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 Médoc, 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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