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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1 comment:

  1. The plot is very engaging and raises a number of timely issues. Can you please share the link for me to buy it?