Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 4: Pritchard Hill (cont'd)

Note: I recently acquired the rights to my second Napa book, The Far Side of EdenI think the struggle over the hillsides at the outset of this century covered in that book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions, and I decided to run excerpts. The series begins with the 6/9 posting.                                                     

      When Donn Chappellet first came to Pritchard Hill in 1967 Napa Valley was turning the corner from prunes and cattle to grapes. Chappellet had made a lot of money in industrial food service and vending and wanted out of that dog-eat-dog business. He didn’t want his kids growing up in Los Angeles. Owning a winery seemed a good alternative to vending machines, and Napa the antithesis of urban superficiality.
      He looked in the hills for property, on the advice of André Tchelistcheff, who thought vineyards up there would cost forty percent more to farm and that the yields would be half those on the valley floor. But the grapes would earn twice the price because they would be that much better. Chappellet checked out Mayacamas Vineyards, on the west side of the valley, but found it too rough and deer-ravaged, and then found sixty acres on Pritchard Hill, where grapes had been grown as early as the 1870s. He bought the property and gradually added to it, and he joined the Napa Valley Vintners Association. In 1968 that organization had only eighteen members and was racked by the fight over the creation of the agricultural preserve.
      The Chappellet winery was built the following year, the first new one since Robert Mondavi’s mission-style shocker down on Highway 29. Chappellet settled in to producing fine wine, wearing Hawaiian shirts and operating out of a big leather chair in the airy reaches of an enormous A-frame with long views. He took up soaring in gliders in Calistoga and sailed on his boat from San Francisco to Tahiti. Distributors beat a path to your door in those days, asking only if you made good wine. The stuff seemed to sell itself.
      Ten years later you had to sell it—dinners, pep talks to staff, events —and that took money and effort. The number of wineries mounted until there were more than two hundred in the valley. Chappellet was concerned about too much growth and thankful for the remove of Pritchard Hill. Still, he had to market his wine, and he hated marketing. With distributors it was the squeaky wheel that got the grease, and he was glad to be able to turn such duties over to his sons, Cyril and, later, Jon-Mark, too. Now it was they who did the squeaking and the heavy lifting in a family business that, by Napa standards, was downright old when success clobbered the valley in the late nineties and pushed the number of operating wineries above three hundred.
      Cyril Chappellet was a big man like his father, with full, chestnut-colored hair and certain inherited advantages. Development of new vineyards in the neighborhood could not be opposed by his family in good conscience, since they had put in their own, but wholesale cutting of live oaks on the property adjacent to the Chappellets’ was a shock, even if it was legal. Cyril and Jon-Mark talked to Dave Abreu about leaving some of the trees, which belonged to the Bryant family, owners of the label of the same name and a recognized member of the cult of cabernet. The oaks numbered between eight hundred and a thousand, Cyril estimated, and when they had started to fall in great numbers he made some inquiries. He learned that the Bryants’ winemaker, Helen Turley, had told the owners that she wanted as much new vineyard as possible.
      The Bryants lived in far-off St. Louis. There was a big difference between the people who lived on the premises, Cyril thought, and those who didn’t. Residents felt the change of seasons and closely watched the progress of projects under way, whereas the absentee landowners saw, heard, smelled, and felt nothing. They didn’t understand the natural processes and didn’t fully appreciate the critical importance of trees and water. There was a history of competition for the creek bottom between the properties now owned by Long and Wender, for instance, that had been going on for decades.
      The Bryants shared water rights with four other landowners. All of them could be severely affected by their new vineyard and the new winery that was to follow. All the neighbors were concerned. The label on the Bryant wine included the fashionable word “family,” but the project didn’t look very personable, caring, or familial to Cyril. And there was the problem of the road, a steep, at times tortuous lane winding up from the shore of Lake Hennessey that had never been intended for heavy trucks. A new Bryant winery would greatly increase this kind of traffic, and unless the Bryants addressed this and other concerns, the neighbors intended to challenge their application for a winery permit.
