry Festival Airshow.

Case in point: Last year I did a book signing at Horizon Books, one of the good eggs who carries copies of Heart and Soil.  Although every single winemaker whose oft-extensive stories I gladly told in the book lives and works within ten miles of Horizon Books, do you know how many showed up to pump a little fist at their own biographies? Here’s a hint:  Greater than negative one and less than positive one.

How do you say ‘Bite Me’ in academic?

The Grade-School Play Concept…

Here’s how it works.  Sixth graders at William Pudd Elementary put on an extremely off-Broadway version of  ‘A Christmas Mouse’ by Susan Vesey, which lasts about an hour and has roles for nearly every kid in class, including the chorus.  They rehearse the musical for weeks, memorize their lines, are coached by their teacher into hitting at least two out of every four notes in the songs, and they do all this not because the public is pining for another interpretation of ‘A Christmas Mouse’, but because everyone—kids, teachers, administrators and janitors—are irrevocably certain of one fact:  On the night of the performance…

The parents will all show up to watch.

sidway-play2-2-06-eAnd probably the grandparents, the brothers and sisters, the aunts and uncles, etc., etc., and thus, the concept is self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling, the auditorium is filled to the brim and the niggling buck or two they charge for tickets will cover expenses, like royalties to Susan Vesey, who (trust me here) is not retiring on ‘A Christmas Mouse’.

It is win/win because the kids are proud, the parents are proud, the community is served and everybody goes home and eats happy ice cream with jubilant sprinkles and positive sauce.

On the other hand, if the parents don’t show up—and know in advance that this will never happen—the entire idea of the grade-school play goes the route of Pink Catawba wine and winds up in the dusty archives of the William Pudd Elementary library.

So, when you transfer this very basic principal of mutual back-scratching and supporting-your-own to writing wine books, you can easily see that when the very people the book is for and about don’t do their part on opening night, those of us who write wine books are flummoxed by what, exactly, is expected of us.

When  hearts and souls and pocketbooks are frozen as hard and solid as Lake Leelanau in January, maybe it’s time to give up the eno-scribbling start and writing grade-school plays.  Wonder if there’d be a market for a story with a local angle; a sixth grade version of the Calumet Massacre of 1919 during which the denizens of a small Michigan town were locked inside an auditorium and burnt to cinders.

Too bitchy?  I know, right?

Okay, so I’ll do ‘A Christmas Mouse II: A Stake of Holly Through The Heart’.  Coming soon to a book store, tasting room, and/or grade school stage near you.  Be there or be predictable.

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