I might have worked at a printing press in my past life. Last week, I had the opportunity to go to one of the top quality printing presses in Italy for a day, and the entire process of hands on work and artisanship was fascinating.
In 2014, I interviewed Suzanne Hoffman, an American woman visiting Piemonte for the umpteenth time and who was at the early stages of writing a book about the women in winemaking families of Piemonte. One woman she calls “the Blessed Vintner” – Giulia Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo, helped spark her idea (you can read about it in her interview), which grew as she uncovered inspiring yet unsung tales and memories of strong women behind many of Piemonte’s best-known labels. Roughly two years later, Suzanne is the author of a visually beautiful and (hi)story-rich book called Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte, which will be available starting in June 2016.
“I became aware that women were never visible in the wine world, though they had very important roles, even acting as their husbands’ business partners.”
Suzanne is independently publishing her book. Calling that “a lot of work” is a huge understatement, but there it is: from what I gather, it has been a lot of work. And one part of publishing a book, of course, is the physical, material aspect of printing the pages and constructing it.
How did I find myself at Verona Libri, a small, two-press business located just outside the charming and medieval city of Verona? Suzanne and her small, dedicated team have been working hard on this project, and I just come in for a little blip at the end, on Day One of printing, as the press rep. Someone needed to watch the pages come off the press, give an opinion on color for the many stunning photos, and generally provide peace of mind that all was off to a healthy start.
Pages coming hot off the press
Unfortunately, I could only be there for a day and not for the entire duration of printing, but the book was in expert hands. Top hands, in fact; I discovered Verona Libri is one of Italy’s best printing presses, confirmed by two long-term clients that I had the pleasure of meeting while there: Sally VanDevanter, an American production manager for The Metropolitan Museum of Art who has been in the business for over 20 years; and Jules Thomson, a Scottish lady living in the US who is the publishing and production manager for the David Zwirner Gallery in New York City. So…they weren’t just any two folks from the street declaring their opinions.
What goes on at a printing press?
When I wasn’t needed in the printing room, I sat upstairs with these two ladies, talking about printing and eating piece after piece of Scottish shortbread made by a woman in the village where Jules grew up for the local bagpipers (it was so good it was soon made commercially, and thus it found its way to Verona beside an espresso machine in Italy, where I pretty much inhaled it). The offices above the printers were lined with big, beautiful books the company has printed, many of them the hardback, coffee table variety—not to diminish the importance of the text in any way, but to underline how well-made and attractive they were to page through. In the back was a long, comfy couch. “There is always a couch in the printing presses,” Sally noted: books don’t get produced in one day (Labor of Love took an entire week), and if time is tight, the presses might run into the night.
See the shortbread on the table? Oh, and the books
When I was needed in the printing room, I examined the eight-page spread (which is subsequently printed on the other side and folded into the book—each group of 8 pages is called a “signature”) and eyed the colors of the photos. They all came out beautifully crisp and clean, but someone needs to check the blacks aren’t too dark or the reds too fiery.
Here I am, signing the spread to confirm the colors and text are all ok
The printer whooshed them out at 8600 pages per hour; it could print up to 13,000 pages in one hour. These are not just big versions of your office printer, either. There were four separate machines for each color (CMYK: Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow, and blacK), and others for further functions, including machines for up to two additional, personalized colors. The platform hummed as the machines worked, and I felt like I was looking at an early form of a printer, like the early computers took up entire rooms.
Machinery in Germany, artistry in Italy
But unlike computers, as printers improve they do not downsize, as these top quality machines attested to—which, like all the best equipment, are German-made. Yet publishers often choose Italy for top quality printing. Italians have an eye and taste for high quality, from their name brand sunglasses to the ingredients in their cuisine, and printing is no exception. Also, Jules noted that they readily adapt and listen to their clients. “I work with artists, and sometimes they request that the prints must catch the essence of their artwork. Italians understand this.” I can definitely see how that's true in this naturally and artistically beautiful country with its poetic language and expressive inhabitants.
There is quite a lot of artisan and artistic work that goes into printing, in fact, which is what drew me to it that day at the presses. It is very hands-on work, moving around scatter sheets and printing materials, adjusting the colors, and walking among the machines. And the artistic work involves a very sharp eye for colors and tonalities. “Several of my colleagues are also artists,” said Sally, who paints acrylic, herself. When a good many of your colleagues more than hobby-dabble in the fine arts, it’s clear that the profession attracts a certain artistic type.
Labor of Love and Kickstarter
Let’s get back to Labor of Love. I’m glad I was able to be there to help, not to mention how interesting I found the whole process; but as I mentioned, her book couldn’t have been in better hands than at Verona Libri. Suzanne noted that they had originally looked to print in China, but they couldn’t find the quality they were searching for. So instead of 3,000 books in China, they are printing 2,000 books in Verona.
It seems right that she should publish in Italy. In writing her stories about the wine families, their hard work, and their creations over generations, it’s fitting that she chose a similarly hard-working, high quality, and small business to create her book.
I love Piemonte’s food and wine, the city of Turin, and my proximity to the Alps! My goal and challenge is to see as much of the region as possible using public transportation, but if you have a car I’d appreciate the ride. My intro to wine was at the Univ. of Gastronomic Sciences, and I love visiting family wineries, plus discovering Piemonte's craft beer scene. I’m hard-pressed to choose a favorite wine, but Nebbiolo never disappoints (from Barbaresco to Ghemme). As for beer, the Birrificio San Michele makes an incredible beechwood smoked brew.