      This was the equivalent of a declaration of war. And there was the additional problem of a cave. The Bryants wanted one, like most everyone else, and Cyril had been told that Helen Turley wanted enough underground space for a single level of French oak barrels, so it would look like Bordeaux. That meant about eight thousand square feet of subterranean space, according to Cyril’s calculations, plus another six thousand square feet for the winery: a huge hole. Where would the thousands of cubic yards of spoil go?
      The live oaks began to fall on the adjacent slope while the Chappellets watched. One hundred trees, two hundred, three hundred . . . Contractors today were a different breed, Cyril thought; there was no part of the valley too remote or steep to be developed if you threw enough big machines and dynamite at it. This had led to basic alterations in the landscape. The Wender rock pile struck him as one of the Eight Wonders of the World. Abreu had been up there all the time, and in Cyril’s opinion Dave would rather do the job now and explain later.
      When there were only three oak trees left, Cyril went over and confronted him, and Abreu said, “I’ve got a job to do.”
      “Yes,” said Cyril, “but be neighborly.” He had known Dave at St. Helena High and thought his biggest shortcoming was public relations. Cyril added, “Cut those last three trees, and we’ll do a lot-line re-survey. There’ll be all sorts of problems.”
      The three live oaks were left standing. Cyril concluded that Dave saw them as an affront and all trees as nothing more than impediments.
      Some of Abreu’s friends thought his attitude toward the land went back to his experiences in Vietnam. In the war, the vineyard manager to the stars had been assigned to artillery and stationed north of Da Nang, where he had hooked up with a colonel in communications, driving his jeep. Abreu “got into areas that were pretty hot,” as he told it, but that was about all he would say. Growing up in a large, struggling family had engendered both ambition and a frugality about personal revelation.
      Somewhere between the time of Abreu’s return from Vietnam and the controversial vineyard development for Viader, Wender-Colgin, Bryant, and jayson Pahlmeyer, the gentleness and generosity of spirit observed by others had been replaced in Abreu by wariness and what longtime acquaintances called “self-orientation.” This was attributed to a combination of extraordinary success and inarticulateness, the result being the realization by Abreu that you don’t have to compete on a social level to be a leader, that you don’t even have to know everything about viticulture to succeed.
      Lack of finesse, and of leavening by Stanford or Berkeley, may have made Abreu verbally abusive on occasion, but it didn’t mean he was ever at a loss for words. “Any fruit that has its nose hanging out can get nipped,” he would say. And, “If it’s hanging out in high temperatures and, here, hey, as your fruit goes into véraison, you’re getting close to your harvest, and . . .” He talked and he talked, subjecting Robert Parker, on his annual visits to the valley, to hours of Rutherford-speak about vineyards, climate, and cabernet, an inexhaustible fount of technical expertise and admiration for luscious, costly wines. One witness to these sessions compared Abreu to a vinous Elmer Gantry in his fervor and his ability to move the hearer.
      Parker was already an admirer of the proverbial small producer and the big palatal hit, of pushing the rocket juice envelope on steep slopes and letting the fruit hang out there, pervious to the insects and the elements, whether in California or in Europe. Parker’s numerical ranking system had been devised decades before as a way into the market and it had worked; his ranking of the ’82 Bordeaux in The Wine Advocate as “the vintage of the century” sold an inordinate quantity of the ’82s in the United States when they were released in 1984. Later evidence that it was not the vintage of the century mattered not at all.
      At that time, the market in France was flat and the Bordelais realized that they had to expand to survive. The French would not pay twenty dollars for a bottle of wine, and neither would the Germans. England’s economy was in the doldrums and so couldn’t float Bordeaux on the residue of traditional Francophilia. The Japanese would pay twenty dollars a bottle, but there were too few of them. That left the Americans. The rising tide of prosperity and wine appreciation coincided nicely with the floating of the young government lawyer that Parker was, in love with an uncharacteristic vintage and eager to proselytize its wonders: overripe fruit and lots of extract by French standards.
      Some Bordelais realized that Americans not only liked these big, showy, oaky, alcoholic wines but were willing to pay more than twenty dollars a bottle for them, and while they scoffed at Parker and the idea of the vintage of the century, they altered their winemaking regimes to produce similar wines. Some became advocates of overripe fruit, members of the academy of the macerated grape. One of these was Michel Roland, of Chateau Bon Pasteur, who ran an enological laboratory in Bordeaux and served as consultant to some California wines, among them Harlan and Merryvale. He reinforced the love of super-ripe fruit and a powerful assault on the palate in Parker, who looked for disciples of this style—small, zealous producers, so-called garagistes—all over the world, including California.
