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Napa Valley vineyard art works inspired by a mother's handwriting

Napa Valley vineyard art works inspired by a mother's handwriting

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Feb. 7, 2020 series
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In years to come, it’s doubtful that the uniformity imposed by word processing upon the written word will ever inspire nostalgia, or even artistic creation, the way the individuality and expression of a person’s cursive handwriting can.

“We all recognize our mother’s handwriting in a heartbeat, which releases a flood of memories,” said Kate Solari Baker, artist and owner of Larkmead Vineyards.

It was her own mother’s handwriting, discovered in the family’s business accounting ledgers, that inspired Solari Baker’s latest artistic collection ‘Keeping Account,” a new exhibit at Sofie Contemporary Arts gallery in Calistoga.

“In the early years, my mother managed the winery and kept the books, carefully recording credits and debits, and workers’ names, hours and wages,” she said at the gallery opening Jan. 31.

Solari Baker has taken pieces of the old ledgers, and used them as a backdrop for “maps” of areas of the Napa Valley, entwining Larkmead and her family’s history with that of other players in the early history of winemaking Upvalley.

The works are also “honoring a long lost way of conducting business using accounting pages and cursive writing practices now facing extinction,” she said.

Larkmead changes hands

Larkmead Vineyards is located Upvalley, between Calistoga and St. Helena. It was established in 1884, and purchased a few years later by Lillie Hitchcock Coit, of Coit Tower renown. Later, it was purchased by a Swiss family who ended up abandoning the winery during Prohibition, which took place from 1920-1933, Solari Baker recounts. She inherited the estate from her father, Larry Solari, who purchased it in the late 1940s.

Solari himself was born in Tuscany. He was the oldest of four boys and emigrated to California at the age of 9, at the behest of his father, who had settled in Geyserville.

The journey to Napa was not direct. In the late 1930s, Solari and his wife, Polly, spent two years in Chicago, during which time Kate was born. In 1940, the young family moved to Lodi where Solari took a position with the Wine Grower’s Guild.

Then in 1948, the Solaris purchased Larkmead Vineyards and moved to Napa Valley.

“The crop was so good that year, he then bought it outright,” Solari Baker said.

A who’s who

in the Napa Valley

The job of bookkeeper and administrator fell to Polly, a job she wasn’t prepared for, Solari Baker said. However, “the ledgers are perfect. She had no schooling or training, but was enthusiastic. (At that time) it was the Great American Adventure, really. There was not a lot of competition, and interesting people.”

Upvalley was also a very quiet place back then, and grape growers were having a hard time finding an outlet. The first thing Polly Solari did was establish a co-op for grape growers, her daughter said.

The ledgers, from the late 1940s onward, tell a story about the people who worked and were paid, and were a part of the history of Napa Valley, including some icons.

Names in the carefully hand-written columns include Ivan Schoch, from To-Kalon; Jerome Draper, Spring Mountain developer; Lee Stewart of Chateau Souverain; and characters like Louis Stralla, mayor of St. Helena after Prohibition, and a Las Vegas gambler.

Solari Baker also tells the story of Douglas Pringle. He showed up at the vineyard in a yellow Rolls Royce and asked to learn the business from the bottom up. He was brought lunch each day by a Spanish countess, in the Rolls, that he ate on china with linen napkins while the rest of the workers most likely had lunch pails, she said.

Art and business

Solari Baker grew up on the property, and later pursued her art interests at U.C. Berkeley. There, she met her husband, Cam Baker. Baker assisted her parents in running Larkmead, while Kate focused on her art career. Her works have been featured at numerous galleries and museums across the West Coast.

When Polly passed in 1992, however, Solari Baker returned with her husband to oversee the old estate. “Cam and I made a vow to one another. We said we’d spend 10 years trying to recapture the greatness of Larkmead. If at that point things weren’t working, we would stop.”

While Cam focused on the legal and financial aspects of the business, Kate made wine deliveries and focused on hospitality and events. Things did work, and at the end of their agreed upon decade, the results were such that they doubled down and built a winery, and another decade later, transitioned the estate to organic farming, added several new wines, and expanded the winery.

Merging history and art While Kate and Cam were busy running the business, the old bills, statements and contracts were kept in a an ignored back “junk room.”

By the time Solari Baker got around to looking through them, “Enough time had passed that they were pretty much useless items,” she said.

Except for the ledgers. Solari Baker found they were neatly hand written in columns and “graphically they were interesting. It represented a whole different world (compared to today). It was my mother’s time and energy. It was part of her identity.”

Initially, Solari Baker exhibited chalk pastel drawings on paper and oil on canvas, but “more recently I’ve turned to collage as a means of utilizing the ledger papers,” she said. Using blown-up Google maps of the valley for reference along with the ledgers, she applies acrylic and watercolor paints, chalk pastels, stamps, various papers and other mixed media to create the work.

Solari Baker says she thinks of herself as a contemporary realist. “My approach to life and art is a search for clarity and definition. Whatever the medium, I have consistently produced at least somewhat recognizable images, most often inspired by nature.”

The collages are her meditations she says, “on the solitary and valuable time (my mother) spent chronicling life and work in the valley before it became an internationally acclaimed wine region, and they are an homage to her, to my history here in the valley, and to my love of this special place.”

Sofie Contemporary Arts gallery is located at 1407 Lincoln Ave. Hours are noon—6 p.m., Wednesday—Sunday and by appointment. Call (707) 942-4231 or visit https://gallery.sofiegallery.com/.

You can reach Cynthia Sweeney at 942-4035 or csweeney@weeklycalistogan.com.

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The Weekly Calistogan Editor

Cynthia Sweeney has been editor of The Weekly Calistogan since July, 2018. Previously, she was a reporter for the St. Helena Star, and North Bay Business Journal. She also spent a significant amount of time freelancing in Hawaii.

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