Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 10: Throw a dart

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 the book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions, and I decided to run excerpts here. The series begins with the June postings in the drop-down menu to the right.                                                                                                            
      Known all over the state, either reverentially or contemptuously as CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act stated that any project affecting the environment, if it involved “discretionary” decisions by local officials on the specifics, had to be first opened to public comment. The other sort of decision, “ministerial,” was for more standard projects and unsuited to those in Napa County because of the variety of the projects themselves and the terrain. Virtually all vineyard development in the hills involved discretionary approval, and to date there had been no public comment on erosion control plans.
      Lippe asked Chris for her documentation relating to new vineyards, acquired some erosion control plans from the county planning department, and reviewed it all. He was “dumbfounded,” he later said, to discover that the plans were apparently illegal. “There’s evidence all over them that the county was exercising discretion.”
      By that he meant that the planning department had approved projects on their merits without giving the public a chance to weigh in, as required. The irony was that if Napa had not passed a good hillside ordinance requiring certain safeguards and review, all the projects could have been treated as ministerial, rubber-stamped, and exempted. It was the provisions of Napa’s hillside ordinance, more stringent than in the rest of California, passed years before and requiring erosion control plans, that had opened Napa up to such potential litigation. From the time the ordinance was passed, Napa County should have been complying with the California Environmental Quality Act, and it wasn’t.
      If the county thought that its already strong hillside ordinance rendered public review unnecessary, Lippe thought, the county was wrong. Even if there was more “environmental protection in Napa because of the hillside ordinance than elsewhere, the requirements of CEQA still applied.
      There also existed the possibility of suing individual property owners. If vineyards had been planted in the hills without environmental impact reports, then those same vineyard owners were presumably as liable as the county was. There were plenty of owners to choose from, including vineyards developed in the last few months with nothing more than a declaration from the authorities that they would have no negative impact on the environment. They belonged to all kinds of people, from big boys like Beringer to little start-ups nobody ever heard of to cult producers like Jayson Pahlmeyer.
      You could almost throw a dart.
      A month after meeting with Lippe, Chris and her associates in Concerned Citizens for Napa Hillsides began combing through erosion control plans filed with the county and then comparing those plans with what had taken place on the ground. They needed photographs of work done in the early stages of vineyards to buttress their assertions that the actual work had not conformed to specifics put forward in the erosion control plans. Neighbors came forward with photographs of their own of what was taking place on adjacent properties. Chris saw the relationship between the county and the developers as one big administrative scam. “What was being done by the engineers and the attorneys,” she told people, “and what the county was approving, was not what was happening on the landscape.”
      An almost religious fervor pervaded the search. To back up paper evidence, she had the growing stash of photos showing ecological assault and some scientific evidence from ongoing studies financed by the Mennen Environmental Foundation. Damage to invertebrates, fish, and waterway channels downstream from vineyard development was obvious, all fodder for any future legal action. And there were moles in at least two public agencies in the county providing additional raw data. This all went into the spinning hopper that would eventually spit out a verdict on whether or not to sue.
      Chris was adamantly for it, as she had always been. The lawyers were cautious, and the Mennens in between. They now had more than seventy potential targets, should they decide to move. They started narrowing the possibilities, to increase their chances of winning if they did go to court; the criteria that emerged from these sessions were simple: no mom-and-pop operations; vineyard plans that could be challenged within time limits set down by the California Environmental Quality Act; and real, demonstrable environmental damage.
      The photographs of early stages of development were crucial. Vivid pictorial evidence could, if need be, prove to a judge that damage had been significant before it was obscured under a sea of trellises and young vines. No decision would be made until all the legal research was in and the lawyers could predict near-certain success. Everyone agreed on all these things. Napa Valley had supposedly the best erosion control and land conservation regulations in the United States. The publicity about any such lawsuit in this, the darling of the wine world, destination of billionaires, would be widespread, and the criticism of the suit relentless. The stakes were just too high, both for the environment and for the environmentalists, to screw up.
      However, the Mennen Environmental Foundation couldn’t sue. Its bylaws and tax-exempt status prevented this, although the foundation could, and did, finance the research for the potential suit. It would have to find an organization willing to front as plaintiff if the backers and the lawyers ever decided to file, and finding the right organization was crucial. Public perception of environmental lawsuits was generally good; almost as important as the cause itself was the reputation of the organizations behind it. This could be a factor in the final outcome, and in the outcomes of possible subsequent lawsuits: the more important the organization—the older, larger, more respected, more popular, and more committed—the better.
                                (Next: Enter the Sierra Club)                                 
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Monday, July 27, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 9: The battle begins

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 the book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions, and I decided to run excerpts here. The series begins with the June postings in the drop-down menu to the right.                                                 