      Helen Turley and Dave Abreu were such disciples, and Abreu seemed to have considerable influence with Parker. Such a close connection was a powerful de facto recommendation for any vineyard manager or winemaker with prospective clients, but not as big a one as the perfect score of one hundred that Abreu’s wine received in The Wine Advocate. For in the intervening years he had become a vintner as well as vineyard manager to the stars, with six hundred cases made from grapes grown near Buddy Meyer’s house, in the very shadow of Newton. Abreu’s cabernet was nearly impossible to buy and consequently more sought after and, of course, expensive. It netted Abreu about three hundred thousand dollars a year in extra income, or so he said, and he spent only a few days a year dealing with it, someone else handling the winemaking, bottling, and mailing: Napa Valley gravy.
      The critic reportedly invited Abreu to come east, to travel with him in France. The tradition of critics distancing themselves from the criticized did not prevail in the wine world. Strict adherence to objectivity, and blind tasting, had given way to elaborate interchanges between those making and those evaluating a glamorous product, and the only complainants were those producers who received low scores.
      Prospective clients visiting Abreu’s office, in a little industrial complex in south St. Helena, were surprised by its simplicity. Vineyard workers stood around under the arcade out front. Inside, the floor was stacked with survey maps, blueprints, bottles of cult wines in cardboard cases. Dave’s cubicle was hung with framed maps of the Cote de Beaune and the Cote de Nuits, an indication of Abreu’s catholicity, since he made cabernet, not pinot noir. Visitors’ hopes were held hostage there, or in Dave’s black and silver pickup with the spray tank in the back, while Dave decided whether or not to consent to work for them.
      He did the interviewing—of IPO beneficiaries, sports team owners, dot-commers—and asked if they intended to make wine. They had to go for the whole package if they wanted Abreu—a vineyard, a recognized winemaker, and a winery. But the key was “a great piece of ground.” He drove them to some vernal bit of valley and told them in no uncertain terms what was required—three-by-five vine spacing, “major, major rocks removed”—and that the price was whatever it took. That meant not just upward of one hundred thousand dollars per acre but also ten thousand a year after development as a management fee.
      Competitors were jealous of Abreu. “He’s a libertarian” was a typical remark. “He doesn’t have respect for authority” was another. “Bullheaded. But he seems to have a magic touch. He’s making a bloody fortune, and saves everything, buys a truck and drives it forever. Swears constantly. A great guy, single-minded, good work, disastrous projects—all true."
      Some were afraid of him: “He’s the fox in the woods, always watching for advantage. Cunning—a demonic nature with an angelic façade. All his actions have cold-hearted motives. He never says thanks, never admits he’s wrong. Narcissistic may be the best word for him, but he wouldn’t know what it means.”
      Asked about his own success, Abreu would say, “I’ve got a natural talent for recognizing greatness out there.”
      He threw an appreciation party for Colgin and Wender after the resculpting of the rock pile and the cutting of the Bryants’ live oaks; attending was an enviable collection of old-line vintners, arrivistes, and lucky spermers. One celebrant estimated that Abreu spent fifty thousand dollars on the wine, all of it French, to prevent the guests from sniping at each other’s creations. That proved, once and for all, that you didn’t have to go to Stanford or to Berkeley to be smart.
      The reconciliation dinner held on Pritchard Hill by the Longs, the neighbors of Wender and Colgin whose water line had been severed by the plunging boulders, was referred to as a “get-together.” It included Wender-Colgin, and there was no mention of the rock pile still standing above their property line or the gravitational unpleas antness associated with it. Afterward, as they prepared to leave—this story was told on the steps of the St. Helena post office the very morning after, and later denied by Bob Long—Ann Colgin turned to her host and said offhandedly that the phone call he had made to the county had cost her fiance a million dollars. 
                         (Next: If Napa Valley can't be saved...)                                
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Friday, June 19, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 3: Pritchard Hill

