Sunday, December 31, 2017

Adios cabernet and pinot?

                           Have a glass of global warming 
Harvard University
Peter Reuell

A changing climate, changing wine
To adapt to warmer temperatures, winemakers may have to plant lesser known grape varieties, study suggests
A new Harvard study suggests that, though vineyards might be able to counteract some of the effects of climate change by planting lesser-known grape varieties, scientists and vintners need to better understand the wide diversity of grapes and their adaptions to different climates.
Nature Climate Change

    Cambridge, MA (January 2018) — If you want to buy good wine, Elizabeth Wolkovich says stop looking at labels and listen to your taste buds.
     An Assistant Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Wolkovich is among the co-authors of a new study, which suggests that, though vineyards might be able to counteract some of the effects of climate change by planting lesser-known grape varieties, scientists and vintners need to better understand the wide diversity of grapes and their adaptions to different climates. The study is described in a January 2 paper in Nature Climate Change.
    “It’s going to be very hard, given the amount of warming we’ve already committed to...for many regions to continue growing the exact varieties they’ve grown in the past,” Wolkovich said. “But what we’re interested in talking about is how much more diversity of grape varieties do we have, and could we potentially be using that diversity to adapt to climate change.
    “The Old World has a huge diversity of winegrapes – there are over planted 1,000 varieties – and some of them are better adapted to hotter climates and have higher drought tolerance than the 12 varieties now making up over 80% of the wine market in many countries,” she continued. “We should be studying and exploring these varieties to prepare for climate change.”
    Unfortunately, Wolkovich said, convincing wine producers to try different grape varieties is difficult at best, and the reason often comes down to the current concept of terroir.
    Terroir is the notion that a wine’s flavor is a reflection of where, which and how the grapes were grown. Thus, as currently understood, only certain traditional or existing varieties are part of each terroir, leaving little room for change.
    “There’s a real issue in the premier wine-growing regions that historical terroir is what makes great wine, and if you acknowledge in any way that you have climate change, you acknowledge that your terroir is changing,” Wolkovich said. “So in many of those regions there is not much of an appetite to talk about changing varieties.”
    But even if that appetite existed, Wolkovich said, researchers don’t yet have enough data to say whether other varieties would be able to adapt to climate change.
    “Part of what this paper sets up is the question of how much more do we need to know if we want to understand whether there is enough diversity in this crop to adapt wine regions to climate change in place,” said Ignacio Morales-Castilla, a co-author of the study and Fellow at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University who investigates which winegrape varieties will adequately mature where under climate change. “Right now we know we have this diversity, but we have little information on how to use it. One of our other suggestions is for growers to start setting aside parts of vineyards to grow some other varieties to see which ones are working.”
    But even if researchers came to the table armed with information about grape diversity, Wolkovich said the industry – both in the traditional winegrowing centers of Europe and around the world – still faces hurdles when it comes to making changes.
    In Europe, she said, growers have the advantage of tremendous diversity. They have more than 1,000 grape varieties to choose from, research repositories such as INRA’s Domaine de Vassal that study this diversity, and expertise in how to grow different varieties. Yet strict labeling laws have created restrictions on their ability to take advantage of this diversity.
    For example, just three varieties of grapes can be labeled as Champagne or four for Burgundy. Similar restrictions have been enacted in many European regions– all of which force growers to focus on a small handful of grape varieties.
    “The more you are locked into what you have to grow, the less room you have to adapt to climate change,” Wolkovich said. “So there’s this big pool of knowledge, and massive diversity, growers have maintained an amazing amount of genetic and climactic response diversity...but if they changed those laws in any way in relation to climate change, that’s acknowledging that the terroir of the region is changing, and many growers don’t want to do that.”
    New World winegrowers, meanwhile, must grapple with the opposite problem – while there are few, if any, restrictions on which grape varieties may be grown in a given region, growers have little experience with the diverse – and potentially more climate change adaptable – varieties of grapes found in Europe.
Just 12 varieties account for more than 80 percent of the grapes grown in Australian vineyards, Wolkovich said, more than 75% percent of all the grapes grown in China are Cabernet Sauvignon – and the chief reason why has to do with consumers.
    “They have all the freedom in the world to import new varieties and think about how to make great wines from a grape variety you’ve never heard of, but they’re not doing it because the consumer hasn’t heard of it,” Wolkovich said. “In Europe, people do blend wines...but in the New World, we’ve gotten really focused on specific varieties: ‘I want a bottle of Pinot Noir,’ or ‘I want a bottle of Cabernet.’
    “We’ve been taught to recognize the varieties we think we like,” she said. “People buy Pinot even though it can taste totally different depending on where it’s grown. It might taste absolutely awful from certain regions, but if you think you like Pinot, you’re only buying that.”
    As Wolkovich sees it, wine producers now face a choice: proactively experiment with new varieties, or risk suffering the negative consequences of climate change.
    “With continued climate change, certain varieties in certain regions will start to fail – that’s my expectation,” she said. “The solution we’re offering is how do you start thinking of varietal diversity. Maybe the grapes grown widely today were the ones that are easiest to grow and tasted the best in historical climates, but I think we’re missing a lot of great grapes better suited for the future.” 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Tumble into Jackson Pollock