      Chris Malan and one of her neighbors on Atlas Peak Road, Parry Mead, went up in a small aircraft and told the pilot to fly them over all of Napa Valley—Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill, Howell Mountain, Diamond and Spring mountains, Mount Veeder. They were shocked by what they saw. Parry took a lot of photographs, and the worst, in Chris’s view, was Pahlmeyer’s new vineyard. She would later call it “the trigger.”
      Broader involvement was needed to give the hillside ordinance real teeth. Yet another group, Concerned Citizens for Napa Hillsides, was founded, and Parry Mead’s photographs were submitted to the local newspaper and to the board of supervisors.
      Concerned Citizens began to protest hillside conversions and demand that use permits for steeper slopes be required. They insisted that conversions of woodland and chaparral to vineyard on even more gradual slopes be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, from which the vintners were currently exempted. They wrote letters to the editor. People whose property had been flooded by runoff from development higher up or otherwise affected got in touch with Concerned Citizens and wrote letters of their own, and all this began to have an impact.
      The organization must demand that use permits for steeper slopes be required. They insisted that conversions of woodland and chaparral to vineyard on even more gradual slopes be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, from which the vintners were currently exempted. They wrote letters to the editor. 
      The organization was granted a spot on the board of supervisors’ agenda, and Chris made a three-hour presentation. Using all the ammunition in the burgeoning file, she and her allies asked for a moratorium on the clearing of all hillsides. A moratorium was feared most by those seeking to profit from the unprecedented business expansion; the wine business was just so good, and all the flat land already in production, and here comes this proposal out of left field seeking to hobble the primary enterprise of Napa Valley. That was the view of most of the vintners. Moratorium was anathema to them, an economic and philosophical abomination sending up a figurative cloud of dust.
      The required erosion control plans had reduced the turbidity of the river,  but controversial new vineyard “conversions” like Pahlmeyer’s, new houses, and the destruction of trees and vegetation wiped those benefits out of the public consciousness.
      People were so agitated. Something had to be done.
       TOM LIPPE grew up in faraway Florida but went to law school at Stanford University and spent his free time in the Sierra Nevada. He naturally gravitated toward environmental issues and “social betterment”—his phrase—and by the time he graduated knew he wanted to practice in the public interest. Environmental litigation would be his niche.
      In the eighties in northern California that meant the timber wars. Protecting old growth was the emblematic regional struggle, and Lippe represented the Sierra Club and another organization up in Humboldt County against Pacific Lumber, with some success. Along the way he got to know the leadership of the club in San Francisco, where its headquarters was located. He later opened an office just blocks away from the Sierra Club’s utilitarian digs in the Mission District.
       “He now shared a suite with a financial consulting firm in an Embarcadero skyscraper but kept his hair long; he wore open shirts and sport jackets, and rarely talked about strategy. “Litigation is like poker,” he would say. “You don’t say what cards you had in the last hand” once your opponent folds. And you don’t waste a lot of time on sentiment.
      In 1998, he got a call from a woman in Napa Valley named Chris Malan. He wasn’t surprised to learn that she had heard of him through the Sierra Club; it had often sent him referrals. Malan and other activists in the wine country were concerned about vineyard development in the hills and wanted to know if it could be halted, and Lippe drove up to talk to her.
      He found Malan both personable and well informed. Lippe didn’t drink wine and knew nothing about it or vineyards, and he couldn’t digest all the information on the spot. But it certainly seemed to him that the county had big legal problems, and that there might be work for him. For one thing, the visual evidence was compelling. “Look what’s happening up there,” he said of the patchwork development.
      He thought Napa Valley representative of other places in the United States where success had come down to money versus the environment. Many projects in the hills had been approved piecemeal, allowing developers to assemble big vineyards by doing them as a succession of smaller projects and avoiding more rigorous review. And there was the problem of enforcement—projects uninspected, violations unpunished, wrongdoers unrepentant. No one seemed to be looking at the possible effect of all this on the overall environment, or what would happen if it continued—the effects on wildlife and the river.
      Here was a cautionary tale, he thought: do something destructive to the land and try to fix it with technology, and you create other problems as unintended consequences. During storms, underground drainage delivers water too quickly for the river to handle, for instance. Developed hillsides erode. Rocks roll. Species suffer.
      Lots of laws applied, at least theoretically. One of these was the Endangered Species Act, savior of old growth—and of the northern spotted owl—and bane of the timber industry. It was a strong law but had its weaknesses, including the need to prove a “taking”—death or injury of an endangered creature as a direct result of activity by human beings. Proving this required a lot of field work by scientists and was very expensive (a million dollars just to get into federal court nowadays). San Pablo Bay was listed by the Environmental Protection Agency as impaired, and so consequently was the Napa River, a major tributary to the bay. The steelhead in the river were officially threatened, so that was a clear opportunity. And there were a few spotted owls in old growth above the west side of the valley.
      But there was a better, cheaper, more immediate way, the best card in any potential plaintiff’s hand: the California Environmental Quality Act. 
                                           (Throw a dart)                                            