Note: I recently acquired the rights to my second Napa book, The Far Side of Eden. I think the struggle over the hillsides at the outset of this century, covered in the book, is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes wineries and winery expansions. I decided to run excerpts as a reminder of what's still at stake in the valley. Series begins with the 6/9 posting.

      Pritchard Hill stands to the south of Lake Hennessey, on the east side of the valley, a steep, wooded enclave. It overlooks the reservoir—water impounded behind Conn Creek Dam for the drinking of Napa—an azure gem that, depending on the season, is set in either a green profusion of grass and wildflowers or parched, dun-colored slopes susceptible to lightning and arsonists.
      For many years an idyll reigned on Pritchard Hill, planted in the sixties by Donn Chappellet but mostly ignored by the newcomers to the valley below. In the late eighties some prospective new neighbors arrived, self-made aspiring pastoralists who wanted small vineyards of their own and a remove from the “engine of California commerce. One of these was Greg Melanson, founder of a company with the droll name of FYI, Inc., that provided services to lawyers. It had been fun and exciting to run, and when it stopped being fun he had taken it public and bought thirteen acres on the south side of Pritchard Hill with the proceeds.
      Melanson grew up in Brentwood, California, listening to a free way, and he wanted something entirely different in middle age: a small vineyard in a peaceful setting. With some help from the Chappellets he got one. A pilot as well as an entrepreneur, he flew up with his wife aboard his four-seater helicopter on weekends and landed on the helipad next to their tasteful Tuscan villa. They said of their lives in Napa Valley, “You just feel complete.”
      One morning the Melansons woke up to the sound of machines operating on the opposing slope: D-8 Caterpillars, clearing chaparral and live oaks. The steep property had been bought by an investment banker with Goldman, Sachs, Joe Wender, whose only claim to fame, as far as Melanson knew, was that he was engaged to be married to Ann Colgin, an employee of auctioneers in Los Angeles and the flamboyant owner of a cult cabernet. A month later the clearing was finished and the D-8s gone, and the Melansons thought they might feel complete again, but then the D-9s arrived. And the dynamite. The blasting shook the furniture in their house and covered everything in a thick coating of dust. Almost as bad as the blasting was the constant scrape of steel on stone.
      Boulders began to pile up at the bottom of the property, and Melanson called the vineyard manager, Dave Abreu, and asked him to stop working on the weekends, when the Melansons were in situ. Then he called the contractor, a Calistogan named Richard Stadelhofer, who owned the big machines, to little avail. Finally he got Wender’s telephone number from Cyril Chappellet, Donn’s son, and “called this stranger. As Melanson later told the story, Wender said that the project had tripled in size and that things had gotten out of hand. The two of them agreed to meet after the Pritchard Hill appellation roundtable at the Chappellets’. There Melanson found Wender to be a good listener, good at processing information, even a good guy—a rarity in an investment banker, in Melanson’s experience. Investment bankers led you to the altar and then cashed out; they were one reason so many initial public offerings of stock crashed and burned.
      What Melanson couldn’t understand was why a guy like Wender would spend millions of dollars to develop a hillside that would probably never earn it back and that caused such enmity among the neighbors. Then he met Wender’s fiancée, Ann Colgin, saw firsthand the lips adorned with distinctive red-orange lipstick used for signing labels on bottles of her wine, not with a signature but with a big, bright, puckered, Evita-esque Don’t cry for me, Napa Valley open-mouthed smack—and heard Wender saying yes Ann, no Ann, and he understood.
      She had come to the valley, so the story went, from Waco by way of Vanderbilt University and Sotheby’s, already married to someone else. The couple attended the Napa Valley Wine Auction. Working for an auction house had provided her with certain insights, like creating the perception of value through scarcity, an essential element in moving collectibles that included wine. Ann Colgin’s wine business accounted for a bit more than two hundred cases of cabernet a year when Melanson met her, and the wine sold for more than one hundred dollars a bottle when it could be found.
      Her winemaker, Helen Turley, apostle of extremely ripe fruit procured at any cost, had helped garner recognition from Robert Parker. So sought after was the Colgin cabernet—according to the stories she told—that a woman sent a copy of her divorce settlement to Colgin to prove that she, and not her hus“band, had retained their coveted position on the Colgin mailing list. Another fan supposedly swapped a Mercedes for a single case.                                                
      Such stories were not limited to her wine and could be heard with variations about dozens of others; they appeared in an adoring wine press without challenge. The writing often emphasized wealth and style of living as measures of quality as important as the wine itself; whether or not the stories were true mattered far less than the fact that they were read and repeated. Colgin posed for such a publication, supposedly in celebration of country life, by sitting on a dusty slope of the new Pritchard Hill vineyard in her jeans, leather boots, and hallmark lipstick. In the background lay bare dirt, a large displaced boulder, and a piece of heavy equipment associated with mining.
