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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