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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