Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Pity the rich

                                  19. Enter the Breakfast Club
                                                    (Excerpted from The Far Side of Eden )                                                         

     All summer Chris Malan videotaped activity on the Pahlmeyer Post-it. By the end of August the ground was bare and the last of the vines were going in, the heavy equipment shuttling back and forth, dust plumes rising. It was dry, dry as only the air can be when the wind blows from the desert.
    According to existing regulations, all such work was supposed to stop by the first of September, but the work didn’t stop. Chris gave the workers a little more time and then, over Labor Day weekend, decided to act. She knew the ropes well enough by now to get a response without having to go through the county planning department, and she called the sheriff. He went up and shut the operation down until the following Tuesday, when it could be reviewed by the appropriate authorities, but by then the story was in the press.
     Jayson Pahlmeyer claimed to have obtained oral permission to continue working for a few days, until the grapes were finally planted, but the project stayed on hold. Most of the work was done, but once again his cowboys had run up hard against a deadline, prompting angry comparisons with “the Viader vineyard of the decade before and setting the stage for what was to come.
     Two weeks later, Tom Lippe drove up to Napa and walked into the courthouse, located between the county administrative building and the district attorney’s office. There he filed suit on behalf of the Sierra Club against Napa County for failing to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act, and he filed suit against the three individual defendants for putting in their vineyards.
     Two days after that became public knowledge, members of the Watershed Task Force received a letter informing them that the group was being reconvened. The timing was purely coincidental, but it didn’t really matter: the spark had already been struck, the fat was in the fire.
    The Winegrowers, a.k.a. the Breakfast Club, became an institution, at least among its members, and by the fall of 1999 many of them did not attend meetings but instead sent surrogates. Michael Mondavi’s was his vice president for public affairs, Herb Schmidt, wearer of the disarming smile and loafers soft as bedroom slippers. Herb was known for keeping two lists, of people he trusted and of people he didn’t trust, and was a common sight in Sacramento, Palm Desert, and Washington, D.C.
    One person not invited to join was Garen Staglin. In addition to being in a fight with Jack Cakebread, Staglin was a Democrat. He represented, as Jack described it, “Napa burnout. A guy’s been trying to hit financial home runs for so long he can’t quit, and he comes to Napa to do things differently, and buys land and starts a winery, but not to make a living. He feels entitled to some enjoyment, but then ego takes over. He wants more of whatever he has. What happens when he gets tired of the place and decides to sell out? He prices it too high for a grower to buy. If the wine market goes to hell, and no one else will pay his price, no telling what will happen.”
    What Jack didn’t say was that, more likely than not, a member of the Winegrowers would buy Staglin’s winery.
    Their executive director was a pro-development supervisor who had retired from the board, Fred Negri, and their official adviser a smart young attorney in the law firm of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty named Richard Mendelson, an aficionado of wine, an artist who worked in metal, and the brains behind “many a decision by Napa Valley vintners. Many Winegrowers and other aspiring vintners yearned for nothing more than for Mendelson to tell them, “I understand.”
Exchanges had been frank. “Spit it out,” Jack had said, and they still did. The issue of greatest concern now was environmental regulation. The Winegrowers all said repeatedly that they were the true environmentalists, their vineyards proof of this. Their critics were chronic complainers, they added, and worse: radicals out to torpedo the industry, talking about alcohol farming and alcohol factories, running to the courts.
    The Winegrowers needed to get the facts out, they felt. They were intimately involved with the land, and their profits not just shared by the community but essential to its well-being. All vintners had to develop better “communications” and flex some legal muscle because the industry was being blamed for things that couldn’t be scientifically proven, like a muddy river. “What about runoff from the streets of Calistoga, St. Helena, and Yountville?” someone would ask, and when the question of the ever-falling water table arose, “What about all those holes being dug by weekenders?"

     “The Winegrowers thought they had neutralized some “troublemakers” in the industry, most notably Volker Eisele. The former UC Berkeley sociologist had been essential in the transformation of the Farm Bureau from a mere advocate of economic advantage for farmers into what the Winegrowers considered an activist cell of demanding greens. Eisele had been defeated in the Farm Bureau board election, in part because of manipulations behind the scenes by the Winegrowers, while he was visiting relatives in Germany. But there was a bigger threat now. Truly radical enviros from outside the industry had dropped a bomb: the Sierra Club lawsuit.
    Filed against the county for failing to enforce its own environmental regulations, the suit had caught many people by surprise. There had been talk of it, but few thought the plaintiffs had the courage to do something so divisive. The emotional effect on the men gathered around the big table in the Pond Room, behind the Cakebread winery, was profound. Unaccustomed to criticism, suddenly they were being condemned by the spiritual heirs of John Muir, and the legitimacy of their way of life was being questioned, and some of them were too angry to discuss this rationally.
    They blamed the county for getting them into such a mess, for not shielding the valley from CEQA when the hillside ordinance was first written, for not vowing now to fight the Sierra Club suit to the death—money, countersuits, whatever it took. They discussed having Napa Valley exempted from the California Environmental Quality Act through a state legislative end run, resolving all this with a legal deus ex machina, their attorneys and lobbyists descending on a platform of legal brilliance and connections to save them from “Malan/Mennen.”
    This new phrase for the collective demon was uttered with alliterative disgust, some members wanting to go after them and their lawyers—“carpetbaggers”—who operated out of San Francisco and Sacramento and made their livings suing respectable people—businessmen!—who happened to violate some obscure environmental regulation while engaging in the basic American right to make a profit.
    Jack denounced Malan/Mennen as humanoid equivalents of the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the vine-sucking wasp that transmitted a bacteria threatening the vineyards with destruction. Chris Malan was, in Jack’s opinion, the worst, either neurotic or craving of attention, a “pot-stirrer” who put men like him on the defensive when they should be on the offensive.
    The reaction of members of the Breakfast Club to the mention of Chris approached the apoplectic. “You never know when she’ll bite you on the ankle,” someone would say. Her presence on the Watershed Task Force was seen as a travesty that would prevent additional planting in the valley. Many of those vineyards already in existence—like Groth’s, Silverado’s, and virtually everybody else’s in the Winegrowers—would have to be pulled back from streambanks at great cost unless the industry got a grip on the problem, meaning the environmentalists.
    There were other culprits. A few of what Jack called “rogues”—Delia Viader, Jayson Pahlmeyer, Dave Abreu, others—had brought the wrath of the uninformed public down onto the head of every vintner. The county should have been tougher on those people in the first place, although many of those sitting in the Pond Room had opposed all restrictions on hillside development.
    The collective blood pressure rose again at the mention of the Sierra Club. These men all considered themselves victims, deprived of the credit they alone deserved for the valley’s success.
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