Although many travel writers may rely upon their role as “the outsider” for either a comedic or a dramatic crutch, the most valuable travelogues are the ones that can accurately portray the local point of view. After all, once the narrator becomes a character — rather than a conduit — the fundamental purpose of a travelogue can become muddled. The challenge, of course, is to provide enough detailed perspective to maintain interest and insight, without delving too much into the ordinary and mundane. In Steve Heimoff’s “A Wine Journey along the Russian River,” the author strikes a terrific balance between what we ought to know and what we want to know, delivering a compelling and informative narrative along the way.
Heimoff begins his book at the upper limits of Sonoma County, as he traces the Russian River’s southern descent into Alexander Valley. As “Wine Journey” develops, the text shifts comfortably back and forth between several topics, including history, geology, and of course, winemaking. As the river flows, so does the narrative: Heimoff explores the Russian River as it twists through Healdsburg, the Russian River Valley, and ultimately, the Sonoma Coast appellation. Each section of the river provides insight into a different set of varietals, with Heimoff discussing the relative strengths and weaknesses of each grape-growing region.
But even as the narrative manages to keep the reader engaged, the true merit of “Wine Journey” is in its research. Heimoff, who also serves as the West Coast Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, offers a book that addresses the really geeky wine questions, but with impressive clarity. The author’s explanation of Sonoma geology, for instance, is particularly strong, providing a concise history of the valley’s formation and development. Throughout the text, Heimoff seems to place as much focus on science as he does on scenery. From a vinophile’s perspective, “Wine Journey” is travel writing of the highest order.