Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Napa, the movie (maybe)

                      20. The Transformation Complete
         (From The Far Side of Eden. This is the final post in this series. The whole of Far Side will
          be re-issued upon publication of the last book in my Napa trilogy, a work now in progress.)

    Jayson Pahlmeyer’s answering machine informed callers: “This is Jayson. Please leave a message while I uncork a powerful Pahlmeyer merlot.”
    His travel schedule brimmed with wine promoting events, his bank account with the proceeds, his large presence—slicked-back hair, new Dickensian eyeglasses—with confidence, but increasingly he found himself talking penance. He was no longer just a fine wine producer and owner of a capital-inhaling new vineyard, he was the object of a lawsuit by one of the most powerful environmental organizations on the planet, one started by a saint of nature lovers, John Muir, who had attempted to prevent the construction of the Hetch Hetchy Dam in the Sierras and the despoiling of Yosemite and other pristine places. The club had hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members, and he imagined that they were all mad at Jayson Pahlmeyer.
    The lawsuit had effectively shut down all new agricultural projects in the hills and brought new condemnation of Jayson, but also some grudging sympathy: some vintners had decided that their enemies’ enemy was their friend. “I planted what was already a cow pasture,” Jayson repeatedly told them on the telephone, at Vintners Association meetings, at Mustard’s, “and what’s lost in all this is that I didn’t cause any damage!”
    If his story was made into a movie, he thought, it would go like this: Cult vintner brings secret grape clones to the United States and makes a notable success. He raises money and tells a cowboy to put in a primo rocket-juice vineyard, pronto, at any cost, and is then attacked by eco-zealots. The ending of the film was as yet unclear. Perfectly clear was monoculture-as-villain, along with “alcohol factories,” miracle-grow aristocrats with recently buried pasts in microchips, condo developments and other, less salubrious means of fortune accumulation, and other businessmen, no longer envisioned as daring entrepreneurs but as exploiters and elitists.
    Jayson had been at home the day he heard about the suit. The papers were served at the Pahlmeyer Vineyards office down in Napa, in the revamped industrial section overlooking the Napa River, and his partner, Michael Haas, had telephoned him with the news. Jayson had felt his stomach drop. This was the crowning blow, after all the previous bad publicity, and he saw the future unfolding, as he had been trained to do as a lawyer, with many possible outcomes of the lawsuit, few of them entirely beneficial and none pleasant.
    What really scared the vintners were the words “moratorium” and “radical setbacks.” The suit would add fuel to those fears. A legal end to planting in the hills, to clearing and planting within a few hundred feet of streams, would mean suffering serious opportunity and capital losses and the personal effrontery of the have-nots.
    Another hated word was “restoration.” Returning vineyardland to wildlife habitat sounded less than draconian to the average American, but not to vintners who were outraged by the lawsuit. Their shared pain gave Jayson some comfort. Wines like his were still the driving consideration among present and aspiring vintners, cult labels contributing to the symbiotic relationship among wine, second and third homes, upscale tourism, art collecting, heavy-duty landscaping, and all the elements of the boom that danced bellybutton to bellybutton in the valley, grinding out lucre. In such an environment even slow-growth advocates and old-time responsible farmers were tempted to forget the rules. That was human nature, but the rules were before the public now.
    Jayson had to finish his million-dollar project on the ridge, so close to completion he could taste it. One day it would include a three-level, gravity-flow winery, and maybe a chateau that Chris Malan would have to look at every morning on her way down to Napa. But settling the lawsuit would mean reapplying for an erosion control permit, paying legal costs of the Sierra Club and the county—unless his suit against the county for damages proved successful—and contributing thousands of dollars to some environmental organization stipulated by the plaintiffs.
    That was the most galling suggestion of all those made by the Sierra Club lawyer. Jayson told anyone calling to ask about the lawsuit, “It’s known as extortion,” as he sipped a Pahlmeyer red in one of his blue leather chairs. “There were eighty other vintners like me with hillside projects. Malan and the Sierra Club could have gone after all of them, but they didn’t. Maybe that would have caused too much dissension. Frankly, I don’t know why they picked me. It’s a mystery. I’m the one that got caught in the crosshairs. I feel like a wildebeest singled out from the herd.”
    If he reapplied for a permit to finish his vineyard, “Chris will stand up in front of the board of supervisors and say I shouldn’t get it without an environmental review... She’s been able to marshal incredible power as a private citizen. And once they get CEQA, she’ll have her private pulpit. She can take any vineyard granted a permit right back to court.”
    This fear was making its way beyond the mountainous confines of Napa Valley to the halls of the capitol in Sacramento. It raised red flags from Mendocino to Santa Barbara and threatened to do on a large scale what the Sierra Club had failed to do locally: rally environmentalists. Chris Malan was quoted as saying, “California’s in for the fight of our time,” and Jayson felt that the words were directed at him. The boy from Oakland who made a wine to drop you... Everybody had heard that phrase by now. But his marketing image was being overshadowed by that of the cult wine producer who let the eco-zealots into Eden.

To order Napa:

No comments:

Post a Comment