Saturday, April 30, 2016

A letter to President Obama

                                                  Threatening grizzlies 

Doug Peacock is a well-known naturalist, writer, friend, and longtime student of the bear. The inspiration behind the character Heyduke in Edward Abbey's novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, he divides his time between western Montana and the Arizona desert.

April 28, 2016

The President
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear President Obama:

We are writing to thank you for your leadership on climate change and to ask for your help: Yellowstone grizzly bears are in grave danger. 

Your administration has regrettably taken steps to strip the bear’s federal protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), opening up a grizzly bear trophy hunt on the edges of Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone’s bears are a remnant and isolated population. They must be allowed to wander safely outside of Yellowstone National Park. 

Americans would never accept hunting of America’s bald eagle; hunting Yellowstone grizzly bears is equally unacceptable. 

To make matters worse, America’s great bears face the same looming threats as many species across the country due to climate change. In the last decade, climate change has decimated the Yellowstone grizzly’s most important food, the white bark pine nut. 

Unfortunately, the March 3, 2016, delisting announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) came paired with an astonishing declaration in the Federal Register: “Therefore, we conclude that the effects of climate change do not constitute a threat to the [Yellowstone grizzly bear population] now, nor are they anticipated to in the future.”

This statement is even more disturbing in light of your administration’s commitment to addressing climate change, because climate change predictions are dire for all our planet’s species. How can it be that the military considers climate change in all its decisions, while the agency responsible for our wildlife, the FWS, does not?

The same argument – the denial of climate change – was used by the FWS in 2014 to deny listing the wolverine in the lower 48 states. On April 4, 2016, that decision was reversed in federal court, and declared “arbitrary and capricious.” The FWS was ordered to reconsider its reasoning about climate change. It’s now time for this federal agency to play catch up and use “the best available science” to keep grizzly bears on the ESA list. 

A critical question: Who benefits from delisting Yellowstone’s grizzly bears? The only certain outcome of delisting bears will be trophy hunts in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. 

We ask you to instruct our federal wildlife managers to withdraw the March 3 rule and order the FWS to take another look at how climate change impacts grizzly bears. Any decision about the bear’s future should be put on hold until independent scientific review can explore potential impacts to bears from climate change. We strongly suspect that America’s great bears face a dire future, even with the continued protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Respectfully yours, 
Doug Peacock
Author, Guggenheim Fellow

 Concerned scientists: 

Professor Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology
George B. Schaller, Panthera Corporation and Wildlife Conservation Society
Jane Goodall, Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace 
Michael Soule, Professor Emeritus, Univ. of California, Santa Cruz

Citizens of the Yellowstone ecosystem:

Jeff Bridges, Academy Award-winning actor
Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia, Inc.
Michael Finley, Former superintendent Yellowstone National Park
Carl Hiaasen, Journalist, author
Michael Keaton, Academy Award-winning actor
Tom McGuane, American Academy of Arts & Letters
N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winner
Terry Tempest Williams, Author and Guggenheim Fellow 

Ted Turner, Philanthropist and conservationist

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Would the trigger be pulled?