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 8: Busted

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 the book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions, and I decided to run excerpts here. The series begins with the June postings in the drop-down menu to the right.
      He felt, he said, “like a Cistercian monk poking around in the wilds of Burgundy not long after the birth of Christ. The Europeans have for thousands of years been deciding where best to plant, and have nailed their terroir, whereas the Americans are still figuring theirs out.”
      For Jayson Pahlmeyer, his reputation now tied to the appearance of his chardonnay in the film Disclosure, the hills were clearly the place where the best grapes grew, just as a bank was the place where the money was. So to greatly expand his source of good grapes, and therefore his production of wine, he bought two-hundred-plus steep acres in remote Wooden Valley, an adjunct of Napa Valley by virtue of its drainage into the Napa River. He planned to spend millions to turn eighty acres of it into prime vineyard.
      Helen Turley had taken over the making of his wine. She was an acknowledged maven of ripe fruit—“physiologically mature,” she called it, and others called it too far gone—low yields, expensive viticulture, manicured vines. She tramped into vineyards like a disheveled Valkyrie, sometimes with Jayson in tow, to sample grapes left so long on the vine they were often black and splitting, attracting wasps, bees, and skunks, and she put the sample bunches into a little colander she carried, with a kind of rolling pin inside, and mashed the grapes up and poured the juice into a glass and tasted it. She would then order that some grapes be “dropped”—cut and left on the ground so as to further concentrate the flavor in those left on the vine—in the final days of harvest, despite the great cost of leaving quality cabernet sauvignon in the dust.
      This was known as “Helen’s way.” Jayson had seen the light because Turley brooked no compromise, would forgo any amount of money offered if her standards weren’t met. She was quirky and her husband, a kind of vinous manager, difficult. Jayson had once seen Helen turn down a prospective client because he answered his cell phone while at lunch. She managed to get Robert Parker to taste the wines of all her clients, a huge advantage. Another winemaker would take over from her, common in the musical chairs of quality viticulture, but while she lasted she provided Pahlmeyer with what he needed at the time: big fruit, more exposure.
      His vineyard manager, the man responsible for the master plan, the recognized avenue to accredited rocket juice and progenitor of rising cult cabernets, was none other than Dave Abreu. No longer asking about pH, unscathed by the Viader and other contretemps, Abreu wore not Big Ben shirts but those with rearing polo horse and rider stitched above the pectoral, and he charged a lot of money for putting in an acre of vines. Abreu’s standard refusal to travel far from Rutherford on jobs had been overcome by Jayson’s money and the ambitious scope of his project.
      In Jayson’s opinion, Abreu was a foul-mouthed genius, a rough, Rutherford-speaking diamond, the Robert Trent Jones of vineyards. Abreu went out and sat in the prospective vineyard and felt the soil, felt the roots of the young vines; he lay down on his side to divine the pattern of the drip valves. He said, “Here . . . hey . . .” and re-leased a torrent that was part appreciation, part abuse, all authoritative. This is what we’re going to do, he would tell Jason, this is what’s best—vertical rows, close planting, whatever, and then do it. All of them—Jayson, Helen Turley, Dave Abreu, and his surrogates—were focused on the goal; accepted practices, rules and regulations, seemed to be no impediment when you had a job to do.
      The contractor Richard Stadelhofer graded fifty acres of Jayson’s property in 1997 without an erosion control permit, removed the vegetation next to a dry creek, and dumped some debris into the streambed without permission from the California Department of Fish and Game. All no-nos, as Jayson later put it, and Stadelhofer got caught. Jayson said he didn’t know the permit hadn’t been issued, adding that, as a lawyer, he knew that ignorance was no defense. He and Stadelhofer had to pay close to ten thousand dollars in civil penalties, and Jayson lost a year in his vineyard development because he was shut down until the following spring, a big financial hit all by itself.
      He agreed to restore some of the slopes above thirty percent to their natural state and to make other improvements. He was criticized by other vintners whose ranks he had eagerly joined for setting a bad example and providing ammunition to vintners’ enemies. Jayson stood up in front of them and performed a mea culpa, admitting that he and his contractors had made a mistake and, in effect, asking for forgiveness. He hoped that and the mitigation he had agreed to do on the land would counteract the bad publicity.
      The criticism of his peers was innocuous compared to that flowing from the environmentally minded community. Jayson was in the green crosshairs now.     
                                       (Next: The Battle)

Friday, July 17, 2015

BV's sad visage in the rear-view mirror

This reminder of the good old days of a Napa family jewel that ended up belonging to an international liquor conglomerate (from

Beaulieu Vineyard Reliving Past Glories

In the 1930s, Beaulieu was one of the most magnificent properties in California.
© Beaulieu Vineyards | In the 1930s, Beaulieu was one of the most magnificent properties in California.
The company's flagship wine still echoes those made during California's golden age.
If you visit Beaulieu Vineyard's reserve tasting room in Rutherford, you can buy Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1970s for about the same price as the current release. This is amazing because it was one of California's most iconic wines for decades.

For 30 years after Prohibition ended, Beaulieu and Inglenook were about the only California wineries even attempting to make world-class wine. Beaulieu's wine was served at the dinner tables of Winston Churchill, Douglas MacArthur and Queen Elizabeth II.
That said, just as today, Beaulieu has never made its money from the top of the portfolio. Georges de Latour founded Beaulieu in 1899, but not to make quality wines. He bought inferior leftover wines from other wineries and sold them cheaply for a good profit. His wisest move, from today's perspective, was buying 100 acres in Rutherford to live on and base his operation. His second wisest was befriending the archbishop of San Francisco, so he could keep making sacramental wine during Prohibition.
The Beaulieu estate was, along with Inglenook, the most magnificent place in Napa Valley in the 1930s. The house was surrounded by gardens and filled with French-speaking servants. But de Latour realized his wines weren't very good, so he went to France looking for a winemaker.
André Tchelistcheff, hired by Beaulieu in 1938, brought modern winemaking to Napa Valley, introducing measures as basic as good hygiene. In cleaning up the filthy cellar, he found some barrels of red wine that tasted much better than the rest; they had been laid down in 1936. When de Latour died in 1940, Tchelistcheff convinced his widow to release them as the Georges de Latour Private Reserve for the unheard-of price of $1.50 a bottle.
For the next three decades, Tchelistcheff kept the quality of the Georges de Latour Private Reserve high, while making compromises with the rest of the wines because of the family's penury. This was the golden era for Beaulieu's flagship wine as an ambassador of the US wine industry.
The family finally sold the winery in 1968 to Heublein, the first in a decades-long series of corporate acquisitions and mergers as various non-wine companies thought they could make money in Napa Valley, then decided they couldn't.
"When I started here in 1989, I worked for RJR Nabisco," says Jeffrey Stambor, just the fourth director of winemaking in Beaulieu's 80-plus-year history. "I worked for a lot of different companies, all right here at this winery. Within the first three years of my employment, I was tendered two severance packages, but they never signed off on them."

