Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Napa at Last Light reviewed in Sacramento Bee


Mike Dunne on Wine

What's new, good and vintage from California vineyards

Napa expert grim about the state and direction of the valley: ‘I don’t see any hope’

February 28, 2018 03:55 AM

     Few people have spent more time thinking and writing about the Napa Valley than author James Conaway. Now, on the eve of the publication of this third book about the region, Conaway finds himself under gray skies, pessimistic and alarmed about the valley’s state and direction. 
     “I saw it as a special place when I first went there,” Conaway said in a phone interview from his home in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. “But it has become jaded, and I guess I have, too.
     Conaway has been visiting Napa for more than three decades, first as a wine columnist, more recently as a freelance writer. His principal muse has been the valley’s evolution from quiet agricultural enclave to the nation’s most precious and popular wine region.
     From his visits he has harvested three books: “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” in 1990; “The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley” in 2002; and now “Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity” (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26), to be released March 6.
     With his books, focused more on social history than wine, Conaway has been working to determine whether Napa Valley is on course to retain its agrarian traditions and culture – a preserved and cherished agricultural Yosemite, if you will – or morph into a viticultural Disneyland, vineyards as sideshows, wineries as thrill rides.
     His trilogy ends with no definitive answer, but his outlook is as dark as the title of his latest installment. “I don’t see any hope,” he said. “It’s too late for it to become an agricultural Yosemite. I hope the pressure to clear hillsides abates, but I don’t have much faith in its stopping.”
     The timing for “Napa at Last Light” is astute. Napa Valley’s grape-growing and winemaking community is recognizing the 50th anniversary of its standing as the country’s first agricultural preserve, a series of measures that began to take hold in 1968 to protect nearly 32,000 acres of farmland from development.
     At the same time, several residents and environmentalists, agitated by concerns over traffic congestion, water availability, deforestation, pollution and erosion in the valley, are lobbying for more restrictions on wine-related exploitation. For one, Napa County supervisors are weighing whether to put on the June ballot an initiative to safeguard the oak woodlands on hills above the valley floor from vineyard development.
     When Conaway started his series, Napa Valley in attitude and practice was akin to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, where farmers, by their careful, devoted, hands-on stewardship of the land, represented the backbone of democracy, he said.
     Since then, however, many of the principal players in the founding of Napa Valley’s modern wine trade – several of whom were proponents of measures to maintain the region’s agricultural essence – have died or have sold out to a “conglomerate class” that doesn’t share their sense of community, sensitivity and vision.
     Conaway laments that many of the family wineries pivotal in establishing Napa Valley’s reputation as a fine-wine region – Mondavi, Martini, Beringer, Raymond, Stag’s Leap, among others – are in the hands of corporate CEOs rather than scions. By contrast, he notes, many French wineries have been in the same family for centuries.
     “The ultimate goal of a corporation is profit – not community, not the environment, not agriculture. They are going to go where the profit is,” Conaway said.
     He sees in Napa Valley a parallel with Silicon Valley; but instead of high-tech startups getting established and then selling out to large corporations, it’s vineyards and wineries. Cabernet sauvignon is just the latest hot app. And in their search for profits, those corporate vintners – and some not so corporate – put at least as much emphasis on marketing as on growing grapes and making wine, thus their preoccupation with “hospitality,” a euphemism for “tourism.”Granted, some wineries, even in Napa Valley, have difficulty getting effective distribution for their wines, thus their need to sell on-site. But even wineries with distribution beyond Napa Valley can enhance their profits by eliminating the middleman and selling at home, Conaway notes.
     As a consequence, over the past 30 years, he argues, Napa Valley’s agricultural regulations quietly have been tweaked to broaden the concept of a winery so it can draw more visitors via fashion boutiques, art galleries, conference accommodations, “event centers” for concerts, weddings and the like. Wine-pairing salons, for example, really are de-facto restaurants, compromising space for growing grapes and making wine while exacerbating congestion and pollution. 
     The plow, in short, has been cleaned, polished and turned on its side as a salver to serve adorable canapes in a posh lounge that once was a barn.
     And that’s just the start of Napa Valley’s transformation into something other than an agricultural enclave, Conaway argues, raising the specter of either prime farmland or the valley’s bracketing hills being sculpted into tony real-estate developments. 
    “Can solastalgia – that existential distress caused by environmental loss – be mirrored in a glass of wine?” he muses in “Last Light.”
     Conaway is a public-policy wonk, but he leavens his reporting on procedure and politics with fine-line sketches and revealing anecdotes of several influential members of Napa Valley’s winemaking community, not all of them villainous.
     One is winemaker Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards on Howell Mountain in the valley’s northeastern hills, who, with his wife Lori, was instrumental in persuading the Land Trust of Napa County to successfully pursue “the single-most generous conservation act in the valley’s history” – the creation of Dunn-Wildlake Ranch, a 4,000-acre former hunting spread between St. Helena and Calistoga and “the largest contiguous protected landscape in Napa County.”
     Another is grape grower Andy Beckstoffer, “perhaps the most powerful vineyard owner in the Napa Valley,” Conaway writes. Beckstoffer’s holdings include a chunk of the esteemed To Kalon Vineyard, which dates from 1868. As Conaway tells it, Beckstoffer’s daring and novel way to raise the value of Napa Valley grapes so high that their preservation is assured is to tie the price of bottles of wine made from his fruit to what vintners pay him for the bunches. 
     Beckstoffer’s complex formula, Conaway writes, raises the price for his To Kalon cabernet sauvignon to $25,000 a ton for any vintner who asks $125 for each bottle bearing the vineyard name. By comparison, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon this past harvest fetched an average price of nearly $7,500 per ton.
     Beckstoffer’s plan, Conaway notes, has left him unpopular with vintners whose continuing success relies on his grapes. And whether Beckstoffer’s strategy actually helps to preserve vineyards or encourages more vineyard development on neighboring hills remains to be seen. (Beckstoffer declined to comment because he hadn’t yet read “Napa at Last Light.”)
     While Beckstoffer, the Dunns and other farmers and winemakers are eager to maintain an environmental mix in Napa Valley, the region’s powerful wine-centric groups generally favor continued growth of wine tourism, Conaway writes. 
     At the same time, Napa Valley’s environmental groups, while also numerous and vocal, often are fractured and conflicted in their methods and goals.
     How all these disparate forces ultimately shape Napa Valley, with or without potential complication from disease, climate change or a popping of the grape bubble, is far from settled, and while Conaway’s outlook is grim he clings to a thin thread of hope that the agrarian ideal will persevere.
     “Real visionary people were there at first, and their agricultural and older American values should have prevailed, and they haven’t, but it isn’t too late to ameliorate the situation,” he writes. “It’s a moral issue, to hang on to what we have, in species and in places.” 

