Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Don Corleone's desk: 1

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015. 
      A bulldozer operator cutting a foundation for a mansion overlooking the valley floor or clearing chaparral for a vineyard still came across the odd redwood stake, hammered into the earth in another era. And if the driver knew the valley, he might say, “Ah, the Italians.”
      Their names are mostly forgotten, as are the men and women who put minds and backs into what became a triumph of transplantation. They were once as exotic as the Chinese coolies they replaced in the fields, identified by hard cheese, stubby smoldering toscanos, and unpronounceable names. The Italians took up the tough tasks and seemed to enjoy them, their warm, explosive speech echoing through the vineyards and their smiles in the old photographs full of teeth. They paid homage to grapes few people had heard of and no one dreamed would someday have a devoted following here as “Cal-Italos” and “super-Tuscans.” The names suggested foreign potentates, saints, and weather—barbera, sangiovese, nebbiolo. They drank local “zin” (zinfandel) and “pets” (petite sirah) with gusto, in great quantities.
     Their cooking varied beyond the imaginings of the Californians—how could there be so many different kinds of noodles? And they were loyal. Take on one Italian, take on all. Unfazed by the stupendous effort required to plant and tend grapes by hand, they had unbounded confidence in other endeavors, insisting on their due, maintaining bella figura, gradually buying up plots in the Central Valley and in the narrow coastal defiles, farming land no one else wanted, including the hillsides. The already wealthy owners of those Victorian piles built in the late nineteenth century in Napa and Sonoma couldn’t outlast the paisans, whose favorite game involved bowling without pins and who pursued life on a level of emotional intensity exhausting to the uninitiated.
     There was nothing that could not be contended. “An argument,” as one descendant recognized, “is an Italian conversation.”
     Mostly they worked. It was as if the Protestant ethic had been grafted onto the Catholic mysteries. The outcome of all this energy was not limited to wine, food, and opera. There were Italians in the bank in San Francisco, and so a large segment of the wine industry was nurtured. Italian fortunes came to be exemplified by two names famous in the California vineyard, Gallo and Mondavi. Ernest Gallo showed California how to sell wine with a single-minded competitiveness that left the competition dry-mouthed. Eventually he turned bottles with handles on them into sleek Bordelais shapes containing French varietals and sold them at prices no one ever thought Gallo wines would aspire to. But more than anyone in Napa Valley, it was Robert Mondavi who boosted the appreciation of fine California wine.
     The Mondavis had been preceded in the valley by Louis Martini, an imposing figure in a black cloak, a gifted winemaker but proud, terminally argumentative, thoroughly Italian. Had Martini possessed a talent for public relations, there would never have been the Robert Mondavi phenomenon. Robert and his brother, Peter, began in Sunny St. Helena Winery with their father’s money, Robert dreaming of oak barrels and a product to compete with the best, which then meant French. But his and Peter’s arrangement—an echo of the Gallo brothers’ anthem, “I’ll sell all the wine you can make if you’ll make all the wine I can sell”—faltered after too many Italian conversations, and Robert went out on his own.
     So relentless was his selling and so great was his success that he attracted a Frenchman—the Baron Rothschild—to Napa Valley in the 1970s, a coup and a watershed. But now, at the end of the twentieth century, the Robert Mondavi Winery was a publicly held corporation where Italian conversations abounded between Robert’s two sons, the lucky spermers Michael and Tim, with their sister a distant moderating force. What would happen to the corporation when the old man died was anybody’s guess.
     The most famous Italian in the valley might still be Robert, but increasingly attention focused on another name, one with fame related not to wine but to the spinning of celluloid fantasy and, increasingly, to tourism.

     “Don Corleone’s desk will be in the entrance hall,” said the handsome young woman serving as a tour guide, talking about the desk used in the film The Godfather. “It’s a statement, you know, of Francis’s accomplishments.”



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Thursday, December 24, 2015

The revelatory power of a row of trees

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015. 

  One day Roland Wentzel saw a bearded man in glasses and blue jeans drive up in a car and get out. He was smiling, as Wentzel remembered it. “He said, ‘Hi, I’m your new neighbor.’ Then he told me how rich he was and that he was going to sue me.”

     Bob Bressler would dispute that account. “I didn’t get in my car and drive over there,” he said. ”I was coming home from somewhere and saw him, and simply stopped.” He would deny threatening to sue because ”that would have been illogical.”

