Thursday, December 24, 2015

The revelatory power of a row of trees

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. 

  One day Roland Wentzel saw a bearded man in glasses and blue jeans drive up in a car and get out. He was smiling, as Wentzel remembered it. “He said, ‘Hi, I’m your new neighbor.’ Then he told me how rich he was and that he was going to sue me.”

     Bob Bressler would dispute that account. “I didn’t get in my car and drive over there,” he said. ”I was coming home from somewhere and saw him, and simply stopped.” He would deny threatening to sue because ”that would have been illogical.”

     A subsequent survey proved that the Bresslers did indeed own the allée. They granted the Wentzels an easement to use it anyway, and decided to cut down one row of trees, acting on the advice of Dave Abreu, the vineyard manager, whose sole interest was vines. The Bresslers had learned that grapes, not trees, were what Napa Valley was all about, that if you wanted to be taken seriously, you had to be willing to go to the mat over quality cabernet sauvignon. The trees not only took up space but would also shade the young vines, and they were, as Bressler pointed out, “only poplars, for God’s sake.”
     The truth was that neither Bressler nor Wentzel stood to lose anything substantial. Failure to produce a sought-after, expensive wine would not appreciably affect Bressler’s fortune, nor was Wentzel financially prohibited from tearing down his little guesthouse and building a petite allée on his own property. And whoever failed to get what he wanted could well afford to move somewhere else and start over again.
      What really transpired was a contest of wills among people accustomed to getting what they wanted: vineyard owner, vineyard manager, and neighbor were all convinced of the rightness of their position and unwilling to compromise. The argument was not about grapevines, profit, peri-urban aesthetics, or the need for yet another cult cabernet, but about the importance of winning, and a direct reflection of corporate values projected on a small, increasingly fragile part of America.
     Some perspective on this was provided by Samson Bowers, a tall, courtly, aging St. Helena city councilman—white goatee, white buzzcut, tennis shorts—who lived for a time in the Wentzels’ guest cottage, liked the poplars, and after learning that the Bresslers intended to remove one row of them, decided to help out. Not officially but artistically, by making a scale drawing of the petite allée and plotting the angle of afternoon sun and proving that cutting the trees would do away with only about eight feet of shadow for a short period each day.
     Bowers had bailed out of advertising in Manhattan at age forty-seven and come west, never regretting it, living first in Carmel Valley and fleeing its commercialization, already the second time he had witnessed such a phenomenon. He grew up in upstate New York, and on the wall of his St. Helena condo hung a photograph of his ancestral home, a brick Georgian with a fireplace in every room, Bowers being descended from the man who had been given a patent for thirteen thousand acres by King George III in the eighteenth century.
     That land came to include Cooperstown, and Bowers had watched it transformed from a lovely American community into a parody of the same—Baseball, USA—with a Hall of Fame, “museums,” souvenir shops, baseball paraphernalia emporiums, and fast-food outlets. He didn’t want the same thing to happen to St. Helena, threatened by sheer wealth and by people pressing in from all sides. Newcomers to the valley didn’t vote, as Bowers often pointed out, and didn’t attend Rotary or the other less glamorous gatherings. “They want all the services they had in cities,” from specialty protein to “Julieted” nails. “And they always drive their cars.”
     Bowers walked everywhere—the supermarket, the library—and increasingly found himself opposed not just to automobiles but also to the concept of private property, a surprising position, he realized, in one whose ancestor was given land by the king of England. St. Helena had six thousand citizens, three traffic lights, and no Mc-Donald’s. The closest thing to a fast-food stop was Taylor’s Refresher, home of the ahi burger, heavenly fish tacos, and of course wine. “The only way to keep the town small is to deny the overblown plans of outsiders, commercial and otherwise,” Bowers said repeatedly. “But ‘no’ is a word Americans have a problem with.”
     The “yuppiefication of the valley,” as he put it, was symbolized by the Napa Valley Wine Auction, which raised large sums of money from people competing to show how much of it they had, and by the fact that few of the almost three hundred vintners “ever get their hands dirty.” Both things he saw as the unhealthy result of a national economy empowering a relative few without inculcating in them a commensurate sense of responsibility.
     Bowers calculated at the time that the Bresslers’ new vineyard would contain twenty-eight hundred vines per acre when completed. That was six times the number that would have gone in under the old planting system, before yield and quality became as much social as financial concerns. Each of the vines would require water, and water was already a contentious issue in the valley. All an ob server had to do was to project the elements in this little conflict over a row of poplars onto the rest of the valley to see the scope of the problem of vineyard development. In the end, Bowers believed, the big battles—including the one over the hillsides—would be between private property proponents and those advocating shared community values.
     The trees were cut, Roland Wentzel contending that about thirty poplars fell to make way for roughly as many cabernet vines, but Bob Bressler claiming that only twenty-four fell, and this allowed him to put in four additional rows of vines because he no longer needed turnaround space for the tractor. The capitalist also claimed that the additional vines would produce at least three hundred bottles of wine worth, if all went well, about twenty-five thousand additional dollars a year.
     The Wentzels continued to look at the toy vineyard and at the Bresslers’ house and tried to be philosophical about both. But then they put their lovely Mediterranean villa, with its monastery beams and old-fashioned, wide-spaced vineyard, on the market for five million dollars. They moved up to Mendocino County—no one asked if they still intended to turn back the clock—to relatively unspoiled country. There they, too, put in a commercial vineyard, and planned to build a winery.

To order Napa:

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