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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