           The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC owns my favorite painting by the mid-20th century American painter, Jackson Pollock, called Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist). So the gallery is the natural venue for Pollock’s largest painting as well, Mural, currently on loan from the University of Iowa Museum of Art.
       Originally painted for the foyer of Pollock’s patron, heiress and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim, in 1943, it is 20 captivating feet of canvas writhing with bright colors and thick, lavish brush strokes as much in the manner of Pollock’s contemporary, Willem de Kooning, as in that usually associated with Pollock himself. In the painting people find all sorts of things - rising spirits, initials, even spermatozoa.
  So the East Wing’s lovely top floor gallery is a good place to see firsthand all the changes in Pollock’s style, including the final one in his life in which he squirted back paint onto raw canvas with a turkey baster. But despite these forceful images, and Mural's size, it is still Lavender Mist that most powerfully draws the eye to its concentration of seemingly random color drizzles.
       The now-famous technique created separate levels of reality and carries the receptive viewer to incredible depths. Lavender Mist remains emblematic of Pollock’s burst of genius in the early fifties, when the influential critic Clement Greenberg suggested the title. This seems, in retrospect, a too-flip choice (there is no lavender in Lavender Mist), but go judge for yourself.                                 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Publishers Weekly gives my book a starred review

 Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity

James Conaway. Simon & Schuster, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5011-2845-5

In this fascinating and well-researched book, Conaway delivers an unpleasant portrait of California’s Napa Valley in the 21st century. Conaway knows his subject well, having written two previous narratives chronicling the valley’s metamorphosis over the decades (including Napa: The Story of an American Eden). Several sections of the book explore “specific struggles similar to those all over the country but heightened by Napa’s fame and outsized concentrations of wealth and notoriety.” The 1960s through the ’80s were a golden age for Napa. Newcomers filled with idealism flocked to the valley wanting to learn the art of wine making, all the while respecting sound conservation principles. But once big money arrived, personal bonds among the community members began disintegrating and land-zoning and water-use issues divided Napa residents. Once a mainly mixed-agriculture region that also happened to produce wine, Napa morphed into an oenophile Disneyland, according to Conaway, where new-millionaire winemakers have little regard for the natural environment or quality of life for longtime valley residents. This is a stunning and sad look at how an idyllic community (which has recently been ravaged by fire) became a victim of its own success. (Feb.)Reviewed on 10/27/2017

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Napa at Last Light reviewed in Kirkus


America's Eden in an Age of Calamity
Author: James Conaway

Review Issue Date: November 15, 2017
Online Publish Date: October 31, 2017
Publisher:Simon & Schuster
Pages: 352
Price ( Hardcover ): $26.00
Price ( e-book ): $13.99
Publication Date: February 20, 2018
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-5011-2845-5
ISBN ( e-book ): 978-1-5011-2847-9
Category: Nonfiction

In the third volume of his trilogy about Napa, California, Conaway (Nose, 2013, etc.) continues his investigation of the consequences of the wine industry on the region's culture and environment.Both, argues the author persuasively, suffer at the hands of greedy winemakers, huge corporations, and the desire of merchants to attract more and more tourists. As in his past books, this one is filled with detailed—and sometimes overly detailed—sketches of a large cast of characters. Conaway profiles more than 60 individuals who, in one way or another, affect Napa's life and fortunes. These include winery founders, vintners ("mostly an ornamental title nowadays"), growers (a dwindling number), inheritors, and the handful of determined citizens working hard to defend the ecology and integrity of the land they love. The author notes that nearly half of the population of Napa Valley lives at or below the poverty line; housing is "prohibitively expensive, the roads crowded, cancer rates high, and the glaring disparity between incomes growing." But his focus here is not on economic or health problems but rather on environmental damage when agricultural production is impeded by marketing, when wineries are converted "into retail shops, conference pods, and de facto restaurants." Wineries, he writes, have become "self-interested fiefdoms" overseen by astoundingly wealthy vineyard owners, too often international corporations. Some vintners have no knowledge of grape-growing and little interest in the actual work of farming. Many, Conaway writes, "are caught up in what amounts to a parody of viticulture, elaborate dramas of money and celebrity far removed from the dust from which hope springs eternal." One man, seeking "self-realization" as a vintner, confessed that he wanted to make "a difference to people and their experiences," which, Conaway says scornfully, "is what real estate development and tourism are all about, not agriculture." The author ends on a "guardedly optimistic" note, citing citizens' successes in holding back development and exploitation. A strong plea for responsible stewardship of the land.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Napa Confidential: The Fire So Far

