CWI on Tour

I am delighted to be back on home turf for a few weeks, promoting Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers and hanging out with my family.

Here’s a few snapshots from the journey so far..


How To Be Creative: Vino y Co

Creativity isn’t the exclusive privilege of so-called creative professions. You can be a creative retailer, waiter, mechanic, teacher, or botanist.

To see this in action, step inside the sliding glass doors of Vino y Co in Sant Jordi, Ibiza. Behind the counter are the shop’s yin and yang: Jeroen Hamersma and daughter Rosa. He sports Cuban shirts and black-rimmed specs that snap together at the front; thick dark hair styled in a wind-tunnel. She is cool and elegant, with freckles and a showstopping smile.

Rosa & Jeroen

Rosa & Jeroen

Jeroen got into wine thanks to his brother Harold, one of the Netherland’s top wine critics. Indulging his interest wasn’t easy after he and his family moved to Ibiza, so he started shipping over the odd pallet for personal consumption. Friends asked for bottles, then cases. In 2009 Jeroen went pro and opened Vino y Co. Later persuading Rosa, a successful print designer in London, to return home and become a partner.

Rosa and her dad prove creativity is about how you do what you do. Invest your work with Curiosity, Relationships, Ethos, Aesthetic, Time, Integrity, Value, and Expertise and it will be creative.

Curiosity: Amidst the shop’s wall of white wine is a book nook. Among them, cloth-bound wine almanacs Jeroen bought in the ’80s in Amsterdam. He read, bought and drank teaching himself vintage, varietals and terroir. These days a laptop sits on the shop counter, poised to answer arcane questions about anything from geology to recipes.

Jeroen and friends

Jeroen & friends

Relationships: “Wine sellers are story-tellers,” is one of Rosa and Jeroen’s favourite sayings. Like all good story-tellers, they are adept at making relationships between people, places, and things. Jeroen can take someone looking for “Rioja, I guess” and deftly connect them something they would have never thought to try. Rosa can glance at a bottle and tell you what restaurant will sell it, who will order it and what they’ll eat.

Ethos: A wine shop is a wine shop, unless it’s
Vino y Co. Then it’s a crusade. Jeroen and Rosa’s passion is fruit-driven, expressive wine made by inventive, idiosyncratic, often downright eccentric oenologists. It’s what they drink, buy, sell, and tirelessly promote. They scorn drinking (much less buying) wine based on fashion or reputation.

Aesthetic: Vino y Co is part of an anonymous retail strip on a busy road. But inside is a chapel. Its rosé collection is shelved along the all-glass shopfront, turning it into a glorious stained-glass wall of wine. The zinc-topped counter is faced with wood Jeroen salvaged from packing crates. Tables run lengthwise between shelves of wine, artfully arrayed with books and bottles.


Time: It took 25 years for Jeroen’s oenophilia to blossom into a business,and Vino y Co is the better for slow ripening. You feel it when you step inside: they are efficient but not hasty, prompt without rushing. Jeroen can talk for hours to curious customers; Rosa doesn’t begrudge gift-wrapping or pouring lemonade for kids while their parents browse.

Integrity: Vino y Co operates at a level of transparency rare on an island whose operational principle is that corners were made to be cut. It is over-the-counter, on-the-books legit. “That’s how I do business,” Jeroen says. Integrity is essential to creativity. Without it, creation lapse into imitation.

vino 8
Value: After tasting a superb Casa Cesilia Sauvignon Blanc-Macabeo I checked the price – seven Euros and change. The memorable Gran Cerdo Rioja is about six-fifty. Fabulous Suriol Cava is under a tenner. They could charge more but their priority is to make good wine accessible, and win repeat business. Properly valued work is an excellent way to earn both respect and a living.

Expertise: It is hard to leave Vino y Co as ignorant as you arrived. In the course of a few casual visits I sample Spain’s rising-star grape (Mencía), learn about native fermentation, and discover what ‘sans dosage’ means on a Champagne label. Rosa and Jeroen are equally adroit with restaurant recommendations, saké lore, island gossip, politics, geography, travel, books, design, and fashion. This is the stamp of a creative: never bored and never boring.

Vino y Co
Address: Carretera Ibiza-Sant Josep, 60 (km 1.6, Can Bellotera)
Phone: +34 971 305 324
Opening hours: M-F: 10:00-14:00, 17:00-20:00, Sat 10:00-14:00, Sun closed



How to Write Non-Fiction, Step Two: Plan and Research

Topic in hand, you’re ready for the next phase of writing your book: planning and research.

