Tuesday, April 3, 2018

"It's the long, crass journey from Eden to cash cow"

        The Buddhist koan asks: What is moo?
By  Bill Barsano, wine and spirits editor of Hemisphere
      James Conaway bids fair to be called the Boswell of Napa Valley, biographer-historian not only of Napa as one of the world’s great vineyards but of the people and powers who revere or rule it and, he greatly fears, will one day ruin it. Conaway began what must now be called his Napa Triptych with "Napa: The Story of an American Eden" in 1990 and followed it in 2002 with "The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley," both of which tracked the increasing commercialization of California’s demi-eden. He now concludes with “Last Light,” in which the battle again pits Big Money against Little People.
    The former, as is customary, think immense wealth entitles them to do whatever they want and will not hesitate to beat you to death with lawyers to make the point. The latter--preservationists, conservationists, ecologists and advocates of neighborly small-town life—vainly hope for laws to be upheld and the public respected. Fat chance. The issue comes down to this: ordinary folk want to retain the decades-old legal definition of a winery (i.e., a place where wine is made) and powerful interests want to expand it into a plunderland of intensive commercial development for anything and everything to do with profiting from wine. They want more tasting rooms, more tourists, more restaurants, more motels (including a dog motel), more “event spaces” and more facilities for selling direct to the consumer, which is ever so much more profitable than shipping the stuff all over the country through innumerable distributors and retailers, each of whom takes his cut.
    The Little People were worried about more noise and traffic, increased pollution, water supply and purity, deforestation and heaps of building waste from the construction of hillside “ranchettes” where city people can pretend to be a part of the very quality of life they’re destroying. Conaway is clearly on the side of Small, no question, but he’s too honest to load the dice; in any event he doesn’t need to. All those lawyers and vintners and developers and trade associations, aided and abetted by compliant and/or spineless public officials make the issues clear and the outcome inevitable.
    After all, we’re talking about a place where only a few years ago arrogance reached such a pitch that one of the leading industry titans tried to change the name of Black Mountain to reflect the name of the vineyard he owned on its slopes.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Sonoma shares Napa's concerns, majorly



James Conaway, Chronicler of Napa Valley, Takes Aim at Napa Vintners
By Bill Swindell 
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | April 1, 2018

    James Conaway is angry.
    Author and journalist, Conaway has been the foremost chronicler of Napa Valley for more than three decades. His Napa: The Story of an American Eden in 1990 told of the early pioneers who turned a family farming community in the valley into the premier wine region of the United States.
    He followed that book with The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley in 2002 that covered how new investors were changing the valley with their emerging focus on tourism and marketing higher-priced cult wines to consumers.
     His new book does not hide his current feelings for Napa Valley. Napa at Last Light: America's Eden in an Age of Calamity takes aim at the investors and big companies, which he contends have transformed the area with crass commercialism that has overridden the quality of life and harmed the environment.
    As he visited the region on a book tour last month, Conaway noted that he received a chilly reception from many in Napa County’s wine community, though he was embraced by citizens and activists who share his view.
    “The establishment has never really cared for me. Now they are trying to undermine me,” said Conaway, 76, who started out as the wine writer at the Washington Post and is the author of 13 books. “People have finally woken up. They are paying attention this.”
    Press Democrat Staff Writer Bill Swindell recently interviewed Conaway to get his thoughts on the local wine industry, the backlash against wine tourism, and what the future holds for the environment. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity:

    Napa Valley has always attracted rich people as investors. Was there a particular tipping point for you that was critical?

    "Back when Heublein Inc. bought Inglenook Winery in 1969, I guess that was the first corporate shock for the valley. It’s true there have always been wealthy people in Napa and they would often come to their ranches on the weekend. It’s an order of magnitude that’s greater than that now. There are so many wealthier people and they have so much money and less knowledge and interest in agriculture and grapes than the wealthy people before — that’s my impression. It was kind of a participatory investment in the early days. Inglenook founder Gustave Niebaum didn’t make wine, but knew a lot about it. He had his own standards and knew what he wanted. Today, depending on how much money you have, you can sort of obtain everything for you."

    You contend many of these people are not actually vintners, and don’t know the essentials for winemaking or growing grapes?