                                             The Private I                                                                                                        
While the mighty Atlas Fire has been contained, it is by no means out, and there is no way to assess the damage along Atlas Peak, Soda Canyon and through the hills east/north of Yountville.

I did catch one resident of Circle Oaks (evacuated) who commented the community was completely surrounded by fire, but the fire department put up a huge stand and saved their subdivision.  This suggests Walt Ranch's forests were lost/are lost to the fires.  Roads remain closed as crews continue to work the interior of the various fires, and while people were escorted back so they could fetch documents at Circle Oaks, I think they remain displaced for now.

Don't know if the MiniWalt/Kongsgaard's property survived, or what the situation is around Miliken Creek and the Hall's reputedly just-completed water filtration plant, and Walt Ranch.  My best guess is the forests burned.  I'm sure a stand was made to try to save the Miliken plant, but it was involved so early on, before firefighters arrived en mass.

What saved the ridges from Sonoma's east side that spilled into Napa's west side (actually south side directionally) were changes in winds and serious efforts by air: 727s and 737s with sodium borate and lots of helicopters, including the heavy-life Chinooks of Columbia Helicopters that deliver just under 60,000 gallons/hour of water, quieting things down and protecting hotshorts down below.   They systematically worked the many points between Yountville and Zinfandel Lane where the fire came over ridge lines into the county and prevented losses on that side of the valley. We won't know much for some time.

I just watched the St. Helena City Council meeting, and Chief Sorenson had photos of where our volunteers served and prevented the fire from spreading from the Tubbs Fire in Calistoga down to St. Helena and protected us by making a stand at Petrified Forest on Petrified Forest Road, and put out embers that blew from the engulfed area across the road before they could do damage to "our side."

The Chief reported that St. Helena was the first truck on the Atlas Fire.  They had been called to join other units battling a blaze that began earlier in the day at the huge auto dismantler's location with acres of cars.  Hundreds of cars were lost.  They were released from that fire about 9:15, and moved along up the valley when from Hwy. 29 they noticed a red glow and spotted the fire ... they immediately headed to Atlas Peak Road via Silverado Trail and were able to save lots of people who were stuck with fire fast approaching ... 10 cars of people coming down the hill from Atlas Peak sealed off from escape by a burning tree that had fallen across the road.  They got the tree out of the way and the people to safety and were called right to the Tubbs Fire back beyond St. Helena.

Unreal.  Nothing spoiled in views really from Yountville up on the west side until past Calistoga from the main highway.  I'm sure it's a mess from Silverado Trail Napa to Yountville, however.  The Atlas burned to the valley floor and took some wineries and vineyards with it.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The incomparable (17th century) light in Washington, DC's National Gallery of Art

                                          Go see this exhibition                    
                                      Vermeer's Lady Writing (1665)
    The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC has established itself as one of the world's great curators of Dutch painting. A new exhibit, Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, has just opened and anyone living in or visiting the capital should take advantage of a rare assemblage of some of the world's great European painters. Most often associated with Johannes Vermeer of Delph, the acknowledged master, are names are less familiar - Gerard ted Borch, Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Frans van Mieris, and Jan Steen - all masters in turn of light and the intimate domestic scenes of seventieth century Dutch life. 
    The ethereal quality of Vermeer's work is apparent when compared to these contemporaries. Also the incredible order of the place and period that makes our own seem doubly chaotic.                                                  

ter Borch's Woman Writing A Letter (1655-1656)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Waiting for Fire 4

(From Napa at Last Light)