                                         7.  In the Green Crosshairs
                     (From The Far Side of Eden. First post on 4/11)
     He felt, he said, “like a Cistercian monk poking around in the wilds of Burgundy not long after the birth of Christ. The Europeans have for thousands of years been deciding where best to plant, and have nailed their terroir, whereas the Americans are still figuring theirs out.”
     For Jayson Pahlmeyer, his reputation now tied to the appearance of his chardonnay in the film Disclosure, the hills were clearly the place where the best grapes grew, just as a bank was the place where the money was. So to greatly expand his source of good grapes, and therefore his production of wine, he bought two-hundred-plus steep acres in remote Wooden Valley, an adjunct of Napa Valley by virtue of its drainage into the Napa River. He planned to spend millions to turn eighty acres of it into prime vineyard.
     Helen Turley had taken over the making of his wine. She was an acknowledged maven of ripe fruit—“physiologically mature,” she called it, and others called it too far gone—low yields, expensive viticulture, manicured vines. She tramped into vineyards like a disheveled Valkyrie, sometimes with Jayson in tow, to sample grapes left so long on the vine they were often black and splitting, attracting wasps, bees, and skunks, and she put the sample bunches into a little colander she carried, with a kind of rolling pin inside, and mashed the grapes up and poured the juice into a glass and tasted it. She would then order that some grapes be “dropped”—cut and left on the ground so as to further concentrate the flavor in those left on the vine—in the final days of harvest, despite the great cost of leaving quality cabernet sauvignon in the dust. This was known as “Helen’s way.”
     Jayson had seen the light because Turley brooked no compromise, would forgo any amount of money offered if her standards weren’t met. She was quirky and her husband, a kind of vinous manager, difficult. Jayson had once seen Helen turn down a prospective client because he answered his cell phone while at lunch. She managed to get Robert Parker to taste the wines of all her clients, a huge advantage. Another winemaker would take over from her, common in the musical chairs of quality viticulture, but while she lasted she provided Pahlmeyer with what he needed at the time: big fruit, more exposure.
     His vineyard manager, the man responsible for the master plan, the recognized avenue to accredited rocket juice and progenitor of rising cult cabernets, was none other than Dave Abreu. No longer asking about pH, unscathed by the Viader and other contretemps, Abreu wore not Big Ben shirts but those with rearing polo horse and rider stitched above the pectoral, and he charged a lot of money for putting in an acre of vines. Abreu’s standard refusal to travel far from Rutherford on jobs had been overcome by Jayson’s money and the ambitious scope of his project.
     In Jayson’s opinion, Abreu was a foul-mouthed genius, a rough, Rutherford-speaking diamond, the Robert Trent Jones of vineyards. Abreu went out and sat in the prospective vineyard and felt the soil, felt the roots of the young vines; he lay down on his side to divine the pattern of the drip valves. He said, “Here . . . hey . . .” and re-leased a torrent that was part appreciation, part abuse, all authoritative. This is what we’re going to do, he would tell Jason, this is what’s best—vertical rows, close planting, whatever, and then do it. All of them—Jayson, Helen Turley, Dave Abreu, and his surrogates—were focused on the goal; accepted practices, rules and regulations, seemed to be no impediment when you had a job to do.
     The contractor Richard Stadelhofer graded fifty acres of Jayson’s property in 1997 without an erosion control permit, removed the vegetation next to a dry creek, and dumped some debris into the stream bed without permission from the California Department of Fish and Game. All no-nos, as Jayson later put it, and Stadelhofer got caught. Jayson said he didn’t know the permit hadn’t been issued, adding that, as a lawyer, he knew that ignorance was no defense. He and Stadelhofer had to pay close to ten thousand dollars in civil penalties, and Jayson lost a year in his vineyard development because he was shut down until the following spring, a big financial hit all by itself.
     He agreed to restore some of the slopes above thirty percent to their natural state and to make other improvements. He was criticized by other vintners whose ranks he had eagerly joined for setting a bad example and providing ammunition to vintners’ enemies. Jayson stood up in front of them and performed a mea culpa, admitting that he and his contractors had made a mistake and, in effect, asking for forgiveness. He hoped that and the mitigation he had agreed to do on the land would counteract the bad publicity.
     The criticism of his peers was innocuous compared to that flowing from the environmentally minded community. Jayson was in the green crosshairs now.
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The worst thing imaginable

