Famed photojournalist George Rose’s new book a ‘love letter to Sonoma County’

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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.

Quieter life

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.

Boyish face

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.

Rose documents the changing skies, a single sentinel oak on Geysers Road in Alexander Valley as it takes on a dramatically different look with each season. He shows the moon over harvest, the buttery flush of mustard in the spring, a zinfandel bud breaking at Piccetti Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley and ladybugs mating in spring.

“I also like happenstance,” he said. “Just coming into a vineyard cold yields some really beautiful images.”

At a time when conventional publishing is shrinking, Rose opted to create his own coffee table book, one he calls, “My love letter to Sonoma County — a 25-year love letter.”

Ten years ago the Berkeley-based Ten Speed Press published an anthology of his work, “Hollywood, Beverly Hills & Other Perversities,” photos shot while he was covering pop culture for the L.A. Times from 1977 to 1983. Tinseltown is an easy sell and the roster of celebrities captured by Rose’s shutter included the glitziest of the crazed disco era, from Freddy Mercury and Keith Richards to John Travolta and Truman Capote.

Around the same time, Rose also published through Chronicle Books, “The Art of Terroir: a Portrait of California Vineyards,” similar, but much smaller than the sweeping photography of “Vineyard Sonoma County.”

New avenues

But the global economic collapse and the explosion of the Internet, which opened new avenues for writers and photographers to get their work out, transformed the publishing landscape.

“The business of publishing is dead. Unless you’re Oprah Winfrey or Danielle Steel, nobody is going to publish your book,” he lamented.

But neither did he want to put it on Amazon where competition and resales would rapidly push the price down to $10. Measuring 11 by 14 inches, it is five pounds of almost frameable art — some photos are “double trucks” taking up two pages.

So Rose self-published with support from the Sonoma County Winegrowers, Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Tourism, as well as American AgCredit, Benovia Winery, Flanagan Wines, Gallo Family Wines, Jackson Family Wines and Rodney Strong Vineyards.

“After the book is paid for by all the various sponsors and the people who bought multiple copies of the book in advance,” he said, “then I can sell them on my website, cutting out the middle man and the distribution channels.” The book is available for $80 at Georgerose.com.

Despite the sponsorship, he maintains there is no branding in the book.

“There are a number of well-known vineyards that are owned by some of the people who are my sponsors, like Rodney Strong and Gallo’s MacMurray Ranch. That’s hard to avoid. These vineyards are some of the mainstays of Sonoma County,” he said. “But I was very lucky to be able to produce this book in such a way that would not offend anyone. It’s art for art’s sake.”

For years Rose did communications and public relations for a succession of some of the leading wineries in the North Coast, first with Fetzer Vineyards and later for Kendall-Jackson, J Vineyards and Winery and Allied Domecq Wines USA. More recently he’s been a free agent, doing contract work for a number vineyards and wineries and groups, including the Sonoma County Wine Growers. He lives in Santa Barbara now to be closer to his wife’s family, but he spends up to half the month in Sonoma County shooting.

Diverse terroir

Working for Allied Domecq out of Healdsburg, he had the opportunity to visit many of the top wine growing regions of the world. What sets Sonoma County apart, he maintains, is the diversity.

“We have unbelievably diverse terroir in Sonoma County, from the mountains to the laguna to the ocean. We also have a really diverse climate and soil types, and the quality of the grapes are second to none.”

The cover of the book graphically underscores that message — arches of green vines at Flowers Vineyards, illuminated by the first light of day and set against a sweep of evergreens with the fog-covered Pacific Ocean beyond and fuchsia-tinged sky overhead. Where else are you going to find vineyards with ocean views?

“You grab that pink light and it lasts only for a few seconds or maybe a minute or two. But to have that vineyard in the foreground illuminated just by the ambient light? Sometimes it’s just luck. Sometimes it’s positioning and luck,” he said. “But there’s a certain degree of planning when you want to be there.”