    Randy pulls open the doors to the cave. The dim space is punctuated by winking lamps tunneling toward the heart of Howell Mountain, the corridor lined by French oak barrels like opposing sentinels forming a blond, symmetrical honor guard. He makes his way toward the farthest barrel, collecting a hose here, a hose there. Draped with heavy rubber coils, he ascends to the buildings above and attaches nozzles that can be directed toward embers or creeping ground fire during that short interval when a fire is possibly controllable.
    More water will be needed for an inferno, however—more than is readily imaginable. Thirty feet from where that mountain lion once jumped through the window stands a faded red International fire engine built in 1946 by Van Pelt of Oakdale, California. It’s an elegant conglomeration of red domed lights, old cloth hoses folded and stacked like 100-foot pythons, rubber hoses on hand-rolled wheels, spiderweb-covered railings, and various other accoutrements out of a Buster Keaton film. Most important, though, the antique fire engine has an 800-gallon water tank, which Randy now fills, using a big plastic pipe from the well’s concrete collecting tank.
    Randy bought the engine as is from Mike Robbins, the owner of Spring Mountain Vineyard—also known as Falcon Crest on the 1980s television show—when Robbins, despite the success of the soap opera, was in bankruptcy. The fire engine’s transmission was jammed, and Robbins agreed to take just $1,500 for this classic, even on the off chance that Randy could get it running. So Randy borrowed a crowbar, fixed the transmission in a few minutes, and hauled the fire engine up Howell Mountain on the trailer. He parked it in the field south of the house, where it has sat ever since.
When Randy presses the ignition switch, a blast of black smoke erupts before the motor turns over with authority, filling the afternoon with the resonance of old-time, unmuffled vehicles.
    We pull the flat cloth hose onto the grass, up the stairs, and across the office porch, where Antonio Galloni will have to step over it the next morning—if there is still a winery here and cabernet to taste. The hose expands as the engine pumps water through it. For one frightening moment, the nozzle—sculpted brass, a work of art in its own right—blasts a barely manageable torrent as thick as a man’s arm before the motor is shut off.
    Fortunately, the smaller rubber hoses emit streams of water less likely to break windows. Their pump runs off the main engine, and Randy gets it running, too. The rubber coils throb as they come off the roller. Pull the trigger on a fancy nozzle, and a shaft of water shoots half the height of a Doug fir. The fire engine’s water tank is full, the hoses are ready, and Randy shuts everything off.
    It’s late afternoon, and there’s no sound now from the one house visible to the north, no sign of human life in the encircling view. The breeze is undetectable in the trees, but high overhead, curdled clouds move glacially out of the south. Randy walks around the paddock and down to the pond, where a child’s plastic paddleboat sits among the weeds.
    He pushes the two-person boat into the water, then climbs in alone and tests the paddles. The boat lists to one side, so the paddles make it go round in a circle. Randy climbs out and wades in deeper. Here we could stand and possibly survive, although it would be a very long night. We would watch the firs crown out in paroxysms of flame, the Dunns’ house following. We would listen to bottles exploding in the cellar, hot embers raining all around as we felt the pressure of lung-collapsing heat. If we had fire suits and gas masks, though, we could contemplate the smoke through a thin sheet of scuffed plastic. But Randy says ruefully: “I’ve only got one gas mask.”

    At dusk we go into the kitchen, where Randy makes margaritas with a single-field tequila called Ocho, for which he trades Dunn Howell Mountain cabernet. This sort of bartering—cab for a case of tequila, cab for a flat of apricots, cab for a reworked airplane part—is as old as agriculture. Meanwhile, I cook hamburgers doused in Worcestershire sauce, and then we devour them, Randy drinking a bottle of Sierra Nevada pale ale and I a glass of a previous year’s Dunn petite syrah from one of the open bottles next to the sink.
    All outside lights are off now, and darkness settles in like a sentence. The thought of dying from smoke inhalation at two in the morning recurs, but Randy has been through this before; he’s no fool. And if I stay, I can have another glass of petite syrah.
    A friend calls from St. Helena: rumor has it the National Guard is coming to evacuate any stragglers. Randy hangs up. “If we see anybody in the road,” he says, “we’ll just turn off the kitchen light.”
    After dinner, he turns off the light anyway and goes back outside, where he puts on his headlamp. Exhausted, I head for the guest bedroom, where there’s a shower and double glass doors to stop any mountain lion. It occurs to me as I pick my way through the darkness that, in this age of calamity, falling embers are a metaphor for a host of real possibilities. We’re all waiting for fire now.
    The last time I see Randy that night, he’s back up at the well house. If the National Guard comes, they will see a bobbing circle of yellow light and hear the sound of someone wielding a McLeod, working.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Waiting for Fire 3

