Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reception of the novel on the other side (East Coast)

   Here are a couple of links to review of Nose in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, where I used to write profiles and feature articles. When they needed someone to write the wine column for the Post's magazine told them I would do it one day a week until they found someone qualified. It took them about six years, and meanwhile I had been smitten by Napa Valley and entranced by its unique social, political and environmental history.
    I still am.
The Journal:
The Post:                                           

To order Nose click on:  

Friday, May 8, 2015

The origins of Nose, both the novel title and the blogsite

The real blog you're reading now grew out of a fictional one in my novel of the same name. It was a plot device and the author in Nose is Les Breeden, an out-of-work journalist. Here's Les's first, liberating (and quite fictional) effort:                          

         Could that be the collective stench of a thousand wine opinion mongers and publicists and wannabe sommeliers pouring with sweat as they turn out a collective magnum opus of bull so prodigious that it threatens to destabilize the globe and send it off-orbit?
    It could. And while, dear reader, you’re searching for what’s left of your emasculated skepticism, the load has gotten heavier. Seismologists are warning – LISTEN! - of a reactivation of the San Andreas fault and the tipping of millions of gallons of vitis vinifera into the bowels of the earth.
You might as well watch, having nothing to lose but your subscription to that brothel serviette, The Wine Taster, and its lame imitators. You don’t need them. You’re tired of being bloviated about which wine to buy, but not who’s doing what to whom in which cellar, of lifestyle vintneramuses and celebrity auction addicts buying matched sets of jeroboams of old Dripping Ridge cabernet.
All passé. Forget numerical ratings and the latest Two-Buck Suck, forget medals. What you need is an un-sanitized, morning-after whiff of the infinitely varied, often tight-assed infiniti di vini on America’s western edge, where they’re staging the last agrarian act in that amazing, transformative, longest-running, now sputtering musical, “Manifest Destiny.”
So just log on, kick back, and sniff... sniff...
My version of blogging serves as a series of personal journalistic forays into subjects I'm interested in, not just people intimately involved in wine, and wines in their own right, but also travel, culture in the broader sense, and the on-going struggle to preserve the natural - and parts of the built - world.
Nose also serves as a compendium of my past work, going way back. If you scroll down through the months and years to the right you can read what I've written about many things, from wine and environmental concerns in the Napa Valley to the logging of the Tongass National Forest to AIDS in Nepal to pinot noir in New Zealand to magical realism in Sicily.
All my books listed below are available immediately at Napa Bookmine in the city of Napa, so if you want to thumb through a real book, just go down to Pearl Street.
 To order Nose click on:
For newly released earlier titles go to:
http://www.fearlessbooks.com/Conaway.htm, and for my book of travel essays go to:
To see my bio, click on:

Friday, May 1, 2015

The pot simmers...

           An impassioned vintner sent me a list of things that need more attention. To wit:
      1. Winery proliferation at the expense of quality 
      2. Hillside plantings ("Enough is enough.") 
      3. Bogus alcohol content claims on labels
      4. Declining distinction among appellations
      5. Refusing to admit that all over-ripe fruit tastes more or less the same

      Sniff sniff...                                  

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A lion of North Bay environmentalism, my friend, leaves a turbulent wake

... and the big question still unanswered: How does this story end happily?

                       (from the Napa Register)