    "These guys do tend to know that sort of stuff. It provides conversational opportunities for them. They may be intimately involved in the promotions side, but they aren’t doing the work. It’s questionable about how much they actually know. Large amounts of money changes all parameters really. There is so much of it now. Vineyards have become real estate deals as much as they have become opportunities to put in a vineyard. If you have a vineyard permit, you can flip it and you can make a lot of money. The thing is there is not endless resources. And doing this up in the hills really has an impact on the water supply."

    What about the role the media plays, especially the constant focus on such exclusive brands as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate that can sell for thousands of dollars per bottle?

    "Wine writers ought to be tougher than they are. Not so much on the wines, but on the operations. I think readers are increasingly interested in that.     Wine journalists need to work a lot harder. Not just talking about mouthfeels and soft tannins, but what is behind the operations."

    What about the focus on cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley, given that the varietal brings higher profits than other styles? Is that part of the problem?

    "A lot of the new money doesn’t need to get the return. One of the problems is they don’t want to get the return. They just want it for the cachet. They can never make enough just by selling the wine to put in the cost of a $20 million winery — in most cases. If they flip it to an Asian investor that’s different. A lot of them are more concerned with ratings and the opinions of their wine. The problem is once they have those, then they start looking around for ways to expand. Often that expansion includes real estate. Vineyard land is much scarcer in Napa County. The last major expansion is the Walt Ranch project, which would open up 209 acres of new vineyards between city of Napa and Lake Berryessa. But that battle is still being fought in the courts even though it was first proposed more than 10 years ago.
    "That is really the message. Napa doesn’t have endless resources — meaning land to plant new vineyards. Putting them in the hillside destroys many of the trees and messes up the absorption of rainwater. You get runoff and foul streams."

    Environmentalists have put forward a June 5 measure that would curtail new vineyard development in Napa County by providing greater protection to watersheds and oak woodlands. Do you view that as a hopeful sign?

    "This initiative that has been put forward in Napa is really kind of modest. There is a lot of complaining. It will eventually preserve oak trees. But it’s not like Napa doesn’t have a lot of vineyards already. Symbolically, however, it’s very important. It’s the case of the majority really wanting something, but being thwarted by the minority in cahoots with the county government."

    How powerful is the wine industry in Napa County?

    "The wine industry is quite spoiled in Napa. They resent people, the proletariat pushing up this initiative that many people in the valley want. But they don’t want it. There is a bit hubris in their reaction. How much better would it have been for the Napa Valley Vintners (the industry’s top trade group) to side with the initiative? From a public relations side, it would have been the right thing to do. I also think it would have satisfied a lot more of their members than the big boys want to admit. They would have profited by it. They are very nervous about this for reasons that remain undisclosed."

    Would wineries benefit from a cap on the number of vineyards because it would limit competition?

    "It’s the corporate way in America — grow or die. That might have fit at one time. But it doesn’t fit today with all the resources disappearing. Drought is coming back. Grow and die is more like it. Grow and sell out is what a lot of these operations are thinking about. Instead of getting involved in agriculture, you are getting involved in branding. You can make a lot of money in the short term until people find out what you have done."

    What are your notable examples of wineries that sold out to bigger investors and lost their luster?

    "Beaulieu Vineyard. Beringer Vineyards. Robert Mondavi Winery. It’s an inevitable progression if you adhere to the corporate mantra of “grow or die” and make as much money as you can four times a year. Forget about long-term decisions. How do corporations make money? They cut down on the raw price on what goes into their product, and continue to sell it as if it was their old self. In fact, it isn’t. It’s a shell."

    But why should wine be immune to business pressures of other products?

    "Business is supposed to be good for the citizens of America. It’s not just supposed to be good just for corporations, the CEOs and stockholders. This whole notion we are talking about is very instructive of community. They will say, “We are job creators” and all that stuff. The bigger point is the quality of life, especially when you are cutting down the trees and subverting the definition of agriculture so you can build more real estate within the Napa County Agricultural Preserve. It’s destructive of communities. It’s destructive of the environment."

    Climate change will likely play a major role in coming years. What is the local wine industry doing to plan for such a scenario?

    "The wine people that we are talking about, they don’t like to talk about that. They will have to make some hard decisions, and they have to look at things realistically. A lot of them don’t even want to admit that climate change is taking place. It’s put them in an untenable position on what is dictated by the politics of the issue. I think it’s clear that they are in a losing game. It’s short-term thinking."