(From Napa at Last Light

            Brian comes down the ladder and drops the leaf blower and harness. He has scoped out the fire from bits of news he has picked up, but even professionals like him have had trouble getting good information. “It’s probably going to jump to the next canyon,” he says. “If it does, it’ll come straight through Wildlake.” After that, it’s anyone’s guess, but the fire will move quickly through the chaparral. “The real problem’s going to be blowing embers.”
    Everyone congregates in the kitchen to eat Lori’s chicken salad sandwiches and drink cold grape juice made from a mix of Ruby Red grapes and unfermented Dunn cabernet. Brian says, “If it happens, a brush unit will come through to save what they can, and move on.”
    The brush units put out spot burns, essentially pushing the fire around a house. But not if the owner hasn’t made any preparations, or if there’s no water and it looks hopeless. Wildfire triage.
    Son Mike comes in briefly in his Aussie boots, shorts, and a sweat-stained T-shirt over his barrel chest. He’s headed home. He, Kara, and their kids live on the north end of the ridge and are vulnerable, too, though their metal-roofed house is covered in stucco. “I guess I’ll go back,” he says, almost casually, “and get up there, and see what I can see.”
    As he leaves, Brian tells Randy, “If I were you, I’d make a sign and put it up on the road. I’d spray-paint the address and the words Defensible, 10,000 gals. Pond and pool. That’s what I’d do.”

    The Dunn’s machine shop and shed are not readily comprehensible to a visitor. Surely any mechanical problem in small-scale viticulture can be solved here, but first you must know where to look: rebar, metal and plastic pipe, boards, enigmatic tools, machines for fixing other machines, a wall of dusty chainsaws, a forest of wrenches both new and grimy, a wall of fittings great and small for every imaginable coupling, and various other mysteries from the deep industrial past.
    Take the drill press that once lived in the hold of a ship-—its battered, Darth Vader visage towering over a new bit that could drill through a foot of steel. Randy bought that, too, in the ’70s, from thirdhand UC–Davis surplus. It weighed half a ton, and he brought it home on the same flatbed that had moved the D4. Ask why, and he’ll say, “It was too beautiful to pass up.”
    What the shed and shop don’t have, however, are workable spray-paint cans. Randy and I have penciled Brian’s words on a piece of plywood, but the first can he tries is clogged; the second fizzles. The only working one contains orange paint that’s too pale to be seen at a distance, so the letters must be traced again with a succession of parched black Magic Markers. The words go on, but there’s no room for “pond and pool,” so another board is propped up and assaulted with orange paint.
    Randy tosses a hand drill and some sheetrock screws into the back of a golf cart that is now a wheezing farm runabout. We take off, passing the roan gelding on his back in the paddock, rolling in dust.
    White Cottage Road is deserted. We prop the first sign against the mailboxes, and Randy screws the second one high against a runty oak. A sheriff’s cruiser speeds past, and the deputy’s head whips sideways to take in Randy’s handiwork. Tomorrow, Dunn Vineyards is to be visited by the influential wine critic Antonio Galloni, who has come from New York to taste Napa Valley’s best, including a succession of Dunn vintages. Most vintners in such an enviable position wouldn’t want to greet their estimable guest with odd, hand-painted messages in lurid colors, but the signs could give the vineyard a chance.
    Overhanging boughs of live oak, Doug fir, and madrone might deter a passing fire truck in the heat of battle, so we drive back to the shed to get the forklift, one of the white plastic bins used for hauling grapes, and a chainsaw. Soon the offending, powder-dry branches are exploding against the tarmac, where Randy shoves them aside to make way for possible saviors.