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at

Thursday, February 8, 2018

A sustainable Garden of Eden?


In the Literature
Conservation vs. Exploitation
Is Napa Valley a Sustainable Garden of Eden?
Copyright © 2018, Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, D.C. Reprinted by permission from The Environmental Forum®, March/April 2018
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    Napa! What does that name conjure up? Delicious wines? A bucolic “paradise valley” with thousands of green acres stretching from the Napa River to the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and Howell Mountain to the east? Farmland undergoing rapid development? It is all of these, but the reality is more complicated. It is a microcosm of the struggle going on across America between profit-driven development and resource conservation.
     Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity is the recently published third volume of a trilogy on this subject by James Conaway. The first in the series, Napa: the Story of an American Eden (1990), a New York Times best seller, describes this place where climate, soil, and weather conditions are extraordinarily well-suited to the growing of grapes from which excellent wines can be produced. In the late 19th century a few adventurers, including immigrants from Europe who brought with them knowledge on how to grow grapes, matching grapes to climate, and the making of wine, came to the Napa Valley. They produced wine profitably, built large mansions on the hillsides, and then the combination of a grape disease and Prohibition shut them down.
    In the 1960s, people eager to leave city life for a living in a beautiful setting “rediscovered” Napa and revived the wine industry. By 1976 the wineries that sprung up in Napa Valley were producing wine of such excellence that two Napa vintages, a cabernet sauvignon and a chardonnay, won a blind tasting in Paris against some of the very best French wines. As the number of wineries expanded rapidly, other businesses began to arrive, bringing construction equipment and traffic. In 1968 the county wisely declared agriculture to be the “highest and best use” of the land and created in the Napa Valley the first “agricultural preserve” in the country. “Agriculture” included “the raising of crops, trees, and livestock, [and] the production and processing of agricultural products.” A house or farm building required at least 40 acres.