Before you begin go back to Step One: Choosing Your Topic and review this bit:

1) What kind of book do you want to write?
2) What research will you have to do? (e.g. What’s the gap between what you know and what you want to write?)
3) How much time do you want to devote to it?
4) What are your constraints?

These questions shape your research agenda. They will help you figure out what you need to know and who you’re going to ask.

In the case of Oregon Wine Pioneers my primary source was winemakers. I had to figure out who I was going to interview, why, where and when. My brother and I put our heads together and started making a list.
He’d had a nice bottle from A to Z Wineworks, so they went on the list. Plum Hill is a family favourite. I’d already interviewed the owner of Abacela for a different project. I went to Willamette Wines and made a list of potential subjects.
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Don’t get too hung up on a particular angle, subject, or idea at this point. My initial contact list was probably 40 wineries. Of those, maybe 25 responded. In the end, I interviewed and wrote about 15 of them. Some people I contacted were enthusiastic then stopped answering emails; others were initially aloof but wound up being great subjects.

Depending on the project your primary research focus may be people, books, newspapers, archives, websites, films, police blotters, or YouTube videos. For each source or type of research consider the following:

1. Access: Is the information you need accessible in your area? Your language? Is it confidential?
2. Cost: Phone bills, gas money, subscription fees, printing/copying costs, buying equipment e.g. software, camera, etc
3. Time constraints: What’s your deadline? Is your topic time-sensitive? Are you limited by your work/travel schedule? Is certain information only available at certain times (for example, do you have to attend an event?)

For Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers my access was determined by the willingness of my participants, so that was straight-forward. Other resources such as existing Oregon wine and travel guides were available in the library or local book shops.

Costs included gas money, phone top-ups, office supplies, and sundries. The biggest expense was a high-grade Sony digital camera to ensure we’d have book-quality photos.

And I was working against the clock: with just six weeks in Oregon I had to schedule my interviews as efficiently as possible. This meant visiting adjoining wineries on the same day, in some cases.

Once you identify your access, cost and time constraints all that’s left to do is research.

You want to have more information than you “need” (remember what Hemingway said about the iceberg) but you don’t want to get bogged down in detail. Here’s a few tips:

-Go into every interview or research session with a list of questions
-Take copious notes
-Use a voice recorder
-Take photos (they’re great memory prompts even if you don’t use them in the book)
-Label your notes/photos/etc (e.g. “Jean Smith interview, July 3 2015, recorded and saved as file ‘JSmith 3/7’)
-Collect additional material (maps, brochures, clippings, ticket stubs, etc) in a file folders
-Gather everything that seems interesting and relevant (within reason) — you can edit later

Good luck! Share your research tips in the comments.


How To Write Non-Fiction, Step One: Choose Your Topic

Welcome to Step One of the Five Step Guide to Writing Non-fiction

You want to write a book. Great. About what?

Topic is the rocket booster of a non-fiction project. Get it right, and you fly merrily into orbit. Get it wrong and you’ll either fall flat or blow up, scattering fragments of your ego across a zone the size of Arizona.
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Step I
Choosing a topic, like writing, is a process. Nobody can do it for you* but there are strategies that help.

Above all, remember the Tripartite Rule of Topic Choice:
Write about something you: A) know a little bit about, B) want to learn more about and C) isn’t you

To illustrate points A & B, I’ll explain the origin of Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers.

I’m sprawled in the cool, beige leather interior of my brother’s rental car, watching April-leafed chestnut trees pass as we drive through Southeast Portland. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other since his wedding last September. His new wife is in the passenger seat. Maybe the radio is playing.

“Hey, have you thought about writing a book?”

I mumble.

“You should write something about Oregon,” my brother says. “You’re from here.”

More mumbling (objections): I haven’t lived here for years. I don’t know that much about it. What would I write about anyway?

“Like, local food or something.”

Portland is the epicenter of hip Oregon. More kitsch eateries, craft breweries and ooh-la-la coffee shops than you can throw a pine cone at, so, okay. Let’s think.

Brother likes restaurants and beer. I, the writer, am coeliac and vegetarian which, in my view, eliminates way too many essentials. I’m not going to write about something I can’t fully participate in.

Clever brother circumvents my resistance: “What about wine?”

I love wine. “Don’t know much about it but hey, I can learn on the job.”

