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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