    Napa at Last Light begins with a recap of this history, and then brings the saga up to 2017. (Disclosure: I read and provided comments on an early draft of the book). Conaway has spent over 30 years traveling up and down the approximately 25 mile Napa Valley and the surrounding communities, getting to know the people, their desires, values, and personalities. As a result, reading his books is not just a story of the evolution of a community. It is also getting to know the grape growers, the wine-makers, and their families, many of the original owners, the preservationists, the concerned citizens, the new-comers looking to make big money fast, and the local officials. You encounter the organizations that spring up on all sides, and their interactions. After reading about the fist fight between Robert and Peter Mondavi to decide the ownership of the family business, you may never look at a bottle of Mondavi quite the same.
    There are now over 400 wineries in Napa Valley, and efforts continue to increase production and profits. Some winery owners tried to increase their production by bringing in grapes from outside the valley. This increased short-term profits, but eventually debased the value of the winery name when the public found out that their bottle of “Napa Valley” wine was made from mostly non-Napa grapes, and didn’t taste quite as good. To curtail this practice the county passed an ordinance in 1990 defining “Napa Valley” wine as being produced from at least 75 percent Napa Valley grapes.
    Also in 1990, with strong backing of citizens groups and environmentalists, Napa adopted an amendment to its general plan, known as Measure J, which stated that any change in land use provisions, whether by ordinance or permit, must first be subject to a popular referendum. This was challenged by winery owners and developers, but was upheld by the Cali- fornia Supreme Court in 1994. It has been invoked to challenge exceptions to land use laws with mixed success.
    Conaway’s second book in the trilogy, The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley (2003), describes the extraordinary wealth generated by Napa’s wines, and the arrival of absentee corporate owners and real estate developers whose main interest was making money. This led to planting vineyards on steep slopes, and the associated cutting of enormous numbers of trees, which in turn led to erosion and pollution of the Napa River, which runs from north to south through the valley. The river was home to salmon and steelhead before the deteriorating water quality drove them out. This development also began to take its toll on the appearance of the valley and the hillsides, including new structures, heavy traffic, dust, bulldozers, and other earth-moving equipment.
    Many vineyard owners and winemakers have long felt they should be able to do whatever they want with their property. They began to chafe against the strictures of the “agricultural preserve” and the definition of “agriculture.” Using their wealth and influence they have been able to persuade local officials to overlook violations and to allow planting on more acres than authorized, illegal tree-cutting and construction in the wrong places. The threat which climate change poses to future grape-growing has been ignored. Some owners expanded what once was known as a “tasting” to include food service tantamount to running a restaurant. Promoted as the “full wine experience,” the events are high priced. Receptions and the like are being held, and the sale of T-shirts, bar equipment, and paraphernalia unrelated to wine has sprung up.