Main men – Georges de Latour (L), Joel Aiken and André Tchelistcheff.
© Beaulieu Vineyards | Main men – Georges de Latour (L), Joel Aiken and André Tchelistcheff.
The luster of the Georges de Latour name lingered through the 1980s, even in (frequent) down years but, by the 1990s, a new generation of small-production Napa Cabernets stole its thunder. In 1997, when Diageo (the current owner) was formed from the merger of two of the UK's largest drinks corporations, production of the Georges de Latour Reserve was up to 18,000 cases. Robert Parker gave the 1997 Georges de Latour 90 points but wrote: "Beaulieu is no longer one of California's cutting edge wineries."
Whiskey is Diageo's main business, but it pays more attention to its wine portfolio than some of its corporate forerunners, all of which took advantage of Beaulieu's legacy to varying degrees. Beaulieu will never be cutting edge again, but when you look back on the real history of the winery, it's easy to say that on the whole, it has never made better wines overall than it does right now.
During the golden era under Tchelistcheff, wines below the Georges de Latour Reserve level suffered from inferior quality grapes and equipment. Later, Heublein was so ignorant of wine that it once recommended grafting over all Beaulieu's vines to Gamay to increase turnover and cashflow, according to James Conaway's book "Napa."
Tchelistcheff quit in 1973. Beaulieu has had an army of winemakers come and go, but only four have been charged with making the Georges de Latour Reserve.
Joel Aiken was in charge through the mid-1980s and tried to keep the reputation high, even as he sometimes had to explain why that was important. Under Aiken, the Georges de Latour Reserve always had the pick of the corporation's Rutherford vineyards, especially one called BV1, in the heart of the appellation between the Inglenook and Hewitt vineyards. That vineyard was replanted in the late 1980s after phylloxera hit Napa Valley, so most of its Cabernet Sauvignon vines are more than 25 years old now. There's also a little Petit Verdot in the section closest to the road. For many years the Georges de Latour was only Cabernet, but now – while labeled as Cab – it often includes smaller percentages of the other Bordeaux varieties.
A few years after Diageo took over, Aiken convinced corporate management that, to compete with the smaller wineries then making the most heralded Napa Cabernets, Georges de Latour Reserve had to get smaller, in more ways than one. In addition to making about four times as much of the wine as he recommended, the Georges de Latour Reserve was made in the same giant wine factory – even in the same humongous fermentation tanks – as Beaulieu's other Napa Valley wines. (This is not to be confused with BV's enormous facility in Monterey County that makes the BV Coastal line of wines – the company likes to use the name Beaulieu for the Napa wines and BV for the rest.)

Beaulieu Vineyard Reliving Past Glories
© Beaulieu Vineyards
In 2005, a small section of the winery was set aside for the Georges de Latour Reserve. Stambor, then Aiken's assistant winemaker, says the main things they were looking for were better tannin management and a fuller midpalate. They were convinced they could achieve these with smaller, dedicated tanks. They proved their point to Diageo's satisfaction, so Rosenblum (another Diageo brand) inherited those smaller tanks and in 2008 Aiken and Stambor built a dedicated winemaking room for Georges de Latour.
Today that wine gets much of the same cutting-edge treatment as other top Napa Cabs. The fruit is picked at 3:30am, so it arrives cool at the winery. It goes through an optical sorter and is fermented in a combination of stainless steel, oak tanks and some new oak barrels. Pumpovers are controlled by computer to extract as much flavor as possible. Diageo also brought in Michel Rolland as a consultant. He comes in three times a year to help blend the Georges de Latour. The result is a ripe, rich Cabernet that represents the modern Napa style. And there's a lot less of it; fewer than 5000 cases.
Georges de Latour Reserve Cabernet will never again be a flagship of Napa Valley. But its modern wines uphold its reputation, and you can still go to Rutherford and taste a wine from the era when there was almost no better-regarded Napa Cabernet. Will you like it better? Once you get there, it won't even cost you $200 to find out.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 7: An elite but shadowy vintner reflects