    What about Sonoma County?

    "The subtitle is 'America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity.' I just don’t mean Napa County. Sonoma County is in the age of calamity too. Sonoma is about twice the size of Napa. It still has mixed agriculture, which is a blessing. People who live there should be grateful for that because that’s gone in Napa. It’s a more comfortable physical environment now for people coming through here in Sonoma County. People do have to get involved early on this issue. There are plenty of voices out there now and organizations out there to help. You need to speak out and get in with others quickly."

    The cannabis business has essentially been shut out in Napa County. What’s your take on the crop?

    It brings in a whole different clientele. Tourism in Napa is really important to everybody. Cannabis brings a different kind of tourist. It’s not a good kind of farming. It uses more water. I know some people do it a different way. But it is a little hypocritical of the vintners and growers in Napa to complain about cannabis. It’s a plant. What right do they have to nip this in the bud, so to speak?"

    Are there people in the wine business you still admire?

    "Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards in Angwin is one. There are some younger examples. Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines in Napa. He’s kind of famous. There are plenty of little guys. The problem is the little guys make the best wine and they are vulnerable to the big guys. It’s the old Standard Oil thing."

    What should Napa County and the rest of the region do to address some of these problems?

    "The only answer is to stop creating new enterprises that are ancillary to wine; that is bringing in new people with activities that have nothing to do with agriculture. Tourism is what I am talking about. Tourism has never saved anything. It’s destroyed many things. Tourism devours what it loves."


Sunday, April 1, 2018

The last oak


I remember those trees. Cutting them was both a travesty and the beginning of all this. (Anyone have a photo of the Bale Oaks from the early nineties?)

Measure C endorsement

Ken Stanton and Doug Stanton 
From the Napa Register:

We’d like to lend our voice to the growing chorus of supporters for Measure C.
Napa wine grapegrowers and vintners have harvested so much more than grapes from the bounty of the land, now it’s time we returned the favor.
In an unprecedented time when a hostile federal government is attempting to roll back established protections for national monuments, repeal decades long safeguards for coastal waters, and undo 50 years of environmental progress, we must be more proactive than ever as good stewards of the land we call home.
It’s a scientific fact that California has more biological diversity, including more endemic species, than any other state in the union.
And Napa County has particularly high levels of biological diversity compared to California. We are living in one of the great biodiversity hot spots in the nation.
The forests, meadows and woodlands in Napa’s mountains and hills harbor 1,700 plant species, 1,400 of which are native. Unfortunately an alarming 126 species are rare or threatened, particularly by loss of habitat due to vineyard conversions. Measure C will give needed protection for our own botanical Eden by preserving habitat, preserving our valley aquifers, keeping the air clean, storing carbon, and many other benefits.
Some of you will remember the Bale Oaks between St, Helena and Calistoga. You’d come around the ‘S ‘ turns before Bothe Park and see the most beautiful 100 acres in Napa Valley. Here was a magnificent oak savanna with over 75 valley oaks and black oaks up to 400 years old with dozens of native wildflower species carpeting the ground in spring. It was the last example of what this valley looked like in prehistoric times.
All of it was destroyed for vineyard conversion in 1987. It’s too late for the Bale Oaks but we must stop this sort of destruction in our hills.
Opponents to Measure C conveniently overlook one truth: property owners county-wide did give up some rights for the formation of the Ag Preserve. Sometimes, we have to consider the commonwealth over individual rights, the benefits of the many over the few.
We believe that the proposed Watershed initiative of 2018 is a logical corollary to the Ag Preserve. Protection of the watershed is the equivalent of protection of the vineyards. They go hand in hand. This is a watershed moment in more ways than one. Please join us in voting YES for Measure C in June.
Ken Stanton
Doug Stanton
Stanton Vineyards Inc.

Friday, March 30, 2018

A red line crossed by Napa vintners and growers

              From WineBusiness.com:                                

Napa County "No on C" Campaign Sued Over Ballot Argument Mistruths 

"Opponents deliberately misstated the facts to try and confuse voters into rejecting this important measure."
by Kerana Todorov
March 27, 2018
Formal arguments against a measure to limit the removal of oak trees from the hillsides of the Napa Valley are misleading and should not be printed in the June election pamphlets, according to a complaint filed in Napa County Superior Court.