     A subsequent survey proved that the Bresslers did indeed own the allée. They granted the Wentzels an easement to use it anyway, and decided to cut down one row of trees, acting on the advice of Dave Abreu, the vineyard manager, whose sole interest was vines. The Bresslers had learned that grapes, not trees, were what Napa Valley was all about, that if you wanted to be taken seriously, you had to be willing to go to the mat over quality cabernet sauvignon. The trees not only took up space but would also shade the young vines, and they were, as Bressler pointed out, “only poplars, for God’s sake.”
     The truth was that neither Bressler nor Wentzel stood to lose anything substantial. Failure to produce a sought-after, expensive wine would not appreciably affect Bressler’s fortune, nor was Wentzel financially prohibited from tearing down his little guesthouse and building a petite allée on his own property. And whoever failed to get what he wanted could well afford to move somewhere else and start over again.
      What really transpired was a contest of wills among people accustomed to getting what they wanted: vineyard owner, vineyard manager, and neighbor were all convinced of the rightness of their position and unwilling to compromise. The argument was not about grapevines, profit, peri-urban aesthetics, or the need for yet another cult cabernet, but about the importance of winning, and a direct reflection of corporate values projected on a small, increasingly fragile part of America.
     Some perspective on this was provided by Samson Bowers, a tall, courtly, aging St. Helena city councilman—white goatee, white buzzcut, tennis shorts—who lived for a time in the Wentzels’ guest cottage, liked the poplars, and after learning that the Bresslers intended to remove one row of them, decided to help out. Not officially but artistically, by making a scale drawing of the petite allée and plotting the angle of afternoon sun and proving that cutting the trees would do away with only about eight feet of shadow for a short period each day.
     Bowers had bailed out of advertising in Manhattan at age forty-seven and come west, never regretting it, living first in Carmel Valley and fleeing its commercialization, already the second time he had witnessed such a phenomenon. He grew up in upstate New York, and on the wall of his St. Helena condo hung a photograph of his ancestral home, a brick Georgian with a fireplace in every room, Bowers being descended from the man who had been given a patent for thirteen thousand acres by King George III in the eighteenth century.
     That land came to include Cooperstown, and Bowers had watched it transformed from a lovely American community into a parody of the same—Baseball, USA—with a Hall of Fame, “museums,” souvenir shops, baseball paraphernalia emporiums, and fast-food outlets. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to St. Helena, threatened by sheer wealth and by people pressing in from all sides. Newcomers to the valley didn’t vote, as Bowers often pointed out, and didn’t attend Rotary or the other less glamorous gatherings. “They want all the services they had in cities,” from specialty protein to “Julieted” nails. “And they always drive their cars.”
     Bowers walked everywhere—the supermarket, the library—and increasingly found himself opposed not just to automobiles but also to the concept of private property, a surprising position, he realized, in one whose ancestor was given land by the king of England. St. Helena had six thousand citizens, three traffic lights, and no Mc-Donald’s. The closest thing to a fast-food stop was Taylor’s Refresher, home of the ahi burger, heavenly fish tacos, and of course wine. “The only way to keep the town small is to deny the overblown plans of outsiders, commercial and otherwise,” Bowers said repeatedly. “But ‘no’ is a word Americans have a problem with.”
     The “yuppiefication of the valley,” as he put it, was symbolized by the Napa Valley Wine Auction, which raised large sums of money from people competing to show how much of it they had, and by the fact that few of the almost three hundred vintners “ever get their hands dirty.” Both things he saw as the unhealthy result of a national economy empowering a relative few without inculcating in them a commensurate sense of responsibility.
     Bowers calculated at the time that the Bresslers’ new vineyard would contain twenty-eight hundred vines per acre when completed. That was six times the number that would have gone in under the old planting system, before yield and quality became as much social as financial concerns. Each of the vines would require water, and water was already a contentious issue in the valley. All an ob server had to do was to project the elements in this little conflict over a row of poplars onto the rest of the valley to see the scope of the problem of vineyard development. In the end, Bowers believed, the big battles—including the one over the hillsides—would be between private property proponents and those advocating shared community values.
     The trees were cut, Roland Wentzel contending that about thirty poplars fell to make way for roughly as many cabernet vines, but Bob Bressler claiming that only twenty-four fell, and this allowed him to put in four additional rows of vines because he no longer needed turnaround space for the tractor. The capitalist also claimed that the additional vines would produce at least three hundred bottles of wine worth, if all went well, about twenty-five thousand additional dollars a year.
     The Wentzels continued to look at the toy vineyard and at the Bresslers’ house and tried to be philosophical about both. But then they put their lovely Mediterranean villa, with its monastery beams and old-fashioned, wide-spaced vineyard, on the market for five million dollars. They moved up to Mendocino County—no one asked if they still intended to turn back the clock—to relatively unspoiled country. There they, too, put in a commercial vineyard, and planned to build a winery.

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Saturday, December 19, 2015

As he often said, "I'm a capitalist."

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.                  

