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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Contact: conawayjim@gmail.com

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