Ceremony honors Volker Eisele, defender of Napa vineyards

ST. HELENA — When friends and admirers of Volker Eisele gathered in the Napa Valley wine country to remember his life, they came to remember his work even more.
“Today, we celebrate both an event and a person,” county Supervisor Diane Dillon told more than 200 people Sunday at Charles Krug Winery during the tribute to Eisele, who spearheaded two ballot measures that fortified land protections in the Agricultural Preserve. Eisele, a native of Münster, Germany, who made wine in Chiles Valley for 40 years, died Jan. 2 at 77.
During an hourlong gathering organized by the Napa County Farm Bureau, a succession of friends and allies shared the many sides of Eisele. Their stories revived memories not only of the conservationist, activist and winemaker but also the ardent fan of Wagnerian opera, the reader of Goethe who gloried in getting The New York Times to observe the author’s birthday – even the take-charge vigilante who once ripped away the sign to a new motorcycle park and carried it to the county counsel’s desk to prove its intrusion into the Upvalley vineyards.
Eisele’s most durable legacy has been Measure J (1990), which requires most changes away from agricultural uses inside the preserve to go before a vote of the people. He also organized support for its 2008 successor, Measure P, which extended the popular-vote requirement to 2058.
“If you truly love the Napa Valley, you have to truly love the Ag Preserve – and you have to truly love Volker Eisele,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena. “The Ag Preserve is the foundation that protects the valley, and Volker was responsible for it being as strong as it is today. Everyone knows he fought so hard for the land he lived in and the land he loved.”
Throughout his four decades in the valley, Eisele spoke out on growth issues and worked to defend and extend the Ag Preserve’s safeguards. In 2012, he was involved in the failed attempt to pass a ballot measure that would have changed land designations from urban-residential to agricultural use in Angwin.
Hugh Davies, whose parents began Calistoga’s Schramsberg Vineyards half a century ago, recalled how Eisele’s drive and love of the wine country rallied like-minded winemakers to protect the valley’s rural character.
“Coming from L.A., my parents had seen in their young lives how quickly farmland could be lost,” he said, comparing the rural areas urbanized annually in California to “the area from Napa to Calistoga.”
Organizers promoted Sunday’s event not only as a celebration for Eisele but also the 47th anniversary of the Ag Preserve’s creation. However, several speakers declared vigilance more important than ever as the county’s housing demands, traffic congestion and winery visits all grow.
“How many tourist sardines can be squeezed into this can before we all get squeezed out?” said Norma Tofanelli, the Farm Bureau president. “When is enough enough?”
“What Volker disliked about Americans was the notion that a property owner had the right to build whatever he wanted, regardless of his neighbors,” said the author James Conaway, who has known the Eisele family since the late 1980s and devoted a chapter to them in “The Far Side of Eden,” his 2002 book on Napa County. “It would be a shame if the spirit of the Ag Preserve would be undermined after the passing of Volker Eisele.”
Dillon, the county supervisor, urged Napans to keep Eisele’s memory alive by sharing his determination to keep the rural Napa Valley rural.
“I’ve thought a lot of what Volker would have wanted me to say today,” she said. “Simply put, it’s this: It’s hard work, but it’s worth doing, folks. This place is irreplaceable.”

Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Meanwhile, on Thomas Jefferson's doorstep, a winery plans to sell an activity having nothing to do with wine (from WorthApril-May 2015). 

                   WINE IN A TRUMP BOTTLE       
     “We own the finest golf courses and hotels in the world. Now wine’s part of that world,” says Eric Trump.  
By James Conaway
      The sleek black Sikorsky helicopter makes a slow turn into the wind, TRUMP in white letters three feet high clearly visible from the ground, and settles onto a manicured expanse too broad to be called a lawn. In the background, orderly vineyards are sculpted into 1,300 acres of the Virginia piedmont south of Charlottesville. This is the Trump Winery, or, as it was known until 2011, the Kluge Estate Winery and Vineyards. It sits in the shadow of the aptly named Blue Ridge Mountains just eight miles from Monticello, where the soft contours of the land and the lovely oblique light bring locals as much pleasure today as they did Thomas Jefferson two centuries ago.
      The copter rotors slow, then halt. The doors open, golden seat belt buckles flashing against soft leather seats, and several people step out: the pilot, in a leather aviator jacket, two suits from Manhattan, a petite blonde woman dressed in black, and a tall young man with swept-back straw-berry blond hair in a blue shadow-plaid shirt and light gray pants.
      Thirty-one-year-old Eric Trump strides smiling toward what was once a very large stable and is now the offices of the largest winery complex in Virginia, 200-plus acres of the usual suspects in the global drama of premium wine: cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, pinot noir. But what preceded Donald Trump’s acquisition of the estate in 2011 was a modern, high-stakes real estate play. Just four years later, Virginia’s preservationists are girding themselves for a battle with the Trumps, whom many of them consider interlopers. The issue isn’t wine, but golf.
      The figure at the center of this drama is not multimedia billionaire and philanthropist John Kluge, who built the mansion and outbuildings and died in 2010, nor his former wife, Patricia, who had these vines planted, nor The Donald himself. It’s Eric, the youngest child of Donald and first wife, Ivana, emissary from Manhattan to the Old Dominion, and now the president of the Trump Winery.