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 the book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions, and I decided to run excerpts here. The series begins with the June postings in the drop-down menu to the right.                                                                        
      The winemaker stood at the window of a house with a view, but to say whether it was easterly or westerly, and of what section of the valley, was not allowed. Views, like geography, amount to identity in Napa Valley, and Pat had stipulated that, if an interview was to be granted, no clue could be offered. Pat did not wish to be known for voicing sentiments common among peers but kept to themselves, because the effect of such sentiments in the outside world was not good for business or for the image of “the vintner.”
      At the same time, Pat felt compelled to speak out, being profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo and unhappy in a celebrated cradle of contentment. As a younger person, Pat had made a mark and prospered here, but no longer enjoyed what was transpiring in the valley. The setting was still beautiful—no one could deny this—and the work still challenging, but the innocence was gone. “Wine has become a talent show,” Pat began, speaking slowly, care fully, “one that disregards the synergism between man and nature. It isn’t who can capture the terroir anymore, but who can capture the wine writer."
      New wines impressed the wealthy neophyte while offending the real connoisseur because they had no balance, no finesse, just power—the bane of modern existence. Some cult wines “don’t belong on the shelves where wine is sold,” Pat added, “they belong in the sauce department.” To state this publicly would be akin to calling someone’s child a juvenile delinquent in the society of which Pat was a respected member, a society far touchier than it once was, intolerant of criticism from within and hostile to it from without.
      “In the forties and fifties and sixties, there were no cult wines. The Wine Spectator contrived the idea, and we fell for it. What a mean thing to do, making people salivate for wines that aren’t very drinkable and can’t be bought for less than two hundred dollars a bottle. That magazine has taken the wholeness out of everything by adding glitz. Consequently, the winemakers try to impress the wine writers rather than the wine drinkers.” Pat paused. “We need to get back to basics, to stop feathering the engines to see how much we can charge.”
      Pat hated the point system for rating wine. “Are paintings in a museum on a point system?” Pat blamed it in part on Robert Parker, “a groupie, also a nice guy,” on whom Pat’s success, too, depended. “You have to make Parker feel like he’s part of the team, you have to talk to him endlessly about your wines and tell him how good they are . . . Everybody used to just let him taste, until they realized that was the wrong way to do it, that you had to talk to him and be very patient. If he tasted blind he wouldn’t come up with those findings. Although he may not realize it, the findings aren’t impartial, they’re engineered by the winemakers.”
      Parker’s preference for “big, obtuse” cabernets influenced the winemaking of “the superstars,” Pat went on. “Some of these winemakers are making extract, not wine. They’ve lost sight of wine as something that goes with meals. It’s not the Holy Grail, and it costs too much. Does it make sense to pay eighty dollars for something that’s gone in ten minutes?
      “We’ve elevated wine to a specialty category. We’ve lost the wholesomeness. The idea of cult wines gives ammunition to the neo-prohibitionists by making wine sound like a drug. The only point of all this competition and fancy marketing is outdoing someone else. The wines dazzle while they insult the palate, but young winemakers are scared not to make them.”
      Nuances of soil were lost, balanced wines harder and harder to find. Meanwhile, available land was running out. Of the total half-million acres in the valley, less than forty thousand were planted in grapes, but relatively few suitable acres were left. And these were mostly in the hills, steep and often forested.
      “If you could stand above the valley and look down on all this, you would see that everybody is bumping into everybody else, trying to get in. The question is always ‘Why?’ Because the market has gone crazy, providing money in unprecedented quantities. The amount of it spent on frivolity is amazing. Wine has become a post-yuppie thing, the next step after owning a BMW And if you don’t know the best cabernet and who makes it, you’re embarrassed.
      “As in a nuclear explosion, all the elements are insignificant in and of themselves, but devastating together. We have huge wealth, billionaires willing to spend any amount of money to be here, to be in the new club. Well, I put in decades of work to be able to charge fifty dollars for a bottle. Then some billionaire arrives and simply hires people to do what I had to learn, dumping money on the table. This makes everything more expensive for everyone, including wine. You can’t go to a meeting nowadays without someone whispering, ‘Where is this going? Is wine really worth this much money? How much more can we glamorize this stuff?’”
      It was just afternoon, but already the shadows were lengthening.
“We’re all so spoiled—pigs in glass houses. We don’t want Napa Valley revealed as Nirvana and wrecked. We don’t want more people coming in, but they are. Something will happen because of the greed. A little bit would be good, but if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. Very few people can live here now with restraint and dignity. The room is full, everybody’s very nervous, we’re at the top in terms of money and fame, and nothing grows forever.”
                                                      (Next: Busted)
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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 6: Coppola's mole