 The Bresslers' property already included a little acre-and-a-quarter vineyard planted to runty vines in a long-gone, less sophisticated time, and this might have satisfied them, being the down-to-earth millionaires they were, in jeans and baggy sweaters, with a pool table in their living room and a droll sculpture of a standing lower torso, also wearing jeans. But then they met the vineyard manager, and everything changed.                                                                               
     Vineyard managers are necessary adjuncts of the good life in Napa Valley, more important than personal trainers or personal chefs, and in the valley they come neither easily nor cheaply. This one had a crooked smile, a tendency to swear, and a reputation for excellence at any cost which, translated, meant anywhere from twenty-five thousand to seventy-five thousand dollars to replant a single acre of vines, and another ten thousand to thirty thousand dollars an acre a year just to maintain it.
     This vineyard manager was an outgoing native with curly black hair and a lopsided grin named David Abreu, of Portuguese descent, who had grown up in the valley and learned vineyard work the hard way, by doing it. Abreu was the most talked about vineyard manager in the valley now, which some thought meant in California, some in the world, a “vineyard manager to the stars” sought after by the likes of Garen Staglin and others who could afford him.
    Abreu came over and looked at their vineyard and laughed in that slightly manic way of his. He said, “Here . . . hey,” and began to pleasantly curse, calling theirs “a toy vineyard.” The Bresslers had to hire a winemaker, too, for between one thousand and four thousand dollars a month, and not just any winemaker. Mia Klein, partner of Tony Soter, architect of the famous Spottswoode wines, had for years made the cult cabernet Dalla Valle, and she and Dave and the Bresslers had a fine debate about rootstock. Dave agreed to a close planting, three feet by five, for a mere six thousand dollars, and Mia to someday make the wine in one of the valley’s custom crushers—commercial wineries offering pressing and storage facilities to small producers—for forty dollars a case. The Bresslers would have to buy their own French oak barrels for storage at six hundred and fifty dollars apiece.
     What fun, the Bresslers thought. Even with a toy vineyard, where the economies of scale were not in your favor, more money could be made than was spent, given the astronomical price of Napa Valley boutique cabernet sauvignon with the right provenance, meaning it had been put together by the right people and carefully positioned. Hadn’t the Grace family turned one acre of grapes into a cult wine of the nineties? The Bresslers would hire someone to do their label, the twenty-first-century equivalent of a coat of arms; such a “package,” including foils and letterhead, could cost more than one hundred thousand dollars to design. But first they went label shopping at Dean & DeLuca, picking out the sort of label they liked, imagining what their name would look like on a lovely dark bottle.
     Gradually the vineyard became more to them than a toy. They were able to buy an adjoining four acres, and quickly did so, and Dave Abreu took that on, too. By then the price of it all had risen considerably. Abreu now said, when asked how much money would be required, “Whatever it takes.” The Bresslers could afford him and they could afford Mia Kline. Bob Bressler was, as he often said, modestly, standing there in his running shoes, clean jeans, and bulky sweater, cell phone attached to his belt, “a capitalist.”
     He and Stacy would eventually produce a thousand cases a year. Robert Parker, the famous wine critic, would no doubt taste their wine because he liked Abreu and he tasted all the wines originating in Abreu vineyards, and all the wines that Mia made, and usually ranked them highly. The Bresslers’ wine would flow out to the world through fine restaurants and the Internet when the time came. All this was predicted from what was still a scruffy patch of hobby vines but might someday be a cameo Lafite or Stag’s Leap.
     In the process something else was being demonstrated by these avowed capitalists: making money had become a necessary component of social and cultural authentication; it was perhaps the primary distinction between the new fortunes of the day and those of the past, as if John D. Rockefeller had tried to marginally increase his fortune with some commercial enterprise in his side yard.
     Meanwhile, at parties, people inquired after the Bresslers’ vineyard and after their intentions for their wine; suddenly, Bob and Stacy were in. Their involvement in a vineyard and a cabernet aspiring to cult status was an indication of serious intent and the great distance they had traveled in a short time—from the rigors of take-no-prisoners electronic innovation to the joys of vintnerhood.
     Some of their new neighbors had reservations about all this. The neighbor just to the west, Roland Wentzel, was a successful entrepreneur, not in computers but in furniture, the owner of three upscale outlets called Traditions who had come to the valley in 1990 to “turn back the clock.” He had conducted a survey of the Bay Area and concluded that St. Helena was the only small town left with a small town’s characteristics. These included an independent economy, so people did not have to get into their cars to go shopping, and schools close enough so children could walk, and the movie theater and restaurants close enough for the parents to do the same. And there was agriculture within the town limits.
     Farming was a vital part of the ideal community, Wentzel believed, and of nature, too, evident in the long westerly view of the Mayacamas Mountains that included Douglas fir and some redwoods, evidence of the rapidly disappearing wild California past. A soft-spoken Ph.D. with a degree in resource economics, he had earlier come under the tutelage of the agricultural economics theorist Siegfried Ciriacy-Wantrup, at the University of California, Berkeley, and in Paris had studied “peri-urban” agriculture—farming in the presence of an ever-expanding population.
     Napa Valley’s agriculture was increasingly peri-urban. Wentzel thought the county had done a pretty good job with maintaining it, largely because of long-standing zoning restrictions, and he wanted to be part of it, but not obtrusively. The idealized small-town environment he prized would not have been possible without vineyards like the old one that came with his property, and with the house next door. Grapevines had postponed subdivision and provided open space, as well as that connection to nature.
     Wentzel did not hire a vineyard manager to take care of his, and he didn’t tear out the old, unchic grape varieties but worked them himself, going against what he referred to as “the dilettante fashion of these times.” He and his wife, Barbara, built a lovely, pale orange Mediterranean house with lots of doors and beams from a monastery in Spain. In addition, they planted Lombardy poplar trees on the eastern boundary, to form a petite allée to define the dirt road there and contribute to the rural aesthetics. An allée was a traditional European walk or drive lined with evenly spaced trees—yews, hornbeams, or sycamores—but the Wentzels’ allée was defined by fast-growing poplars that would also screen what they considered a less than aesthetically pleasing house being built next door.
     The owner sold it unfinished to a developer, who made some cosmetic changes and put it up for sale again. The developer also informed the Wentzels that he, not the Wentzels, owned the dirt road and one side of the petite allée. That was a surprise to them, but such things were happening in Napa Valley. Re-surveys and lot-line adjustments were common now in a place where property boundaries had once been casual considerations, before real estate became synonymous with getting rich.
Roland Wentzel wrote a letter to the broker saying that he was under the impression that he owned the allée and assumed it would be preserved in any case.
     Then he had learned that the prospective buyer was a dot-comer named Bressler.