     Sitting in The Barn-that's what they call it-with his back to the gorgeous view, Trump, like his father, talks a good game. "We now own the biggest contiguous vineyard on the East Coast," Trump says. (The "we," of course, refers to his family and the Trump Organization, where Eric is an executive vice president for development and acquisitions.)
     “People think we’re only into big buildings, but iconic houses have always been the real interest. We own 11 of the world’s top hotels, and all the support services needed to keep them running. Trump properties have to be the best—clubs, hotels, houses. We pride ourselves on this, and we’re concentrating on the smaller properties.”
      He cites Marjorie Merriweather Post’s 58-bedroom Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach and Seven Springs in Westchester County, N.Y., which was built by former Washington Post publisher Eugene Meyer in 1919 and was Eric’s home for a time. In 10 years, Trump adds, the organization hasn’t sold any- thing except, in 1995, the Plaza Hotel in New York for a $325 million—too good a deal to pass up. “We’re into all these properties for the long haul.”
      At the Trump Winery, outbuildings include a collection of rentable “country chic” ballrooms that can accommodate wedding parties or corporate boards. In one, the Pavilion, the custom-made mahogany bar is identical to those in other Trump buildings on several continents. The 30,000-square-foot Grand Hall that once stored antique carriages from the Jefferson era collected by the Kluges is now a series of more ballrooms (Grand Cru, Sparkling, Reserve), overseen by Eric. “He chooses the designs for everything from the bridal suites to the wine labels,” says Ashley Rutter, the winery’s sales manager. “He’s a guy’s guy who can also pick out patterns for throw pillows.”
       Albemarle House, the former Kluge residence, an over 23,000-square-foot Neo-Georgian manor on a hillside, was built in 1985 in the 18th century style of homes built by titans of industry at the turn of the 20th century. A small army of tradesmen is converting it to a 10-bedroom B&B with the theme “Southern charm with a Trump flair.” Eight bedrooms, some named for American presidents from Virginia; all the new mattresses bear the Trump label.
       None of the Trumps will have a home here, however. None seem much interested in Charlottesville society, or for that matter, in vineyards—Donald Trump is said to actually dislike wine. So why buy a property steeped in Southern traditions and wine culture, so different from the gilt and bling of other Trump properties?
       “Because wine’s sexy,” Eric explains. “It fits in with our company. It’s luxurious as well, particularly when combined with a grand house.”                                         

