Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Don Corleone's desk: 1

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 bulldozer operator cutting a foundation for a mansion overlooking the valley floor or clearing chaparral for a vineyard still came across the odd redwood stake, hammered into the earth in another era. And if the driver knew the valley, he might say, “Ah, the Italians.”
      Their names are mostly forgotten, as are the men and women who put minds and backs into what became a triumph of transplantation. They were once as exotic as the Chinese coolies they replaced in the fields, identified by hard cheese, stubby smoldering toscanos, and unpronounceable names. The Italians took up the tough tasks and seemed to enjoy them, their warm, explosive speech echoing through the vineyards and their smiles in the old photographs full of teeth. They paid homage to grapes few people had heard of and no one dreamed would someday have a devoted following here as “Cal-Italos” and “super-Tuscans.” The names suggested foreign potentates, saints, and weather—barbera, sangiovese, nebbiolo. They drank local “zin” (zinfandel) and “pets” (petite sirah) with gusto, in great quantities.
     Their cooking varied beyond the imaginings of the Californians—how could there be so many different kinds of noodles? And they were loyal. Take on one Italian, take on all. Unfazed by the stupendous effort required to plant and tend grapes by hand, they had unbounded confidence in other endeavors, insisting on their due, maintaining bella figura, gradually buying up plots in the Central Valley and in the narrow coastal defiles, farming land no one else wanted, including the hillsides. The already wealthy owners of those Victorian piles built in the late nineteenth century in Napa and Sonoma couldn’t outlast the paisans, whose favorite game involved bowling without pins and who pursued life on a level of emotional intensity exhausting to the uninitiated.
     There was nothing that could not be contended. “An argument,” as one descendant recognized, “is an Italian conversation.”
     Mostly they worked. It was as if the Protestant ethic had been grafted onto the Catholic mysteries. The outcome of all this energy was not limited to wine, food, and opera. There were Italians in the bank in San Francisco, and so a large segment of the wine industry was nurtured. Italian fortunes came to be exemplified by two names famous in the California vineyard, Gallo and Mondavi. Ernest Gallo showed California how to sell wine with a single-minded competitiveness that left the competition dry-mouthed. Eventually he turned bottles with handles on them into sleek Bordelais shapes containing French varietals and sold them at prices no one ever thought Gallo wines would aspire to. But more than anyone in Napa Valley, it was Robert Mondavi who boosted the appreciation of fine California wine.
     The Mondavis had been preceded in the valley by Louis Martini, an imposing figure in a black cloak, a gifted winemaker but proud, terminally argumentative, thoroughly Italian. Had Martini possessed a talent for public relations, there would never have been the Robert Mondavi phenomenon. Robert and his brother, Peter, began in Sunny St. Helena Winery with their father’s money, Robert dreaming of oak barrels and a product to compete with the best, which then meant French. But his and Peter’s arrangement—an echo of the Gallo brothers’ anthem, “I’ll sell all the wine you can make if you’ll make all the wine I can sell”—faltered after too many Italian conversations, and Robert went out on his own.
     So relentless was his selling and so great was his success that he attracted a Frenchman—the Baron Rothschild—to Napa Valley in the 1970s, a coup and a watershed. But now, at the end of the twentieth century, the Robert Mondavi Winery was a publicly held corporation where Italian conversations abounded between Robert’s two sons, the lucky spermers Michael and Tim, with their sister a distant moderating force. What would happen to the corporation when the old man died was anybody’s guess.
     The most famous Italian in the valley might still be Robert, but increasingly attention focused on another name, one with fame related not to wine but to the spinning of celluloid fantasy and, increasingly, to tourism.

     “Don Corleone’s desk will be in the entrance hall,” said the handsome young woman serving as a tour guide, talking about the desk used in the film The Godfather. “It’s a statement, you know, of Francis’s accomplishments.”



 To order Napa:

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