It helps to have a smart sibling, or similar interlocutor, to bat ideas around, but you can apply the principles of this example solo. My brother identified something I knew something about: Oregon. Knowledge doesn’t have to be based on intense study, or some arcane specialist skill. I was born in Oregon and lived there for 18-some years. Voila. Accidental expertise.

Make a list of your accidental expertises and what makes you an expert. Aim for, say, six. Here’s my sample list:

Oregon (birth)
Women (chromosomes)
Running (runner for over 20 years)
Nancy Drew mysteries (read dozens of them, dozens of times)
Living abroad (lived in Mexico, Spain, England, etc)
Writing (my job)

NB: See how broad these topics are? Unless you’re a rich masochist who plans to live to 120 don’t even think about it.

Next, brother and I broke it down to stuff we like: specialty food and drink. Still too broad.

Fortunately (for the purposes of this exercise) I’m a dietary fusspot. I can’t or won’t eat most things on a standard restaurant menu and my inability to digest gluten makes craft beer a no go. Which brought us to wine.

Wine fits part A of the Tripartite Rule. I like wine, drink it, read labels, have opinions, am familiar with the major wine growing regions of the world, and appreciate wine’s historic and cultural value.

Wine also fits part B, because there is a hell of a lot I don’t know about wine, and would love to find out.

Most importantly, wine passes C. It ain’t me; I’m not it.

The success of the Tripartite Rule depends on slavish obedience to part C. There should be, to borrow a line from Salinger, only very conditional passes allowed to write memoir. Yes, your life is fascinating, but the combination of self-awareness, discipline, distance and talent needed to turn emotional raw material into a polished product is as rare as dodo’s eggs. Be present in your topic through expertise and affinity (parts A and B) but don’t make it about you.

Step II

Once you have a provisional topic that fits the Tripartite Rule, refine it by considering the following practicalities.

1) What kind of book do you want to write?
2) What research will you have to do? (e.g. What’s the gap between what you know and what you want to write?)
3) How much time do you want to devote to it?
4) What are your constraints?
5) What else is on the market?

Initially, we thought about a travel guide to Oregon wine country. Nothing wrong with that, apart from the fact (3) I was only in Oregon for seven weeks, (2) I’m allergic to spending hours compiling boring information, and (5) there are several excellent Oregon wine guides on the market. I am also not a technical wine expert, so (4) writing a specialist book about viticulture or oenology was out.

Step III
After defining what you can’t/won’t/can’t afford to do, look at what you can do. This part of the decision making process is about you as a writer and a person.

Two key questions are: What is your writing experience? and What type of book you most enjoy A) writing and B) reading?

The answers will define and shape your book.

I like writing profiles and am a good interviewer. I like textual research. I am fine with emails or face-to-face conversations but hate phone calls. I have a passion for reportage based life-writing (George Orwell, Martha Gellhorn, Joan Didion). Etc.

These likes and dislikes led to a plan: Visit a selection of Oregon wineries and interview the owners/winemakers.

Step IV
That left brother and I with one crucial question: What is our book about? A book has to have an angle. A collection of profiles about Oregon wineries is just that: a collection of profiles. To justify a book we needed a unifying theme. Much conversation (and perhaps a little wine) later, we hit on “pioneering”. The beauty of it, for us, was that it serves so many purposes: we could talk about pioneering techniques, pioneering vintages, pioneering attitudes and so on. We didn’t know exactly how the theme would play out in the book until much later, but having that word in mind gave me the structure I needed to start.

This final step — the angle — is the hardest part of choosing a topic. You’re probably sick of the damn topic already (oh, just wait till you start writing!) Grit your teeth and think it through anyway. You need this. It’s your green light on the dock, the thing that keeps your project moving in the right direction.

Choosing a topic is tough but don’t get overwhelmed. If you’re going nuts trying to wrestle a raw idea into a workable topic, step back. Talk it over with a friend or two. Read stuff that is relevant to either to your putative topic and format. Go for a run, or whack the crap out of a punching bag. Get drunk (coffee works too, if you’re teetotal). Play around. Something will come or you’ll discover this isn’t the topic for you. Either way, be calm. We live in a world of infinite infinities — and one of them is yours to write about.

*Unless you’re a celebrity with a publisher waving an autobiography advance in your face; or a seasoned writer with a helpful editor. If you are, feel free to drop me a line. Be sure to include your agent’s mobile number.