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 !