Monday, November 30, 2015

The lifestyle question 2

 My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.                                                     

     The association of art had long informed selling, following the example set by Robert Mondavi years before when he proved that fine wine moves best through channels lubricated with the personality of the creator and his or her association with “family values” and the finer things of life, including works of the imagination.
     The Mondavis claimed to “sculpt” their wines; press releases from various wineries spoke of “the art of winemaking.” There were impressive art collections in private museums that also had winetasting rooms, or houses specially constructed to show off art collections. The Staglin house featured a loggia, a fountain, and a pebbled courtyard, entered between columns bearing the lacquered ceramic sculptures of the Staglins’ Jack Russell terriers, Sami and Mister Deuce. The twenty-two-foot ceilings provided ample wall space for their assemblage of contemporary paintings, and under the colonnade out back stood an eighteen-foot granite harvest table designed by a sculptor who also artfully arranged boulders in front of the house.
     The Staglins envisioned visitors arriving in cars, passing the boulders to enter a winery dug into the mountainside, tasting and buying wine, and then strolling the grounds in appreciation of four million dollars’ worth of art and many more millions’ worth of real estate.
     “Windshields just don’t do it the way wine does,” Shari would say, a reference to one of her husband’s most successful businesses, a company that replaced shattered auto glass nationwide. Garen also sat on the boards of what he called “information solution technology companies.” But these endeavors didn’t allow one to rethink corporate strategy while overlooking one’s own cadre of regimented vines. They didn’t allow one to “get out of the box and into nature,” as Shari put it. They didn’t allow trips abroad for sampling the culture and business acumen of Bordeaux and Burgundy, or the exposure of a Staglin wine to the public.
     Quality was foremost in the ongoing American wine success, but also important was a style of marketing very different from the traditional European approach, the personal representation of one’s wines and the mystique of the successful vintner.
     To build their winery, the Staglins needed the approval of their neighbors, and this they failed to obtain. Their application was denied by the county after they had bought the historic vineyard, put in expensive trellising, hired a good winemaker, built a stunning house with authentic tiles, and paid an artist to design a label reminiscent of the best of Bordeaux, one bearing the likeness of a contemporary sculpture owned by the Staglins, Stephen DeStaebler’s Winged Woman Walking, “inspired by Nike in the Louvre,” as Shari pointed out. “Nike represented excellence to the Greeks, competition, and victory,” she added, the valley’s reigning values, and now, after Garen had gotten on the elevator and pushed “Penthouse” and done everything a person could possibly do to get there, they were being denied their victory.
     One night their neighbor, Jack Cakebread, woke up to the sound of running generators. A large, florid man with a fierce countenance, alternately charming and abrasive, Cakebread was from Oakland, where his father had owned a garage and had taught his son the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. But Jack had chanced upon Napa Valley in the late sixties and had bought land, some of it for as little as eight hundred dollars an acre, and had since built his brand into one of the most successful of the so-called high-end wines. His striking modern wooden winery out on Highway 29 would soon be matched by another, second winery nearby, a double-barreled assault on the country’s disposable income in the best years ever for selling wine.
     Cakebread had also founded an organization known informally as the Breakfast Club, a secretive group of two dozen powerful vintners and their representatives who met regularly at his winery for sauvignon blanc and scrambled eggs and the discussion of government regulation, incompliant elected officials, and troublesome environmentalists. Jack thrived on less sleep than his peers: to bed shortly before midnight, up again around four o’clock and out into the darkness to walk his land, now worth upward of one hundred thousand dollars an acre. A sign in his winery read, “Aren’t I lucky! The harder I work the luckier I get!”
     And the luckier he got, the harder he worked: redeyes to Japan or France, back to Napa Valley for some clean shirts, and off again in the opposite direction. Sleep was nonproductive, he thought, a necessary pain in the butt, and here was a new arrival in the valley making him sit up in bed with only half of his requisite four hours.
