Interview with Wayward Tendrils Publisher Gail Unzelman

Gail Unzelman at her home in Santa Rosa

Gail Unzelman at her home in Santa Rosa

Welcome to Archives and Special Collections’ new Food and Wine Wednesdays series! Each Wednesday through February, we’re sharing something from our food and wine collections with you here, whether it be a recent acquisition, an interview, a unique manuscript, a rare book, ephemera from the archives, or an upcoming event. We hope you’ll follow along. Feel free to share your thoughts and feedback with us along the way.

We recently spoke with author, publisher, and wine book collector Gail Unzelman about the origin story and significant contributions of the Wayward Tendrils Quarterly, a journal devoted to wine books, wine authors, wine libraries, bibliography, and all such matters relating to wine literature. Unzelman served as editor and publisher of the quarterly for the entirety of its 25-year run from 1990 to 2015, while also managing the Wayward Tendrils Wine Book Collector’s Society, a group for wine writers and wine book collectors. She founded Nomis Press in 1990 for the purpose of publishing her book Wine & Gastronomy: A New Short-Title Bibliography Guide Based on the André L. Simon Bibliothecas, Vinaria, Gastronomica, & Bacchica. The press would eventually publish more than a dozen books on California wine, including histories of the El Dorado, Los Angeles, Napa, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Joaquin, and Sonoma viticultural districts.

In 2020, the UC Davis Library acquired Unzelman’s papers. She has committed to a planned gift to donate her wine postcards collection at a future date. Highlights of her papers include:

  • Unzelman library catalog
  • Works by and correspondence with Wayward Tendrils authors, including Thomas Pinney, Charles Sullivan, Barbara Marinacci, and Roy Brady
  • Materials related to the production of The Brady Book
  • Wine pamphlets, business cards, illustrations, photographs, maps, and publications
  • Scrapbook of nineteenth-century articles on the Napa Valley and California wine
  • Research and writing on George Husmann and André Simon and writing in the hand of Husmann
  • Files related to the Medical Friends of Wine
  • Documents created by winemaker, merchant, author, and educator Bern C. Ramey
Box of files from Gail Unzelman papersOne of several boxes of Unzelman’s wine-related papers acquired by Archives and Special Collections in 2020

After the collection has been processed, it will be accessible to researchers to use. In the meantime, please contact Jullianne Ballou for access or for more information.

The following is an excerpt from the full interview, which you can read here.


JB: How old were you when you started to collect wine books? Why did you decide to focus on wine?

GU: The wine book collection began when my husband Ron and I moved to San Francisco in 1962 so he could attend U.C. San Francisco Medical School and we discovered wine. I was 22 and two years married. We were both born and raised in Orange County and had not known wine at the dinner table, or anywhere else, except the communion cup in church. Wine was a fascinating new subject, and we were ripe to learn everything we could about it. Books have always been a part of my life, and looking back, I guess collecting was too. Luckily, I say, there was no Internet to search for wine information, so we obviously turned to books.

JB: It seems that often collectors are born rather than made. What else were you collecting when you started to collect wine books?

GU: Over the years I collected postage stamps, seashells, butterflies, a fishbowl full of marbles, and probably several other treasures that I have forgotten. While Ron and I were able to be in San Francisco with all of its offerings, I found John Henry Nash and fine press printing. I formed a significant collection of his printed works — both books and ephemera. Later, when I realized wine — its history and literature — was to be my life’s endeavor, I sold the Nash collection and focused only on wine material. Naturally, corkscrews, wine labels, postcards, and poster stamps all entered the picture.

JB: Can you describe the genesis of Wayward Tendrils? Twenty-five years is a strong run for an independent newsletter. How were you able to keep it in operation for so long?

GU: The Wayward Tendrils Wine Book Collector’s Society was the idea of Bob Foster, a wine writer for California Grapevine and an expert wine judge around the country. He was also a wine book collector, and his Grapevine column reviewed books on wine. It was Bob who suggested the club name, taken from Ian Campbell’s vintage wine book Wayward Tendrils of the Vine, written in 1947. 

Bob took his idea to Bo Simons*, librarian of the Sonoma County Wine Library, in Healdsburg, whom I knew well. Bo told Bob he should “get in touch with Gail.” 

Remember, 1990 was really pre-computer age, before easy, instant communication existed. The main reason for founding our club, we announced, was to “provide a network and develop a sense of community among wine book collectors.” The Wayward Tendrils newsletter would be our main avenue of communication. Naturally, since Bob was the writer, I assumed he would handle the newsletter; I was happy to handle membership, rosters, dues, etc., to organize and keep the WT going. Annual dues were set at $10, and the newsletter would be issued four times a year; our encouraging initial membership response was fifty members, from the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada.

When we scheduled our first issue of the newsletter for March 1991, Bob cheerfully told me that he hadn’t planned to add the newsletter to his already busy schedule, and said, “Gail, I thought you would do it.” I am still at a loss for words when I think of this. I was not a writer, nor an editor. Only earlier that year had I published my first book, a bibliographic reference on the works of André Simon. I had no idea how to put together a wine book newsletter.

I knew I had substantial background knowledge of the subject. I had been a serious student of wine literature since the 1960s, was familiar with and owned most bibliographic references on the subject, had dealt with most of the specialist booksellers from America, Europe, and Australia, and had formed a worthy library of a couple of thousand wine books. Also, I wanted to share this passion and knowledge of wine books. So I said I would be the publisher and editor.

The first Wayward Tendrils Newsletter, March 1991The first Wayward Tendrils Newsletter, March 1991

JB: Could you please say more about your contributions to the Wayward Tendrils quarterly, as both a writer and an editor? What was your process of working with writers? How often were pieces assigned by you versus pitched by contributing writers?

GU: From our founding, we as a society of wine book collectors, in the broadest sense, felt a close fellowship, and this never changed. The Tendrils membership application form asked the following questions: 1) How long have you collected? 2) Do you have a special interest? 3) What languages do you collect? 4) How many books are in your collection? The first three questions were used for our annual Membership Roster, with names, addresses, and phone numbers. Collectors with like interests could easily contact one another, and at the same time, this information opened a friendly door between a new member and the group — and Madam Editor. I sent a “Welcome!” letter to all new members, along with the WTQ issues for the year and a Membership Roster. I would add a short personal note, most often referring to their special collecting interest, and encourage every new member to tell the group about his/her collection, or a favorite book, or a scarce book eagerly sought.

Our Quarterly was formatted and printed in two-column pages, with full justification (my choice). As editor, when I received a manuscript, my first task was to lovingly “tendrilize” it and get it into the WT format and font. Out of respect for the writer’s effort, I purposefully tried not to make unnecessary editorial changes, only when grammar or muddled sentence structure got in the way. After a review by the writer, it was ready to await assimilation into the next issue. 

At the end of 2015, our 25th anniversary and my 75th birthday, I retired and Wayward Tendrils retired with me. I think our accomplishment in the realm of wine-book literature was invaluable. Our membership averaged around 150-160 wine book enthusiasts, including wine libraries, wine booksellers, and collectors. Our WT website went up in 2011. We mailed four WT issues a year, sometimes with a supplement when an in-depth article was lengthy and deemed worthy of a separate cover. 

The mission of our Wine Book Collector’s Society and its quarterly was to communicate the literature of wine and wine lore to fellow collectors and students of printed wine material. In twenty-five years of publication our contributors provided an abundant wealth of literature, on all aspects of the printed word, for all to savor.

 

Unzelman with boxes of her papers to send to the UC Davis Library

–––

*We wrote to Bo Simons to see what he remembered about the founding of the Wayward Tendrils Quarterly. Here’s what he had to say.

When I was new at the Sonoma County Wine Library in 1988, Gail Unzelman walked in and introduced herself. I got to know her better and learned the breadth and depth of her acumen in rare and not-so-rare wine books, she became my mentor in wine bibliography, and a good friend. I came to know her and husband, Ron, her library, and both her and Ron’s cellar.  She would give me advice on rare wine books that became available through catalogues of dealers or auction houses, and she made me aware of treasures that were hiding in local bookstores.  I loved rhapsodizing about really wonderful books, either their content or their bibliographic history or their physical beauty, their printing and craftsmanship. I also loved the way she was kind to other books that were not so blessed.

In 1990, Bob Foster called me.  He was an attorney working for the State of California, and a serious wine and wine-book lover. He regularly reviewed new books on wine in the California Grapevine, a respected wine journal. He was on the tasting panel. He said he had heard about the new Sonoma County Wine Library, and was interested in starting a wine book collectors’ club. I had two kids under five, and a new and exciting job that was sucking up a lot of my time. I thought Bob had a great idea, but knew I did not have the time to start such a venture, but I thought of Gail. I told Bob about her, gave him her number, and he took the ball and ran. He called up Gail. Maybe Gail was waiting for a project or maybe she just fell in love with the idea of wine book collectors’ club. She had the contacts in the wine book world, and she made the idea happen. We never formed a club, per se, with meetings and officers, but Gail built a great asset for wine book people, and the subscribers were the club.

Bob said he had the perfect name for the newsletter: Wayward Tendrils, drawn for the title of wine merchant prince Ian Maxwell Campbell’s 1947 book of reminisces, Wayward Tendrils of the Vine. Gail and I loved the name. Within a few months of establishing the Wayward Tendrils Wine Book Collectors’ Society, Volume One, Number One of the WTQ was out. I don’t think any of us thought it would last 25 years.