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 Café 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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