     Cakebread looked out the window and saw a bunch of trailers parked side by side on the Staglin property under a bank of lights. He went out and asked the driver of one of the huge mobile lounges—it was slipping backward in the mud, right down his property line—what the hell was going on. He learned some things that made him less happy. The trailers were part of an artistic assault on the neighborhood by Walt Disney Pictures, about to remake a film called The Parent Trap.
     Over the next month the engine of popular culture would fill this formerly bucolic  setting with humming machines and a small army of cinematic factotums, to earn the Staglins both money and recognition. The Staglins, Cakebread learned, had consulted another Napa Valley resident partial to filmic endeavors, Francis Ford Coppola, who had advised them to let the film unit in and had told the Staglins what it would cost Disney to build a set similar to that provided by their house, with its artworks and tiles replicating those made on the thighs of Italian artisans. The Staglins had divided that figure by the number of days Disney wanted to film and come up with a per diem of about ten thousand dollars, not a bad return on static real estate.
     There was nothing Cakebread or the other neighbors could do about it. Napa County has strict zoning requirements, but there were temporary exceptions to be had. The irony was that Cakebread, an ardent free enterpriser, was forced to admit that unlimited money could have undesirable effects when located next door. The relentless rise of the stock market had produced too many fistfuls of cash and not enough knowledge of life as anything but an investment opportunity. People coming to the valley found or created a bit of vineyard and grew some “rocket juice”—Cakebread’s term for good Napa Valley cabernet that had propelled many fortunes, including his own, upward—and then they required a house, and then a winery.
     Cakebread hated the disruption of the rural byway that dead-ended in the former quiet of the Mayacamas, hated the fancy new Staglin stone wall that broke the seamless continuity of the land, and hated what he called a lack of the courtesy that should characterize country living. He told people, “The Staglins are the worst thing to happen here since the Wine Train. They’re the Dennis Rodmans of Napa Valley.
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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The lifestyle question

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.     
         A woman who had lived long in the valley thought it began in the mid-1980s when the country saw evidence of a new kind of prosperity, one that would bear up people who found themselves in the right place at the right time. Their new money came from electronics and stock deals, and from tourist exploitation and all manner of commercial activities now an essential part of an emblematic place—Napa Valley—undergoing dramatic and possibly catastrophic change. And over the course of the next decade these examples would prove to be anything but arbitrary, their common objectives, money and status, linking them—though they might be only slightly acquainted—in an unbroken story of varied parts and contrasting visions.
     She had first encountered this at a dinner party where she was seated next to what she considered the embodiment of “new money”—a short, boyish entrepreneur named Garen Staglin. At least she thought he was an entrepreneur. It wasn’t easy determining what new people actually did to make money, not like in the old days when it was made in manufacturing, medicine, banking, and what was then simply and unceremoniously called business.
     Staglin—dark hair, ready grin—had a reputation for accumulating large sums in ways related to insurance and to these new computers everybody was talking about. He had made money almost from the moment he emerged from Stanford University, and she asked how he had managed to concentrate on his career at a time when so many people were still agonizing over the war in Vietnam. “Oh, I didn’t pay any attention to that stuff,” Staglin told her. “I just got on the elevator and pushed ‘Penthouse.’”
     He and his wife, Sharilyn—Shari, out of South Dakota, short like her husband and with his intensity of ambition—showed up at functions reserved for successful owners of wineries and those willing to contribute to their causes. The Staglins had purchased a historic property in Rutherford that had once belonged to that Parnassan of Napa’s early wine success, Georges de Latour, courtly Old World figure, avatar of decency and foresight, father of one of the most famous eponymous wines in the valley, Georges de Latour Private Reserve. By owning a piece of the old de Latour estate, the Staglins had rooted themselves in the most competitive terroir in America. This could quickly vault them into the higher ranks of the “vintners,” a largely symbolic term used nowadays for those who owned wineries, or at least grapes that could be vinted in one of the rented spaces available throughout the valley.
