Friday, October 30, 2015

Being rich in Napa Valley: Thank God for Uber

I'm working on a new book about Napa, the third and final volume of my trilogy about a unique (and sometimes unwitting) experiment in American agriculture and the achievement of the American dream. Here's one of an on-going series of reports from the road.                                                                  
      The drive sweeps steeply upward to a glass and steel amalgam of a house with no readily apparent entrance. Patterned squares of stone set about with low sprawling ground cover hold all this together visually. There is a metal panel beside a door, however, with a speaker, a dark vertical screen, a cavity that looks like it might be for reading fingerprints, a built-in computer keyboard, and a discreet metal plate bearing the impression of a bell.
   I press it, but no response. I take out my cell phone and send the house’s owner a text: I am outside.
   Wind carries up the valley, pushing shrouds of cloud but no rain in this, the biggest fire season ever. A walk around the outside - one can’t easily circumnavigate this house, recently assessed at $100 million - reveals more stone sheathing, glass, sod roof, and a lower postage stamp lawn as green as a dream, sprawling ground cover and deep calm out of the wind. On the upper level are four impervious metal garage doors, but no sign of an entrance or a human being. It’s a bit like gazing into a vast, multi-faceted aquarium devoid of fish.
   I am being hailed. A middle-aged man in a red knit shirt and stocking feet gestures, and I go up to him. We shake hands. “Joe,” he says, as if it’s my name, not his. He adds, “This is a shoeless house.”
   Indeed, the sculpture in the entranceway is a brutal composition of fine English leather shoes skewered by sharp wooden spikes, a strong incentive for the visitor to listen to his host. The floors are stone, too, cool even in September, and the house seemingly large enough to wear out a pair of socks if you walk from one end to the other.
   We descend stairs to the broad living room beyond which the southern reaches of Napa Valley seem submerged. Joe leads the way into what looks like a cramped metal galley in a ship, though this one has no apparent crew, opens a locker and takes out a black $100 bottle of Silex, the Pouilly-fume from the upper Loire.
   “I don’t drink California wines,” says Joe. “I asked Aubert de Villaine” - a co-owner of Romanee-Conti - “how old his oldest vines are, and he said fifty-five years. We don’t have anything like that here.”
   The Silex is indeed clean, complex, lively. We sit on separate couches in front of a dead fireplace. Summer’s over, winter still a ways off. Joe crosses his legs. His face is long, his dark eyes inquisitive, but he’s in a hurry, having, as he put it on the phone, “a hard stop at 6:20” and it’s already a quarter to.
   Joe came to Napa for the first time in 1966 “and made it a point to get to know the people and to reach out to those who would be my neighbors.” Getting his permit for this house took years and required - in his view - digging a cave in the mountain and filling it not with wine but with ten thousand gallons of water, “the basis for all our heating and cooling, all by mother nature. It made no financial sense because of the cost,” adding with a laugh, “I belong to the point one percent, and I feel good for being green. But when I’m in board meetings with Al Gore, I get tired of it. I can’t count the number of times he says, ‘Carbonization.’”
   St. Helena was indeed the poster child of California small towns when he decided to build his house just outside the city limits. He also owns a stunning retreat and even better wine cellar - he’s on the advisory board of Soutirage - on the coast in Big Sur, and other houses in various parts of the world, being an early rider of the dot-com syncline (Hewlett-Packard, Apple, Accel) as it burst through California’s cultural crust thirty years ago. Today he belongs to the World Economic Forum, was a regular at Davos and a man of some global reach and influence, yet in his way indicative of many in little St. Helena.
   Joe has lived in the neighborhood so long he has, for California, something close to a historic view. The most important local figure in it, in his opinion, is the deceased former mayor, Delbert Britton. “Del had one fundamental, fatal belief: he wanted to pour hot wax over the town and preserve it. I told him he could either grow it, or shrink it, but it would take magic to keep it the same.”
   Joe believes St. Helena’s fiscal problems are directly related to thwarted growth, or the failure of some draconian vision whereby the town would be converted years ago into the equivalent of a gated community. “Now the leaders have panicked and are breaking glass,” a powerful metaphor in this gorgeous transparency, by which he means officials are trying to open the place for business in any way possible, despite the fact that many of the citizens don’t want that.
   We are close to the hard stop. The primary concern of the rich at the end of day seems much the same as that preoccupying their ancestors back in the Pleistocene: not low income housing nor a new police station nor re-paved streets, but dinner. “The most difficult question to answer in St. Helena is, ‘Where are we going to eat?’ You have to go down to Yountville, or Napa, for a really good meal. The only solution to that problem is Uber.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 19: Something had happened...

