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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