     The original vineyard had been planted under the supervision of another Parnassan, the late, legendary André Tchelistcheff, a White Russian émigré who had advised in his sixty years as a professional enologist most everyone who mattered in American fine wine. The sale of the de Latour parcel to the Staglins was significant because it represented the latest in a string of disastrous business decisions by de Latour’s heirs and because it involved the arrival in Napa Valley, never a stranger to new money, of a new degree of brashness.
     A large fortune, it was always said, was needed to make a small one in the wine business. But new money from well-placed capital and stock options flowing into Vitis vinifera now had different expectations. Status was the primary one, the new vintners wanting accolades associated with a vineyard and a wine of one’s own—a pedigree—but they also wanted to make money from this and related endeavors. They were willing, sometimes eager, to confuse fine wine with other businesses—that is, to use “wine to boost other, related and unrelated financial schemes, just as wine was used to create formerly nonexistent social standing, to prove that a person was “a winner” and, by contrast, that a person’s critics were losers.
     That, the woman thought, was different.
     According to Staglin, he first considered moving to Napa Valley after having another dinner, this one with a resident of the valley named Andy Beckstoffer. Two decades before, Beckstoffer had himself been an arriviste and an example of unwelcome change, acquiring considerable land and influence through the ineptness of the Heublein Corporation, which then owned most but not all of the old Inglenook and Beaulieu estates. Beckstoffer had worked for Heublein, and his large chunks of valuable vineyardland had been financed in part with Heublein money. Staglin had met Beckstoffer through the Young Presidents Club, as he had met Michael Mondavi, son of Robert and one of the valley’s “lucky spermers,” those who had vineyards and jobs because they had inherited them. Both men had encouraged Staglin to move to paradise.
     Beckstoffer gave Staglin the name of a real estate broker who might be able to introduce him to de Latour’s heirs. The broker knocked on doors and eventually knocked on that of Dagmar de Pins, granddaughter of old Georges de Latour and one of the original lucky spermers. She was married to Walter Sullivan, mastermind of the ill-advised, much lamented sale of Beaulieu Vineyard to Heublein back in the sixties. The loss of the family winery was still mourned by Dagmar, but her husband relished disposing of his wife’s property to finance their comfortable existence, a fact evident to all who floated balloons with dollar signs on them in the vicinity of Walter Sullivan. He and Dagmar maintained a country estate in France and a house in San Francisco as well as remnants of the old de Latour estate in Napa Valley, and they spent a good deal of time in cooking schools.
     The Staglins were invited to San Francisco by Dagmar “to see if we were suitable,” as Garen put it, though in fact they had been invited at Walter’s instigation to determine how much money they had. Over cocktails Dagmar de Pins Sullivan told the Staglins that the Rutherford property they coveted would go to the Sullivans’ children, not to the Staglins. She had said the same thing about Beaulieu before that fabulous realm was sold to Heublein through the machinations of Walter, who again put out vibes contrary to his wife’s wishes. The broker thought Walter could not pass up a real estate deal and that Walter would persuade Dagmar to sell the vineyard to Garen, just as he had persuaded her to sell Beaulieu to Heublein when its executives first came nosing around the valley.
     The broker advised Garen that his offer should be accompanied by sufficient evidence of intent—cash. Garen slipped a check for fifty thousand dollars under the broker’s door on Father’s Day, 1985, to accompany a formal offer of more than a million dollars, still big money then. The broker tracked the Sullivans down in Venice, where they were learning to produce new dishes from Julia Child, and Walter agreed on principle to the sale. But he insisted that it be kept secret until he could cajole his wife—again—into disposing of the something near sacred to her that would prove—again!—to be a lot more valuable than Walter thought it was.
     The men came up with a code name for the deal, Project Basil, a reference to the Sullivans' current area of culinary interest, so Dagmar wouldn’t know until it was too late that one of the last vestiges of her family’s presence in the valley had been bartered away.