Note: This posting from my second Napa book, The Far Side of Eden, is the last of a series. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.

      SOMETHING momentous, something involving money, lots of it—what didn’t at century’s end?—but more complicated and subtle. It pervaded the lives of Americans considered blessed by any standard, with houses close to some of the best restaurants on earth, the value of their property on a near-vertically ascending plane, their views of a gorgeous pastoral dream: mountains, agriculture as old as human history, wild mustard blooming in the spring and, in autumn, the air perfumed by fermenting wine as precious as that of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne.
      San Francisco lay just across a sparkling inland sea, but the finest things could be had right here, too, at stations of the new cross—truffles at Sunshine Market, demi-glace at Dean & DeLuca. Appetites were enhanced by the best weather in a state famous for it, and the proximity of visiting Hollywood and other sorts of stars imbued existence with a certain frisson. And even if there were five million tourists a year to deal with, well, those already here in the Napa Valley were the envy of all who weren’t.
     Yet something was wrong. People disagreed over when “it” had happened, and why, but not about the effect: a real, and growing, sense of loss. They felt it while sitting in a long line of cars on Highway 29, looking up at once pristine slopes dense with conifer and chaparral, studded now with “steroid houses,” “muscle houses,” “McMansions,” all contemptuous names for places built not to live in but as monuments to finance, visited by absentee owners. The locals felt it overhearing conversations about vanity vineyards, “cult” cabernets, and gardens with “water features” to cover the traffic noise.
      If they wanted to buy a house to actually live in, or to trade up, they had to listen to sales pitches not about the valley’s illustrious history, its neighborliness, schools, and churches, all the old-fashioned values, but about the proximity of Tra Vigne and the French Laundry. If they owned a house already, they had to wait for a carpenter or a plumber because these tradesmen worked for the owners of the muscle houses or redone Victorians, and then the locals had to pay fees often inflated by the presence of so much outside money.
      Worst of all, they had to listen to the stories. Many of these featured limousines but were otherwise interchangeable. “I was pruning my roses when this couple gets out,” began one such account. “He’s got on wraparound shades and a five-hundred-dollar shirt with not enough buttons, bought in Beverly Hills, and she’s wearing haute safari from wherever.”
      The visitor might also be driving a new Lexus and looking nerdy in pressed jeans and granny glasses, sure sign of a Silicon Valley weekender. These were the young beneficiaries of the computer boom, and realtors referred to them as “the children.”
      The procedure was much the same: “He says, 'I’ll give you . . .,'” and here the figure varied among the millions, but was never less than one. “I tell him the house isn’t for sale. He doubles the price. I have to go inside to get away from him.” Later, the visitor calls and triples the offer.
      The problem was, many of the stories were true, like the one about the house that sold for one-point-three, already an amazing sum for such a modest place, and then the new owners “tweaked” the landscaping—added some exotics and a stone wall—and sent to France for a containerful of furniture. They put the house back on the market for two-point-nine-five and received three instant offers for more. During escrow, an unsuccessful bidder offered the buyer point-five just to step aside—half a million dollars to get out of the way.
      There was the house listed for four, bought by a venture capitalist who had seen it only once. Upon seeing it a second time, he decided he no longer fancied it and resold the house at a half-million-dollar loss to a thirty-five-year-old working in the acquisitions department of a major bank. And there was the cottage in the town of St. Helena, listed for point-nine-two-five, bid up to one-point-three. After that, everybody with a three-room Victorian guesthouse with one and a half baths thought it was worth one-point-three, and it was.
      Houses that were not for sale were auctioned off without the knowledge of the owners, who were presented with offers as faits accomplis. Weekend guests bought their hosts’ residences. One such couple reportedly paid millions, first stipulating that everything had to be left as it was, right down to the terrycloth bathrobes, since they didn’t want to be bothered with purchasing their own things or didn’t know what was required. Not that it mattered.
      Experts materialized to perform that function for the newcomers, many of them living in San Francisco and tripping up on commission. They advised on the creation of cunning archways, the buying of period settees or Mayan urns, the planting of herb gardens “with a culinary bias,” the buying of wines from the Oakville Grocery, the joining of Meadowood Country Club, the ordering of cut flowers from Tesoro’s, the hiring of chefs and the vetting of maids and valets and the planting of the ultimate symbol of success, more important even than a house—a vineyard of one’s own.