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

You could just swirl wine in a tulip-shaped glass and not talk in code

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.                                                   
     THE SANTA CLARA VALLEY, at the south end of San Francisco Bay, had once been as beautiful as any in California, an agricultural idyll obliterated by its late-twentieth-century makeover. People up in Napa Valley were acutely aware of this and wondered aloud if their valley’s fate could be the same in the twenty-first. The question was more often answered in the affirmative now, as the two valleys came together in ways that said much about values at the high end of American achieving. One was the symbol of quick, unbounded wealth, the other of the good life that had come to entail, in addition to pleasure, cultural authentication. Simply being rich was no longer enough, and since these two geographical founts of money and legitimacy lay only sixty miles apart, it was inevitable that the newly monied denizens of the former would be drawn to the charms and social opportunities of the latter, and that there would be problems.
     All the traffic in Napa Valley could not be blamed on the northward migration from the other valley, not with five million tourists annually. But in spring “dot-commers” and related beneficiaries of the stock market were an outsized factor in valley life. They vacuumed up plants at the nurseries and construction material at the building-supply outfits and tended to be blamed for the muscle houses, angular frame slope-clingers, stucco mishmashes, and monumental stone boxes with driveways cut brutally into the earth. Many of these had been put up by developers, retailers, and various other trophy-house collectors, serial builders having become epidemic all across the nation. Some of those rich folk also owned getaways in Snowmass or the Hamptons, Provence, Tuscany, and elsewhere, and their decidedly immodest off-road vehicles, symbolic of their ability to go anywhere in safety and comfort, ascended on weekends like metallic insects on the vernal skin of a sleeping beast.
     Even in winter, when bluish smoke rose from the fires of vine cuttings, big, bright SUVs passed under volcanic rocks with deep striations, eyed by buzzards tilting overhead, lending the scene a medieval quality.
     Robert Bressler was in some ways representative of the dot-com wealth newly arrived in the valley, and in others highly individualistic. He considered himself lucky to have earlier been in the right place at the right time, by which he meant the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971. There, writing a graduate thesis about how computers talk to each other, a budding electronic engineer before anyone had come up with the handle “computer scientist,” he got involved in a Department of Defense project called ARPANET, which for all practical purposes became the Internet.
     Bressler went on to join a technology company. He discovered that he had an aptitude for understanding where networking was going when it was about to go bonkers. He was then recruited by Sun Microsystems, a pubescent general in the happening electronic revolution, which made him a vice president. Bearded, bespectacled, precisely spoken, Bob Bressler began to think of himself as the Johnny Appleseed of networking, a partaker of shared visions for the future. The best way to succeed on the wild digital frontier, he realized, was for engineers to work together toward a common goal, with lots of elbow room. Put a stake in the ground way out there and let the engineers work toward it. One stake in the ground was “special purposes devices,” bits of hardware that performed specific functions and did not need a big mainframe.
     The analogy of profitable networking he liked to use was that of the toaster: better to have something that simply makes toast than a toaster oven that does a lot of other unnecessary things and is complicated and more expensive. “In the old days,” he says, “the computers arrived in trucks, and the software in envelopes.” As a result of his and others’ innovative thinking, “the computers began arriving in envelopes, and the software in trucks.”
     By then Bressler, as a vice president, was well endowed with Sun stock, which would split five times between 1994 and 2000, making a lot of things possible for Bob and his wife, Stacy, that had never seemed possible before. They were living in Los Altos Hills, minutes from a company that was challenging others in the neighborhood as well as the mighty Microsoft, up in Redmond, Washington. Internet supremacy was the grail, and the Bresslers’ lives were dominated by the feverish, driven ways of a valley nicknamed for a microchip component.
      Fabrication and miniaturization, it seemed, had been projected directly onto the human persona. Every bit of turf was fought over, from the latest software to mountain bikes. In restaurants, the Bresslers would look around to see who was seated near them, and talk in code so no secrets would be revealed. There were so many stakes in the distance, people were tripping each other up trying to reach them, but there was little felt human intercourse or bonding. People were either transients or out to steal your vision.
     The Bresslers took all this for granted until some friends invited them to attend a wine auction up in Napa Valley, and there they saw that things could be different. The auction was a sophisticated party where you could have fun—unusual, even unorthodox behavior in Silicon Valley. You didn’t have to stand around talking in code, just swirl cabernet in a tulip-shaped glass and meet nice people, and the next year the Bresslers returned.
     Then they made a decision many people of means make when overlooking comely vineyards seemingly untouched by the ambition and acrimony in the world: they called a realtor. They bought a modest house and started coming up on weekends. They found themselves thinking of Silicon Valley as a distant battlefield and of Napa as home, and decided to move up full time. He would commute to Silicon Valley a couple of times a week. Still wearing his Sun Microsystems hat, he thought he could in his spare time put Napa Valley on the Internet, helping people who were interested in selling wine electronically. And maybe they would explain wine to him.
     Before long, the Bresslers had sold their first house and bought another, not an architectural expression of geek hubris in the hills, but a big, utilitarian structure in the up-valley town of St. Helena. It met their standard that they had to be able to walk everywhere from it—to Tra Vigne and the Green Valley and other restaurants, to the renovated movie theater and Main Street Books and the Model Bakery. Their new friends had told them they would never find such a house that was suitable, these being people who for the most part were recent arrivals themselves and already had their vineyards and their labels and assumed the Bresslers, too, were looking for a modern-day castle keep with plenty of space for vines.
     The Bresslers ordered the construction of an insulated wine room, an early step in any renovation. It cost eighty thousand dollars and was capable of holding eight thousand bottles of the right stuff, meaning many of Napa’s most famous cabernets that few people could afford even if they could find them for sale, with either a historical pedigree—Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Phelps Insignia, Dunn’s Howell Mountain, and so on—or, more impressive, cult status—Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, Grace, Bryant Family, and others elbowing their way up the critics’ statistical ladders. Then their eyes turned toward the land.
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Monday, December 7, 2015