      Colgin already owned a house down on the outskirts of St. Helena, where another house had stood that had belonged to Josephine Tychson, founder of Freemark Abbey, probably the first woman winemaker in Napa Valley. Colgin had proudly announced this fact before she had that historic structure demolished. There the neighbors complained that the new frame, taupe and cream Victorian replacing it resembled a spec house in an upscale tract development, the black wrought-iron railings so . . . Texas, the ersatz Greek amphora, the terracotta maiden, concrete pineapples, and virginal white flowers contrasting starkly with the image of those wet, red-orange lips planted on labels of Colgin rocket juice.
      The view of the remnant of Pritchard Hill that appeared in the magazine did not include the boulder pile of Brobdingnagian proportions, the one that Melanson’s houseguests always gaped at. It was an industrial rather than an agricultural artifact, and it reminded some onlookers of the hydraulic gold-mining that had done such damage to the Sierra Nevada in the previous century. Mountainsides were apparently still being moved to get at glitter.
      Melanson tried to explain the pile away, making excuses for his neighbor, saying the pile was necessary for producing additional Colgin cabernet that could be sold at a high price, that someday the pile wouldn’t matter. But it just sat there. Melanson brought in a landscape architect to see whether he thought the pile could be “mitigated,” but the architect told him nothing would grow there, it was just too big. The rock pile dwarfed the big Cats and the excavators, which in turn dwarfed the pickups clinging to the slope, dust devils dancing in their wakes, dwarfing in turn the all-terrain vehicles ridden by Mexican laborers that shuttled up and down with insectile persistence.
      At a point midway through the creation of the vineyard, some of the boulders came loose from the pile and rolled down into the creekbed. There they broke a two-inch plastic pipe supplying water to the property belonging to another neighbor, Bob Long, and close enough for one of Long’s employees to hear this. The rocks didn’t menace him, but they certainly got his attention. They got his boss’s, too, and Long called the water division of the Napa County Department of Public Works and told them what had happened, that boulders were now sitting in the bed of a creek that fed Lake Hennessey, a municipal water supply.
      The Department of Public Works contacted the Regional Water Quality Control Board in Oakland, where an environmental specialist named Tom Gandesbury looked into the problem. It seemed to Gandesbury that the boulders had been stacked too high on a bank, as he put it, with “a soft, chewy center” prior to being disposed of, and that the disposal had never taken place. The boulders were not massed in an engineered manner, Gandesbury thought. It was scary. He discussed the problem with a representative of the Resource Conservation District in Napa and was told that the rock pile was beyond erosion control, that the whole thing could come tumbling down.
      The Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a cleanup and abatement order and asked for a winterizing erosion plan anyway, one that involved the owner’s hiring geotechnical and subsurface consultants. These experts recommended rebuilding the pile with D-9S, long-arm excavators, and six-wheel dump trucks, extremely expensive reparation. This was undertaken, and, looking at the effects, Gandesbury thought it had to be the most costly vineyard installation in human history.
      The people who had caused the problem were in his opinion driven by profits so great that the penalties, if there were any, seemed insignificant. They were willing to risk money and legal action because new regulations might emerge at any time that would curtail their plans. “Some guy had “gone nuts” on a bulldozer, Gandesbury concluded, cutting a road “through hill and dale” so steep that it became a cliff. “Somebody just put a line on a map, and the driver went ass over teakettle.”
      There should be a regulation on how much rock could be pulled out of the ground for a vanity vineyard, he thought. For the moment, though, there was nothing more his agency could do. If the rock pile, or part of it, went down the hill the following winter, the Regional Water Quality Control Board could impose a big legal penalty.
      Other agencies and individuals got involved, part of the damage control. The county district attorney’s office investigated but took no action. The Fish and Game warden inspected and told Wender’s contractors to remove the tumbled boulders by breaking them up by hand, since mechanized equipment wasn’t allowed in the creekbed. The county planning department looked into the situation, but that agency had only two inspectors.
      Their priority was grading, not rock piles, some of their assignments wild-goose chases in the opinion of Ed Colby, a member of the department. He issued stop-work orders and red tape was “put on machines—“red-tagging”—to shut down occasional jobs, but it was an impossible task checking all such development.
      Vineyard developers weren’t required to have the permits, the owners were. And too many of them thought paying thousands of dollars for violations was just part of the cost of doing business. He thought the rock pile went beyond what ought to be allowed, but it was up to the DA to charge the owner. Colby wasn’t surprised that no charges were brought against Wender, Abreu, or Stadelhofer, that in the end no one paid a cent in fines.
                                        (To be continued)