      Everybody who mattered suddenly had to have one. This link to ancient tradition was the latest, best way of transforming money into status, though what the newcomers really wanted was a vineyard and “a cabernet” made from its fruit that would be highly ranked by the critics and set them miles ahead of other merely wealthy people. The locals couldn’t afford these wines but had to listen to weekenders talk about them.
      And they had to listen to the story about the woman with a vineyard of her own who sold her mauve Bentley because it had no rack for holding lattes, and the story about the couple building a glass house containing smoke machines, and the story about another couple with monogrammed toilet paper, each square resembling an illuminated manuscript. You laughed at the stories, but they had an effect.
      Life began to feel like a lottery, or like Renaissance Spain, the gold ships coming in and their sails overshadowing all past custom and convention. Their modern equivalent was the stretch limo, the pilot fish of the nouveau riche lurking in restaurant parking lots and in the shade of olive trees on landscaped lawns.
      Much of this bullion had been mined down in the Santa Clara Valley, once lovely orchards since paved over and rechristened with that unlovely moniker Silicon, symbol of the greatest economic expansion in human history, a chemical that transmitted electronic impulses and churned assets, changing the world, spinning off money to computer whizzes and venture capitalists, dot-commers, “IPO sluts,” entrepreneurs, investment bankers, retailers, media- and consumer-related accumulators of capital, all belted to the marvelous economic engine of the fading American century. And not a few of them were disciples of personal gratification, and self-serving.
      There were the speculators, a category to which every winery owner and, in fact, many householders now belonged. That fact alone was galling. With the acceptance of it came another realization, even sadder, that in a few short years many longtime residents had gone from being members of a community to serving as its adjuncts.
      So many of the big old houses now belonged to outsiders the locals were unlikely to get to know, and so eventually, it seemed, would all the valley. These old-timers would be performing some service for the new people, if they weren’t already, even though the locals were relatively rich on paper. If one of them sold a house or a little vineyard, he couldn’t afford to buy another, not “up-valley.” He couldn’t compete at the wine auctions that raised money for the schools and hospitals, couldn’t get a new kitchen countertop put in, couldn’t get a table at Bistro Jeanty or even at Green Valley CafĂ© because of all the tourists drawn by the celebrity.
      Things were out of whack, not just in the real estate offices but also in the hills. Out of sight, larger muscle houses were being built, and caves dug to gargantuan dimensions to contain activities not related to wine, and outlandish embellishments put in. There was the persistent story of a canal built on a high dry ridge, complete with an operating lock and a barge that could be boosted up and down, this in a fragile place where water was scarce. Some people thought this a charming diversion, and others thought it disgusting ego gratification and bad taste, but they didn’t say so because for the most part people in the valley were accepting souls, polite, reluctant to criticize.
      This was just another story, no worse than the one about the woman who moved from the Midwest to a house in the hills costing millions so she could make cheese and sell it to the CIA—the Cu linary Institute of America. Thus a substance once the byproduct of mere agriculture had been elevated to a symbol of culture. For the first time in human history, people were spending fortunes to make chump change and in the process be associated with the most basic sort of enterprise—agriculture—which in this incarnation had become glamorous.
      It made no more economic sense than the muscle houses and vineyards on steep land where forest had stood, and people marveled at the cost of it all. Planting those steep slopes cost upward of a hundred thousand dollars an acre just to get the vines in, not counting the purchase price, unjustifiable on the economics, not arrived at by trial and error, as in the old days, but simply ordained, bought, and written off.
      There was no space left on the valley floor for such “vanity” vineyards, but they had to go in somewhere, for the social and financial enhancement they promised, and that meant the hills. The visible new vineyards and muscle houses amounted to a fraction of what was going on out of sight, or so it was said; in the rainy season, development high in the Mayacamas and the opposing range to the east tinged the reservoirs of drinking water and turned the Napa River murky.
      There was too much happening up there for most people to keep track of and still live their lives. More and more of them worried about what it all meant, where it was all going, what was being lost.