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 the book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions, and I decided to run excerpts here. The series begins with the June postings in the drop-down menu to the right.                                                                               
      Norm had gone to work at Niebaum-Coppola Winery when the wines still bore the mark of Tony Soter and Inglenook still stood, in Norm’s mind, as a symbol of perfection. Intensely interested in wine and in the valley, Norm had educated himself at his own expense, on a meager income, in what good wine should taste like, an education that included an occasional first-growth Bordeaux, grand cru Burgundies, and vintage ports he could not really afford. But the romance of wine was real to him, despite the fact that he lived in modest surroundings, with no view of vineyards, and neighbors more likely to drink beer than cabernet sauvignon.
      Because Norm wanted to work close to what he thought of as the source, he had gone to Inglenook, the physical embodiment of Gustave Niebaum, Hamden Mclntyre, and John Daniel, bearer of the great historical weight of the valley. Norm remembered Inglenook when Heublein still owned it, most of the towering nineteenth-century structure off-limits to visitors, just a tasting room on the ground floor and a run-down courtyard with a sixties feel. The wine was mediocre at best, but then after the sale in 1995 to Coppola, Norm had dropped by again. Some of the activities there were odd, he thought—movie stuff, boxes of merchandise—but the wines showed promise. Visitors could taste various vintages of Rubicon and the “estate wines”—cabernet franc, merlot—and something called Gustave Niebaum Claret, which was then being made with Napa Valley grapes, and the improvement was obvious and exciting.
      He had returned yet again after the remodeling of the chateau and felt he had stumbled into a Disneyland for adults. Displays, a grandi ose staircase, costumes, movie awards. He went into the Rubicon Room, full of clever display cases, and felt he was on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. At the tasting bar, he had to pay seven and a half dollars to sample the wines, and he realized that the old Inglenook was no longer a place for ordinary people serious about wine. It had been reinvented for those interested only in living vicariously. Norm decided to give Coppola the benefit of the doubt, that all this was to produce profits for improving and increasing production and returning Inglenook to its former glory, and he went to work for this splashy new operation. As the wine’s quality and availability rose, he reasoned, the trappings would fall away.
      He had some business experience, and he was immediately struck by the hierarchical nature of management. Those at the top, he thought, knew a lot less about wine than about selling things. Worse, the fact that they had less experience with wine than those they were managing, like Norm, contributed to the high rate of turnover among disgruntled employees. Norm kept his head down, doing what he was told, keeping his opinions to himself in the interest of the greater good.
      Every day he joined the long line of workers driving north that began before dawn, part of a broad migration from places distant and diverse, from the tule marshes bordering San Pablo Bay to tract houses in the East Bay to communities north of Mount St. Helena, separated from their jobs by tortuous roads. But on they came as day assembled itself in the valley—carpenters, plumbers, gardeners, bricklayers, secretaries, clerks, receptionists, cooks, waiters, pourers, managers—an endless procession of cars and bodies making themselves available for the demands of the valley.
      Long before people emerged from the bed-and-breakfasts and the inns and big houses, there were other people drinking coffee from thermoses while they measured and hoisted and rearranged, sorted tiles and replaced inventory, pulled weeds and corks. One of the problems with obtaining a decent wage for winery staff was the job’s allure. People were willing to work for little money because of the perceived glamour, and some people—retirees and those financially independent and drawn by the glamour—sometimes worked for nothing, just to be associated with fine wine.
      Norm soon saw that Niebaum-Coppola did not have enough Rubicon to sell. Less expensive wine was in great demand at the winery, and new labels were already in the Niebaum-Coppola works. Norm also watched the efforts of the winemaking staff, which was supposedly dedicated to producing the finest taste possible from the famed Rutherford Bench vineyards. He thought their skill and good intentions were subverted by the requirements of the new bulk wine operation.
      When the line was introduced, and called Francis Ford Coppola Presents, Norm felt that his naive assumptions about quality triumphing had been laid to rest. He blamed himself for being disappointed, for expecting the dedication represented by old Niebaum to reemerge. Niebaum hadn’t cared about money, he had simply wanted to make the best wine, and that was unrealistic today. Most of the grapes in the new Niebaum-Coppola wines were not from Napa Valley but from the central coast and the Central Valley, where rows of cheap fruit ran to infinity. Some of the wines were made elsewhere and trucked in, and the tourists snapped them up, too, either unaware of the origin of the grapes or indifferent to it. The wine was affordable and a “good value”—that was the selling line—and the clincher was that the bottle bore the name of a famous movie director.
      The commercial aspects of the winery—the salesmanship—continued to bother Norm. What, he wondered, did hand-blown wine glasses, skin-care products, cigars, bathrobes, bocce balls, miniature sailboats, and all the other stuff for sale have to do with making and selling fine wine? There were people working upstairs in the winery offices who did little else but pore through specialty catalogues, ordering things to be sold downstairs. The employees were instructed to associate the Coppolas with all the products, and “Francis” with all activities in the winery, whether or not he was actually involved, all part of the concept of integrating wine, movies, and product.
      If Francis was making a movie somewhere, the employees weren’t to say so. They were to say Francis was intimately involved, an artist who was sharing his “vision” with visitors not for money but for the satisfaction of bringing pleasure to others. A matronly public relations woman was brought in from New York to lecture the staff about this and other things. She had a Nancy Reagan hairdo, and she told them that no one was to speak to the press about the winery, the Coppolas, or anything else. All such queries were to be passed upstairs, whence they would be passed to her, and she would handle everything. From Manhattan.
      Norm saw Francis in action in the winery, and the supposed similarity between him and Gustave Niebaum struck Norm as ludicrous. In his disillusionment he began to speculate about what Niebaum would have thought of the movie director. Norm reminded himself that it was only a job, but increasingly he wanted to tell the manager above him and the woman with the Nancy Reagan hairdo to shove it.
      Two occurrences nearly put him over the edge. The first was a proposal for the use of the bonus that was supposed to go to the staff in the tasting and merchandising rooms. They had exceeded their goal—sales each month were approaching half a million dollars—but instead the bonus would go toward remodeling the Pennino Room. That meant buying a beautiful new cash register, the manager said, arguing at a Saturday meeting with employees that the register was really a gift to them, that it would make their lives easier. Dissent bordered on mutiny. “My God, you guys are being so negative,” the manager lamented. “Can’t we find just one positive thing about this?”
      Management by objective failed for once and the employees got their bonus, but the bitterness lingered until the incident with the monogrammed bedroom slippers. Not just any slippers, but custom-made panne-velvet ones lined with grape-colored silk and embroidered in silver with the logo of the Francis Coppola Diamond Series, another affordable wine that Norm disliked. The slippers were the Christmas bonus for a staff that had brought in millions of dollars during the year, and Norm couldn’t believe them. He had friends working at small boutique wineries who had been rewarded by the owners for much more modest profits with checks, real money for those who needed it. It was a sad commentary, Norm thought, on a big winery that had become very profitable very fast with the crucial assistance of people who shared none of this exponential growth except the burden.
      Norm had mastered a subject—wine—he couldn’t really afford, thinking that would make him part of something important, historically and viticulturally. Instead, this knowledge had “made him a threat to people who knew little about the substance they were supposedly devoted to. And for all his efforts during this particular year he had been given a pair of monogrammed bedroom slippers that sat on the floor of his closet. He wouldn’t wear them, but he couldn’t avoid looking at them, either. Every time he did, he got a little angrier.
                                       (Next: Eminence Gris)                                               