     Not long afterward, the vineyard put in by Tchelistcheff was pulled out and replanted with new, disease-resistant rootstock. It would produce wine that the Staglins hoped would set them on a lofty second-career path occupied by Mondavis and Rothschilds, ultimate proof of the transformational qualities of wine. The Rothschilds were wealthy bankers before entering the wine business, and the Mondavis had been Central Valley dealers in produce. A vineyard still brought respect in quarters where it was not otherwise available—in Paris, for instance, where the Staglins dined at La Tour d’Argent and were not offered the best wine list by the sommelier, even after Garen told him that he owned several companies in the United States. Then Shari told the sommelier that they also owned a vineyard in Napa Valley, one that had been owned by the legendary Georges de Latour, and out came the good list.
     In 1991, a bulldozer cut into the base of the Mayacamas Mountains above the vineyard, and a structure  rose that was no common residence: a long, fenestrated, Palladian tribute to California’s eclectic architecture, the hue of “Rutherford dust,” a double entendre referring to both the shade of the vineyard’s inestimable dirt and the reputed taste of the cabernet it produced, a taste first identified by Tchelistcheff and used as a successful marketing tool for most of the century, proof of geographical taste distinctions in the ongoing squabbles over Napa Valley vineyard appellations. Now Rutherford dust was the official color of a house with a broken roofline suggesting an entire Tuscan village, the tiles varied in shape and color to resemble those that had originally been made on the thighs of Italian artisans, as Garen Staglin liked to point out.
     He told everyone that the house was a link to ancestors in the Old Country. His father’s name was Stagliano, another “talking point” in what was becoming a concentrated marketing effort blending California ambience with the images of family, wine, and art.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

All the wine you cannot have

I'm working on a new book about Napa, the third and final volume of my trilogy about a unique experiment in American agriculture. This is one in a series of reports. 
The hotel’s anonymity - blonde floor-to-ceiling panels that can be shuffled like a pack of cards to create one huge space - is the antithesis of what is being discussed: how to build a tasting room so distinctive that visitors will pay dearly for the experience and never forget it because the experience was “perfect.”
  People in the hospitality business and their clients pay well for such advice. The baser preliminaries of tasting room logistics have already been dispensed with - adding curves to tasting rooms to prevent their being too masculine, figuring out wind and sun patterns so visitors will be comfortable at all times.
  We must take an anthropological approach to retail sales because wine buyers are a “tribe,” instinctively turn right when entering a confined space, refuse to buy if they’re too close to other tribal members or the floor’s not attractive, the restroom too close to the tasting bar, the pourer less than thirty inches from the taster, or more than forty-two inches.
And they must know that their limo driver’s in a space of his own watching sports videos and eating free popcorn. And if your customer drives his own Tesla, “or flies around in a G6, you have to reflect that in your tasting room.”
But the real lesson in the “ultra-premium” experience, according to the young architect with sideburns, plaid shirt, and jeans, lies in an altogether different dimension: the creation of what would once have been called aura but today is called “brand.” This isn’t to be confused with product. It’s essentially the evocation of an experience so rare that one can only fleetingly glimpse, perhaps taste, never own.
For such a winery experience you must go on to the next level, artfully replicating the vintner’s life and “vision.” You do this with “artifacts” of authenticity - barn boards, traditional-looking objects suggesting provenance, worn finishes on wood and art works, feigned rarity, spiritual heft, staggering expense.
The visitor must feel that these things are somehow his or hers for the moment, and that the vintner’s “life experience” can be their’s, too. Part of the appeal is that the two will never meet, yet will share intimacy in the transient taste of a wine subjected to the most assiduous mechanical and chemical alteration in the history of viticulture.
“Here we get back to the idea of kings and queens. You have created a yearning to get past the velvet rope” by adapting, staging, controlling. But the rope’s still there.
  The winery the architect helped design was recently sold to a billionaire who wanted his own recognized cult cabernet, as well as the glorified factory in which it is made. But he didn’t want people. They still clamor for a souvenir of this new royalty - an $800 wine bottle instead of a model of the Tower of London - and this is cited as the ultimate affirmation of brand.
