Saturday, December 19, 2015

As he often said, "I'm a capitalist."

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 Bresslers' property already included a little acre-and-a-quarter vineyard planted to runty vines in a long-gone, less sophisticated time, and this might have satisfied them, being the down-to-earth millionaires they were, in jeans and baggy sweaters, with a pool table in their living room and a droll sculpture of a standing lower torso, also wearing jeans. But then they met the vineyard manager, and everything changed.                                                                               
     Vineyard managers are necessary adjuncts of the good life in Napa Valley, more important than personal trainers or personal chefs, and in the valley they come neither easily nor cheaply. This one had a crooked smile, a tendency to swear, and a reputation for excellence at any cost which, translated, meant anywhere from twenty-five thousand to seventy-five thousand dollars to replant a single acre of vines, and another ten thousand to thirty thousand dollars an acre a year just to maintain it.
     This vineyard manager was an outgoing native with curly black hair and a lopsided grin named David Abreu, of Portuguese descent, who had grown up in the valley and learned vineyard work the hard way, by doing it. Abreu was the most talked about vineyard manager in the valley now, which some thought meant in California, some in the world, a “vineyard manager to the stars” sought after by the likes of Garen Staglin and others who could afford him.
    Abreu came over and looked at their vineyard and laughed in that slightly manic way of his. He said, “Here . . . hey,” and began to pleasantly curse, calling theirs “a toy vineyard.” The Bresslers had to hire a winemaker, too, for between one thousand and four thousand dollars a month, and not just any winemaker. Mia Klein, partner of Tony Soter, architect of the famous Spottswoode wines, had for years made the cult cabernet Dalla Valle, and she and Dave and the Bresslers had a fine debate about rootstock. Dave agreed to a close planting, three feet by five, for a mere six thousand dollars, and Mia to someday make the wine in one of the valley’s custom crushers—commercial wineries offering pressing and storage facilities to small producers—for forty dollars a case. The Bresslers would have to buy their own French oak barrels for storage at six hundred and fifty dollars apiece.
     What fun, the Bresslers thought. Even with a toy vineyard, where the economies of scale were not in your favor, more money could be made than was spent, given the astronomical price of Napa Valley boutique cabernet sauvignon with the right provenance, meaning it had been put together by the right people and carefully positioned. Hadn’t the Grace family turned one acre of grapes into a cult wine of the nineties? The Bresslers would hire someone to do their label, the twenty-first-century equivalent of a coat of arms; such a “package,” including foils and letterhead, could cost more than one hundred thousand dollars to design. But first they went label shopping at Dean & DeLuca, picking out the sort of label they liked, imagining what their name would look like on a lovely dark bottle.
     Gradually the vineyard became more to them than a toy. They were able to buy an adjoining four acres, and quickly did so, and Dave Abreu took that on, too. By then the price of it all had risen considerably. Abreu now said, when asked how much money would be required, “Whatever it takes.” The Bresslers could afford him and they could afford Mia Kline. Bob Bressler was, as he often said, modestly, standing there in his running shoes, clean jeans, and bulky sweater, cell phone attached to his belt, “a capitalist.”
     He and Stacy would eventually produce a thousand cases a year. Robert Parker, the famous wine critic, would no doubt taste their wine because he liked Abreu and he tasted all the wines originating in Abreu vineyards, and all the wines that Mia made, and usually ranked them highly. The Bresslers’ wine would flow out to the world through fine restaurants and the Internet when the time came. All this was predicted from what was still a scruffy patch of hobby vines but might someday be a cameo Lafite or Stag’s Leap.
     In the process something else was being demonstrated by these avowed capitalists: making money had become a necessary component of social and cultural authentication; it was perhaps the primary distinction between the new fortunes of the day and those of the past, as if John D. Rockefeller had tried to marginally increase his fortune with some commercial enterprise in his side yard.
     Meanwhile, at parties, people inquired after the Bresslers’ vineyard and after their intentions for their wine; suddenly, Bob and Stacy were in. Their involvement in a vineyard and a cabernet aspiring to cult status was an indication of serious intent and the great distance they had traveled in a short time—from the rigors of take-no-prisoners electronic innovation to the joys of vintnerhood.
     Some of their new neighbors had reservations about all this. The neighbor just to the west, Roland Wentzel, was a successful entrepreneur, not in computers but in furniture, the owner of three upscale outlets called Traditions who had come to the valley in 1990 to “turn back the clock.” He had conducted a survey of the Bay Area and concluded that St. Helena was the only small town left with a small town’s characteristics. These included an independent economy, so people did not have to get into their cars to go shopping, and schools close enough so children could walk, and the movie theater and restaurants close enough for the parents to do the same. And there was agriculture within the town limits.
     Farming was a vital part of the ideal community, Wentzel believed, and of nature, too, evident in the long westerly view of the Mayacamas Mountains that included Douglas fir and some redwoods, evidence of the rapidly disappearing wild California past. A soft-spoken Ph.D. with a degree in resource economics, he had earlier come under the tutelage of the agricultural economics theorist Siegfried Ciriacy-Wantrup, at the University of California, Berkeley, and in Paris had studied “peri-urban” agriculture—farming in the presence of an ever-expanding population.
     Napa Valley’s agriculture was increasingly peri-urban. Wentzel thought the county had done a pretty good job with maintaining it, largely because of long-standing zoning restrictions, and he wanted to be part of it, but not obtrusively. The idealized small-town environment he prized would not have been possible without vineyards like the old one that came with his property, and with the house next door. Grapevines had postponed subdivision and provided open space, as well as that connection to nature.
     Wentzel did not hire a vineyard manager to take care of his, and he didn’t tear out the old, unchic grape varieties but worked them himself, going against what he referred to as “the dilettante fashion of these times.” He and his wife, Barbara, built a lovely, pale orange Mediterranean house with lots of doors and beams from a monastery in Spain. In addition, they planted Lombardy poplar trees on the eastern boundary, to form a petite allée to define the dirt road there and contribute to the rural aesthetics. An allée was a traditional European walk or drive lined with evenly spaced trees—yews, hornbeams, or sycamores—but the Wentzels’ allée was defined by fast-growing poplars that would also screen what they considered a less than aesthetically pleasing house being built next door.
     The owner sold it unfinished to a developer, who made some cosmetic changes and put it up for sale again. The developer also informed the Wentzels that he, not the Wentzels, owned the dirt road and one side of the petite allée. That was a surprise to them, but such things were happening in Napa Valley. Re-surveys and lot-line adjustments were common now in a place where property boundaries had once been casual considerations, before real estate became synonymous with getting rich.
Roland Wentzel wrote a letter to the broker saying that he was under the impression that he owned the allée and assumed it would be preserved in any case.
     Then he had learned that the prospective buyer was a dot-comer named Bressler.

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