                                        6. Few Things Really Matter
               (From The Far Side of Eden, first post on 4/11)
     Her younger son, Micah, by then eighteen, had gone on a backpacking trip in the Sierras and was sleeping in the car while his friend drove home. His friend dozed at the wheel, crossed the center strip, and collided with an oncoming vehicle. Neither driver was seriously injured, but Micah’s spine was broken.
     For the eight weeks he was in intensive care he could not move or breathe without the aid of a ventilator. Every night someone slept in the room with him, if not Chris or Jack, then one of their friends. Chris was convinced he would die if left alone; she couldn’t spend every night there herself, and she couldn’t stop crying when away from him. The doctors told her Micah might someday be able to use a wheelchair, but only by manipulating a straw with his mouth, and Chris hadn’t even been told before that her son would be paralyzed. She told the doctors, “No way.”
     She didn’t know how she would prevent this severe limitation, only that she would prevent it. She couldn’t talk about her feelings with the social workers or with anybody else. Emotionally exhausted, she had trouble talking at all, but realized that Micah was badly in need not only of love, strength, and technical ability, but also of a strong advocate.
     When he was moved from intensive care to rehabilitation, he couldn’t speak because of the ventilator, which caused him pain, and he couldn’t move his arms because he had injured his rotator cuffs. He communicated by blinking his eyes.
     His mother wrote about that time later, on her computer, in a rush of memories, without regard for punctuation: I would sit and watch from a chair outside in the hall and watch as Micah’s friends would just lean over and just talk to him. He couldn’t respond because he had a tube in his throat. My life was so wrapped around him and I could think of nothing else but to hang on every breath he took hoping there would be a next. I became completely meshed with him and could hardly think of anything else. It was as if I was in bed with him. Sometimes I left paralyzed and unable to talk or breathe . . . It is hard to explain what a mother feels when a child is injured and you want so much to take the suffering away. The feeling of watching them struggle is unbelievably painful and the weight upon your heart is hardly bearable. You wonder how God could let a child suffer . . .
     When the injury had improved, Micah found he could write with a piece of chalk on a board—short, cryptic messages, as in, “I can breathe.” The doctors wanted to do a tracheotomy anyway, and Chris had said no. She and her sister had a plan for training Micah to continue breathing without the ventilator, and she wanted it removed. The doctors insisted that Micah wasn’t strong enough, that the tube was necessary for his survival, but Chris said to herself, “Who are you to say?”
     Micah wrote “Family meeting” on his board. When everyone had gathered at his bedside he wrote “No way operation.”
     He was eighteen years old and legally of age, and the ventilator was removed. He began to breathe on his own with great difficulty, and for two hours they all encouraged him. The nurses clapped, and then the ventilator was reinserted. Each day Micah went a little longer without it. This amazed the doctors, who had not believed it possible.
     Each time machines were brought forward to assist him, and each time Chris fended them off. It took a week and a half to get Micah sitting up in the wheelchair; the big day came when he was able to manipulate the motor with his left arm. Then he tried to feed himself. At first he threw the food over his shoulder, and he laughed, saying, “Feeding my monkey,” but slowly control came.
     The final triumph was going home without a machine, the family having been trained to take care of him. Jack and Chris had to refinance their house to pay for everything: a caregiver, a ramp for the wheelchair, a new addition for Micah. For a long time the house felt incomplete, the living room sparsely furnished, all activity centering on the narrow kitchen and the table, where cups of tea and plates carried from the counter competed with piles of papers, memos, letters, reports, maps, fliers.  Here Chris worked, close to Micah, who sometimes called from his room on the telephone.

     Her son was alive. He could breathe and speak and eat and operate his wheelchair, a small miracle. Somewhere in the experience Chris had reached dead-level bottom; nothing worse could ever happen to her, she thought. She had glimpsed the superficiality of human ambition and understood that few things really matter. These things will not survive without vigilance and uncompromising will, and she reimmersed herself in the Stanley Ranch fight and the flood management proposal.
     As crisis counselor, she worked nights and went to bed midmorning. Some days she stayed up, using the phone, doing paperwork, sending e-mails, and writing on the computer until fatigue settled with the sodden finality of the winter rains: My choice was narrow. Hard work and trying to make a difference . . . I have learned to be patient. Environmental work is unbelievably frustrating. We fight big money, greed, overconsumption and terrible destruction. We are labeled as extremist, radical and difficult. Our rewards are few and the time we must put in to see a small measure of change is profound. We fear that time is short . . .
     All around her lay evidence of a bigger fight, its causes clear to anyone who bothered to look up: the hillside ordinance wasn’t working, obvious but difficult to prove, with little incentive for politicians who might favor stricter regulations but had little political cover. Then, out of the blue, that cover was inadvertently provided by a vintner Chris had never met. His name was Jayson Pahlmeyer.
To order Napa:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The big one's coming

