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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