Professor writes book on wineries

by Maia Gibson | Feature Editor
Published: Last Updated on

Professor of  Sociology and Co-Director of the Community Research Center in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice James Pennell’s first idea for a book had nothing to do with wineries. He was doing a research project about songs and social movements, but another book about the topic was published, so he chose to direct his efforts elsewhere. The inspiration for his first book, “Local Vino: The Winery Boom in the Heartland” came from a show his band performed.

“I play in a band, Acoustic Catfish, and one of our early engagements at Mallow Run Winery had over 300 people there,” he said. “So as a sociologist tends to do, I said, ‘I wonder what’s going on here?’ I study social and institutional change, why things come about in the social world and how they come about and the struggles that people have in making change. These wineries are a relatively new thing.  I mean, historically, they didn’t exist before 1975 in Indiana, and they didn’t really take off until the 1990s.”

Pennell took five years to research and write the book. At first, he said, he only focused on wineries and Indiana.

“So I had done the research for that and wrote a 46,000-word manuscript, and I was hoping Indiana University Press was going to publish it,” Pennell said. “I got very good reviews from the reviewers, but the editorial board decided that they didn’t want to publish it. So I went to the University of Illinois Press. Their reviewers liked the manuscript as well. And the executive director of the press said he liked the manuscript, [and] he liked the idea, but they were the University of Illinois Press. So they asked if I could include Illinois, Michigan and Missouri.”

Pennell and the University of Illinois press negotiated which other states’ wineries he should include, since he would have to travel and do more research in addition to teaching. He said they came to the consensus that he would include wineries in Illinois, Ohio and Iowa, where his wife, Professor of Teacher Education Greta Pennell, is from.

“Local Vino” required Pennell to conduct numerous interviews and do research, he said. He even spent part of his sabbatical working in wineries for two or three days a week.

“I interviewed winery owners in the four states. I interviewed state industry people, both [of] the winery owners association people,” Pennell said. “Each state has an enologist and viticulturist, so I interviewed a few of those. I also interviewed three customers who regularly go to wineries, one I considered more expert and the other two were more novices. I pruned vines. I picked grapes. I bottled wine. And so I spent about six months a couple days a week during my sabbatical doing some of the work that people at wineries do so I would have a good firsthand understanding of that work, crushing and pressing grapes.”

Pennell said that the book is focused on the owners and their wineries, the challenges of starting a winery and what drew them to do so. The topic is not one that many sociologists study, he said, because they usually look into troubling topics, such as poverty and unemployment. While Pennell still learned things about “people’s troubles,” he said that writing the book was a nice break from the topics he usually studies.

Pennell said that he has taken some of what he’s learned from writing the book and applied it to one of the courses he teaches at the University of Indianapolis: Food, Society and You.

“It [writing ‘Local Vino’] gave me another perspective on the local food movement,” Pennell said. “Because a lot of the wineries are shipping grapes in from California and other places—and New York and so—then what’s it mean to be a local food producer? Obviously they’re doing value added by making wine, but they’re not actually producing grapes.”

“Local Vino” is part of the University of Illinois Press’ Heartland Food Ways series and is intended for a general audience, Pennell said, despite it being published by an academic press. He hopes that readers of the book take away a different perspective and appreciation for the winery industry.

“I hope that they [readers] get an appreciation for the work it takes to make wine and get it into the bottle for purchase and what it takes to create these interesting places,” Pennell said. “I mean it’s a tremendous amount of work, a tremendous investment of time and money, and so I think people need to understand that. It seems very idyllic to go to a winery and you think, ‘Wow, this is really nice. This is the life. So maybe I should start a winery.’ I would hope anybody who thinks something like that would read this. And I think it gives people a lot of behind-the-scenes kind of knowledge that I don’t think they would have just visiting a winery.”

With “Local Vino” finished, Pennell is looking into his next project. He said he might return to the songs and social movements idea now that the other book has been out for a while, and he has ideas about how to differentiate his book. He also said he might return to his dissertation research about teacher professionalization.

For now,  Pennell is working on a Local Vino Winery Tour with UIndy’s Alumni Office. “Local Vino: The Winery Boom in the Heartland” is currently available through the University of Illinois Press’ website and Amazon and became available in stores on March 6, 2017.

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