ESPN’s Wright Thompson set to host virtual event with Prairie Lights

Thompson, in partnership with Prairie Lights, will host a virtual event to promote his new book, Pappyland.


Photo of Wright Thompson (right). Contributed.

Austin Hanson, Sports Editor

In association with Prairie Lights Books and Cafe and Big Grove Brewery, ESPN writer and storyteller Wright Thompson will host a virtual event to promote his new book, Pappyland, next month.

The University of Mississippi graduate has returned to Iowa City for years after covering Dan Gable in his first visit for ESPN. Now, he’s returning virtually to promote a new book — this one about a distillery.

Tickets for the event — set for Nov. 12 via Zoom at 7 p.m. —  are $40, on Each ticket automatically enters purchasers in a raffle to win a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle whiskey – valued at around $3,000 per bottle. In total, three bottles will be raffled off during the event. Each purchaser will also receive a copy of Pappyland.

Thompson will be joined by a third-generation distiller and member of the Van Winkle family  – Julian Van Winkle. Former Iowa kicker Nate Kaeding will also be joining in on the virtual fun.

Pappyland is about the Van Winkle Family and its whiskey. However, Thompson also examines the meaning of home and family.

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“The Van Winkle Family has been making Bourbon since the 1960s,” Thompson said. “They used to own a really famous distillery in Louisville, [Kentucky], called Stitzel-Weller. They were well-known for making the finest bourbon ever made. The family lost the distillery in the ‘70s through an inter-family business squabble. So, Julian and his dad just started over and they built up this new thing from scratch.”

“This is a very weird book,” Thompson said. “It’s a genre-bending, weird literary experiment. . . At some point I realized I didn’t need to write the book. I needed to write a book about reporting the book.”

Writing about whiskey is a somewhat new venture for Thompson. Before joining ESPN, he wrote for the Kansas City Star and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. During his time at ESPN, Thompson has covered some of the biggest stories in all of sports.

“I’ve seen India and Pakistan play cricket twice,” Thompson said. “I stood on the field when Alabama played No. 2 LSU at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. The crowd was so loud, I was screaming at the person standing next to me and we couldn’t hear each other. I’ve been very, very fortunate. The best thing I’ve ever seen? I mean I saw Tiger Woods win [The Masters] at Augusta twice. I saw Phil [Mickelson] win his first major there. I don’t know, I’ve seen some cool stuff.”

A 2013 assignment pertaining to former University of Iowa Wrestling coach Dan Gable is what brought Thompson to Iowa City for the first time.

“I came there to spend some time at Dan and Kathy Gable’s farm outside of town,” Thompson said. “. . .Then I stayed in Iowa City and I went to George’s [Buffet] and I went to all those bars you read about the famous writers hanging out at. I went to The Sports Column. I had Pagliai’s [pizza].”

During his time in Iowa City, Thompson fell in love with the town and Prairie Lights, which has kept him coming back to Iowa for years.

“I love Prairie Lights,” Thompson said. “It’s one of those bookstores. It’s one of the ones that you’re just honored they even sell your book, much less are willing to host an event for you. . . It was just very important to me that if we were going to do [the event] that one of the places we do it be Iowa City and that it be at Prairie Lights. . . It’s just a chance to help some local businesses and some really good people who love their town, and I’m proud to be able to help do that.”