The lifestyle question 3

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.                                                         
      The Staglins applied for another winery permit, and would eventually get it in the waning years of the nineties, by espousing the right cause: the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. It was the ultimate project of the aging Robert Mondavi, a symbol of the valley’s exalted success in part due to the association of wine and art, and an indication of the country’s fascination with luxury.
     Still the reigning monarch of the valley, Robert was no longer at the head of the famous winery bearing his name, now a public corporation run by his elder son, Michael, that lucky spermer. The Center, Robert’s passion, was to cost a great deal of money. Garen Staglin had agreed to provide one million dollars for it and to raise more money from the heads of other corporations. When complete, the Center would have a room in it named for the Staglins—the Tasting Bar, or perhaps the Gallery of the Senses. The Staglins were, they told people, “kindred spirits” with the Mondavis and also in love with food, wine, art, and music.
     Mondavi went to see Jack Cakebread and urged him not to oppose the Staglins’ winery. This was ironic, since Jack had served as a stalking horse for the Mondavis for years, taking up causes that the Mondavis believed in but didn’t want to be associated with—like standards for reserve wines, a cause dear to the Mondavis but anathema to Ernest Gallo and so politically difficult. Although Jack took his old friend Robert up to his house to show him how close a Staglin winery would be, and although Robert said, “You’ve got to protect yourself,” he didn’t offer to help.
      The Staglins’ ostensible promotion of their wine took them all over. After a week’s bicoastal sojourn—to Nantucket and to Seattle, where they discussed their wines and the Staglin “vision” with restaurant owners, proprietors of wine shops, and devotees of Bordeaux and Burgundy who recognized the appeal of the California alternative—they returned to stroll in their vineyard, the setting sun igniting the eastern mountains. They were in an expansive mood. “Our house has one of the highest recognition factors in the country,” Garen said, of the effects of The Parent Trap, the Staglin Family Vineyards Web site, and a short film about them shown repeatedly on a commercial airline, called Dream Living.
      "Our wine allows us to go anywhere in the world,” added Shari, reaching up to turn down the collar of her husband’s polo shirt. “It’s a connection with the earth.”
     Garen pulled some grapes from a cluster and handed one to her; together they “sampled the sugars.” Their winemaker arrived in a minivan with her son, fresh from soccer practice, and over the stone wall they palavered about when to pick, the winemaker trying hard to accommodate the Staglins’ “sense” of the optimum moment. Then Garen and Shari drove into Rutherford for dinner.
Outside La Toque, a red Ferrari worth a quarter of a million dollars, too fast to drive on Napa Valley’s roads, was parked as a statement of a customer’s wherewithal while he traveled the valley in a limo. Garen explained that he and Shari are investors in the restaurant: “We cash-flow this thing on sixty-five covers a day,” he said.
     After they were seated, Shari, in a silk blouse of palest mauve, smiled up at La Toque’s sommelier as he filled their glasses from a bottle of Staglin Family Vineyards chardonnay, a counterpoint to the sautéed figs with “lime and ginger and seared Muscovy foie gras. Later, Garen tasted the Staglin cabernet and found there “a cornucopia of flavors” that suited the medallions of rare lamb and local chevre, antiphons to the wine’s primal chant. He mused about the qualities of the Staglin vineyard, formerly the de Latours’, and the practice of “manageable agriculture that doesn’t require the attention of a major corporation.”
     With it, he could make money in a more relaxed manner, with only three full-time employees, no outside investors, and a mode of existence more copasetic than that of a run-of-the-mill CEO. He and Shari derived more satisfaction from this than from activities traditionally associated with wealth, he said, like polo ponies or yachts. “Building a brand is more fun than winning the Block Island sailing race.”
     “And it can also go on for centuries,” she said. “We’ve met vineyard-owning families in France and Italy that have been there for seven hundred years . . . Awe-inspiring.”
     “We’re doing the succession thing—our children are involved.”
     Garen passed a hand across the scene: well-dressed people eating expensive food, handing bottles of wine back and forth between tables like ducal celebrants, attended to by culinary acolytes on the very edge of America. “Wine is all about these things,” he said at last. “When you can say you have had dinner with Garen and Shari, and talked about The Parent Trap, you’ve had a whole reinforcing experience.”
     And then, “We’ve got a lot of lifestyle here.”
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Monday, November 30, 2015

The lifestyle question 2

 My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.                                                     