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Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 2: Vineyard Guy

Note: I recently acquired the rights to my second Napa book, The Far Side of Eden. I think the struggle over the hillsides at the outset of this century, covered in the book, is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes wineries and winery expansions. I decided to run excerpts as a reminder of what's still at stake in the valley.

     DAVE ABREU learned some of his trade from Ric Forman, winemaker, vineyard manager, and general troubleshooter, first for Sterling Vineyards and then for Peter Newton. Abreu had simply appeared at Newton Vineyards one day, back from Vietnam and in need of a job, and Forman had shown him a few things. Products of St. Helena High, Abreu and his friends were working stiffs, locals but not lucky spermers. Dark-haired, bright-eyed, Dave had a curious, profane, funny way of talking—“Here . . . hey . . .”—characterized by some as “Rutherford-speak.” He was driven to succeed, taking odd vineyard jobs around the valley, and remembered in the business for asking all manner of questions, as in, “Here . . . hey, how does pH work, anyway?”
      Randy Dunn hired him to prune atop Howell Mountain, and on cold winter mornings Abreu would come into his house to warm his hands by the stove, where Lori Dunn, Randy’s wife, was struck by his gentleness and good humor. He also worked for Caymus Vineyards, on the valley floor. Before long he began to call himself a consultant and use his friend Buddy Meyer to do the bulldozing. Buddy’s father had sold the land on Spring Mountain to Peter Newton, and Buddy still lived at the base of Newton Vineyards, as did Abreu. He would tell people he had sold Newton a rock pile and that Newton had built a house up there on a rattlesnake den, and laugh at the folly of it.
      But Newton Vineyards was where Abreu started. Peter Newton’s was a notable success; he also had a leggy Chinese wife, an octagonal house, and a Mercedes that glided down the steep winding road from his opulent, stylish outpost, running the gauntlet of industrial implements at the bottom belonging to Buddy. Visitors to Newton —and there were many, drawn by the wines’ quality and the dramatic aspect of winery, house, and gardens, but not by the rattlesnakes that did indeed sun themselves on the tarmac—couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the men at the bottom of the hill, in their coveralls and Big Ben shirts, their boots and billed caps and air of indifference, and Newtonian sophistication above.
      A keen distinction had arisen between perceived privilege exemplified by the Newtons and kick-ass earthmoving competence below. When trees in heavy containers of imported soil arrived from northern California and Oregon “aboard big flatbed semis that could barely navigate the steep winding road, the dirt movers would come to the rescue, but not without choice words about Newton’s imperial ways and Newton’s fancy wife. 
      Some visitors thought the people at the bottom of the hill deliberately kept their neighborhood looking countrified, and put in speed bumps, just to tweak those living above. The irony was that Newton had paid good money for land that at the time did not seem so valuable, and had provided work for those at the bottom, a classic case of new lord and old freeholder.
      Some of the Newton vineyards seemed, from a distance, cut into rock, one row five feet above another. Decades later, little would grow on some sections; every time it rained, the creek at the bottom of the hill would change color with sediment making its way down from the high slopes of the Mayacamas where Meyer and Abreu had hunted and fished as boys. There they had become men, and yet they helped transform it and similar land. Even woodlands adjacent to new vineyards were bulldozed, to destroy any cover for what might be enemies of vines, work that would be done because some people wanted it done and were willing to pay anything for it.
      Abreu seemed, among all the vineyard managers, best able to understand the extraordinary needs of the newcomers. He told others in the business who questioned his methods, in no uncertain terms—he and his brothers knew how to take care of themselves—“Here . . . hey, I’ve got a job to do.”
      He was no longer just a learner but a professional. Delia Viader’s was not the last of his controversial projects but the first of many. He, the projects, and his new clients would become significant factors in the discord in the valley, as well as in the still ascendant reputation of its wines. Likewise, Delia Viader was not “through with audacious vine yard practices. She would continue to pursue “freedom” as she interpreted it, which apparently extended to challenging gravity on the slopes of Howell Mountain.
      Years later, another Napa Valley vineyard manager would angrily declare, of all the problems arising out of hillside development, “A brass plaque should be put up in Delia Viader’s vineyard saying, ‘It started here.’”
                                                      (Next: Pritchard Hill)

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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 1: Viader

Note: I recently acquired the rights to my second Napa book, The Far Side of Eden. I think the struggle over the hillsides at the outset of this century, covered in the book, is relevant to the current discussion of development, including wineries and winery expansions. I decided to run excerpts here as a reminder of what's still at stake in the valley.                                  

