Talking to Kelli White about her new book

One of the most important books to be published recently in the wine world is Kelli White’s Napa Valley Then & Now. We recommend acquiring a copy (you can do so here); it’s truly a ‘magnum opus’ and an enormous and enormously important reference guide for Napa Valley wines. Here’s a way to take a sneak peek into the book….

We sat down with Kelli to talk about the book, how she came to write it and other insights about the process.

Kelli A. White’s work as a sommelier, first at New York City’s Veritas and then at PRESS in St. Helena, has been covered by many of the wine industry’s top publications, including Food & Wine, Vinous, The Wine Advocate, The Wine Spectator, The San Francisco Chronicle, World of Fine Wine, and Forbes. In 2013 she was named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s top ten sommeliers in the country. Her writing has appeared in World of Fine Wine, Robb Report, Sommelier Journal, and Le Pan, and she is currently on staff at Antonio Galloni’s Vinous. In 2011, she co-founded a small wine brand, Houndstooth, with her fiancé Scott Brenner. They live in Napa Valley with their hound dog Lefty.

What surprised you the most as a first-time author?

This sounds incredibly foolish, but I was so focused on the making of the book, that I didn’t really think about the selling of it. I imagined that, as soon as it was finished, I would effectively be able to “move on” with my life. But books don’t just sell themselves, especially if you don’t have a household name. So it’s a good thing that I really enjoy talking about and crafting events around the book because that has been very time consuming.

I also didn’t appreciate the huge difference between publishing a book vs. publishing articles, from a public image point of view. I’ve been contributing articles for numerous magazines for years, but this was my first book. You definitely become a more public person, which has both positive and negative implications.

What was the most exciting or gratifying moment as you wrote the book and then see it published?

I dedicated the book to my mother, and she cried quite a bit when she saw that. That was a definite highlight.

Did you receive any negative feedback/reviews? How did you deal with that?

The whole review process has been an interesting psychological experience. The vast majority of the reviews have been positive, but– especially in the beginning– I would completely skim over the positive parts and dwell extensively on anything negative, no matter how slight. As the process wore on, I began to realize that you can’t please everyone. While some people would complain that there were no scores, for example, others would praise that; some would complain that the book was too expensive, while others would say it was a bargain for its size… time evened out all commentary, and eventually I trained myself to take the time to enjoy the praise.

In today’s world which is so online oriented, you’ve produced a 1,000+ page “real” book. Talk about that, why it’s important, meaningful, etc.

Prior to this book, I had written for both online and physical publications. While I love the immediacy and the dynamic nature of the online world, it was important for me to produce something that would still exist if the power went out. Plus, I truly hate googling things. When I want to know something, I enjoy the experience of thumbing through an index and looking up the answer to my question in an actual book. Call me old fashioned.

You describe wines in extremely lyrical detail. Have you had feedback from people who feel intimidated about “wine speak?” Please talk about that.

It was important to me that the writing in general, but the tasting notes in particular, feel warm and inviting. I think that my time as a sommelier has brought that home for me. People are easily discouraged, and I wanted them to feel excited and inspired. It can be a tough thing to balance– feeling excited and wanting to wax on about a wine, but not wanting to overwhelm a reader.

Did your “day job” at Press have an impact on the book, or was it an inspiration?

My day job was a huge inspiration, as a majority percentage of the tasting notes in the book were tasted at Press, and from its cellar. The cover image is of the cellar there, and the owner of the restaurant was the sponsor of the book.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Because I needed it. It was the book I wanted to have when moving to Napa from New York City. I knew relatively little about Napa (relative to other regions) and I wanted to study up prior to my arrival. I was more than a little surprised to discover that a wine region as highly regarded as Napa didn’t yet have a classic tome dedicated to its bounty. I turned that lack into an opportunity.

Talk about the research involved; were there any surprises as you handled that part of the writing?

The research was fascinating and really fun. Getting to know the various vintners of Napa was quite rewarding. In truth, when I arrived, I was expecting them all to be more formal and inaccessible but the reality was that the vast majority of them were incredibly warm and gracious. It was the first of many dispelled false notions…

You’ve literally traveled the world promoting the book, from Scandinavia to Japan to London, etc. Can you share any fun anecdotes about doing this traveling/promoting?