A supporter of the Measure C on Monday sued Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur, alleging the arguments opponents filed with the county elections office are false and/or misleading, according to the lawsuit. The complaint seeks a court order to prevent Tuteur from printing these arguments in the June 5 election ballot pamphlet, according to the court filing.

Also named in the lawsuit are five opponents who signed the arguments against Measure C filed with Tuteur’s office, including Belia Ramos, Napa County supervisor.

Wine industry groups, including the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa Valley Vintners and the Winegrowers of Napa County oppose the initiative. They cite a legal analysis paid by the county, one that is disputed by the supporters of the initiative, that concluded the proposed measure is “’unlawfully vague and misleading.’’ Opponents have also said repeatedly Measure C, if enacted, will have unintended consequences.

Measure C would limit oak removal after 795 acres of oak woodlands are removed from land in the agricultural watershed district. The measure would create new buffer zones along streams and require that three oak trees be planted for every oak removed. Currently, two oak trees have to replace every lost oak tree.

The plaintiff, Yeoryios C. Apallas, a resident and grower in the Oak Knoll District, disputed statements filed with Tuteur’s office that Measure C, once enacted, “will outlaw future farming in the Ag Watershed;” will open “the door to event centers;” and “will prevent property owners from adding to one’s home.” 

It will not open the door to the opening of event centers, increase traffic on Highway 29 or prevent property owners from adding on to their property if Measure passes, Apallas said in his complaint. 

“I filed this lawsuit because, in my opinion, this ballot argument clearly crossed a line from persuasion into blatantly misleading Napa County voters,” Apallas said in a written statement. “It’s one thing for Napa County residents to have an honest difference of opinion, but I could not sit by while opponents deliberately misstated the facts to try and confuse voters into rejecting this important measure.”

Measure C is not against agriculture or property rights, Apallas said Tuesday. Another 8,000 acres could still be developed on land zoned Agricultural Watershed if Measure C is enacted, according to an analysis by a UC Davis cartographer, he said. 

Apallas also disputed in his lawsuit that all supervisors and mayors in Napa County oppose Measure C.
At least one of these elected officials does not. St. Helena Mayor Alan Galbraith on Tuesday said he does support Measure C to protect the Bell Canyon Reservoir. Bell Canyon is a source of water for St. Helena.

Another mayor, John Dunbar, mayor of the Town of Yountville, said he opposes Measure C. He stressed in an email Tuesday that this was his personal position, not representative of the Town Council as a whole. Chris Canning, mayor of Calistoga, said he opposes Measure C.

Tuteur on Tuesday said his office will do what the court orders. The argument signers, he said in an email, “are the real parties in interest and would defend their argument during the court process.”

“The election official is only responsible for receiving the arguments and has no control over their contents which is why the courts get involved if there is a dispute,” Tuteur said.
A representative for the Napa County Farm Bureau, which has posted a “No on C” sign on its front lawn of its headquarters downtown Napa, said it will consult with an elections attorney.
"While we disagree with the merits of the legal action that has been taken against our ballot argument, we are taking this matter seriously and will be working with an elections attorney to look further into this matter,” Napa County Farm Bureau policy director Ryan Klobas said in a statement Wednesday. “We were made aware of this decision less than 24 hours ago, but are moving quickly to address the issues raised by the petitioner to expeditiously resolve this issue and move forward in our campaign."

A measure similar to Measure C failed to make the November 2016 ballot because of a technicality.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