    The breeze has shifted into the west. Tiny bits of ash alight on car hoods and the lenses of my sunglasses. The odd, unsettling sense of isolation seems inevitable. But meanwhile, trenching is in order—around the main house, the garage, and the two well houses. The implement used for this, the McLeod, is a heavy hand tool with two working edges: a broad, hoelike blade and a fanged rake. Randy quickly moves earth and needles into rows, creating more firebreaks, while I sweep leaves from low roofs. Soil, systematically exposed in neat circumferential alleys, must be hosed down.
    But most of the hoses are in the big cave next to the winery, a collection of eight stainless-steel fermenters under arching metal girders, open to the sky. A great rolled sailcloth can be stretched overhead if the sun becomes intolerable, but before the harvest, the sail stays furled. The grape press is parked to one side of the crush pad, and that’s it but for heavy oak doors under a concrete archway that lead to the cave, a world unto itself.
    Fifty-odd gallons of Dunn petite syrah, a hobby pressing that comes before the main event each year and is intended for family and friends only, bubbles in a smallish metal tank on the crush pad. A square of cloth has been duct-taped over the top, to keep the wasps out. Randy interrupts his labors and says, as he stands on an empty beer keg, “Let’s make some wine.” Using a special steel implement with a canted blade, he punches down the clot of purple skins floating on top, a practical step in winemaking that is thousands of years in practice and increases a wine’s color and intensity.
    At that moment, a sheriff’s cruiser pulls up, having passed both the paddock and the house without slackening speed. A deputy gets out in a drift of dust, his belt weighted with a capable-looking automatic pistol and handcuffs. Randy gets down to talk to him, providing, when asked, his name and those of the surrounding neighbors, all of which the deputy dutifully enters into a spiral notebook. When they’re done, the deputy says, “White Cottage Road’s being evacuated,” for the second time in 14 hours.
    Randy says, “Okay.”
    “Are you leaving?”
    “That a yes, or a no?”
    There’s a pause. “No,” says Randy, and the deputy and his partner pull away, leaving a skein of new dust. They’re too busy to bother with a recalcitrant property owner, though they’re unlikely to forget him.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Waiting for Fire 2

                                                                       (from Napa at Last Light)

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Waiting for Fire redux !


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

My new book

Napa at Last Light will be out early next year from Simon & Schuster. (Excerpts to follow.)                        


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mysterious money contrails over Napa

                                            The Private I                                                                          
  (Note: This column is researched and written by a citizen of Napa County long involved in local affairs.)

       Is the uneasy romance between Bill Gates and Prince Alwaleed (Walid aka al-Waleed bin Talal) over?  The two joined forces to privatize the Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts in 2006.  Each controls 47.5% of the stock. 

By fall 2016, their Bald Mountain Realty-developed Toronto tower was sold, yet it is the years between 2006 and 2016 that are of most interest in Napa County which witnessed a series of Four Seasons projects that were rejected or simply vaporized.  The Napa Pipe project, the Eco Village, interests around Lake Luciana,  the Aetna Springs Resort redux, and a stall for a resort project known as Silver Rose, another Bald Mountain Realty project in Calistoga, that may not include Four Seasons investment capital these days.  Could it be that failed ventures in Napa County have discouraged these billionaires?

In October 2016, Bald Mountain Realty proposed yet another project for City of St. Helena properties on Adams Street.  However, by July they were out of the running, with a small bevy of insiders hovering around money from Pritzker, Koch and Hall styled as "HRV" winning the endorsement for development of City properties.  Yet even that venture is now on a back-burner as the City takes more time to evaluate needs and community input about the disposition of city properties.

As the "Wall Street Journal" reported on July 17, differences over the aggressive pace of growth motivating the prince and who should be chief executive strained the relationship of this pairing of wealthy families.  With more than half a dozen failures to the Prince's discredit since 2001 in Napa County, Bill Gates didn't see the writing on the wall.  As the WSJ reported, "In buying Four Seasons, Mr. Gates and Prince al-Waleed were at the forefront of an investment trend in which "the super rich, often through structures called family offices, increasingly have been teaming up to acquire whole companies, planning to keep them long term."

The two billionaires appear to have resolved some differences, after Al-Waleed proposed an IPO and Gates disagreed.  Instead, the two have broken off 14 partnerships with owners whose properties weren't up to standard and have refocused on management of the brand which has fallen behind JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, by one account.

Kelly Foster of Bald Mountain Realty (the former Silver Rose Venture for Four Seasons) was reputedly given a building permit by the City of Calistoga in July, after a long-haul of importing soil and developing pads to elevate the luxury homes above nature's powerful floods and earthquake hazards such as liquefaction.  It will be a slow hike up a series of stairs to buildings developed on our soft, alluvial soils that can shake like jello during natural disasters, while who will own the project in the end remains an unknown.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Apotheosis of Bad

From The Washington Post:

The Plum Line Opinion
This is what you get when you elect Republicans

By Paul Waldman
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

     This has been quite a week in Washington, a week full of terror, intrigue, suspense, backstabbing and outright chaos. While we might not have been able to predict the particular contours of the catastrophe that complete GOP rule has been, we should have known it would turn out something like this.
    Guess what, America: This is what you get when you elect Republicans.
    It goes much further than their repugnant and disastrous effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but all the contemporary GOP’s pathologies could be seen there: their outright malice toward ordinary people, their indifference to the suffering of their fellow citizens, their blazing incompetence, their contempt for democratic norms, their shameless hypocrisy, their gleeful ignorance about policy, their utter dishonesty and bad faith, their pure cynicism, and their complete inability to perform anything that resembles governing. It was the perfect Republican spectacle.
     It’s remarkable to consider that there was a time not too long ago when the Grand Old Party was known for being serious, sober, a little boring, but above all, responsible. They were conservative in the traditional sense: wanting to conserve what they thought was good and fearful of rapid change. You might not have agreed with them, but there were limits to the damage they could do. The devolution from that Republican Party to the one we see today took a couple of decades and had many sources, but its fullest expression was reached with the lifting up of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, this contemptible buffoon who may have been literally the single worst prominent American they could have chosen to be their standard-bearer. 
     I mean that seriously. Can you think of a single person who might have run for president who is more ignorant, more impulsive, more vindictive and more generally dangerous than Donald Trump? And yet they rallied around him with near-unanimity, a worried shake of the head to his endless stream of atrocious statements and actions the strongest dissent most of them could muster.
     So now we see the results of putting this party and this president in charge. Let’s take a little tour around the news and see what’s going on, shall we?

Republicans came within a single vote of passing a bill that would crash the individual health insurance market, send premiums skyrocketing and cause 16 million people to lose their health coverage — and that was the least damaging version of their health-care bill. Getting that close required an insane twisting of the legislative process, a bill written in secret with not a single hearing and tossed at the Senate mere hours before a vote. And only three of the 52 Republicans in that body opposed it, all because they were scared of being punished by a base they’ve been lying to for years.
The president of the United States is apparently trying to get his own attorney general to quit by publicly humiliating him in interviews and over Twitter, all because the AG has not been sufficiently cooperative in quashing an investigation into ties between the president’s campaign and a foreign adversary that helped him get elected.
The newly installed White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, is in open war against his ostensible boss, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a war he is conducting with the encouragement of the president, who reportedly enjoys setting his employees against one another. “I’m not Steve Bannon, I’m not trying to suck my own c–k,” Scaramucci told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, adding that “Reince is a f—ing paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac.” Later that day, Scaramucci tweeted, “I made a mistake in trusting in a reporter. It won’t happen again,” because despite holding the most important press relations job in America, he is apparently unclear on the meaning of “off the record” and “on the record.”
The president announced a sweeping military personnel change in a couple of tweets, apparently without the knowledge of the Pentagon, when he declared that transgender servicemembers will be barred from serving in the military in any capacity. Nobody has any idea how this astoundingly malicious and retrograde policy is going to work.
That was only one of three anti-LGBT policies the administration announced on Wednesday; they also intervened in a private lawsuit to argue that the Civil Rights Act does not protect gay people against employment discrimination and nominated fiercely anti-gay governor Sam Brownback to be U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom. Brownback is getting the heck out of Kansas, the state he has practically run into the ground over the past few years after slashing taxes in what was trumpeted as an experiment in pure conservative governing. Because of his disastrous policies, Brownback is the second-most-unpopular governor in America, ahead of only New Jersey’s Chris Christie.
Congress will be following up its health-care failure with an effort to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, which they will present with the same bogus justification they always offer for such tax cuts, that they will cause such an explosion of economic growth that the benefits will trickle down to everyone.

    I could go on and delve into the president’s plan to blow up the Iran nuclear deal, or the climate-denial initiative at the Environmental Protection Agency, or all the fossil-fuel lobbyists now staffing the Interior Department, or any of a hundred abominable policies and programs. But the point is, we’re getting just what we should have expected. Donald Trump isn’t an aberration, he’s the apotheosis of contemporary Republicanism.
    Republicans don’t care about making an honest case for their priorities; Trump lies nearly every time he opens his mouth. They’re unconcerned about the details of policy; he knows less about how government works than your average sixth-grader. They’re indifferent to human suffering; he literally advocates destroying the individual health-care market so he can blame Barack Obama for the lives that wind up ruined. They advocate a mindless anti-government philosophy; he has so much contempt for governing that he puts his son-in-law in charge of everything from solving the opioid crisis to achieving Middle East peace. They whine endlessly about the liberal media; he spends hours every day watching “Fox & Friends” and takes advice from Sean Hannity. Trump is the essence of the GOP, distilled down to its depraved and odious core.

