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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