Ephemera Road Trip: Books from the Napa Wine Library

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The Robert Louis Stevenson Silverado Museum in Mount St. Helena—the town Stevenson dubbed the Mont Blanc of this region—was closed the day we came, but we got a sweetener: the Napa Valley Wine Collection in the public library next door was giving away free books. The collection, initiated by foodies James Beard and MFK Fisher in the early 1960s, has 650 books, 19 wine-related periodicals, and tons of pamphlets and booklets.

Like all libraries, this one has to de-accession their stuff sometime, and we were some of the lucky recipients. Near the restrooms of this beautifully appointed place, its picture windows overlooking the hilly vineyards, we came upon several shelves of pretty quirky, but lovely throwaways, including Home Brewed Wines and Unfermented Beverages by Anne Amateur, 1921; Whitbread’s Brewery, 1951; an odd number called Melrose, Honey of Roses, by Stirling Graham, 1942, produced by its manufacturer Records and Goldsborough; and the Schenley company’s 1939 Deco-ish Wine Without Frills.

The last lists no author but does name its designer, Joseph Binder: it has sophisticated little illustrations on the tops and bottoms of its alternately blue and white pages, like the one above for the section on Dubonnet. Gents in tuxedos and workers harvesting grapes waltz through this little gem.

Whitbread’s Brewery, produced by Adprint, details the founding in the late 18th century of the brewery, with some terrific reproductions of oil paintings and lithographs. The Melrose book has elaborate script heads and language to match: “It takes five to six months before a ‘batch’ of blended whiskies is pronounced perfect—which true Melrose whiskey, Honey of Roses, nectar of the gods, undisputedly is.”

And the Home Brewed Wines book, on the back of which Fowler’s Bottling Outfits has chosen to advertise, and which includes recipes for linseed and “liquorice” tea, and “toast water,” lists other little booklets the reader can order, including Practical Cavy-Keeping, with a chapter on the “Profitable Breeding of Fancy Mice.”

In San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a cavernous science museum, we came across some wonderful visual candy, like the one below: a sign constructed of small pieces of painted wood. Looked at straight on, it’s a kind of cool, if puzzling, objet d’art; from another angle, it proclaims its purpose: NEGATIVE SPACE. Yaroslav Malev, a young “explainer” at the museum, says it’s all about the lighting and the way our eyes work.

On display nearby, a storefront labeled “Optica Moderna” features a window chockfull of perceptual jokes, like a reverse eye chart (see below). The storefront is based on a photo called “Optical Parable” included in the exhibit by the Mexican artist Manuel Alvarez Bravo, in which all the printing on the store is in reverse, making the optician’s shop, ironically, much more difficult for the perceiver to identify.