As a photojournalist, Rose worked his way up the old school way, getting a foot in the door after finishing community college, serving as a copy messenger and later photographer at his hometown paper, The Pomona Progress Bulletin and then as a staff photographer at the nearby Claremont Courier. His interest in photography was lit when his brother, serving in Vietnam, sent him an early generation Minolta single lens reflex camera. Rose took easily to the craft, and moved up to the Louisville Courier-Journal. Six months later the L.A. Times recruited him away and he found himself at 24, developing a niche as a crack shot on the rock and roll scene. He parlayed relationships with publicists and managers into the magic access that made for great pictures, more than 40 of which are part of the permanent collection in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum.

But when asked to name one of his most memorable shots, it’s not traveling on the bus with Tom Petty or shooting Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen. It’s the moment when, after slogging around the western U.S. with Queen Elizabeth amid the El Nino downpours of 1983, he captured the prim monarch, with her feathered hat and handbag, standing incongruously amid the rugged grandeur of Yosemite.

“It was,” he recalls, “like a tableau from heaven.”

Rose spent several hours observing the legendary portrait photography of Richard Avedon at work in the mid ‘70s, and wound up borrowing his signature blank backdrop to photograph for the L.A. Times editorial pages, a series of Pulitzer-nominated portraits of the 1980 presidential candidates, including Ronald Reagan and Ted Kennedy.

Adams influence

The other photographer who had great influence on his photography was Ansel Adams.

“I managed to rub elbows with him on multiple occasions up in Yosemite and at his home in Carmel and I loved watching him work...how he wasn’t just seeing things as a thing but as light. Everything was light.”

As a journalist, Rose has done it all, covering everything from political conventions to natural disasters to the Academy Awards. He also spent 14 years as a photographer for the National Football League and for several years in the 1980s, tried his hand at publishing his own newspaper, walking away from the glamor of L.A. to become co-owner of the counter-cultural, “Mendocino Grapevine.”

“Early on I realized every time you wrote about marijuana the circulation would just jump. That also was the time when the federal government decided to start confiscating property. There were multiple shootouts and raids on marijuana gardens. It was the wild west up here,” he recalled.

He also covered the fledgling wine industry, and that was what led him to a friendship with the Fetzer family, and eventually an offer to do public relations for them, several years after he sold the paper to the late Bay Area newspaper mogul Dean Lesher.

“I never in a million years thought I had a 20-plus-year career ahead of me in the wine business,” he said. “I was just a good old gumshoe journalist that went from story to story. It really was a complete detour into something that was very different and very rewarding.”

No Photoshop

Even though he’s been shooting digitally for 15 years, he still clings to the journalistic ethos of photographic honesty. He doesn’t use Photoshop. He doesn’t even use filters, although he may do some fine tuning to achieve the brightness, the crispness and clarity that is a signature of his work, without straying from what he remembers visually from the moment he cocked the shutter.

“I view the digital image almost the same way I used to view black and white negatives, in that I’ve captured everything I need to capture on that negative,” he said.

So what is the perfect moment in a vineyard?

“It is that moment on an early August morning, 6:15 a.m. generally, give or take a few minutes, before the sun comes up behind Mount St. Helena. You’re in this vineyard overlooking the Alexander Valley and you can see into Knight’s Valley. It’s that moment when everything turns kind of pink and then orange and then this burst of sunlight pops over the mountain.”

The book was already completed and officially published in the middle of the raging firestorms of October. Rose wound up combing the peripheries photographing vineyards as flames and smoke made their way over the mountains. But he said he resisted any old urges to turn into newspaperman mode.

The last photograph in the book poignantly is a shot from Paradise Ridge on a glorious evening at sunset, before the burn. The winery’s iconic LOVE sculpture, which would survive the fire and become a symbol of the community’s resilience, is lit up. In the distance are the lights of Coffey Park.

“I had no idea,” Rose said, “That that image was going to be representative of the fire, and people pulling together.”

He said he will donating some of the profits of the book to the Sonoma County Grape Grower Foundation to help support vineyard workers displaced by the fires.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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