     The association of art had long informed selling, following the example set by Robert Mondavi years before when he proved that fine wine moves best through channels lubricated with the personality of the creator and his or her association with “family values” and the finer things of life, including works of the imagination.
     The Mondavis claimed to “sculpt” their wines; press releases from various wineries spoke of “the art of winemaking.” There were impressive art collections in private museums that also had winetasting rooms, or houses specially constructed to show off art collections. The Staglin house featured a loggia, a fountain, and a pebbled courtyard, entered between columns bearing the lacquered ceramic sculptures of the Staglins’ Jack Russell terriers, Sami and Mister Deuce. The twenty-two-foot ceilings provided ample wall space for their assemblage of contemporary paintings, and under the colonnade out back stood an eighteen-foot granite harvest table designed by a sculptor who also artfully arranged boulders in front of the house.
     The Staglins envisioned visitors arriving in cars, passing the boulders to enter a winery dug into the mountainside, tasting and buying wine, and then strolling the grounds in appreciation of four million dollars’ worth of art and many more millions’ worth of real estate.
     “Windshields just don’t do it the way wine does,” Shari would say, a reference to one of her husband’s most successful businesses, a company that replaced shattered auto glass nationwide. Garen also sat on the boards of what he called “information solution technology companies.” But these endeavors didn’t allow one to rethink corporate strategy while overlooking one’s own cadre of regimented vines. They didn’t allow one to “get out of the box and into nature,” as Shari put it. They didn’t allow trips abroad for sampling the culture and business acumen of Bordeaux and Burgundy, or the exposure of a Staglin wine to the public.
     Quality was foremost in the ongoing American wine success, but also important was a style of marketing very different from the traditional European approach, the personal representation of one’s wines and the mystique of the successful vintner.
     To build their winery, the Staglins needed the approval of their neighbors, and this they failed to obtain. Their application was denied by the county after they had bought the historic vineyard, put in expensive trellising, hired a good winemaker, built a stunning house with authentic tiles, and paid an artist to design a label reminiscent of the best of Bordeaux, one bearing the likeness of a contemporary sculpture owned by the Staglins, Stephen DeStaebler’s Winged Woman Walking, “inspired by Nike in the Louvre,” as Shari pointed out. “Nike represented excellence to the Greeks, competition, and victory,” she added, the valley’s reigning values, and now, after Garen had gotten on the elevator and pushed “Penthouse” and done everything a person could possibly do to get there, they were being denied their victory.
     One night their neighbor, Jack Cakebread, woke up to the sound of running generators. A large, florid man with a fierce countenance, alternately charming and abrasive, Cakebread was from Oakland, where his father had owned a garage and had taught his son the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. But Jack had chanced upon Napa Valley in the late sixties and had bought land, some of it for as little as eight hundred dollars an acre, and had since built his brand into one of the most successful of the so-called high-end wines. His striking modern wooden winery out on Highway 29 would soon be matched by another, second winery nearby, a double-barreled assault on the country’s disposable income in the best years ever for selling wine.
     Cakebread had also founded an organization known informally as the Breakfast Club, a secretive group of two dozen powerful vintners and their representatives who met regularly at his winery for sauvignon blanc and scrambled eggs and the discussion of government regulation, incompliant elected officials, and troublesome environmentalists. Jack thrived on less sleep than his peers: to bed shortly before midnight, up again around four o’clock and out into the darkness to walk his land, now worth upward of one hundred thousand dollars an acre. A sign in his winery read, “Aren’t I lucky! The harder I work the luckier I get!”
     And the luckier he got, the harder he worked: redeyes to Japan or France, back to Napa Valley for some clean shirts, and off again in the opposite direction. Sleep was nonproductive, he thought, a necessary pain in the butt, and here was a new arrival in the valley making him sit up in bed with only half of his requisite four hours.
     Cakebread looked out the window and saw a bunch of trailers parked side by side on the Staglin property under a bank of lights. He went out and asked the driver of one of the huge mobile lounges—it was slipping backward in the mud, right down his property line—what the hell was going on. He learned some things that made him less happy. The trailers were part of an artistic assault on the neighborhood by Walt Disney Pictures, about to remake a film called The Parent Trap.
     Over the next month the engine of popular culture would fill this formerly bucolic  setting with humming machines and a small army of cinematic factotums, to earn the Staglins both money and recognition. The Staglins, Cakebread learned, had consulted another Napa Valley resident partial to filmic endeavors, Francis Ford Coppola, who had advised them to let the film unit in and had told the Staglins what it would cost Disney to build a set similar to that provided by their house, with its artworks and tiles replicating those made on the thighs of Italian artisans. The Staglins had divided that figure by the number of days Disney wanted to film and come up with a per diem of about ten thousand dollars, not a bad return on static real estate.
     There was nothing Cakebread or the other neighbors could do about it. Napa County has strict zoning requirements, but there were temporary exceptions to be had. The irony was that Cakebread, an ardent free enterpriser, was forced to admit that unlimited money could have undesirable effects when located next door. The relentless rise of the stock market had produced too many fistfuls of cash and not enough knowledge of life as anything but an investment opportunity. People coming to the valley found or created a bit of vineyard and grew some “rocket juice”—Cakebread’s term for good Napa Valley cabernet that had propelled many fortunes, including his own, upward—and then they required a house, and then a winery.
     Cakebread hated the disruption of the rural byway that dead-ended in the former quiet of the Mayacamas, hated the fancy new Staglin stone wall that broke the seamless continuity of the land, and hated what he called a lack of the courtesy that should characterize country living. He told people, “The Staglins are the worst thing to happen here since the Wine Train. They’re the Dennis Rodmans of Napa Valley.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The lifestyle question