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 5: If Napa Valley can't be saved...

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 the book is relevant to the current discussion of development that includes new wineries and winery expansions and decided to run excerpts here. The series begins with the June postings in the list to the right.                                                     

      “IF NAPA VALLEY can’t be saved, no place can.”
      That sentence had been spoken by Jim Hickey more than a decade before, and often repeated, and in the intervening years he had come to doubt that any place can be saved once it acquires the stamp of significance: a subliminal glow, a nimbus attracting people with all the expectation and fervor of religious pilgrims, and none of the devotion.
      Unrestrained, tourists devour the thing they love. This was not a popular sentiment nowadays, not when everybody was looking to get a piece of the tourist action. With the death of Jack Davies, Hickey—a big man with a stentorian voice and a white goatee, retired now—was reminded of how different things had once been, how fragile the valley had become.
      The memorial service triggered memories, not all of them pleasant. Hickey had been hired right after the creation of the ag preserve to head up the county planning department, and he had tried to implement the spirit of the new law and to otherwise limit activities antithetical to agriculture—not just housing, but also the winery expansions that had little to do with making or selling wine. Later, he had helped put some clamps on wineries through passage of the winery definition, and was fired in 1990 for his efforts by a new board of supervisors elected by a small group of pro-development vintners, a bitter pill after nineteen years of dedicated service.
      It was one he swallowed without complaint. He and his wife, Virginia, had traveled modestly after that, as befitted a retired planner and civil servant, but Hickey could not get Napa Valley out of his mind. Wherever he went, it was with him. Hickey had always been a devotee of good land use, believing that the valley personified many of the problems facing the nation. He was reminded of what could happen to it in Massachusetts, where he and Virginia had gone in search of Plymouth Rock and the spot where the Pilgrims landed. All they could find when they got out of the car at the seashore was a building and a fence. In the gift shop they looked at all the replicas of the Mayflower, and finally Hickey asked, “Where the hell is Plymouth Rock?”
      They were directed to a walkway built around a hole, and in the hole was the object of their search. The Hickeys could pay to have their photograph taken with Plymouth Rock in the background. It was then that Hickey had a vision of the Napa Valley of the future: the ground was paved over, the hills built out, and valley life transformed into one large, all-encompassing touristic enterprise, with theme parks and water slides, condos, convention halls, overhead trams, and all manner of diversions.
      Those willing to pay to see the real Napa Valley were directed to a stockade where they would mount a rampart overlooking a green half acre planted to cabernet sauvignon and containing a little reproduction winery, and the guide would say, “There’s Napa Valley. You’re not allowed to take photos, but you can pose with it over there for our official photographer.”

      Back home, Hickey drove around the valley in his blue pickup, looking at all the change. He would plant a meaty hand on the truck’s roof and swing himself into the cab. A large body was of no use to a man after he was done with high school football, he had decided. He no longer wore the scabbard on his belt that had contained the professional planner’s tools, mostly pens. He usually traveled alone through the valley because Virginia didn’t want to see all the zoning violations—signs, balloons, advertising banners, all components in her husband’s glacier theory, the one postulating that every such violation, relatively insignificant in itself, provided an example for others to emulate or to copy, and they added up and eventually coagulated, like snowflakes, constituting a powerful force, a glacier, that could not be stopped once it began to move.
      Judging by the evidence, the glacier had formed and was moving. Once everybody had been in favor of agriculture and talked about it as the highest use of the land, but today everybody wanted a piece of the visitor pie. That was a remarkable change. Tourists did not live in the valley and were the antithesis of agriculture, neither understanding the process nor tolerant of it. Farming was messy and it got in the way of activities like wine tasting and shopping, but tourism was the primary objective of those doing business in the valley now, including many of the wineries.
      In the eighties, the county’s attitude about the land had been protective. Then things got more profitable, and people began to say, “Why not allow a little development?” The winery definition had been crucial because many wineries really wanted to be shops, with the making of wine incidental to retail sale of wine and other things. Some wineries also wanted to be restaurants, galleries, museums, social and entertainment centers, coffee bars, B&Bs, or a combination of these things. Snowflakes. And the glacier groaned.
      There were eight million people living in the Bay Area and another two million would soon arrive, according to official projections. The pressure was on in this, the last undeveloped wrinkle in the overall landscape, an anomaly with a powerful attraction, both as a glamorous destination and as a green magnet for urbanites and ex-urbanites.
      Napa County’s growth had so far been mostly absorbed by the cities and towns, but they were filling up, pushing at the boundaries, boxed in by vineyards. Housing was relatively expensive everywhere, prohibitively so up-valley, where building continued apace. If the eight thousand plots left in the unincorporated area were built upon, that would bring roughly twenty thousand new people onto agricultural land, with disastrous effects also on ground water and wildlife habitat, to say nothing of the effect on the views and the quality of life of human beings.
      This was happening all over America, but in Napa Valley the contrast between residential and commercial clutter and open space was quite evident, and the lesson clear for the rest of the country: act to restrict growth or lose your chance. Wine and agriculture were involved in a struggle with stronger market forces, and the outcome had relevance for all.

