Sunday, December 13, 2015

You could just swirl wine in a tulip-shaped glass and not talk in code

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 SANTA CLARA VALLEY, at the south end of San Francisco Bay, had once been as beautiful as any in California, an agricultural idyll obliterated by its late-twentieth-century makeover. People up in Napa Valley were acutely aware of this and wondered aloud if their valley’s fate could be the same in the twenty-first. The question was more often answered in the affirmative now, as the two valleys came together in ways that said much about values at the high end of American achieving. One was the symbol of quick, unbounded wealth, the other of the good life that had come to entail, in addition to pleasure, cultural authentication. Simply being rich was no longer enough, and since these two geographical founts of money and legitimacy lay only sixty miles apart, it was inevitable that the newly monied denizens of the former would be drawn to the charms and social opportunities of the latter, and that there would be problems.
     All the traffic in Napa Valley could not be blamed on the northward migration from the other valley, not with five million tourists annually. But in spring “dot-commers” and related beneficiaries of the stock market were an outsized factor in valley life. They vacuumed up plants at the nurseries and construction material at the building-supply outfits and tended to be blamed for the muscle houses, angular frame slope-clingers, stucco mishmashes, and monumental stone boxes with driveways cut brutally into the earth. Many of these had been put up by developers, retailers, and various other trophy-house collectors, serial builders having become epidemic all across the nation. Some of those rich folk also owned getaways in Snowmass or the Hamptons, Provence, Tuscany, and elsewhere, and their decidedly immodest off-road vehicles, symbolic of their ability to go anywhere in safety and comfort, ascended on weekends like metallic insects on the vernal skin of a sleeping beast.
     Even in winter, when bluish smoke rose from the fires of vine cuttings, big, bright SUVs passed under volcanic rocks with deep striations, eyed by buzzards tilting overhead, lending the scene a medieval quality.
     Robert Bressler was in some ways representative of the dot-com wealth newly arrived in the valley, and in others highly individualistic. He considered himself lucky to have earlier been in the right place at the right time, by which he meant the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971. There, writing a graduate thesis about how computers talk to each other, a budding electronic engineer before anyone had come up with the handle “computer scientist,” he got involved in a Department of Defense project called ARPANET, which for all practical purposes became the Internet.
     Bressler went on to join a technology company. He discovered that he had an aptitude for understanding where networking was going when it was about to go bonkers. He was then recruited by Sun Microsystems, a pubescent general in the happening electronic revolution, which made him a vice president. Bearded, bespectacled, precisely spoken, Bob Bressler began to think of himself as the Johnny Appleseed of networking, a partaker of shared visions for the future. The best way to succeed on the wild digital frontier, he realized, was for engineers to work together toward a common goal, with lots of elbow room. Put a stake in the ground way out there and let the engineers work toward it. One stake in the ground was “special purposes devices,” bits of hardware that performed specific functions and did not need a big mainframe.
     The analogy of profitable networking he liked to use was that of the toaster: better to have something that simply makes toast than a toaster oven that does a lot of other unnecessary things and is complicated and more expensive. “In the old days,” he says, “the computers arrived in trucks, and the software in envelopes.” As a result of his and others’ innovative thinking, “the computers began arriving in envelopes, and the software in trucks.”
     By then Bressler, as a vice president, was well endowed with Sun stock, which would split five times between 1994 and 2000, making a lot of things possible for Bob and his wife, Stacy, that had never seemed possible before. They were living in Los Altos Hills, minutes from a company that was challenging others in the neighborhood as well as the mighty Microsoft, up in Redmond, Washington. Internet supremacy was the grail, and the Bresslers’ lives were dominated by the feverish, driven ways of a valley nicknamed for a microchip component.
      Fabrication and miniaturization, it seemed, had been projected directly onto the human persona. Every bit of turf was fought over, from the latest software to mountain bikes. In restaurants, the Bresslers would look around to see who was seated near them, and talk in code so no secrets would be revealed. There were so many stakes in the distance, people were tripping each other up trying to reach them, but there was little felt human intercourse or bonding. People were either transients or out to steal your vision.
     The Bresslers took all this for granted until some friends invited them to attend a wine auction up in Napa Valley, and there they saw that things could be different. The auction was a sophisticated party where you could have fun—unusual, even unorthodox behavior in Silicon Valley. You didn’t have to stand around talking in code, just swirl cabernet in a tulip-shaped glass and meet nice people, and the next year the Bresslers returned.
     Then they made a decision many people of means make when overlooking comely vineyards seemingly untouched by the ambition and acrimony in the world: they called a realtor. They bought a modest house and started coming up on weekends. They found themselves thinking of Silicon Valley as a distant battlefield and of Napa as home, and decided to move up full time. He would commute to Silicon Valley a couple of times a week. Still wearing his Sun Microsystems hat, he thought he could in his spare time put Napa Valley on the Internet, helping people who were interested in selling wine electronically. And maybe they would explain wine to him.
     Before long, the Bresslers had sold their first house and bought another, not an architectural expression of geek hubris in the hills, but a big, utilitarian structure in the up-valley town of St. Helena. It met their standard that they had to be able to walk everywhere from it—to Tra Vigne and the Green Valley and other restaurants, to the renovated movie theater and Main Street Books and the Model Bakery. Their new friends had told them they would never find such a house that was suitable, these being people who for the most part were recent arrivals themselves and already had their vineyards and their labels and assumed the Bresslers, too, were looking for a modern-day castle keep with plenty of space for vines.
     The Bresslers ordered the construction of an insulated wine room, an early step in any renovation. It cost eighty thousand dollars and was capable of holding eight thousand bottles of the right stuff, meaning many of Napa’s most famous cabernets that few people could afford even if they could find them for sale, with either a historical pedigree—Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, Stag’s Leap Cask 23, Phelps Insignia, Dunn’s Howell Mountain, and so on—or, more impressive, cult status—Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle, Grace, Bryant Family, and others elbowing their way up the critics’ statistical ladders. Then their eyes turned toward the land.
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