       Within the Trump organization, Eric was drawn to construction, an essential part of the global operation. “I get a sparkle in my eye when we talk about redoing a property soup-to-nuts,” he says, and that includes the many golf courses.
       As an exalted general contractor he travels the world, concentrating on South America and Europe, where he keeps an eye on Trump International Golf Links in Doonbeg, Ireland, among other duties. (The controversial Trump course in Aberdeen, Scotland, fell under the aegis of his older brother, Don, who handles sprawling Trump commercial real estate.)
      The Kluge estate in Virginia “fell naturally into our acquisition strategy,” says Eric, an outgrowth of the new Trump National Golf Club near D.C., on the banks of the Potomac River, which is “in the neighborhood.” Apparently the winery and mansion were less at- tractive than the prospect of a unique golf course among vines, in countryside inseparable from America’s formative history, wine just another high-end enhancement of the family moniker.
       When asked by his father to oversee the winery, Trump knew little about the business of winemaking—hardly the only vineyard owner of whom that could be said—and he avoids the usual paeans about clone selection and soft tannins. He suggests that the strength of Virginia wines lies in their “seasonality,” by which he means the effects of Virginia’s volatile climate.
      “I’ve always liked sparkling wine,” he adds. “Rosé, too.” Younger wine drinkers make more personal choices, Trump says. “There’s been a major shift away from Europe and California. I’m more likely to turn to the Finger Lakes, or Virginia, and to pick an odd wine.”
       He has learned from his Virginia experience. “In the beginning, if we needed something quick, like a tractor, a neighboring winery would loan us one. I asked myself, ‘Why would a guy help a rival when it’s against his own interests?’ Then I realized this is a community, there was camaraderie—a beautiful thing.”
      When a Trump sparkling rosé won a gold medal last year, Eric says, winery owners here wrote thanking him for raising the profile of Virginia wine. “In Manhattan, developers don’t write thanking us for putting up a building.”
      The Trumps aren’t the first New Yorkers to descend upon the neighborhood; Patricia Kluge herself was something of an arriviste. Before marrying John Kluge, founder of Metromedia and once reported to be the world’s richest man, Patricia met her first husband when she worked for him as a nude model. She and John met on a trip to New York, married in 1981 and lived at Albemarle much of the year, often entertaining extravagantly. 
      When they divorced in 1990, according to Forbes, she received a settlement of $1 million a year—not much, considering her husband’s estimated $5 billion wealth—and Albemarle. 
       Convinced that great wine could be made in Virginia, in the late 1990s Patricia transformed the estate into a vineyard. She got good advice from Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, and from Michel Rolland, probably the most costly winemaking consultant on earth and the controversial star of the documentary Mondovino. Expectations were low, and the wines surprised everyone. “Patricia was committed,” says Rausse. Other winery owners now “understood that it was time to stop playing around... I respect her for what she did for Virginia wine.”
      But Kluge Estate Winery was soon producing far more than it could sell. Rising debt led Farm Credit, an agricultural lending network, to pull a $34.8 million loan in 2011, and other creditors, notably Bank of America, quickly followed. Patricia defaulted on her debts and was forced to sell off $5 million worth of jewelry, and paintings and furnishings worth $15 million, including an imperial Chinese clock worth almost $4 million, all auctioned by Sotheby’s.
      One of the people involved in the settlement was Donald Trump, who had known the Kluges in New York. “We gave to the same charities,” Patricia said later. “Social Manhattan’s even smaller than Charlottesville.” Trump bought a 300-acre parcel in front of the main house and eventually all the land, including vineyards, outbuildings, winery, machinery and wine inventory, with the sole exception of the mansion.
      Albemarle House went on the market in 2009 for $100 million, but the price dropped to $24 million during the recession. Put up for auction, the house attracted no bidders, primarily because Donald Trump owned the front yard. For the bargain price of $6.5 million, he soon acquired the house, too. Patricia was allowed to stay for a year as general manager of the winery, after which she moved back to New York.     
    “John Kluge was a great friend of my father’s,” says Eric. “Patricia was a friend, too. I can’t imagine what she went through, or what it felt like to fall from the height of the capitalist system to the bottom.”                                       
     Today, Eric claims, sales of Kruge wines are many times what they were when the Trumps bought the property, though most of the wine sold so far was made by Kluge. Eric has since hired a young winemaker Jonathan Wheeler but while the resplendent visitors’ center hums on weekends, the winery remains a scruffy, out-of-sight amalgam of trailers and rudimentary structures. It’s also unclear whether wine aficionados will embrace a bottle with the word “Trump” on its label. The Trump brand has appeared on any number of products, from suits to mattresses to shoes
      Of the roughly 250 wineries in Virginia, only a handful produce exceptional wine, and Trump Winery as yet isn’t one of them. Virginia hovers on the edge of recognition in the wine world, but its fragile reputation is threatened by “pop-up” wineries in the countryside hawking events, T-shirts and “shiners,” inferior bulk wine bought in bottles without labels.  Inevitably, Trump is developing alternative revenue streams. There were 65 events here last year, with more expected in 2015, which in conjunction with the B&B is a path of increased revenue. But those things are also potential problems.
       Napa Valley, the inspiration for so much of America’s wine country, prohibits most such activities, but Virginia’s famously lax legislators have taken such decisions out of local hands. Still, the primary enterprise of all wineries is supposed to be farming, which is why they’re allowed to operate in agricultural areas, and despite the money earned from hospitality, Eric insists that farming is also paramount here.
     “[The Trumps] are about real estate,” says Kerry Woolard, the general manager at Trump. “The family’s impressive hotels and golf courses are all over the world. They’re not about to do anything here that would hurt the property or their reputation.”                              

