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'Veritas": A Napa photographer follows an uncommon path to look inside the world of wine

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It's a new book about wine from a Napa Valley photographer, but its name, if not its cover, is the first clue that this is not going to be the typical ode to the grape, one of those gorgeous collections of beauty shots, beautiful people happily clinking their glasses a the sunsets, gloriously, behind the Mayacamas mountains.

This cover is cloth, neutral, oatmeal, and gray, with faint lines replicating a vineyard. The only words are small: "Veritas by Jimmy Hayes."

"Veritas" comes from the Latin, "in vino, veritas" — in wine there is truth — a quote largely credited to Pliny The Elder, circa AD 77.

And while it is true, that many unexpected truths can emerge from those enjoying a bottle or two of wine, Hayes is pursuing a different truth in his book.

Turn the pages, and you'll discover a different wine world: hands at the sorting table, more hands pulling hoses, setting wires, working pruning shears, feet walking around hoses, and running through vines. Here is a rack of test tubes in a lab; there, a pumps pouring out the juice from newly harvested grapes. There are faces too, most of them intent: studying bottles and vines and bins of grapes. Even the ubiquitous shot of a winemaker holding that glass of wine is different. It's the face of someone hard at work. Even in the landscapes, there is a simplicity, a spareness, a sense that the land, too, is hard at work.

Jimmy Hayes and his wife relocated to Napa Valley from Westchester, N.Y., in 2008. An experienced sommelier, he went on to work at the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, and at Mayacamus and Araujo wineries. He began taking photographs as a hobby, but, as he was asked to take more and more photos, his interest evolved into a career as a professional photographer.

In 2014, he began to work on the collection that would become "Veritas."

"The pandemic focused me on doing more of the things I love most," he said in an interview as he talked about his work.

"Having seen (the wine industry) from all angles of how wine is presented to the public," he said, his goal was to share a different view.

"To work with wine is to work hard, with one's whole body, mind, and heart," Hayes writes in his introduction. "It is science, agriculture, art, and business, all blended together. At every level, the work requires great skill and preparation, for confounding turns await around every corner."

"The uncertainty is the equalizer, a humanity that connects all people who work in wine. If they labor on the field or drag hoses in the cellar, they share the knowledge that success is never guaranteed, even if they have done their part well ... all for the promise of great wine.

But rarely are we shown these truths, Hayes said.

Alluring images "of happy glass-clinkers and hot air balloons make us feel good," he said, "but they are not the images that make us feel."

"It's the desire to crack through this veneer that inspires me as I photograph wine," he said, "Models in magazines don't make wine taste great, vineyard works, cellar hands, and winemakers do. 

Haye's photographs look "beyond the golden hour" and into "the real places and real people that make the wine."

He described "Veritas" as "a quiet exploration" of the details of wine-making, using a "visual language that deliberately eschews the exaggerated beauty often center stage in wine media" to show how people who work in the industry experience the process.

Hayes calls his photos, "found not made," — nothing staged — in his effort to create a book that "is more of a visual experience than an informational one."

Hence his decision to present the photos without captions. (You can find them at the end of the book if you wish.)

These days, Hayes said, "We are focused on learning everything as fast as possible, but this can remove the wonder. I wanted to keep it. It is a wonderful thing not to know what you're looking at. It slows us down."

Sommelier and winemaker Rajat Parr met Hayes in 2006 at a San Francisco wine event. "He came across as a quiet, humble sommelier with an encyclopedic mind for wine," Parr writes in the forward to "Veritas."

Parr notes, "It is remarkable that such a sharp wine taster, a sommelier who had learned so much information about the vine, would turn his attention to capturing truths about wine through the visual medium."

"Vines grow in a gritty and unglamorous manner," Parr adds. "So much about wine growing and winemaking is unseen ... (but) that which we cannot see is as fundamental, if not more so, to the vines' path."

Parr describes Hayes as a "poet of detail ... following an uncommon path."

"He uncovers what most people do not see. The journey from panting to finishing the bottle is the story of wine. And that's the story that Jimmy captures here with rare acuity and insight." 

"Veritas" (Cameron + Company) is available locally at Napa Bookmine and  Copperfield's Books.

A portion of profits from sales of "Veritas" goes to Napa and Sonoma farmworker foundations.

Sasha Paulsen is features editor at the Napa Valley Register. Reach her at spaulsen@napanews.com.  

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