    By 2008 the owners were promoting an expansion of the definition of “agriculture” quoted above to include: “and related marketing, sales and other accessory uses.” This would legalize the excesses described above, and more. They argued that the greater business and profits that could be generated from these activities would benefit everyone. There was widespread opposition among the other residents. Many feared further destruction of the natural beauty of the valley, increased traffic and noise, and further pollution of the Napa River, which was already listed by EPA as impaired under the Clean Water Act. However, this change had support among the planning department and the board of supervisors, and was approved as a “minor” clarification with minimal public notice.
    While the owners reaped extraordinary profits, the farm workers and many other residents were barely getting by — some living in trailer parks not visible to most tourists. They resented the arrogance of the owners and developers, who seemed oblivious to the fact that their drive to expand operations and convert wineries into tourist attractions was destroying the qualities of the valley which brought people — including many of the owners — there in the first place.
    To put the land use conflict into human terms, Conaway discusses several examples of profit-motivated outsiders who came to the Napa Valley with the aim of creating opulent wineries with no regard for the impact which development would have on the environment. One grew up in San Matteo, made a fortune during the tech boom, and bought 40 acres on a mountain adjacent to a 3,000-acre wildlife preserve and a state park, where he wanted to plant a vineyard. This would involve clear-cutting many large trees, removing boulders, and re-contouring the land in an area that was ill-suited to development. Outraged citizens organized a strong effort to block it, and that battle continues.
    Another example was a Texas real estate developer and part owner of the Dallas Cowboys who wanted to clear cut 500 acres, including an estimated 30,000 mature oak trees, ostensibly for a vineyard. His massive infra- structure plans strongly suggested an intention to build a large number of “ranchettes.” He had done a similar development in neighboring Sonoma County. Surveys indicated that the land disturbance would cause significant erosion, damaging Napa’s drinking water supply, adversely affecting fish populations, and destabilizing downhill soil. The public, fed up with deforestation and environmental destruction, rallied to oppose this. But the developer began a campaign of misinformation and bullying, and the county supervisors allowed the project to proceed. Lawsuits were immediately filed.
    Conservation-minded citizens then drafted a proposed water and woodland protection initiative, and quickly gathered more than twice the number of signatures needed to get on the ballot for the 2016 election. The board of supervisors initially approved it to go on the ballot. Then they rejected it on the technicality, rarely invoked, that it failed to attach copies of regulations that might be affected. The citizens were left to start the process over again for the 2018 ballot, amid protests of “voter suppression.”
    Near the end of the book Conaway observes: “‘Eden’ is a figurative stretch for what the valley once represented, but all vestiges of that early in- nocence are lost. The remnant fig leaf kept in place by the wine and hospitality industries grows more tattered every year, revealing more schemes to transform a way of life into a market- able experience as or more valuable than the thing itself.”
    Napa at Last Light is a very engaging read and carries some important messages. The struggle going on in the Napa Valley is similar to struggles between developers and conservationists all across the country. At a time when our national leaders are calling for less regulation and making it more difficult to protect our environment, this book could not be more timely.

Ridgway Hall is vice chair of the Chesapeake Legal Alliance. Email: ridgehall@
       To order Napa at Last Light go to: 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Vine Mess

Napa ballot initiative to limit oak removal from hillsides sows discord in wine industry