      Not everyone shares that opinion. In early 2013, the winery applied to Albemarle County for a special-use permit for an 18-hole golf course to be developed on the property. A public meeting was held at the winery, as required by law, to announce the plans. “All we have to do is cut the grass,” Eric half-jokes, meaning that the terrain and artificial lakes already lend themselves to links.
      But the Albemarle County board of supervisors, which in the last election shifted from pro-development to modestly green, never voted on the application. And there’s another obstacle: a conservation easement on the old Kluge estate that prevents any changes to the topography. It’s held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which advised Donald Trump that his golf course was unlikely to get its approval.
      So last year The Donald appealed directly to Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. “After many acquisitions and tireless efforts,” he wrote, “I reassembled the estate, reopened the winery, and invested tens of millions of dollars, far surpassing the magnificent prop- erty’s former glory....We need a clear and direct statement from the VOF.”
      Despite the fact that Trump had donated $25,000 to McAuliffe’s unsuccessful race in 2009, the governor declined to intervene, and the VOF will do nothing until the board of supervi- sors acts. Eric intends to reapply and brushes off any suggestion that the board might ultimately oppose the golf course. “We know all those guys,” he says, “they’re wildly enthusiastic.” The Trump family could build houses on 100 adjacent acres instead, Eric says, a none-too-subtle threat.
      As for the conservation easement, “it doesn’t prevent the building of a golf course. We’re just going to mow in some fairways.” A precedent exists, he says, in a private nine-hole course the Kluges had Arnold Palmer design for them, no longer in evidence.
      When the subject of environmentalists comes up, Trump sounds increasingly like his father, who not long ago fought a pyrrhic battle to build a golf course on the environ- mentally fragile dunes of Aberdeen. “You always have groups that want to come after the big bad developer,” Eric says. “They don’t want to see anything done. Don’t disturb a blade of grass, just freeze the world in time.” His tone hardening, he adds, “It validates them.”
     Environmentalists in Virginia are circumspect when they talk about the coming dustup over the Trump National Golf Course. The director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation declined to be interviewed, and Chris Miller, head of the powerful Piedmont Environmental Council, will say only, “We’re expecting a lawsuit.”
      Aberdeen-like opposition could be a major PR problem for the Trumps. That isn’t sand that bulldozers—and eight-irons—would be cutting into, but terroir, and terroir with important historic governance. And those aren’t weeds but cabernet and chardonnay vines across which the fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides required in large doses by golf courses would inevitably drift.
      The incompatibility between growing fine wine and cries of “fore!” is another problem. Wine is as much about image as the most glamorous golf resort, but it’s not the same image. Selling at the high end demands not just expertise, but also evidence of authenticity bordering on the religious. In the ever-exacting world of fine wine, any distraction can be seen as lack of commitment to the holy of holies, and golf is a large distraction indeed.
      Eric Trump disagrees. “We own the finest golf courses and hotels in the world. Now wine’s part of that world.” The golf course is a fait accompli, he insists. “It would be disheartening if a problem came up, after all the effort we’ve put in, but we’re emotionally committed. This isn’t just a name on a piece of property.”
     (See also: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2015/03/trumpery-virginia-style.html)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The zin of it

                                                      (Andre Tchelistcheff 1901-1994)

      I've never much liked zinfandel. Most of the time it's jammy and overly alcoholic, and though it can have a long finish the over-all effect is often dankly vegetal. Not green peppers, not green beans, but a kind of sweet, earthy pungency ill-suited to food not laden with spices and hot sauce.
     I'll be accused of prejudice against what's often cited as the "American" wine (the grape's related to Italy's primitivo) , but I associate zinfandel with other grapes with great color and fruitiness like petite syrah and Virginia's Norton that fall off precipitously. In my defense I cite the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff, wine making guru to old George de Latour, founder of Beaulieu and in the 1970s and 1980s to most everybody else of note in the Napa Valley. Andre didn't like zinfandel either.
     He used to travel from winery to winery with a black enologist's case whose broken handle was mended with cord. It contained the tools of the itinerant wine consultant: Bunson burner, glass slides, and a microscope wrapped in an old towel. The case had been built in 1910 and bought secondhand by Andre in 1940.  Coppola was one of his clients, and I met Andre there one bright morning to watch him in action and later to write about it in Napa: The Story of an American Eden (pages 344-351). "He placed a drop of Cabernet Franc on the slide and slipped it under the microscope. What he saw when he peered through the lenses were little black dots, malolactic cells... Andre said, 'It's good.'"
     He didn't care for the zinfandel at Conn Creek winery over on the Silverado Trail. There Andre tasted through all the wines and when he came to the zinfandel wrinkled up his nose and said in that inimitable Russian accent, "Oinyons [onions]."
     Now as with most things vinous, there are exceptions. That includes zinfandel. Two noted examples are, of course, the zinfandels of Ridge Vineyards down on the peninsula south of San Francisco that are restrained, even austere, the kind of zinfandel a Bordelaise might make (but doesn't). And Sonoma County's Ravenswood, long a bastion of well-wrought zinfandels at the high end. A couple of recent Ravenwood single-vineyard releases came my way recently,  and they were each in its own way a revelation.
The 2012 Ravenswood Teldeschi is mostly zinfandel, blended with 22% petite sirah and 2% carignan to - presumably - give it the edge. Some of the grapes come from 90-year-old vines in Dry Creek Valley. A berryish, peppery nose that continues on the palate, silky, mouth-filling, with a lingering but clean finish. The wine's well-balanced at 15 per cent alcohol.
      The other big Ravenswood single vineyard bottling has nothing to do with zinfandel. It's a 2011 blend of mostly merlot with a substantial hit of cabernet sauvignon. Pickberry is the somewhat prosaic handle for a wonderful Sonoma Mountain wine with only 13.8 octane. Cherries on the nose, full red fruit on the palate, good balance, and a quality finish.
       A caveat: the Teldeshchi tasting has forced me to pursue a zinful relationship with the many new versions, including those in the rest of Sonoma and across the Mayacamas Mountains in Napa.                                
                             (Coming: What Thomas Jefferson would think of the Napa Valley today.)


