A shorter version of this article was published on WashingtonPost.com on March 30, 2023. This version includes some anecdotes from my interview with George that didn’t make the shorter piece.
When social media algorithms take a break from pushing cleaning hacks, my feeds are awash in vineyard photos. Friends update their travels. Wineries tout new releases or chronicle the progress of a season. Sheep grazing on cover crops between vine rows in winter reassure me that a new vintage is coming soon. But as I scroll, my thumb always hovers when I see a photo by George Rose. I enlarge it to full screen, pinch out to zoom in, or move to a larger device so I can see the photo in a broader format and soak in every detail. A George Rose photo does not simply capture a snapshot in time, it reveals the essential character of a place.
Rose is a professional photographer who studied with Ansel Adams in the 1970s and played paparazzi to Hollywood stars (and Adams himself) for the Los Angeles Times. He worked a quarter century in winery public relations for Fetzer, Allied Domecq, Kendall-Jackson and J Vineyards — always with camera in tow — and now travels throughout California with camera and smartphone from his home base in Solvang, in Santa Barbara County wine country.
This winter’s wild weather in California has kept me dialed in on Rose’s feed, for photos of snowfall in Lake Tahoe, incoming blizzards in the Santa Ynez Valley, and rain showers in Death Valley. Some of those may eventually feature in his current project, a photo exploration of California’s relationship with water through drought, wildfires and now atmospheric rivers.
I reached out to Rose after he announced earlier this year that he had donated some 140,000 digital images he has photographed to the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin, where they will be available to historians and researchers interested in how the landscape of American culture and viticulture evolved throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries. About half those images relate to wine. I wanted to hear his personal perspective on how California wine had changed during his career, and how he viewed this change through his camera lens. We spoke over Zoom.
“I’m a terroir guy,” Rose told me right off the bat, as any self-respecting wine shutterbug should be. “I’m all about where the grapes are grown.” His interest in photographic terroir was sparked in the early 1990s, when he accompanied the LA Times wine writer Dan Berger on winery visits.
“George was the most inquisitive of all the photographers I worked with,” Berger recalls. “He was always wandering into places where I couldn’t imagine he would get much of anything, and he always came out with something creative.”
That creativity led to a photo book called “The Art of Terroir” and a few limited edition coffee-table books for Sonoma and Santa Barbara county wine regions, as well as steady work doing promotional calendars for wineries. He has also done work in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and British Columbia’s Okanagan wine region. He even owned and edited a newspaper in Mendocino County for a stretch.
Climate features prominently in all these features.
“The climate in California and elsewhere is intensifying,” Rose said. “The heat waves are hotter and longer, and this year is turning out to be a crazy year with the rainfall. It ended the drought in three weeks, and was ripe for photography. I’m fascinated by weather and climate, and I always try to document them in my photographs.”
During his quarter-century in public relations, George saw a lot of marketing trends come and go. “There was the flange top with no foil on bottles from Robert Mondavi, then the race toward heavier bottles that would break your back when you’re shlepping cases around,” he recalls.
“There may have been 20 million people in America drinking wine on a regular basis back then, and now it’s more like 60-100 million. There was also a big Neo-Prohibitionist movement that was finally killed by the French Paradox. In the 1980s, a cooking segment on the Today Show was not allowed to show a label on a wine bottle.” Today of course, Ray Isle and Leslie Sbrocco do regular wine segments on that show.
“I ate my way across America in the wine business,” he recalls. One of his early exploits was a barrel-making roadshow he cooked up for Fetzer Vineyards. “Fetzer had its own cooperage, using oak from the backwoods of Wisconsin. We took our cooper, Darrel Roberts, on a six-city tour to give demonstrations on toasting barrels to trade and restaurant clients.” These would be followed by dinners cooked by Fetzer’s resident chef, John Ash. Stops included Tavern on the Green in Manhattan and Wrigley Field in Chicago. When the Fetzer caravan reached the parking lot of Chasen’s restaurant in Los Angeles, the mercury was soaring over 100 degrees. “During the demonstration, the barrel went up in flames and someone went scrambling to get fire extinguishers from the trucks,” Rose recalls with a laugh.
There were more existential issues for marketers. “I remember sitting in a conference room with corporate types debating whether the winery needed a website. Then social media was supposed to be our salvation. When I started at Fetzer, my media list had 25 names. Now, wineries are by lifestyle bloggers, social media influencers and thousands of visitors. Most wineries don’t have the staff to keep up.”
George’s years in winery public relations have left him worried that consumers have lost — or never really made — the connection between wine and the vineyard.
“Wineries have always had trouble convincing consumers that wines are made with grapes that are subject to climate and weather,” he said. “Social media was supposed to help us sell wine. We have images of people clinking glasses, but we’ve gotten away from showing how the wine is made.” Vineyards give Rose special inspiration.
“Walking the vineyards, I can tell whether the vines are healthy or not. And viticulture has changed tremendously, especially with the move to sustainability,” he told me. “Practices such as reducing drip irrigation, finding the right grape varieties for the soils — there’s a more heads-up approach to grape-growing than when I started in the business.”
Improved viticulture and the emphasis on sustainability has helped California’s vineyards some crazy intense weather in recent vintages.
“These few years have been excruciating,” Rose said, citing the last three years of severe drought. “Now the drought is over, at least until the next one begins, which could be next week. But the good news is, the vineyard ponds are full. And perhaps surprisingly, through it all the vines seem to be just fine. And that’s the beauty of grapes. You don’t have to do anything. Whether it’s dry or whether it’s wet, there’s going to be a 2023 harvest. It’s going to happen just like it did in all the previous years.”
And just as in every California grape harvest for more than three decades, George Rose will be there to photograph it.
Some of George Rose’s photography can be seen at www.georgerose.com and on Instagram @georgerosephoto. His current project, “California’s Changing Landscape: The Way of Water,” is scheduled to be published in April 2024 by the California Nature Art Museum.
Photos by George Rose, courtesy of George Rose. 1) “Winter at Platt Vineyard,” Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County, California, 2016. (George Rose/Platt Vineyard). 2) “Morning Dew on Pinot Noir Grapes,” Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, California, 2017. (George Rose) 3) Book cover mockup.
Wow, hard not to be jealous of George and his career. I started out in photography, but quickly went into filmmaking, then video, then interactive media, largely applied in training projects for Gov’t agencies. Not the most aesthetic work. But I never lost sight of my personal needs to wander the wilderness to capture sublime vistas. George Rose’s work is certainly an inspiration. Thanks for sharing a glimpse.