    America was given a reprieve, saved from the Republicans’ cruelest plans by a Democratic Party that stood strong, thousands of activists and ordinary citizens who organized in opposition and the GOP’s own incompetence. But this what you get when you give today’s Republican Party complete control of the government. Have no doubt: There are more horrors to come.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The existential choice today

When I first arrived in Napa Valley in the early eighties it seemed the closest practicable approach to an ideal rural America: a place naturally endowed beyond even California’s capabilities, an overall stunningly beautiful landscape of which farming was an integral part, a population largely devoted to the unlikely dream of international renown, a sense of welcome and mutual assistance, a democratic ambience within which rich and less than rich mixed in meaningful ways, dedication to the belief that agriculture was the best and highest use of the land, and for the most part sound laws and legislators acting in the general interest.
   As the legendary Jim Hickey, the Planning Director of Napa County, always said, “If Napa can’t be saved, no place can.” He meant that it had the beauty, brains, money, and seeming determination to endure as a latter-day Eden in the churn of California’s and America’s on-going political experiment.
   When I left Napa last fall, after thirty-odd years and two books and a third underway about what has happened there and what has been made of the valley’s phenomenal success, the place had lost its Edenic quality and it and wine all vestiges of innocence.
   Today monoculture’s marshaled ranks march from the bay to Mount St. Helena, and the gorgeous hillsides bear new scars of development that barely hints at the amount of destruction higher up, eventually to be revealed. The only thing more important than money is more money and those good laws are being changed or stealthily subverted by corrupt and spineless officials.
   There is no longer a Napa community, just as there is no longer an American one. An anaerobic corporate laminate lies over the whole enterprise of wine and tourism. Sensible regulation is in retreat and nothing short of a figurative revolution can change things. It’s possible, however, and I thank the ultimate power, whatever that may be, for the example presently being set by California.
   Wildlife of all sorts is the bi-catch of development, and there’s no release for it. The loss of habitat is as culpable as purposeful destruction of wildlife for food and other purposes. The ugly endgame of Manifest Destiny has in my lifetime heavily contributed to the halving of  the globe’s population of wild things, and the obliteration forever of a fifth of all species.
   Napa is a very good place to confront this problem, because of its notoriety and the starkness of the contrast. Today construction of vineyards in steep terrain is primarily industrial, not agricultural. From it flow permanently altered landscapes as well as houses and other so-called “improvements,” and a corporate insistence upon profit as the ultimate good.
   Such a credo puts human community and happiness, manageable growth, a reasonable solution of seemingly intractable social and environmental ills, and various species in a subordinate position. It makes a mockery of the notion of equality, human and otherwise.
   Napa needs help not just because of its endangered and increasingly rare hotspots, not just because of the western pond turtle’s presence and that of other species, including the fish environmentalists keep finding in places developers don’t want them found. The existential challenge in the age of global warming is no longer the individual facing dread and meaninglessness, but the need to hang onto existing species for as long as possible. It is a profound moral issue. 
   At the end of the nineteenth century Frederick Jackson Turner wrote that the America character is defined and redefined by contending with the frontier. That frontier has run out. The once-compelling geographical boundary has been replaced by a biological and ideological one, a necessary and potent weapon in the hands of defenders being the law.
   In my new book, Napa At Last Light, due out in February, in a section entitled Voices, is that of a professional lawyer having lunch outside a Mediterranean restaurant in the city of Napa, in the aftermath of the county’s refusal to put the Water, Forests, & Oak Woodlands Protection initiative on the 2016 ballot:
The attorney sits at a sidewalk table outside Tarla Mediterranean Bar & Grill in the city of Napa, tarrying with a plate of mezze and talking about the initiative. If it is eventually revised, the backers will have to get more signatures than before because there will have been many more votes cast in the upcoming 2016 presidential election. “The proponents’ll need a given percentage of those,” he says, “and it will be much higher than the last time around.” Even if they get the necessary signatures - again - time will have been gained for new hillside clearing to be undertaken, the industry having adopted a variation of the environmentalists’ credo: “Delay, delay, delay…”
   The lawyer thoughtfully eats some flatbread weighted with humus. “The system’s broken,” he says at last. “Now they’re hiring outside lawyers to deny the people the right to vote and using the peoples’ money to pay them. The only answer’s to sue the county for refusing to obey the law. That means deposing the supervisors, deposing the lawyers in the county counsel’s office, deposing the district attorney.
   They’re all dependent on the wine industry for a social life and a lot more. We’ll have to get a justice on the state Supreme Court to disqualify every judge in Napa County and bring in a panel from somewhere else that’s capable of ruling fairly.
   ”It all reminds me of the water wars in southern California a century ago. Now we have our own little Chinatown. To get Napa Valley back to something close to what it originally was will take a long, long time, but it’s possible. And at this point the courts are the only way.”

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