                            5. Disasters Natural and Otherwise

     Her “sense of nature” provided a useful alternative. Chris Malan described herself as humanitarian and deeply concerned about the environment. “This is a fragile world,” she would say, “Carl Sagan’s small blue dot. If we screw it up, we’ll all be miserable.”
     Experience in the gritty world of the emotionally damaged carried into the public weal. She sidled up to organizations devoted to environmental causes that tended to coalesce around specific issues, mutate, and reemerge in different form, like mayflies. There was no dearth of these issues in Napa Valley. Her first fight, as she would later tell it, was for a prospective greenbelt around the city of Napa that did not prevail legislatively. Then she joined the board of the fledgling Friends of the Napa River, a polyglot group of outdoors people and conservationists devoted to cleaning up both the water and the riverbanks.
     Friends of the Napa River argued that if the primary drainage couldn’t be saved, then the county, too, would be lost, that the river was the key to everything else. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had listed the steelhead as a threatened species throughout the San Pablo Bay drainage; someday the federal government might demand changes in farming, construction, and road-building practices, all of which had an impact on the river, so there was an impetus for the locals to act first. Friends of the Napa River also became effectively enmeshed in flood control politics.
     Chris soon found herself involved in an effort to prevent some Texans from developing an elevated bit of real estate known as Soscol Ridge. She was learning, taking advice from others, and concerned about the outcome of this fight. She worried that enough wasn’t being done. In the house of Moira Johnson Block, a founder of Friends of the Napa River, she met the bearded Volker Eisele, veteran of the vintner wars and reputed master strategist, and Volker tried to reassure her about the outcome of the vote on Soscol Ridge. The development would be defeated, he said, and to drive this home he wagered a lunch on the result. Chris accepted the bet, figuring she would win something either way: if the initiative passed, Soscol Ridge would not be developed, and if it didn’t pass, at least she would get a free meal.
     The total opposed to the development turned out to be more than eighty percent, and Chris happily paid for lunch. For her, Soscol Ridge had been a watershed. She had clearly seen the face of the enemy—despoilers of natural habitat—and clearly understood that what was needed to defeat them was early involvement and dedicated follow-through, even when the outcome appeared dubious.
     Others in the environmental movement viewed Chris as an activist rather than an organizer, more a bulldog than a strategist. An errant pants leg was always attached to development, in her view, and she clamped down on it. Although her sympathies were divided between the hills and the river, the two were inextricably linked. Vineyards were appearing just under every horizon, and no one was acting to stop them. It didn’t seem to bother her friends as much as it bothered Chris. Opponents of sprawl could strongly unite for preserving the valley floor, she would say disapprovingly, “but they can’t get it together for the hillsides.” And gradually a divide began to grow between her and other, less outspoken environmentalists.
     Meanwhile, a proposal for a bedroom-community development within the Napa city limits surfaced. It was known as Stanley Ranch, and it required rezoning for high-density housing; this inspired an ad hoc committee opposed to high-end sprawl and “the Santa Rosa trend,” and included were Richard Niemann, a schoolteacher and Sierra Club member, Ginny Simms, a former county supervisor and the first woman ever elected to that office, Harold Kelly and Diane Dillon, both long involved in community action, Chris, and others.
     For two years they fought Stanley Ranch, lobbying the city council, calling for new studies and public hearings. The Napa city General Plan was subject to an environmental impact review, and they attended these public meetings, spoke out against rezoning, and formed Get a Grip on Growth to launch a referendum if need be. Eventually the city council, faced with lawsuits and the referendum threat, backed down, and Stanley Ranch sank into the increasingly crowded compost heap of potential developments.
     But in the midst of the Stanley Ranch fight, something occurred of such cataclysmic severity, a personal crisis in the life of the county crisis counselor so profound, that it overshadowed all other concerns and left her “living every parent’s worst nightmare.”
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Monday, April 18, 2016

