Monday, December 7, 2015

The lifestyle question 3

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 Staglins applied for another winery permit, and would eventually get it in the waning years of the nineties, by espousing the right cause: the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. It was the ultimate project of the aging Robert Mondavi, a symbol of the valley’s exalted success in part due to the association of wine and art, and an indication of the country’s fascination with luxury.
     Still the reigning monarch of the valley, Robert was no longer at the head of the famous winery bearing his name, now a public corporation run by his elder son, Michael, that lucky spermer. The Center, Robert’s passion, was to cost a great deal of money. Garen Staglin had agreed to provide one million dollars for it and to raise more money from the heads of other corporations. When complete, the Center would have a room in it named for the Staglins—the Tasting Bar, or perhaps the Gallery of the Senses. The Staglins were, they told people, “kindred spirits” with the Mondavis and also in love with food, wine, art, and music.
     Mondavi went to see Jack Cakebread and urged him not to oppose the Staglins’ winery. This was ironic, since Jack had served as a stalking horse for the Mondavis for years, taking up causes that the Mondavis believed in but didn’t want to be associated with—like standards for reserve wines, a cause dear to the Mondavis but anathema to Ernest Gallo and so politically difficult. Although Jack took his old friend Robert up to his house to show him how close a Staglin winery would be, and although Robert said, “You’ve got to protect yourself,” he didn’t offer to help.
      The Staglins’ ostensible promotion of their wine took them all over. After a week’s bicoastal sojourn—to Nantucket and to Seattle, where they discussed their wines and the Staglin “vision” with restaurant owners, proprietors of wine shops, and devotees of Bordeaux and Burgundy who recognized the appeal of the California alternative—they returned to stroll in their vineyard, the setting sun igniting the eastern mountains. They were in an expansive mood. “Our house has one of the highest recognition factors in the country,” Garen said, of the effects of The Parent Trap, the Staglin Family Vineyards Web site, and a short film about them shown repeatedly on a commercial airline, called Dream Living.
      "Our wine allows us to go anywhere in the world,” added Shari, reaching up to turn down the collar of her husband’s polo shirt. “It’s a connection with the earth.”
     Garen pulled some grapes from a cluster and handed one to her; together they “sampled the sugars.” Their winemaker arrived in a minivan with her son, fresh from soccer practice, and over the stone wall they palavered about when to pick, the winemaker trying hard to accommodate the Staglins’ “sense” of the optimum moment. Then Garen and Shari drove into Rutherford for dinner.
Outside La Toque, a red Ferrari worth a quarter of a million dollars, too fast to drive on Napa Valley’s roads, was parked as a statement of a customer’s wherewithal while he traveled the valley in a limo. Garen explained that he and Shari are investors in the restaurant: “We cash-flow this thing on sixty-five covers a day,” he said.
     After they were seated, Shari, in a silk blouse of palest mauve, smiled up at La Toque’s sommelier as he filled their glasses from a bottle of Staglin Family Vineyards chardonnay, a counterpoint to the sautéed figs with “lime and ginger and seared Muscovy foie gras. Later, Garen tasted the Staglin cabernet and found there “a cornucopia of flavors” that suited the medallions of rare lamb and local chevre, antiphons to the wine’s primal chant. He mused about the qualities of the Staglin vineyard, formerly the de Latours’, and the practice of “manageable agriculture that doesn’t require the attention of a major corporation.”
     With it, he could make money in a more relaxed manner, with only three full-time employees, no outside investors, and a mode of existence more copasetic than that of a run-of-the-mill CEO. He and Shari derived more satisfaction from this than from activities traditionally associated with wealth, he said, like polo ponies or yachts. “Building a brand is more fun than winning the Block Island sailing race.”
     “And it can also go on for centuries,” she said. “We’ve met vineyard-owning families in France and Italy that have been there for seven hundred years . . . Awe-inspiring.”
     “We’re doing the succession thing—our children are involved.”
     Garen passed a hand across the scene: well-dressed people eating expensive food, handing bottles of wine back and forth between tables like ducal celebrants, attended to by culinary acolytes on the very edge of America. “Wine is all about these things,” he said at last. “When you can say you have had dinner with Garen and Shari, and talked about The Parent Trap, you’ve had a whole reinforcing experience.”
     And then, “We’ve got a lot of lifestyle here.”
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