Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Writing Redux II: The back story...

 When Napa: The Story of an American Eden first came out, the members of the GONADS were among my many critics, particularly the vintner who told the joke and had to buy his wife a new Mercedes. (The punchline was, "You rarely get either at home.") Others belonged to established Napa families. I had committed an act of “faction” with Napa, according to the daughter of one revered valley clan writing in the San Francisco Examiner, after gaining admission “to peoples’ confidence” through my “serious, gentlemanly approach” and then producing “a misrepresentation and a betrayal.”
  I liked her and am sorry she felt that way. But I recognized something distinctly southern in her notion that one must be either a cultural acolyte, or a betrayer.
  I had simply wanted – and still do - to capture a unique part of the country, one with the most valuable legal crop anywhere and a product that embodies all the charms and excesses of making it in America. Here the sainted family farm had acquired hyperthyroid bells and whistles, but pointing that out wasn't comfortable, and still isn't.
    That same impulse inspired my novel, Nose, set in a valley much like Napa, one in the midst of the last recession when many of the shibboleths of California’s high-end wine trade were threatened. Maybe fiction's better suited to the imaginary exploration of greed and landed fealty, I had thought at one point. And it was less likely to produce literary casualties among the natives of broader Enotopia, which has increasingly come to resemble Napa Valley.
    There are two stark and instructive ways of looking at places like it, both a bit cliched at this point but still instructive. One version is as a giant hot tub full of naked little Jay Gatsbys standing up to shake it and be noticed. The other is as a veritable Eden at the outset of the nineteenth century, when grizzlies still dipped steelhead from the river and high on the Mayacamas range a raindrop needed a week to reach the earth, so thick was the canopy of redwoods and other trees.
    This was the southern tip of of the most extensive temperate rainforest on Earth, a domain starting way up in the southeast Alaska whose demise is one of the great tragedies of a dying planet. The tension between those two visions is what inspired me and is a fitting subject for any writer.
    Michael Pollan says that eating is an agricultural act. Well, so is drinking wine. It can also be an environmental one. In that possibility lie all sorts of stories that anyone interested in writing about wine can and should explore. All the awkward manifestations of industrial success of the last two centuries - disappearing water, particulate in the air, chemical penetration of the very mysteries of life, rising seas and temperatures - are reflected in the glass in your hand.
     Even the indirect environmental effects of wine should be inherent in writing about it, like an enduring light in the back of the writer’s mind. There’s also inspiration in the past lives of those involved in making and moving wine, as well as clues about what sort of wine they might make. I’ve found that people who destroy beautiful landscapes elsewhere to make enough money to construct their Edens in wine country are likely to behave just as ruthlessly in the wine business.
     It’s all grist for the writer’s mill anyway, and totally justified. It may not make you popular with some so-called “vintners” - usually a silly description since most of them aren’t really. They’re accustomed to perceptions of emerging from public relations campaigns, or from critics ignoring the foibles and often the desecrations of those behind the labels.
     The relevance of wine is broader than most people realize, or admit to. In our loud, exhaustively political era even becomes political. In part at least you can predict a person’s politics by the wine they’re associated with, not so much the varietal as the way its made and the claims made for it. To generalize a bit, you could say that big, jammy alcoholic cabernets are Republican, and restrained, classically-structured, food-friendly cabernets are Democrat. The former’s about power, individualism, exclusivity, the latter about balance, community, finesse. In that equation, Screaming Eagle’s a Romney and Frog’s Leap an Obama.
     Writing about all this matters, but learning how to do it isn’t easy, and young writers today face challenges that are doubly daunting.
                                                     (Next: Wine as ink)                                
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