Enter the antagonist

                                             4. Good with Conflict
                                      From The Far Side of Eden (first post on 4/11, right)                                                        

     GROWING UP, she spent whole summers with her sisters on a lake in northern California and hiked and fished the Eel River with her parents. She witnessed the depredations of logging and the decline of the steelhead, that mysterious, muscular, silvery, seagoing trout that spends most of its life in the deep but returns—briefly, perennially, against great odds—to the headwaters where life began.
     Her name was Chris, and she developed what she would describe as a “sense of nature,” although her existence was primarily urban. She grew up in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma County, and studied science and psychology at Sacramento State. By the time she was finished with school, she was married to the soft-spoken, accommodating Jack Malan and was the mother of two boys.
     They had moved to Napa in 1978, and Jack had gone from the United States Navy into the county’s health program, as a psychological counselor. Chris went into that line of work, too, to supplement the family income. They bought a piece of property on the flank of Atlas Peak, a rugged, wild promontory in the south of the valley strewn with volcanic rock, and they built a rudimentary house with a carport. It had the feel of an outpost, separated from the road by a long stretch of blacktop and two cattle gates, the first a mechanical device that rose when a button was punched, the second held shut by a piece of chain. Between the two barriers—one to the outside world, the other to the Malans’—cows belonging to a neighbor stared mournfully. No cattle sullied the Malan property, though there were dogs, a mobile home parked on the tarmac, and cars necessary for the relentless commuting that characterized life miles from the nearest store or school.
     Chris had always wanted to work with children. She and her husband took foster children into their home, and as a county counselor she dealt with a range of pathologies mostly manifest in adults but rooted in childhood. Addiction and psychosis were often factors, and child neglect and abuse often the result. This was the dark side of the valley, the antithesis of the shimmering reflection thrown by wine and money, unsuspected or ignored by the tourists and often by those catering to them. Large contributions from the Napa Valley Wine Auction went to hospitals and health services every year, to take care of such problems in scruffy urban neighborhoods far from the vineyards and McMansions and symbolized not by the Wine Auction but by the somber presence of the Napa State Hospital.
     Counseling helped families at their worst, Chris would say when asked why she was drawn to work both difficult and depressing: “I like helping people at the lowest point of their lives.” Some of those years were spent in crisis and psychiatric intervention, working with people who were disturbed and often needed institutionalization. She spent many nights and weekends on the job; often the police were required. She found she was good at dealing with conflict—knowledgeable, committed, physically solid, with full, dark hair and a daunting persistence.
     This could be risky. Once she walked up to a house that had been barricaded by the owner—“a biker, huge, covered with tattoos”—and surrounded by police officers, and Chris said, “Hi, I’m here because some people are worried about your kids." The biker told her the kids were fine, and she told him, “I have to see them.” Reluctantly he opened the door, and the confrontation was resolved.
A man just out of prison came to the crisis center, jumped from a window, and threatened to slit his own throat. He had to be dissuaded. “That’s the kind of work I do,” she later explained. “I deal with very crazy people.”
     A woman and former prisoner became psychotic after drinking too much alcohol, and Chris had her hospitalized. When the woman got out she returned home, put on fatigues and camouflage paint, came back to the hospital with a gun, and started shooting. The police had to wound her in the leg before they could subdue her. Chris learned from the experience that when people focus on you as the source of their problems, it can be dangerous.
     The lesson would come back to her in an arena far removed from crisis counseling.

To order Napa:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hollywood calling

                                                    3. Move White
                From The Far Side of Eden. (First post on 4/11, right)  

     Chardonnay was hot. Jayson Pahlmeyer decided to make one of those, too. A practical decision. He chose Merryvale as the custom crusher because he knew the winemaker, who could get him a discount. Jayson designed his own label—pink and turquoise, to the horror of all who saw it—and sold it all at five dollars a bottle. He couldn’t believe how much money could be made, even at that price. Hey, wine was profitable! It wasn’t starter mansions, but it might one day match, and complement, the real estate deals.
     Looking back, Jayson would say that two coincidences put his wine on the map, the first being the visit from Randy Dunn, who introduced it to Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate and a tectonic force in the global wine market, on one of Parker’s much-heralded visits to California. The artful blend of cabernet and other varietals that Dunn had put together for Jayson received ninety-four points out of a possible hundred in Parker’s ranking system, a single event that catapulted it into the ranks of what were already being treated as cult objects.
     The second coincidence involved Jayson’s chardonnay, and a phone call. It came “from the production manager of a movie being made, no big deal in California. The production manager had seen a ranking of the chardonnay—the pink and turquoise label had been replaced by something more acceptable by this time—in Wine Spectator. It, too, had been ranked in the nineties, not astronomical but well ahead of the pack. The production manager wanted a case of it to use in the movie, not for the quality but for the wine’s unusual name—Pahlmeyer—and its relative inaccessibility. And the production manager wanted it for free.
     “My chardonnay costs twenty-five dollars a bottle,” Jayson told him, and hung up.
     Then he recalled hearing that a bottle of Taittinger appearing in Top Gun, with Tom Cruise, had garnered a hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of free publicity. The appearance of a can of Budweiser in another movie had supposedly received two hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of free publicity. This new movie, Disclosure, would star Demi Moore, Michael Douglas, and, if Jayson went along, a bottle of Napa Valley chardonnay with his name on it. He called the production manager back.
     When the movie came out, Jayson went to see it. The plot turned on one person’s trying to get another person into bed, with his wine as a seduction tool. Jayson thought, “So what?”
     Then his telephone began to ring, and it never really stopped. Requests for Pahlmeyer wine also came in the mail—by the bagful. He could have sold four hundred thousand cases of Pahlmeyer chardonnay if he’d had them. When the movie was re-released it started all over again. Ditto after the European release, and the television rerun. Each successive wave brought more calls and more mail.
     Somewhere in there Jayson began to see that success depended on something totally unpredictable, mysterious, and, if lightning struck—and lightning had—uncontrollable.