From Bohemian by 
SECOND TIME AROUND  After being disqualified over a technicality in 2016, the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative is back on the ballot in June. - PAOLO VESCIA
  • Paolo Vescia
  • SECOND TIME AROUND After being disqualified over a technicality in 2016, the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative is back on the ballot in June.
A June ballot initiative that would limit removal of oak trees for new vineyards has exposed rifts within Napa County's wine industry.
The Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative would cap oak removal from hillsides in an effort supporters say is designed to preserve remaining hillside habitat and protect fragile watersheds.
Supporters submitted more than 7,000 signatures to the county elections office last month. Only 3,800 signatures were required to qualify it for the ballot. County election officials certified the signatures earlier this month. Among other things, the measure would cap future oak-forest removal for new vineyards at 795 acres.
This is the legislation's second time around, albeit in a different form. It was on the ballot in June 2016, but the county invalidated it before election day because of a technicality. At that time, the county's wine and agricultural industry organizations presented a united front against the initiative, a measure they claimed was unnecessary given the regulations winegrowers already face.
A number of those groups—the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and the Winegrowers of Napa Valley—all oppose the proposed legislation this time around too. But in the case of the powerful Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) trade group, their opposition constitutes an about-face that is rankling winemakers inside the member-based organization and out.
Last year, initiative organizer Mike Hackett got a cold call from NVV government relations director Rex Stults who said he wanted to discuss possible collaboration. Hackett says he was skeptical about the overture, but says Stults reached out to him because polls revealed the measure would likely pass.
"That really shook them up," he says.
A small group from the NVV, which included former board chair Michael Honig, met over lunch with Hackett and his co-organizer Jim Wilson.
"It was cordial," says Hackett.
The group continued to meet over the next seven months and agreed to compromise on the proposed streamside setbacks and settled on the 795-acre cap. This unlikely meeting between wine industry and environmental activists bore fruit. In September, the NVV board voted unanimously to support the initiative. The Napa County Board of Supervisors praised the bipartisan compromise.
But the good feelings didn't last long.
When the greater membership of the 500-member NVV and Napa's other wine and agriculture industry groups learned of the proposed legislation the two sides hammered out, the pushback was loud and often vitriolic, says Honig.
"I was surprised how angry people got," he says. "When the board saw what the pushback was, they got nervous."
A few weeks later, the NVV board voted to suspend its support for the very legislation it helped write. On Jan. 11, the board voted unanimously to oppose the initiative. In a statement, the organization said its opposition is based on the sentiments of a majority of its members and their belief that the initiative is "legally uncertain" and fear of "unintended consequences for agriculture if it becomes law."
"The NVV believes the initiative is not the proper way to further the goal of protecting Napa County's woodlands and watershed," the statement said.
Napa Valley Vintners communications director Patsy McGaughy would not provide further explanation or say what is the proper way to protect woodland and watershed areas. Stults would not comment. It's not clear whether the NVV will actively campaign against the initiative.
As the compromise heads to the polls, a group of winemakers, some of whom are members of the NVV, are banding together in support of the initiative. Among them is famed vintner and NVV member Warren Winiarski.
In 1976, a bottle of Winiarski's first vintage of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon placed first among French and California red wines at the legendary Judgment of Paris tasting. But in his support for the ballot initiative, Winiarski recalls another key date in the Napa Valley.
"This initiative will support the work I was involved in back in 1968," he says, referring to the creation of the county's historic agricultural preserve, an ordinance widely touted for keeping housing development pressure at bay and allowing the wine industry to thrive. "It's strengthening something that needs strengthening."
The agricultural preserve marks it 50th anniversary this year, an event both sides of the debate are citing to make their case.
Winiarski and his winemaker allies say now Napa Valley needs protection from wineries and vineyards which they say are exploiting their status in the agricultural preserve at the expense of water quality, biodiversity and the carbon capturing potential of trees.
Were the initiative to fail, says Winiarski, "it would have quite a negative impact on the totality of what this valley is about."
Winemaker Randy Dunn, who is not a NVV member, is also joining the effort in support of the initiative.
"We've got to save what we've got left," he says, rejecting the charge that the initiative is anti-agriculture.
"Some people are dumb enough to think if we don't keep planting grapes we'll end up like Santa Clara County. It's not going to make any winemakers go bankrupt."
Hackett says that while the wine industry is divided, he believes support for the measure is strong.
"We have wide community support, and we're going to win this."
In spite of his advisory status on the NVV board, which is now chaired by Opus One Winery CEO David Pearson, Honig says he's going to vote for the initiative. While he says many of his winemaker colleagues have legitimate concerns about it, he doesn't think it will have the devastating impact some critics fear, and there are more pressing issues to be concerned with.
"This [issue] is just a blip," he says.
He says his goal in reaching out to the authors of the initiative was to improve on the 2016 version and make it more palatable to the wine industry since it was headed for the ballot again.
"I believe we achieved that," he says. "I'm not frustrated with the product, but I'm frustrated with all the angst within my industry."
But now it's up to voters.
"That's what democracy is about," says Honig.