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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Another fight on the way, wine-wise...

 More change is in store for the largest vineyard on the East Coast, which may be the most controversial yet.                                                                      
     “This is the board room,” says Ashley, the twenty-something sales manager in a black cashmere sweater. She's showing me around The Barn on the old Kluge estate just south of Charlottesville, formerly the property of multi-media billionaire and philanthropist John Kluge and his wife, Patricia. “You can’t have a Trump building without at least one boardroom.”
   You can rent it if you’re a corporation, or have a wedding party if you’re a potential bride. The Pavilion next door can accommodate lots more guests. Through wrap around windows you see artificial lakes, vineyards, and rolling meadows and woodlands at the eastern base of the Blue Ridge.
   Ashley then slips behind the wheel of the “farm vehicle”-a jet-black Cadillac Escalade-and drives me past vineyards with rolled white netting attached to all the stakes, to foil the birds. "It's like pantyhose," she says. "You roll it up, and when you're done with it you roll it down again."
   We tour the 34,000 square-foot Great Hall where a towering flagpole supports a very large American flag, de rigeur on Trump estates. In the suite upstairs she opens windows onto a view of the chapel and lots of nice country, all for rent. “It smells of the outdoors without being, you know, barnyard-like.”
   This is the latest development in Virginia's galloping use of wineries to generate income having little to do with wine. Albemarle House, the Kluges’ former residence, is a 25,000-square foot Neo-Georgian manor built on a hillside, soon to be an uber-B&B with a 10-car garage and an entire room devoted to china.
   The wood-paneled library lost its books, along with the heirloom Purdy side-by-side shotguns and other rare collectibles, before Donald Trump acquired the whole thing. (The new property manager ordered replacement volumes en masse, online.) In the halls and art gallery hang oil paintings of stalwart figures in red jackets riding to hounds over grasslands like those visible outside.
   “We have everything here for your history enthusiast, your art enthusiast, your wine enthusiast,” concludes Ashley, without saying how Patricia Kluge let all this slip through her fingers.                      

She was formerly Patricia Rose, the third wife of John Kluge. She entertained royally, mixing celebrities and Virginia politicians. With divorce she received a big settlement plus Albemarle Farms, and since she had long been interested “in how wine and food interact,” she tells me by telephone, she decided to “start farming” in the belief that “great wine can be made anyplace in the world.”
   It's an unsupportable claim, particularly in the piedmont where Jefferson had serious viticultural problems. There have since been clear successes in Virginia, but lots of skepticism greeted Patricia’s venture. The soil happened to be loamy, though, which is bad for most crops but good for vines, and vineyards went in.
   Decisions were made about viticulture with the crucial advice of Gabriele Rausse, a respected winemaker with his own label, and Michel Rolland of Mondo Vino who visited the Kluge vineyards often, called for more investment and involved himself in fermentation and blending decisions that produced wines surprising everyone.
   “Patricia was committed to making the best wine in the world,” says Rausse. “Hiring Michel was an adventure for her. He was very expensive but she did it anyway, and a lot of wineries started to worry. People understood that it was time to stop playing around with the grapes and to get serious.”                      