  “The level of exclusivity is what makes it,” adds the architect, even though visitors are banned and the product’s unattainable.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Napa is change. The question remains: to what end?

My second book about the valley, The Far Side of Eden, was published in 2002. What follows is a series taken from it that helps explain some of the issues and personalities that still bear heavily on the present. Earlier postings can be found in the menu to the right, starting in June 2015.                                                     
    ONCE UPON A TIME, wine was made in basements in the eastern states by immigrants who never envisioned it as either a serious financial or a social enhancement. In Napa Valley, those with names like Krug, Beringer, and Schram made in the late 1800s a commercial success under the amazing California sun, and their ranks came to include a Finnish sea captain, Gustave Niebaum, who used a fortune from Alaskan fur to try to match the quality of Bordeaux chateaux, and Georges de Latour, the industrious Frenchman who imported vines from his native country and founded Beaulieu Vineyard in the first year of the new century
    Napa Valley was renowned for wine by then, but many of the early viticultural lights were poor and struggling, dimmed by a decline in the nation’s economic health in the early years of the twentieth century and by the pestilential attack of the vine louse, phylloxera. Many were extinguished by Prohibition. From then through the 1950s grape growers and a few winemakers held on to enclaves in this lovely place that came to be dominated by calf-and-cow operations and prune groves. Then in the 1960s ambitious dropouts from corporate and academic America moved in, and a second, inexorable ascendancy toward fame began.
    These offshoots of the Aquarian age, these idealists and glimpsers of an alternative to certified American success, met in a rural setting far removed from the ferment of North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, from Los Angeles and Chicago and Cambridge and Washington, D.C. They began to make and to pour wines competitive with those of Europe, and the beam of celebrity fell across their “boutique” wineries tucked into the folds of coastal mountains. That was the dawn of the commendable, difficult winemaking renaissance in a place that still had more in common, agriculturally, with Iowa than it did with Tuscany or the Médoc.
    In the 1970s the valley” still meant just that, a vernal plain bordering the Napa River that began in a narrow wooded apex in the foothills of the Mayacamas and ran south for thirty miles to San Pablo Bay, broadening in the journey to several miles in width and containing all the land anybody could want for planting grapes and building a little barrel cellar, if you were daring or foolish enough to try. Even big wineries like the hulks lowering in the distance were cautionary tales in their own right, described in one of the many books written about the valley as “white elephants all, and all for sale, with weeds in the yards and blank windows staring back into the illusions of the founders.”
    The hillsides—small mountains, really, if steepness and the dramatic effect of rock and redwood signified—seemed as close as your hand before your face. These were wild places, inaccessible, seemingly impossible to plant; the relatively few moving up there favored isolation and cheapness, without either a care or a clue. Their terrain was not much of a factor in the life below and connected only by threads—narrow roads, individual needs, and a tradition as old as human history, going back to the seedbed of civilization—to an agrarian culture struggling on the valley floor.
    By the beginning of the 1990s, the perspective of value had reversed, at least for vineyards—the hills were up, the valley down—and the renaissance was approaching its zenith. The newly endowed arrivals, early beneficiaries of what would be the resounding boom in the nation’s fortunes—businessmen, entrepreneurs, academics, heirs, collectors, impostors—were less eager to make wine than to associate with one of the oldest expressions of husbandry and cultural accomplishment, needing—requiring—a recognized testament to their material and spiritual worth.
    Some locals thought this change began when Gil Nickel, owner of Far Niente Winery, paid more than one hundred thousand dollars an acre for undeveloped land along the highway and thus crossed the magic frontier. Some said it started when Al Brownstein crossed another magic frontier by charging a hundred dollars for a bottle of his Diamond Mountain cabernet sauvignon. Some said it began when the movie director Francis Ford Coppola purchased the historical flagship Inglenook and turned it into a wine-cum-movie roadside attraction, and still others said it began with the ascendancy of the corporations in the valley and their worship of the bottom line.

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