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.     
         A woman who had lived long in the valley thought it began in the mid-1980s when the country saw evidence of a new kind of prosperity, one that would bear up people who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Their new money came from electronics and stock deals, and from tourist exploitation and all manner of commercial activities now an essential part of an emblematic place—Napa Valley—undergoing dramatic and possibly catastrophic change. And over the course of the next decade these examples would prove to be anything but arbitrary, their common objectives, money and status, linking them—though they might be only slightly acquainted—in an unbroken story of varied parts and contrasting visions.
     She had first encountered this at a dinner party where she was seated next to what she considered the embodiment of “new money”—a short, boyish entrepreneur named Garen Staglin. At least she thought he was an entrepreneur. It wasn’t easy determining what new people actually did to make money, not like in the old days when it was made in manufacturing, medicine, banking, and what was then simply and unceremoniously called business.
     Staglin—dark hair, ready grin—had a reputation for accumulating large sums in ways related to insurance and to these new computers everybody was talking about. He had made money almost from the moment he emerged from Stanford University, and she asked how he had managed to concentrate on his career at a time when so many people were still agonizing over the war in Vietnam. “Oh, I didn’t pay any attention to that stuff,” Staglin told her. “I just got on the elevator and pushed ‘Penthouse.’”
     He and his wife, Sharilyn—Shari, out of South Dakota, short like her husband and with his intensity of ambition—showed up at functions reserved for successful owners of wineries and those willing to contribute to their causes. The Staglins had purchased a historic property in Rutherford that had once belonged to that Parnassan of Napa’s early wine success, Georges de Latour, courtly Old World figure, avatar of decency and foresight, father of one of the most famous eponymous wines in the valley, Georges de Latour Private Reserve. By owning a piece of the old de Latour estate, the Staglins had rooted themselves in the most competitive terroir in America. This could quickly vault them into the higher ranks of the “vintners,” a largely symbolic term used nowadays for those who owned wineries, or at least grapes that could be vinted in one of the rented spaces available throughout the valley.
     The original vineyard had been planted under the supervision of another Parnassan, the late, legendary André Tchelistcheff, a White Russian émigré who had advised in his sixty years as a professional enologist most everyone who mattered in American fine wine. The sale of the de Latour parcel to the Staglins was significant because it represented the latest in a string of disastrous business decisions by de Latour’s heirs and because it involved the arrival in Napa Valley, never a stranger to new money, of a new degree of brashness.
     A large fortune, it was always said, was needed to make a small one in the wine business. But new money from well-placed capital and stock options flowing into Vitis vinifera now had different expectations. Status was the primary one, the new vintners wanting accolades associated with a vineyard and a wine of one’s own—a pedigree—but they also wanted to make money from this and related endeavors. They were willing, sometimes eager, to confuse fine wine with other businesses—that is, to use “wine to boost other, related and unrelated financial schemes, just as wine was used to create formerly nonexistent social standing, to prove that a person was “a winner” and, by contrast, that a person’s critics were losers.
     That, the woman thought, was different.
     According to Staglin, he first considered moving to Napa Valley after having another dinner, this one with a resident of the valley named Andy Beckstoffer. Two decades before, Beckstoffer had himself been an arriviste and an example of unwelcome change, acquiring considerable land and influence through the ineptness of the Heublein Corporation, which then owned most but not all of the old Inglenook and Beaulieu estates. Beckstoffer had worked for Heublein, and his large chunks of valuable vineyardland had been financed in part with Heublein money. Staglin had met Beckstoffer through the Young Presidents Club, as he had met Michael Mondavi, son of Robert and one of the valley’s “lucky spermers,” those who had vineyards and jobs because they had inherited them. Both men had encouraged Staglin to move to paradise.
     Beckstoffer gave Staglin the name of a real estate broker who might be able to introduce him to de Latour’s heirs. The broker knocked on doors and eventually knocked on that of Dagmar de Pins, granddaughter of old Georges de Latour and one of the original lucky spermers. She was married to Walter Sullivan, mastermind of the ill-advised, much lamented sale of Beaulieu Vineyard to Heublein back in the sixties. The loss of the family winery was still mourned by Dagmar, but her husband relished disposing of his wife’s property to finance their comfortable existence, a fact evident to all who floated balloons with dollar signs on them in the vicinity of Walter Sullivan. He and Dagmar maintained a country estate in France and a house in San Francisco as well as remnants of the old de Latour estate in Napa Valley, and they spent a good deal of time in cooking schools.
     The Staglins were invited to San Francisco by Dagmar “to see if we were suitable,” as Garen put it, though in fact they had been invited at Walter’s instigation to determine how much money they had. Over cocktails Dagmar de Pins Sullivan told the Staglins that the Rutherford property they coveted would go to the Sullivans’ children, not to the Staglins. She had said the same thing about Beaulieu before that fabulous realm was sold to Heublein through the machinations of Walter, who again put out vibes contrary to his wife’s wishes. The broker thought Walter could not pass up a real estate deal and that Walter would persuade Dagmar to sell the vineyard to Garen, just as he had persuaded her to sell Beaulieu to Heublein when its executives first came nosing around the valley.
     The broker advised Garen that his offer should be accompanied by sufficient evidence of intent—cash. Garen slipped a check for fifty thousand dollars under the broker’s door on Father’s Day, 1985, to accompany a formal offer of more than a million dollars, still big money then. The broker tracked the Sullivans down in Venice, where they were learning to produce new dishes from Julia Child, and Walter agreed on principle to the sale. But he insisted that it be kept secret until he could cajole his wife—again—into disposing of the something near sacred to her that would prove—again!—to be a lot more valuable than Walter thought it was.
     The men came up with a code name for the deal, Project Basil, a reference to the Sullivans' current area of culinary interest, so Dagmar wouldn’t know until it was too late that one of the last vestiges of her family’s presence in the valley had been bartered away.
     Not long afterward, the vineyard put in by Tchelistcheff was pulled out and replanted with new, disease-resistant rootstock. It would produce wine that the Staglins hoped would set them on a lofty second-career path occupied by Mondavis and Rothschilds, ultimate proof of the transformational qualities of wine. The Rothschilds were wealthy bankers before entering the wine business, and the Mondavis had been Central Valley dealers in produce. A vineyard still brought respect in quarters where it was not otherwise available—in Paris, for instance, where the Staglins dined at La Tour d’Argent and were not offered the best wine list by the sommelier, even after Garen told him that he owned several companies in the United States. Then Shari told the sommelier that they also owned a vineyard in Napa Valley, one that had been owned by the legendary Georges de Latour, and out came the good list.
     In 1991, a bulldozer cut into the base of the Mayacamas Mountains above the vineyard, and a structure  rose that was no common residence: a long, fenestrated, Palladian tribute to California’s eclectic architecture, the hue of “Rutherford dust,” a double entendre referring to both the shade of the vineyard’s inestimable dirt and the reputed taste of the cabernet it produced, a taste first identified by Tchelistcheff and used as a successful marketing tool for most of the century, proof of geographical taste distinctions in the ongoing squabbles over Napa Valley vineyard appellations. Now Rutherford dust was the official color of a house with a broken roofline suggesting an entire Tuscan village, the tiles varied in shape and color to resemble those that had originally been made on the thighs of Italian artisans, as Garen Staglin liked to point out.
     He told everyone that the house was a link to ancestors in the Old Country. His father’s name was Stagliano, another “talking point” in what was becoming a concentrated marketing effort blending California ambience with the images of family, wine, and art.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