      BACK IN THE late eighties, cusp of the nineties, the allure of a vineyard of one’s own brought large amounts of capital to the valley, and some of this was inherited, not “made.” The natural—original—beauty of the finite landscape was already being altered by the most successful small-scale agricultural crop in America, but few of the new arrivals understood or readily accepted the idea of restraints.
      These existed in Napa County in the form of zoning and land-use laws, but the newcomers—and some longtime residents—rebelled against the notion of limits, even as that notion worked its way to the forefront of national consciousness. During the 1980s, the United States had lost almost one and a half million acres a year of open space, including farmland and wildlife habitat. From San Francisco to Nantucket, the Outer Banks to Tucson, Americans were decrying the sprawl of houses, retail outlets, industrial parks, and roads.
      During the 1990s, the loss of open space had grown to more than two million acres a year, fifty thousand of those in California. But the impetus to build gathered strength everywhere, including Napa Valley, which had proven so successful by denying some aspects of it. The population growth rate in the valley had been about two percent a year since the 1970s, only slightly less than India’s, most of this in the cities of Napa and American Canyon. But there were still thousands of plots outside the cities’ limits that could be built on, and this so-called unincorporated area had begun to resemble an image of itself, scattered with idiosyncratic architecture like that found in Carmel, Santa Fe, and the Hamptons.
      Vineyards on formerly wooded slopes were part of that trend, and an intensified struggle for quality and recognition.

      Delia Viader, Argentine by birth, Californian by choice, had studied the concept of freedom as expressed by Saint Augustine. She had continued to pursue the subject at the Sorbonne, in Paris, with Jean-Paul Sartre as an instructor, sparring with the existentialist philosopher. Sartre had regularly made Delia weep, not out of fear or humiliation, but frustration. Sartre insisted that everyone in his class be purged of preconceptions, not an easy thing for a young woman raised as a Catholic and unaccustomed to losing arguments; Delia Viader did not take easily to contradiction, even by the author of Nausea and No Exit, friend of Albert Camus, and lover of Simone de Beauvoir.

But Sartre made her see that nothing is perfect and that sometimes you have to settle for the best temporary solution while looking farther out, toward perfection.
      She grew up in France. Her father was made military attaché to the United Nations, and Delia moved from Paris to Boston, studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then at the University of California, Berkeley, in the mid-eighties. “California was the place to be,” she had decided, and she persuaded her father to purchase ninety-odd acres in Napa Valley, on the side of Howell Mountain. She moved there in 1988, overlooking a blue lake and a stretch of valley as beautiful as any in Burgundy or the Loire, and an investment, as she told her father: she would supervise the planting of the grapes, and arrange financing and permits.
      “I’ll give you two years to entertain yourself,” he told her, “then we’ll see.”
      Pretty, diminutive, with big green eyes and a penchant for dark blazers with gold buttons, Delia Viader convinced a bank that she could “make something out of a pile of rocks.” She got “in touch with Dave Abreu, reputedly unfazed by the difficulties and risks on steep hillsides. If Abreu said something couldn’t be done, she had been told, then it wasn’t possible.
The vines would be closely spaced, as they were in France, one every five feet or so. That meant about two thousand vines an acre, with vertical trellising, the latest thing. It would be difficult, said Abreu, but ultimately no problem. He had gotten his feet wet at Newton Vineyards, across the valley, where planted slopes were very steep.
      Here on Howell Mountain, it would cost the Viaders about two million dollars, for everywhere there were rocks, rocks of all sizes. Whatever their size, Delia referred to them as “pebbles,” even those that had to be blasted into smaller “pebbles” and then raked out by bulldozers. The volcanic soil was to be “ripped,” with six-foot steel fangs dragged through the earth, dislodging rocks by the thousands that ended up in walls and planters, in the house that would stand above the vineyard, in sediment control ponds, and eventually in a little subterranean winery, and still there would be rocks.
The money ran out, and Delia went down to “Silicon Valley, “where risk is a fact of life,” and got more. “It’s like trying to get a ball of snow downhill,” she would say. “As long as you keep it moving, it’s all right.”
      She kept it moving. In the autumn of 1989, young vines protruded from a steep slope deprived of ground cover, the soil free not just of pebbles now but also of native plant life. That time of year, storms can sweep in from the Pacific Ocean with suddenness and intensity. Everybody involved in the Viader vineyard hoped the rains would hold off until the earth was furred with a million blades of tenacious new grass.

      Tom Burgess lived just south of the new vineyard, and he watched as the soil was ripped and the vines planted next door. He had steep vineyards, too, but his were terraced, horizontal—the old method—and he still had his rocks, a pain to farm around but a lot less costly to leave in place, and more stable.