I have been shocked (and pleased!) at the overwhelmingly positive foreign reception, especially in Europe. Interestingly, the modern style of Napa wines has not necessarily connected with certain European drinkers, but the older vintages are very exciting to them. I did a really fantastic tasting of older Napa wines with a group of sommeliers from Stockholm. A couple of them attended reluctantly, but then came up afterwards and told me “I’ll never say I don’t like California wines every again.” That was a very nice feeling.

What advice would you give a prospective wine book author?

Be organized, stay focused, but don’t get lost in the project. Be sure to take days off and treat yourself well. Also– fact-checking is extremely important and so often botched. As someone who has been written about, nothing is more frustrating than a misquote or a bad fact. And once the book is out, learn from the criticism but don’t dwell on it; it’s hard to put yourself out there, so make sure you’re well-supported by those that love you.

Be yourself — bon voyage, Tom Magliozzi!

On a daily basis I see how important it is for a winery to distinguish itself. How are you different? What’s your personality? How do you express it? A few days ago I was honored to be in a brainstorming session with an excellent marketer about how to create memorable and unusual video tasting notes for his winery. This winery is ‘secure in its skin’ and knows that creativity—and attractive content—are so very important.

Here’s how this concept plays out. It’s not in a wine context; that might make it easier to see in action….

If you’re a fan of Click & Clack, you may already know. Tom (and Ray) Magliozzi were always themselves, even if it meant walking a line where they might alienate listeners. For them it was finding humor and then laughing raucously. Please take a sec to read Bob Collins’ tribute to Tom.

Tom Magliozzi's laugh boomed in NPR listeners' ears every week as he and his brother, Ray, bantered on Car Talk.

And then listen to the on-air wake for Tom.

Cin cin!

A Great PR Guy Is Gone — And Why It Matters

harveyImageHarvey Posert Jr. died on October 3 in St. Helena after a brief illness. At the age of 84, he’d lived many lifetimes, from a privileged childhood in Memphis to college at Yale to several years in military counter-intelligence in Europe. Then there were the phases of his career, from the copy desk at The Memphis Commercial Appeal to working for Dan Edelman in New York and San Francisco, before coming to wine country to represent Robert Mondavi and later Fred Franzia, as well as numerous others.

Harvey was a friend of mine for more than 25 years. I was both a professional colleague and a personal friend. By now you might have read articles about him which have appeared in The Wine Spectator, the Napa Valley Register, Napa Life and Wine Industry Insight. In the coming days there’ll be many more tributes, I’m sure.

Pardon the cliché: Harvey was the last of a breed, a giant among men—whether we’re talking about the wine industry or the world of wine PR. What does that mean? He was a thinker; he was also an enormously astute judge of character and personality; he was also someone who shaped our history as wine marketers. He literally created trends to shine a light on his clients.

You can read elsewhere about the specific programs he dreamt up and the numerous achievements of his career. Here are

10 Things I Learned From Harvey

1. Do The Work

Roll up your sleeves. Do the research. Write the materials. Be courteous to the client. Get the work out in a timely fashion.

2. Open Your Eyes

Read everything you can read. Talk to people. Be curious. It’s all ‘grist for the mill,’ the backbone of your creativity.

3. Every journalist matters

No one is too ‘little;’ if you identify yourself as a writer, you’re welcome in the tent.

4. Find the humor

Cultivate a big sense of humor. You can find it everywhere. It’s a leavening agent, a humanizing factor, a common denominator.

5. Standards

Be on time. Be courteous. Mind your manners. It matters.

6. Stay in touch

You never know when a writer will re-appear somewhere; never jettison a writer after having worked together, even if the outcome wasn’t what you wanted.

7. Be modest

PR people aren’t the story; the client is. Be present but don’t look for the limelight.

8. Don’t overestimate but don’t underestimate your audience.

A press release always has to include the obvious as well as the news.

9. Content IS “king”

Be known for your substance, for ideas and programs which have merit and meaning.

10. Niceness counts

Make sure you thank a writer once a story appears. Think of other gestures to express your appreciation. Be human.

How appropriate that Harvey suggested that donations to honor him go to The American Civil Liberties Union.