All the wine you cannot have

I'm working on a new book about Napa, the third and final volume of my trilogy about a unique experiment in American agriculture. This is one in a series of reports. 
The hotel’s anonymity - blonde floor-to-ceiling panels that can be shuffled like a pack of cards to create one huge space - is the antithesis of what is being discussed: how to build a tasting room so distinctive that visitors will pay dearly for the experience and never forget it because the experience was “perfect.”
  People in the hospitality business and their clients pay well for such advice. The baser preliminaries of tasting room logistics have already been dispensed with - adding curves to tasting rooms to prevent their being too masculine, figuring out wind and sun patterns so visitors will be comfortable at all times.
  We must take an anthropological approach to retail sales because wine buyers are a “tribe,” instinctively turn right when entering a confined space, refuse to buy if they’re too close to other tribal members or the floor’s not attractive, the restroom too close to the tasting bar, the pourer less than thirty inches from the taster, or more than forty-two inches.
And they must know that their limo driver’s in a space of his own watching sports videos and eating free popcorn. And if your customer drives his own Tesla, “or flies around in a G6, you have to reflect that in your tasting room.”
But the real lesson in the “ultra-premium” experience, according to the young architect with sideburns, plaid shirt, and jeans, lies in an altogether different dimension: the creation of what would once have been called aura but today is called “brand.” This isn’t to be confused with product. It’s essentially the evocation of an experience so rare that one can only fleetingly glimpse, perhaps taste, never own.
For such a winery experience you must go on to the next level, artfully replicating the vintner’s life and “vision.” You do this with “artifacts” of authenticity - barn boards, traditional-looking objects suggesting provenance, worn finishes on wood and art works, feigned rarity, spiritual heft, staggering expense.
The visitor must feel that these things are somehow his or hers for the moment, and that the vintner’s “life experience” can be their’s, too. Part of the appeal is that the two will never meet, yet will share intimacy in the transient taste of a wine subjected to the most assiduous mechanical and chemical alteration in the history of viticulture.
“Here we get back to the idea of kings and queens. You have created a yearning to get past the velvet rope” by adapting, staging, controlling. But the rope’s still there.
  The winery the architect helped design was recently sold to a billionaire who wanted his own recognized cult cabernet, as well as the glorified factory in which it is made. But he didn’t want people. They still clamor for a souvenir of this new royalty - an $800 wine bottle instead of a model of the Tower of London - and this is cited as the ultimate affirmation of brand.
  “The level of exclusivity is what makes it,” adds the architect, even though visitors are banned and the product’s unattainable.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Napa is change. The question remains: to what end?

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.                                                     
    ONCE UPON A TIME, wine was made in basements in the eastern states by immigrants who never envisioned it as either a serious financial or a social enhancement. In Napa Valley, those with names like Krug, Beringer, and Schram made in the late 1800s a commercial success under the amazing California sun, and their ranks came to include a Finnish sea captain, Gustave Niebaum, who used a fortune from Alaskan fur to try to match the quality of Bordeaux chateaux, and Georges de Latour, the industrious Frenchman who imported vines from his native country and founded Beaulieu Vineyard in the first year of the new century
    Napa Valley was renowned for wine by then, but many of the early viticultural lights were poor and struggling, dimmed by a decline in the nation’s economic health in the early years of the twentieth century and by the pestilential attack of the vine louse, phylloxera. Many were extinguished by Prohibition. From then through the 1950s grape growers and a few winemakers held on to enclaves in this lovely place that came to be dominated by calf-and-cow operations and prune groves. Then in the 1960s ambitious dropouts from corporate and academic America moved in, and a second, inexorable ascendancy toward fame began.
    These offshoots of the Aquarian age, these idealists and glimpsers of an alternative to certified American success, met in a rural setting far removed from the ferment of North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, from Los Angeles and Chicago and Cambridge and Washington, D.C. They began to make and to pour wines competitive with those of Europe, and the beam of celebrity fell across their “boutique” wineries tucked into the folds of coastal mountains. That was the dawn of the commendable, difficult winemaking renaissance in a place that still had more in common, agriculturally, with Iowa than it did with Tuscany or the Médoc.
    In the 1970s the valley” still meant just that, a vernal plain bordering the Napa River that began in a narrow wooded apex in the foothills of the Mayacamas and ran south for thirty miles to San Pablo Bay, broadening in the journey to several miles in width and containing all the land anybody could want for planting grapes and building a little barrel cellar, if you were daring or foolish enough to try. Even big wineries like the hulks lowering in the distance were cautionary tales in their own right, described in one of the many books written about the valley as “white elephants all, and all for sale, with weeds in the yards and blank windows staring back into the illusions of the founders.”
    The hillsides—small mountains, really, if steepness and the dramatic effect of rock and redwood signified—seemed as close as your hand before your face. These were wild places, inaccessible, seemingly impossible to plant; the relatively few moving up there favored isolation and cheapness, without either a care or a clue. Their terrain was not much of a factor in the life below and connected only by threads—narrow roads, individual needs, and a tradition as old as human history, going back to the seedbed of civilization—to an agrarian culture struggling on the valley floor.
    By the beginning of the 1990s, the perspective of value had reversed, at least for vineyards—the hills were up, the valley down—and the renaissance was approaching its zenith. The newly endowed arrivals, early beneficiaries of what would be the resounding boom in the nation’s fortunes—businessmen, entrepreneurs, academics, heirs, collectors, impostors—were less eager to make wine than to associate with one of the oldest expressions of husbandry and cultural accomplishment, needing—requiring—a recognized testament to their material and spiritual worth.
    Some locals thought this change began when Gil Nickel, owner of Far Niente Winery, paid more than one hundred thousand dollars an acre for undeveloped land along the highway and thus crossed the magic frontier. Some said it started when Al Brownstein crossed another magic frontier by charging a hundred dollars for a bottle of his Diamond Mountain cabernet sauvignon. Some said it began when the movie director Francis Ford Coppola purchased the historical flagship Inglenook and turned it into a wine-cum-movie roadside attraction, and still others said it began with the ascendancy of the corporations in the valley and their worship of the bottom line.

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