I have never been drunk on cheap port

'Napa Valley' book is more a light rosé than a hearty burgundy
Rare is a bottle of 1971 Ridge Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Rarer still is a book beautifully written, yet marred by an utter lack of cohesion.
To experience such a phenomenon, decant Napa at Last Light: America's Eden in an Age of Calamity(Simon & Schuster, 287 pp.)
Author James Conaway is a master of language and his sentences are as well-tended as some of the California vineyards he describes so lovingly. He's an expert on all things Napa Valley; this is the third installment in his trilogy about a tiny swatch of a huge state that the Southerner fell in love with in the 1980s.
This denouement reads, though, like it was assembled by someone drunk on cheap port. It seems to be a scrapbook comprised of all the tidbits that didn't fit into volumes one and two — a notebook dump, journalists call it.
Conaway knows his subject matter incredibly well, but whatever wispy narrative he has assembled meanders everywhere, peppered with much more detail than any non-obsessive can handle. (For example, does the reader need to know that an area in one well-known home was called the Marshmallow Bedroom because of the lumpy mattress?)
But a patient reader will learn much about the Napa Valley, such as:
  • The 1976 Judgment of Paris, the tasting competition that put the American wine-making upstarts on the literal map.
  • The growing corporatization of the California wine industry.
  • The area's susceptibility to drought and wildfires.
  • The controversies — including land-use issues — stemming from the wine tourism industry that draws busloads of travelers who want to tour the vineyards and visit the on-site "entertainment centers." 
  • The fights between vintners and locals not directly affiliated with the booming businesses.
Bold-faced names like Robert Mondavi and Francis Ford Coppola appear, as do plenty of smaller players who effected great change in the once-unruly valley that today boasts an $18 billion wine economy.
As for Conaway's prose, it's worth savoring.
Describing the wildlife in the region is a tasty sentence one wouldn't expect in a book for oenophiles or aspiring ones: "Only the elegant mountain lion gazes knowingly at the light that comes on automatically at night, piercing the darkness she owns." One property is described as being "surrounded by a riot of blooming wild mustard. This and other chest-high nitrogen fixers compose a dense, nutritious jungle overrunning the vineyard and trying to hide the winery's name painted unspectacularly on a rail fence." Wines tinkered with too much are "lobotomized potions."

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

My book's under attack by you-know-who

    What's behind those billboards in Napa saying the prevention of tree cutting on the hillsides will increase traffic (the opposite is true). Who's writing snarky emails to groups like The League of Women Voters for backing Measure C?
    Apparently the tactics of your president have been adopted by the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse (see https://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2016/08/four-horsemen-of-apocalypse-in-comely.html).
   This is a crucial moment in Napa's history and what hangs in the balance is the future of the grand experiment that began back in 1968 with the establishment of the Agricultural Preserve.
    Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Aesthetic Serendipity

                           Cezanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-90

        Recently in Napa, I was asked not what I thought was the best wine in the valley, but what was Washington's best institution for visiting.
        Without hesitation I said the National Gallery of Art. Often thought by visitors to be part of the vast Smithsonian complex of museums, it is instead the mostly independent creation of former millionaire Andrew Mellon that, like the Smithsonian, is open to the public free of charge.
        Thus natives and visitors alike can breeze most any day and immerse themselves in the gallery's vast art collection, along with borrowed works, that has wielded considerable cultural influence for a century.
         Sometimes the never-ending cycle of opening and departing shows achieves what feels like supreme aesthetic serendipity (though probably long envisioned by curators). Take two of the concurrent exhibitions - the first full exhibition of the portraits of Paul Cezanne from the late19th century, and the works of the living photographer, Sally Mann.
        Two artists could scarcely be more different in both medium and outlook, yet both reflect the importance of place in artists’ work, and both seek to reveal the inner life of subjects caught in the light of their time.
Cezanne painted more than 200 portraits, 26 of himself. These examples follow the course of his artistic development from youthful painter to the launching of Modernism. Many are from his time spent in Provence, and though some are clear precursors of Cubism, all reflect the complicated world of the individual in any age.

             Self-Portrait, 1880-81                  
              Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair, 1877

        The latter paintings have what might be called a solidity of soul, regardless of the sitter’s place in society, for Cezanne made some sit for more than 100 hours “like an apple.” These included his devoted wife. 

                    The Ditch, 1987, gelatin silver print 
Some of Mann’s photographs are haunting portraits of rural Virginia manipulated during printing to evoke an overall sense of apartness and decline. The portraits of her own children manage to be both beguiling and vaguely disturbing, present-day sentinels from a tragic past susceptible to all the conflicting cultural impulses of today.
     The same soulfulness reigns in free and seemingly happy kids before the internet bloom and the scourge of video games, yet some are perhaps too privy to the allure of the lens.

                            Deep South, Untitled (Stick) 1998

 Last Light, 1990

        Seeing both shows in one visit requires sitting quietly in one of the National Gallery’s covered courtyards between viewings. The overall effect is reaffirmation of human complexity and the necessity of the artistic vision in a free, sometimes chaotic world.