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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