      There had been a time when Burgess’s vineyard was the only one on this stretch of Howell Mountain, called Souverain Cellars then, the creation of the notoriously tight-fisted maverick Lee Stewart, one of the pre-sixties pioneers, a dreamer, novelist manqué, and workhorse. Stewart had proved that good wine could be made amid all the rocks, after learning his skills from André Tchelistcheff and imparting them to a number of younger vinous aspirants, among them Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap, who were willing to commit themselves to servitude.
      Burgess bought the property, changed the name to his own, and began a long, slow process of learning and expansion. Formerly an airline pilot, he had maintained some independence within the society of vintners, supporting the cause of limited growth when others were more reluctant. Burgess had dynamited many a “hole to plant a vine, and he employed Viader’s contractor to clear more of his land, after the Viader vineyard was in, so he could expand his vineyards the following year.
      There were no regulations about what degree of slope could and couldn’t be planted in Napa County, but Burgess and others worried about the steep vertical rows and rock-free soil at the Viader place under a lowering sky. Then in October dark clouds rolled over the Mayacamas from Sonoma County. It rained and rained as only it can in those temperate zones washed by cold, deep, unpredictable oceans. And it rained some more.

       “The resulting heavy runoff into Bell Canyon Reservoir caused excessive damage to the City of St. Helena’s Police Range as well as a small arm of the reservoir receiving a silt flow from two recently cleared hillsides . . . The steep slopes, which were deep in dust from having been recently worked, acted as a funnel at two points . . . This flow cut its path to bedrock along the way and buried the shooting range with mud, making it unusable . . . The results of the surveys suggest that, indeed, the flowing of silt-laden water and debris has caused some damage to the aquatic systems.”

      The report produced by the California Department of Fish and Game did not appear until three months after Tom Burgess woke up and saw a gully at the bottom of his property, close to the Viader line. He soon learned that the runoff had colored the reservoir serving St. Helena. The mud had also inundated the police firing range. If there were things a vintner absolutely did not want to do, they had to include harming the local drinking water and annoying the cops.
      He and Delia Viader appeared to have done both. They had also given impetus indirectly to a movement already under way to create regulations about what could and could not be developed in Napa Valley’s hills, after similar but less spectacular failures on Diamond Mountain. Knowing that blame would flow from this, and maybe lawsuits, Burgess took his camera and drove up to the Angwin airport. He owned a little Marchetti, the most powerful single-engine plane in the neighborhood, so fast and steady that third-world coun tries sometimes bought Marchettis and armed them with machine guns, creating an instant, low-rent air force.
      Angwin had a short runway and tricky crosswinds that made taking off and landing a challenge, but that was no problem with the Marchetti. Within a minute or two Burgess was at a near-stall over his property; from that vantage point it seemed clear to him that the erosion had come from the adjacent property, run down and across the new vineyard, and cascaded across the bottom corner of his land. He took lots of pictures, and then descended to face the music.

    Delia Viader would not admit that runoff from her property reached the reservoir. But she had a stone wall built at the bottom of the vineyard, and a basin to trap suspended dirt on its downward migration next time. She made sure she was seen working on the problem and thus helped deflect the assignment of guilt. It came anyway, from the newspapers and from a more potent source, word of mouth. She blamed the uproar on the fact that she was a woman and a foreigner, not on the possibility that she had authorized Dave Abreu to put in a steep vineyard too late in the season. She had seen steeper ones in Switzerland and Germany, where it rained a great deal, and the inclines of the vineyards in China, she said, were just incredible.
      She thought the controversy and the discussion of regulations reflected the loss of personal freedom. This notion had changed radically from the time of Saint Augustine to the present; what had been a classical, elegant view of existence and free will had become in modern times a fractured thing, succumbing to the destruction of values during World War Two. It was all right there in her Ph.D. thesis, she told anyone who asked, like the assertion that greater personal freedom may have followed the destruction of values but that personal accountability had not. Instead, it went into sharp decline, so that nowadays people expected to be told what to do. If they did something they weren’t supposed to do, this was considered someone else’s fault rather than their own.
      Delia Viader considered this the crucial fallacy of contemporary life: if you are always a victim of circumstance, what of free will? The contradiction seemed never to have occurred to her: invoking Saint Augustine while opposing the spirit of the law in the place she had chosen to live.
      She refused to accept blame for what had happened. Dave Abreu had not, she said, misled her about what was and was not possible in the hills; Delia Viader was no victim! Neither would she admit the fact of the disaster, pointing out that no fish had been killed in the reservoir, that the drinking water remained potable. She had, she said, simply replaced pebbles with vines, and if the earth looked as if it had been turned upside down, well, it had, and would someday look quite different. And she avoided paying even a small fine.
                                    (Next: Vineyard Guy)

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