She decided to include sparkling wine, although the late Robert Mondavi warned her against it because there was so much competition. “He scared me,” says Patricia, but as usual she went ahead, reasoning that since sparklers use chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, which ripen early, they have a better chance of surviving Virginia’s cold, rainy autumns.                      
   “She had a lot of heart,” adds Rausse, “but she’s one of those people who don’t know what money is” meaning that it can eventually run out and that serious efforts have to be made to sell a product, particularly wine. Consequently, banks pulled loans and the property went into bankruptcy. As everyone knows too well by now, The Donald bought the property in its entirety for pennies on the dollar, and a new era began.
   I asked Patricia if she’s concerned about the eventual fate of old Albemarle Farms. “Now that I don’t own it anymore, I don’t care what happens to it.”
   That's not the most endearing sentiment from the perspective of people in the neighborhood, or in fact in the Virginia's burgeoning viticultural community. What's happening next is the subject of my piece appearing in April in Worth magazine, involving both Trump wine and the possibly explosive environmental/political impacts of the family's plan.
    Sniff sniff...                              


Friday, March 6, 2015

Wine writers sometimes forget where it all comes from

      Napa valley draws journalists like fruit flies. It draws tourists for the same reason: physical beauty, the glories of the palate, and a hard-to-define frisson including money, celebrity, and dedication.
      Last fall I was invited to join some wine and food writers having dinner in St. Helena. We were a mostly youthful lot: bloggers, a foodie website founder, ‘ziners and one freelance print antediluvian (me) who also blogs. The menu shimmered with promise - you have to be inept to eat badly in Napa - but first it had to be vetted with the waiter for lactose, soy, gluten. The delectable procession of dishes - Hogg Island oysters, piquillo peppers stuffed with cumin braised beef, rabbit tostada with red chile salsa - was carefully appraised by all, our insights lubricated by constant trickles of chardonnay, merlot, and lovely unfiltered rocket juice that sold for $50 a bottle, hardly extravagant by Napa standards.
   Discussion was of Criminal Intent and Billy Crystal, then the post-millennial role of tweets and sound bites (“Now it’s all about what you click through to,” one 'ziner said), wine as an antidote to stress (“I had a couple of glasses before I showed my afghan, and I got a level three!”), blogging (“You gotta, gotta have pictures”), the difficulty of finding adequate accommodation in Mendoza, and the fact that many wineries in Napa with rights-of-way though neighbors’ property can’t allow in as many visitors as the winery might want.
      “Why not?" demanded a New Yorker, between piquillos.
      "It’s private property,” said the Los Angeleno.
      Shaking their heads, they dug in.
      The advent of the internet has drawn many into writing about wine and food who are adept at producing and directing instant electronic synapses with vast, near-effortless reach. But too often among my colleagues there's not only lack of knowledge of, but also a lack of interest in, the struggles over land use that have kept this valley looking as good as it does.
      Not so long ago writers about wine, food and travel had an informed interest in the entirety of the subject. They were better able to see the larger role wine plays as a preserver of landscape through agriculture, the basis of it all. The very idea's inseparable from necessary limitations placed upon development, including tourism, a truth bloggers and antediluvians alike should keep more in mind.
     (Please read the following post: http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-fight-napas-facing-could-be-big-one.html)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The fight Napa's facing could be the big one...

                           Wine or water, and 400 visitor centers                               
   The county board of supervisors met recently in a new venue off Corporate Drive south of the city of Napa, instead of downtown where the recent earthquake left the historic courthouse in plastic-shrouded rehab and side streets full of rubble. The hearing concerned two controversial proposed projects, both involving new wineries in the steep hills where water’s scarce and roads narrow and crowded.
   Signs on sticks in mostly middle-aged hands said, Save Our Water, Save 28,616 Trees, Forests = Healthy Air and, my favorite, Water Over Wine, a succinct summation with biblical resonance. If that’s really the choice then the answer’s obvious, but as with everything else environmental these days, the question is devilishly complicated and ways to ameliorate or bypass restrictions are almost infinite.
   People came to the podium one at a time to voice displeasure and genuine regret for loss of oaks, productive wells, habitat, community. The president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers says, channelling Jefferson, “Agriculture’s the highest and best use of the land. Let’s keep it that way.”