To order my book of travel essays go to:

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Don't mess it up

                                                      2. Edge Work
             (From The Far Side of Eden. For first in series see previous post.)

     Whatever the truth, Jayson wanted the best. What was the point of doing all this, he asked people, “if I don’t make a wine that drops you to your knees?” He considered his competitors to be the best producers in France—Lafite- and Mouton-Rothschild, not Stag’s Leap and Chateau Montelena. The best wines in Napa Valley were already in the ninety-eighth and ninety-ninth percentile in terms of quality, proven by the famous Paris tasting in 1976 when California had bested France, but the Americans were still engaged in what Jayson called “edge work,” a phrase used by gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson, whom Jayson admired. It summed up what Jayson felt he was doing, functioning not on ludes and cocaine and Wild Turkey but on the pure ether of global demand and his own heady expectations.
     These bumped up against the realities of winemaking in northern California. Since he had no producing vineyards of his own yet, he had to buy grapes from someone who did, to start the money flowing in, and then find someone to make the wine before it could be sold. There were custom crushers around the valley, but sometimes staff rotated, and space was at a premium. Custom crushing was often synonymous with enological chaos, he thought. One day your wine was in one part of the cellar; when you went back a week later it was somewhere else. Or someone leaves the barn door open, as happened to Jayson’s first vintage, the sun beating down on imported staves, heating what lies within, a recipe for disaster. Then the cellar he was using was sold and his wine had to be moved to yet another one.
     Heat-stressed, peripatetic, this cabernet was not going to drop anyone to his knees, Jayson decided. He intended to make only four hundred cases and sell in bulk any wine that was left over. The wine ended up at the cellar owned by the son of a food writer who was also a professional pilot, and Jayson was pleased with the taste of it. Adversity had made it interesting, he thought. He let others taste it, and although they didn’t drop to their knees, they were impressed.

     One day, by chance, Jayson was standing around the cellar talking about his new wine when one of the rising stars of California cabernet arrived in an old pickup. He was Randy Dunn, the squarely built, taciturn pro who reminded Jayson of Robert Redford, with his reddish-blond mop and a beard to match. Dunn worked for Caymus Vineyards and made his own wine high on Howell Moun tain; he was becoming famous for big, flavorful, heavily structured cabernets and an unwillingness to suffer fools. He would hang up on aficionados demanding to buy his wine and tell uninvited visitors to his ranch that Randy Dunn didn’t live there.

     Dunn tasted the Pahlmeyer wine and, while Jayson waited, pulled air into his mouth over the wine, closed his lips, and breathed out through his nose, forcing the aromas up into his nasal passages. He sloshed the wine around in his mouth. He spat it out. Then he stood there.
     Finally Dunn said, in that laconic way of his, “Not bad. Don’t mess it up.”
     Don’t mess it up? Of course not! But how? . . . 
     Dunn was already driving away, his accolade hanging like a hot-air balloon in the bright, glorious morning.
     Later, Dunn called Jayson and told him he was considering using some of Jayson’s leftover wine in his own Napa Valley blend, less prestigious than his Howell Mountain but still very good indeed. Jayson couldn’t believe it. The great Randy Dunn wanted his cabernet, and what’s more, Dunn would make Pahlmeyer’s wine for him in the future, for a while. And he would introduce Jayson to distributors who would help him get his wine on the market. Dunn would help this unknown lawyer from Oakland obsessed with a blend—Bordeaux—perfected in a distant land millennia before, and Jayson said yes, yes, yes.”
      To order Napa:

Monday, April 11, 2016

A cautionary tale in Napa begins

                            I. A Wine to Drop You to Your Knees
     Jayson Pahlmeyer wasn’t sure just when he made the decision to produce a wine that would drop you to your knees, but it was back when he worked as a General Services Administration lawyer in Washington, D.C., and encountered a substance—Bordeaux—that engendered a passion uncommon in an Oakland boy. His native city was famous for the Hell’s Angels and the Black Panthers, and forever stigmatized by Gertrude Stein’s alliterative assessment, “There’s no there there.” But he went back there, and then there was a business there, one with his name on it.
     Jayson and a partner made some real estate deals in the eighties, and one of those involved fifty-five acres about an hour to the north of Oakland, in the Coombsville area of Napa County, scrub-covered slopes at the south end of the valley that had been passed over by the big wineries and boutique vintners and the corporations busy buying up the flats. Jayson and his partner wanted to do a residential development, starter mansions, but then he learned that Napa County had pretty strict zoning laws.
     A Freudian might have seen other motives in a savvy attorney-developer in the go-go years making such a mistake. What Jayson Pahlmeyer really wanted was not an upscale subdivision full of mock Tudors, Spanish missions, and cantilevered sun decks, but a wine bottle with his name on it. This relatively erudite ambition seemed misplaced in a big, rangy guy with a hawklike profile, swept-back hair kept in place with a dab of something, and gold-rimmed glasses. But he was also a risk taker, and he proposed a crazy idea to his partner: plant a vineyard instead.
     To Jayson’s surprise, the partner agreed. So they had a weather station put up, to measure rainfall, temperature, wind and sun exposure, with good results, and then they went to Bordeaux. This was a suspect move in Napa Valley, where most everybody interested in growing fine wine grapes went to the University of California at Davis—simply “Davis,” mother to the wine boom—but Jayson Pahlmeyer was different, dreaming of his Bordeaux-style red wine that contained all the various grapes in those famous blends, some unobtainable in Napa. And if an aspiring vintner wanted a great Bordeaux-style wine from great Bordeaux grapes, Jayson reasoned, then the aspiring vintner must transport himself to the M├ędoc, home of the ultimate blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petit verdot, and malbec.
     The French vintners thought him mad and gave him this advice: plant corn. Jayson would later use this and the rest of his French experience as part of his sales rap: that he learned about vine spacing there, and focused on the mystery of the great French wines, which of course meant drinking them, the unique, overpowering flavors of the ’45 Mouton-Rothschild and the ’47 Cheval Blanc, called by him “incredible synergies.” He got to the point where he didn’t have to taste such wines to appreciate them, he said. Just smelling them was enough. He dreamed of such an aroma in a wine of his own, a Pahlmeyer nose, and gradually, by dint of enthusiasm, persuaded the French to help him isolate what he judged to be the five best clones of the classic varieties.
     Some people back home thought this an apocryphal story, but Jayson told often of buying French budwood—shoots to be budded onto rootstock—knowing it couldn’t be taken legally into the United States and so shipping it to Canada. There his partner supposedly carried it across in the trunk of his car, one load at a time, and shipped each load by Federal Express overnight to Napa Valley. On the ninth crossing, Jayson claimed, a border guard stopped him, searched the car, and found the smuggled budwood, covered with wax and wrapped to keep it dark and dormant. Soon not only U.S. Customs was involved but also the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all wanting to know what had happened to the plants already on the other side of the American continent.
     The story grew into a full-scale domestic drama that went like this: a plea bargain included a seventeen-thousand-dollar fine and an agreement to hand over the rest of the budwood, something Jayson had no intention of doing. Instead, he and his partner purchased an equal amount of California budwood from a local nursery and had it ready at their vineyard when five cars full of state and federal authorities rolled up. They confiscated this “contraband” and rolled off again, and a year later the California Department of Agriculture thanked Jayson and his partner for handing over alien plant material that, they said, was riddled with viruses and other diseases. Jayson wanted to tell them that it was their own hotshot vineyard fodder they were talking about, but couldn’t, not without blowing his whole operation.
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