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.”

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