      Everywhere Hickey drove he saw evidence of this. South of the city of Napa development proceeded. There were plans afoot for a huge destination hotel that would further clot the roads, and factories had already been erected for the production of things having nothing to do with wine, using up valuable space.

      Projects often permuted for the worse. For instance, land designated for a golf course to serve the industrial park was sold a couple of times, the plans getting further and further from the original concept, the new players looking for the biggest moneymaker only, regardless of its impact. Hickey was reminded of the old planning grants after World War Two for stimulating the economy and providing jobs, which made people in Napa, still a backwater, say, “We better get our share.” The same argument was being used now for tourism.
      The total commitment to agriculture Hickey had known as a young man was gone, the ag preserve a historical curiosity to the new people. They had heard of it but were ignorant of what it actually meant. What it meant was that Napa County had come up with an innovative, carefully crafted land-use alternative with zoning that discouraged residential development and prevented at least some commercial activities in the countryside unrelated to agriculture. The politicians still hailed the ag preserve publicly, but in private often backed more development, and this had to be resisted.
      Hickey had done what he could. He had sat in front of the county board of supervisors for all those years, using his influence to keep the lid on, and that was too much for some powers in the valley. There had been signs at the end that the supervisors planned to dump him. The county counsel told Hickey, “You’re always causing trouble.”
      If Hickey hadn’t raised the idea of a winery definition, the county counsel added, it would never have come up. But Hickey had thought it a good idea and had never been shy about expressing his opinion. If he had been Joan of Arc, he might have subsequently run for supervisor himself. But Jim Hickey wasn’t Joan of Arc, he was just an aging man with an enduring interest in the valley. He wrote letters to the editor and threw them away instead of mailing them.
      He refused to say, “Back in the good old days . . ." But still the changes rankled him and the glacier’s movement saddened him.
      To wile away the time, he had served as president of the Land Trust of Napa Valley, then joined the Elks. He was proposed for Exalted Leading Knight but turned it down, and was made secretary by default. He accepted out of duty. The Elks was full of men about his age—former car dealers, bankers, and so on—doing public service in a low-key way, nothing fancy, no wine auctions, but organizations like it were dying all over America for lack of new members. The baby boomers weren’t interested in joining the Elks or any other group that took time away from their own pursuits. The old Upper Napa Valley Association, an anti-development coalition that had once enthusiastically sought controls on growth, was moribund.
      Hickey was working on a history of the ag preserve, a civic enterprise to make sure people didn’t forget how it had come about and why. At first he thought he might produce a pamphlet for high school students, then decided to go for greater depth. The problem was, most of the people involved were dead—Jack Davies, Louis Martini, the old supervisors and civil servants. It amused Hickey to discover how many of those left claimed to have had a crucial role in creating the ag preserve. Not that it really mattered who had done it. Hickey wanted the story out there as an example, so it would not be thought of as something passé, if sacred, a shrouded compact instead of a living thing.
      Meanwhile, he drove around a valley full of challenges to the past: neighborhoods in Yountville, originally built so the valley’s workers would have a place to live, gentrified now. The workers lived in the city of Napa or in another county altogether. Sometimes grape pickers slept under the bridges, in season, but that was a relatively small percentage of the workforce, and transient. Many of the wineries reminded Hickey of department stores, the houses of those on slopes above Malibu. These things were all related to the success of wine, including tourism. New investment had been attracted by the valley’s reputation and its ability to please. The new homeowners in the hills and many of the new vintners had bought a piece of fame; they were tourists who had remained.

      One day he turned into the long, tree-lined driveway of what had once been Inglenook and was now Niebaum-Coppola. He remembered when Heublein built the barrel storage facility out front, the hue and cry, but the more recent transformation of a historical structure into a tourist destination had elicited not one word of protest. This was symptomatic of the times. Now he gazed in amazement at the buses parked at the curb, at the alien pergola and the big new fountain. He parked his pickup in the company of “limos and rental convertibles and crossed the gravel courtyard.
      Inside the big old winery, he stood before the grand staircase and looked at the movie curios in cases and read the plaque on the wall that equated Gustave Niebaum and Francis Ford Coppola—Men of Vision . . . separated in birth by nearly 100 years . . . natural, powerful partners . . . based on the deep, inexplicable determination of each man to dream impossible visions . . . Today, two extravagant imaginations . . . woven into this architecture as a double life story . . . Their common dedication to life at its best finds beautiful harmony here. . .—and he said aloud, in amazement, “God love a duck.”
                                 (Next: Coppola's mole)                                                 
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