   He points out that recent legislative changes have allowed event centers at wineries, that particularly pernicious element of hospitality that avoids the distribution system. The centers are part of every new business plan, which means more traffic, more arable land taken out of use, more water demands, more waste and more pollution. But many vintners who once would have praised preservation of ag land when applying for a permit now can’t live without an event center.
“We have a diminishing quality of life here,” says a speaker in a down vest. “We’ve lost our way, people are talking of leaving.” Another, a long-term activist named Chris Malan instrumental in the millennial hillside fight, says, “I’m lucky to live here, but do we want to continue to strip our land? It’s a moral question,” and gets applauded.
The biggest project under consideration is the old Walt Ranch high on the eastern side of the valley, 2,300 acres of which about 500 will be “disturbed” (cleared), with 300 in vines. One lurking fear is that houses will eventually appear there, too, vineyards sometimes being stalking horses for serial McMansions.
  The Walt property belongs to Craig Hall, a former owner of the Dallas Cowboys, a developer and “vintner,” a largely symbolic term at this point. Wine has been evoked so often over the years to soften the image of sharp-elbowed commerce that no one expects vintners to actually make the stuff. Winery owning has the same function often assigned to collecting art, and indeed the Halls did commission Frank Geary to design them an artful winery on the county’s main drag, before scrapping the idea.
Hall’s wife, Kathryn, an attractive women in tasteful white knit, was ambassador to Austria during the Clinton era and is a Friend of Bill. She has driven to this meeting in a familiar blue Porsche roadster with a khaki-colored top. I ask if she will discuss the Walt project with me after the meeting, and she goes off to consult with her lawyer and her winemaker. 
   In the years since the winery definition fight winemakers have performed increasingly ambitious lateral arabesques, not just selling the wine they make but also serving as courtiers and confidants of owners trying to navigate the promotional and political thickets, roles for which winemakers by definition aren’t qualified. The former ambassadress comes back, and says, “We’re not going to talk about it.”                     

A young man in tie and seersucker suit is writing vigorously on his clipboard. His seersucker suit and a tie look utterly establishmentarian, but in fact he’s part of the perennial bloom of citizen activists necessary to this long-lived struggle and who flair, flame out, flair again. His name’s Geoff Ellsworth and he agrees to meet me later to talk about “the issues,” which inevitably boil down to one: thwarting attempts by individuals who want a larger part of the action than the community is willing to give them, a variation on the tragedy of the commons.
At High Tech Burrito the unblinkered sun etches our hot border food into the reflective tabletop. “All these projects are ruining the quality of life in the valley,” he says. “There was a woman weeping in that meeting. People like her are the ones most sympathetic to keeping the agricultural preserve. But the ag preserve has lulled us all into thinking we’re protected, when we’re not. We don’t have defenses here against raw capitalism that’s encroaching on the common welfare and adversely affecting water, air, noise, and traffic.”
He pauses to ravenously eat. “Winery owners naturally want to succeed, but the industry as a whole hasn’t stood up to these excessive demands. Like event centers. Now they’re part of every winery proposal." There are more than 400 wineries in Napa now, and close to 700 if you include the “virtuals.” 
A freelance artist, Geof grew up in the hills west of St. Helena. His father was the winemaker at legendary Mayacamas Vineyards whose inky reds showed early the power of Napa fruit. That little mountain range is one of the southernmost reaches of the temperate rainforest that starts up in Alaska and, while Jefferson was trying to imagine the trans-Mississippi west he had just bought from Napoleon, and across which he would send Lewis and Clark. Then trees up there grew so densely that a raindrop took a week to reach the earth.
   Down here where we’re eating carnitos on Trancas Avenue grizzlies scooped salmon and steelhead from the Napa River nearby. Its tributaries ran year-round in a paradisiacal setting brimming with ground water and consequently with life, whereas today the streams are dry and the river so diminished the Corps of Engineers has been charged with rebuilding it.
   The question that often comes to my mind these days in the valley is: "What would Jefferson, that moral proponent of the family farm, make of Napa today?" I decided to get into the question more deeply, and my lengthy answer appears in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the University of Virginia's literary magazine, next month.
   As Les Breeden, the blogger in my novel, Nose, used to say, "Sniff, sniff...