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Sonoma Portworks winemaker doubles as storyteller

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“The whole idea of storytelling has always been very appealing to me,” says full-time winemaker and part-time storyteller Bill Reading.

Reading, founder of Sonoma Portworks, smiles as he adds, “I think I’ve been interested in the power of stories even longer than I’ve been making wine.”

It’s been 22 years since Sonoma-resident Reading founded his small port-making operation, inspired by the idea of creating new kinds of dessert wines, blending ingredients in nontraditional ways to make an array of high-grade ports, sherries and other aperitifs.

The storytelling part came later, and – as is often the case in a well-told yarn – it was almost an accident.

But first, there are the ports.

“There’s something that happens with this one that you’re not going to find in other fortified wines of this kind,” Reading describes, allowing a visitor to taste a new tawny port that has not been officially released. Portworks wines are available at a number of Valley stores, and through the company’s website.

The very first Portworks release, and still its most popular, is Deco, a blend of petit syrah, zinfandel and dark chocolate. It was followed by Duet, a rich amber sherry with extract of hazelnut, and a number of other delectably extravagant concoctions, including a number of high-end grappas, one of which – exuberantly titled “Fig ‘n Awesome” – which is made using California figs.

Like a cross between a mad scientist, a carnival barker and some calm, soft-spoken clone of Willy Wonka, Reading is the perfect spokesperson for the elaborate, gorgeously bottled and entertainingly named port wines he makes at his Petaluma-based production facility and tasting room. Though founded in Sonoma, where the wines were originally produced – and where he maintained a tasting room until just over a year ago – Reading has been doing the bulk of his production in a compact space he moved to over a decade ago, located at the edge of the gentrifying Petaluma “warehouse district.”

Fortunately, amongst Reading’s many other skills is his knack for building things. He designed and assembled just about everything in the room to be fully portable – the counters, the wine racks, the display tables, even the wall of wine casks adorned with ribbons and awards from dozens of wine competitions. All of it is on wheels.

During harvest and crush, the entire tasting room is disassembled pushed up against the walls to open up enough space for the large job of crushing grapes.

“During harvest, we have to bring half-ton bins of grapes in here,” says Reading. “We crush up to eight tons of grapes, which is small for most wineries, but for us is a lot. So during harvest, we use every bit of this space. This is the same space, of course, where Dave comes in with his monthly storytelling events.”

That would be Dave Pokorny, the founder of West Side Stories, a once-a-month “story slam” in the style of the “Moth Radio Hour” on NPR. A former stand-up comic, Pokorny, and his wife Juliet, a one-time producer at Pixar, created the monthly story-swap several years ago, initially staging it in a storefront art gallery downtown. Over the years, they have grown it into one of the most well attended theatrical events in the North Bay, selling out every show for the last three years. That was when they moved the program to Sonoma Portworks.

“My wife and I attended a performance of West Side Stories when it was still at the art gallery,” Reading says. “After the show, we learned that that would be the last time they held it there because the gallery was closing. I said, ‘I have a space you could probably use,’ and the next month, West Side Stories became a regular part of Sonoma Portworks.”

Though hardly a large space, Reading and Pokorny discovered that 80 chairs could be squeezed into the place, once all the furniture is rolled out of the way.

“It’s been such an amazing home for this kind of storytelling show,” Pokorny says, attributing much of West Side Story’s enduring success to the unique industrial atmosphere of the place. “These are true stories,” he said, “told by people whose names are basically drawn out of a hat. They have five minutes to tell a story, and then a winner is chosen at the end of the night.”

For the first few months, Reading was content to merely watch the show, but eventually, he couldn’t resist the urge to throw his own name out as a possible participant.

“Bill has become one of our regular performers,” says Pokorny, “one of those storytellers that brings something a little special and different to the proceedings. He’s got a very dry sense of humor, and he doesn’t waste a lot of energy moving around. He just stands there and tells these amazing stories.”

Last year, Reading was chosen as the winner not once, but twice, which meant he was invited to participate in West Side Story’s all-star Grand Slam show.

“I get to make my wines, enjoy watching how much people enjoy them, and once a month, I get to show a different side of myself, stand in the spotlight a little,” says Reading. “That’s a lot of fun.”

West Side Stories takes place the first Wednesday of every month, at Sonoma Portworks, 613 Second St., Petaluma. Visit westsidestoriespetaluma.com for tickets, or visit port works.com.

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