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Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Far Side of Eden 18: Eco-zealots?

Note: This series of excerpts from my second Napa book begins with the June 2015 postings in the menu to the right.                                                         
      Jayson Pahlmeyer’s answering machine informed callers: “This is Jayson. Please leave a message while I uncork a powerful Pahlmeyer merlot.” His travel schedule brimmed with wine promoting events, his bank account with the proceeds, his large presence—- slicked-back hair, new Dickensian eyeglasses—with confidence, but increasingly he found himself talking penance.
      He was no longer just a fine wine producer and owner of a capital-inhaling new vineyard, he was the object of a lawsuit by one of the most powerful environmental organizations on the planet, one started by a saint of nature lovers, John Muir, who had attempted to prevent the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam in the Sierras and the despoiling of Yosemite and other pristine places. The club had hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members, and he imagined that they were all mad at Jayson Pahlmeyer.
      The lawsuit had effectively shut down all new agricultural projects in the hills and brought new condemnation of Jayson, but also some grudging sympathy: some vintners had decided that their enemies’ enemy was their friend. “I planted what was already a cow pasture,” Jayson repeatedly told them on the telephone, at Vintners Association meetings, at Mustard’s, “and what’s lost in all this is that I didn’t cause any damage!”
      If his story was made into a movie, he thought, it would go like this: Cult vintner brings secret grape clones to the United States and makes a notable success. He raises money and tells a cowboy to put in a primo rocket-juice vineyard, pronto, at any cost, and is then attacked by eco-zealots. The ending of the film was as yet unclear. Perfectly clear was monoculture-as-villain, along with “alcohol factories,” miracle-grow aristocrats with recently buried pasts in microchips, condo developments and other, less salubrious means of fortune accumulation, and other businessmen, no longer envisioned as daring entrepreneurs but as exploiters and elitists.
      Jayson had been at home the day he heard about the suit. The papers were served at the Pahlmeyer Vineyards office down in Napa, in the revamped industrial section overlooking the Napa River, and his partner, Michael Haas, had telephoned him with the news. Jayson had felt his stomach drop. This was the crowning blow, after all the previous bad publicity, and he saw the future unfolding, as he had been trained to do as a lawyer, with many possible outcomes of the lawsuit, few of them entirely beneficial and none pleasant.
      What really scared the vintners were the words “moratorium” and “radical setbacks.” The suit would add fuel to those fears. A legal end to planting in the hills, to clearing and planting within a few hundred feet of streams, would mean suffering serious opportunity and capital losses and the personal effrontery of the have-nots.
      Another hated word was “restoration.” Returning vineyardland to wildlife habitat sounded less than draconian to the average American, but not to vintners who were outraged by the lawsuit. Their shared pain gave Jayson some comfort. Wines like his were still the driving consideration among present and aspiring vintners, cult labels contributing to the symbiotic relationship among wine, second and third homes, upscale tourism, art collecting, heavy-duty landscaping, and all the elements of the boom that danced bellybutton to bellybutton in the valley, grinding out lucre. In such an environment even slow-growth advocates and old-time responsible farmers were tempted to forget the rules. That was human nature, but the rules were before the public now.
      Jayson had to finish his million-dollar project on the ridge, so close to completion he could taste it. One day it would include a three-level, gravity-flow winery, and maybe a chateau that Chris Malan would have to look at every morning on her way down to Napa. But settling the lawsuit would mean reapplying for an erosion control permit, paying legal costs of the Sierra Club and the county—unless his suit against the county for damages proved successful—and contributing thousands of dollars to some environmental organization stipulated by the plaintiffs.
      That was the most galling suggestion of all those made by the Sierra Club lawyer. Jayson told anyone calling to ask about the lawsuit, “It’s known as extortion,” as he sipped a Pahlmeyer red in one of his blue leather chairs. “There were eighty other vintners like me with hillside projects. Malan and the Sierra Club could have gone after all of them, but they didn’t. Maybe that would have caused too much dissension. Frankly, I don’t know why they picked me. It’s a mystery. I’m the one that got caught in the crosshairs. I feel like a wildebeest singled out from the herd.”
      If he reapplied for a permit to finish his vineyard, “Chris will stand up in front of the board of supervisors and say I shouldn’t get it without an environmental review . . . She’s been able to marshal incredible power as a private citizen. And once they get CEQA, she’ll have her private pulpit. She can take any vineyard granted a permit right back to court.”
      This fear was making its way beyond the mountainous confines of Napa Valley to the halls of the capitol in Sacramento. It raised red flags from Mendocino to Santa Barbara and threatened to do on a large scale what the Sierra Club had failed to do locally: rally environmentalists. Chris Malan was quoted as saying, “California’s in for the fight of our time,” and Jayson felt that the words were directed at him. The boy from Oakland who made a wine to drop you . . . Everybody had heard that phrase by now. But his marketing image was being overshadowed by that of the cult wine producer who let the eco-zealots into Eden.

To order Napa: