Wine industry loses local pioneer wine writer

Millie Howie was the force behind Wine Road, Healdsburg’s wine library

It’s a safe bet that no one has ever written more “wine words” than columnist and industry publicist Millie Howie who died last week (April 5, 2011) at the age of 88.

It is also no exaggeration that Howie’s words put Sonoma County’s wine industry on the world map. In fact, she was the prime catalyst behind Sonoma County’s first wine map and the formation of the Russian River Wine Road.

Howie’s newspaper column “Wine Words” appeared in The Healdsburg Tribune from 1981 until recent years when she retired from regular assignments. Her column also appeared regularly in The Windsor Times and Sonoma West Times & News.

Over those 30 years Howie wrote about the industry leaders, old families, young and upcoming winemakers, stubborn growers and startup innovators — and their wines.

When she arrived on the Sonoma County wine scene in 1974 at Geyser Peak Winery there was virtually no full-time publicity or public relations writers at any local winery.

It was Howie who convinced Geyser Peak’s George Vare and others to create a Wine Road and it was her dogged campaign over two decades that helped found the Sonoma County Wine Library.

It’s a safe bet that no one has ever written more “wine words” than columnist and industry publicist Millie Howie who died last week (April 5, 2011) at the age of 88.

It is also no exaggeration that Howie’s words put Sonoma County’s wine industry on the world map. In fact, she was the prime catalyst behind Sonoma County’s first wine map and the formation of the Russian River Wine Road.

Howie’s newspaper column “Wine Words” appeared in The Healdsburg Tribune from 1981 until recent years when she retired from regular assignments. Her column also appeared regularly in The Windsor Times and Sonoma West Times & News.

Over those 30 years Howie wrote about the industry leaders, old families, young and upcoming winemakers, stubborn growers and startup innovators — and their wines.

When she arrived on the Sonoma County wine scene in 1974 at Geyser Peak Winery there was virtually no full-time publicity or public relations writers at any local winery.

It was Howie who convinced Geyser Peak’s George Vare and others to create a Wine Road and it was her dogged campaign over two decades that helped found the Sonoma County Wine Library.

After a career in public relations for various corporations in San Francisco, Howie went on to work as a writer and producer for several media outlets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A true industry pioneer, Howie was the first female writer/producer to be hired at KGO TV in 1950 and she was the first female member of the San Francisco Advertisers Club, joining in 1968.

At KGO, she was not only the first woman allowed to join the writers guild, but she later become the shop stewart.

After forming her own firm, Millie Howie Public Relations, in 1971, she moved to Alexander Valley after being hired by Geyser Peak which was owned by Schlitz Brewing at the time.

Hired to write about wines and help promote the many wines of Geyser Peak, Howie admitted at the time that she “didn’t know wine from pickle juice,” having never sipped or swirled, let alone drink.

In an oral history recorded in 2004 for the wine library, Howie remembers her very first pinot noir, a 1976 Geyser Peak wine. “It tasted like velvet and in all the pinots I’ve tasted since from Sonoma County, Oregon and all over the place, I can’t remember a better one.”

Howie literally invented the local wine industry public relations business. She put together the first multiple winery tours and events. She hired artists to draw maps of Alexander Valley and the Healdsburg area, the first campaign that brought competing wineries together on the same page.

She convinced the San Francisco Chronicle writer Margot Doss Patterson to do a Sunday newspaper series on “self-guided winery walks” that included Geyser Peak, Foppiano, Rodney Strong and others.

Over the years, Howie’s column and feature writing also appeared in Vineyard and Winery Management, Wine Country This Week, the Redwood Rancher, and many others. She was a regular contributor to Discoveries magazine until her self-imposed retirement five years ago.

She was born June 13, 1922 in San Francisco as Mildred Carter. She was an only child. Through two marriages, that both ended in divorce, she had two daughters, Jan Howie Hayes of Half Moon Bay and Linda Ramey of San Francisco.

She had lived in Rohnert Park in recent years until declining health forced her to move into her daughter’s Half Moon Bay residence this past January.

After suffering a series of falls and prolonged hospitalization, Howie was residing in an assisted care facility in Millbrae where she died of kidney failure last week.

No services will be held and the family is suggesting donations in her memory be made to the Sonoma County Wine Library.

“If anyone’s name belongs on that building, it would have to be Millie’s,” said Bo Simons, the only librarian the wine library has had to date. “She was a special, special lady and always so gracious — but tough,” he added.

Simons, Howie and a small group of winery owners and wine enthusiasts campaigned and raised funds and collected archives for many years before the library was dedicated in 1988.

In her oral history, Howie remembers pitching her idea to county library chief David Sabsay, a very meticulous and proper Bostonian.

Sabsay told Howie he felt uncomfortable being invited to lunch by a woman for the first time in his professional career. As she was explaining her concept for a wine library, Sabsay stiffened and said drinking or getting drunk could never be allowed in a library.

“No, no, no,” she remembers telling Sabsay. “Library, books, paper — not drinking.”

Sabsay became a strong supporter of the concept and won widespread support and funding for the institution. Today, the library includes 5,000 books, 40,000 articles and many valuable historical documents, journals and viticulture texts.

In 1981 Howie convinced the Healdsburg Kiwanis Club to hold a “wine auction” at Asti to raise funds for the library project. The annual wine auctions lasted a few years and expanded into the Polo, Wine & All That Jazz benefits at Oakmont.

Earlier in 1976, Howie convinced Ell Henry of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce to expand the marketing of the town’s annual May wine festival, held in the Town Plaza. That event quickly grew from a beginning of 7-9 wineries to dozens and dozens before it was ended in 1990. By then the Russian River Wine Road membership had grown to almost 100 winery members.

Howie was honored at the 1992 Sonoma County Harvest Fair as that year’s “Friend of Agriculture.” A year later she was honored by the Luther Burbank Foundation as a “Living Treasure in Literature.”

In her acceptance speech she said, “I admit I have played the role of a catalyst and (have) added energy, drive and a feeling for people in all of the events in which I have been a participant.”

Asked about her success and approach to writing, Howie said, “I always just wrote ‘til it was finished. And I was never one to wait for my deadline. I wanted to be reliable.”

Howie moved from Alexander Valley into Healdsburg in the 1980s with her faithful dog, Barney, a three-legged St. Bernard. “It was no accident when I moved to town that I moved in across the street from the library,” she said.

That would be the library at the corner of Center and Piper streets, the library that might some day bear her name somewhere.

(By Rollie Atkinson on April 13, 2011 – The Healdburgs Tribune © 2011 Sonoma West)

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