Friday, March 30, 2018

A red line crossed by Napa vintners and growers


Napa County "No on C" Campaign Sued Over Ballot Argument Mistruths 

"Opponents deliberately misstated the facts to try and confuse voters into rejecting this important measure."
by Kerana Todorov
March 27, 2018
Formal arguments against a measure to limit the removal of oak trees from the hillsides of the Napa Valley are misleading and should not be printed in the June election pamphlets, according to a complaint filed in Napa County Superior Court.

A supporter of the Measure C on Monday sued Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur, alleging the arguments opponents filed with the county elections office are false and/or misleading, according to the lawsuit. The complaint seeks a court order to prevent Tuteur from printing these arguments in the June 5 election ballot pamphlet, according to the court filing.

Also named in the lawsuit are five opponents who signed the arguments against Measure C filed with Tuteur’s office, including Belia Ramos, Napa County supervisor.

Wine industry groups, including the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa Valley Vintners and the Winegrowers of Napa County oppose the initiative. They cite a legal analysis paid by the county, one that is disputed by the supporters of the initiative, that concluded the proposed measure is “’unlawfully vague and misleading.’’ Opponents have also said repeatedly Measure C, if enacted, will have unintended consequences.

Measure C would limit oak removal after 795 acres of oak woodlands are removed from land in the agricultural watershed district. The measure would create new buffer zones along streams and require that three oak trees be planted for every oak removed. Currently, two oak trees have to replace every lost oak tree.

The plaintiff, Yeoryios C. Apallas, a resident and grower in the Oak Knoll District, disputed statements filed with Tuteur’s office that Measure C, once enacted, “will outlaw future farming in the Ag Watershed;” will open “the door to event centers;” and “will prevent property owners from adding to one’s home.” 

It will not open the door to the opening of event centers, increase traffic on Highway 29 or prevent property owners from adding on to their property if Measure passes, Apallas said in his complaint. 

“I filed this lawsuit because, in my opinion, this ballot argument clearly crossed a line from persuasion into blatantly misleading Napa County voters,” Apallas said in a written statement. “It’s one thing for Napa County residents to have an honest difference of opinion, but I could not sit by while opponents deliberately misstated the facts to try and confuse voters into rejecting this important measure.”

Measure C is not against agriculture or property rights, Apallas said Tuesday. Another 8,000 acres could still be developed on land zoned Agricultural Watershed if Measure C is enacted, according to an analysis by a UC Davis cartographer, he said. 

Apallas also disputed in his lawsuit that all supervisors and mayors in Napa County oppose Measure C.
At least one of these elected officials does not. St. Helena Mayor Alan Galbraith on Tuesday said he does support Measure C to protect the Bell Canyon Reservoir. Bell Canyon is a source of water for St. Helena.

Another mayor, John Dunbar, mayor of the Town of Yountville, said he opposes Measure C. He stressed in an email Tuesday that this was his personal position, not representative of the Town Council as a whole. Chris Canning, mayor of Calistoga, said he opposes Measure C.

Tuteur on Tuesday said his office will do what the court orders. The argument signers, he said in an email, “are the real parties in interest and would defend their argument during the court process.”

“The election official is only responsible for receiving the arguments and has no control over their contents which is why the courts get involved if there is a dispute,” Tuteur said.
A representative for the Napa County Farm Bureau, which has posted a “No on C” sign on its front lawn of its headquarters downtown Napa, said it will consult with an elections attorney.
"While we disagree with the merits of the legal action that has been taken against our ballot argument, we are taking this matter seriously and will be working with an elections attorney to look further into this matter,” Napa County Farm Bureau policy director Ryan Klobas said in a statement Wednesday. “We were made aware of this decision less than 24 hours ago, but are moving quickly to address the issues raised by the petitioner to expeditiously resolve this issue and move forward in our campaign."

A measure similar to Measure C failed to make the November 2016 ballot because of a technicality.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

I have never been drunk on cheap port

'Napa Valley' book is more a light rosé than a hearty burgundy
Rare is a bottle of 1971 Ridge Eisele Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Rarer still is a book beautifully written, yet marred by an utter lack of cohesion.
To experience such a phenomenon, decant Napa at Last Light: America's Eden in an Age of Calamity(Simon & Schuster, 287 pp.)
Author James Conaway is a master of language and his sentences are as well-tended as some of the California vineyards he describes so lovingly. He's an expert on all things Napa Valley; this is the third installment in his trilogy about a tiny swatch of a huge state that the Southerner fell in love with in the 1980s.
This denouement reads, though, like it was assembled by someone drunk on cheap port. It seems to be a scrapbook comprised of all the tidbits that didn't fit into volumes one and two — a notebook dump, journalists call it.
Conaway knows his subject matter incredibly well, but whatever wispy narrative he has assembled meanders everywhere, peppered with much more detail than any non-obsessive can handle. (For example, does the reader need to know that an area in one well-known home was called the Marshmallow Bedroom because of the lumpy mattress?)
But a patient reader will learn much about the Napa Valley, such as:
  • The 1976 Judgment of Paris, the tasting competition that put the American wine-making upstarts on the literal map.
  • The growing corporatization of the California wine industry.
  • The area's susceptibility to drought and wildfires.
  • The controversies — including land-use issues — stemming from the wine tourism industry that draws busloads of travelers who want to tour the vineyards and visit the on-site "entertainment centers." 
  • The fights between vintners and locals not directly affiliated with the booming businesses.
Bold-faced names like Robert Mondavi and Francis Ford Coppola appear, as do plenty of smaller players who effected great change in the once-unruly valley that today boasts an $18 billion wine economy.
As for Conaway's prose, it's worth savoring.
Describing the wildlife in the region is a tasty sentence one wouldn't expect in a book for oenophiles or aspiring ones: "Only the elegant mountain lion gazes knowingly at the light that comes on automatically at night, piercing the darkness she owns." One property is described as being "surrounded by a riot of blooming wild mustard. This and other chest-high nitrogen fixers compose a dense, nutritious jungle overrunning the vineyard and trying to hide the winery's name painted unspectacularly on a rail fence." Wines tinkered with too much are "lobotomized potions."

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

My book's under attack by you-know-who

    What's behind those billboards in Napa saying the prevention of tree cutting on the hillsides will increase traffic (the opposite is true). Who's writing snarky emails to groups like The League of Women Voters for backing Measure C?
    Apparently the tactics of your president have been adopted by the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse (see
   This is a crucial moment in Napa's history and what hangs in the balance is the future of the grand experiment that began back in 1968 with the establishment of the Agricultural Preserve.
    Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Aesthetic Serendipity

                           Cezanne's Boy in a Red Waistcoat, 1888-90

        Recently in Napa, I was asked not what I thought was the best wine in the valley, but what was Washington's best institution for visiting.
        Without hesitation I said the National Gallery of Art. Often thought by visitors to be part of the vast Smithsonian complex of museums, it is instead the mostly independent creation of former millionaire Andrew Mellon that, like the Smithsonian, is open to the public free of charge.
        Thus natives and visitors alike can breeze most any day and immerse themselves in the gallery's vast art collection, along with borrowed works, that has wielded considerable cultural influence for a century.
         Sometimes the never-ending cycle of opening and departing shows achieves what feels like supreme aesthetic serendipity (though probably long envisioned by curators). Take two of the concurrent exhibitions - the first full exhibition of the portraits of Paul Cezanne from the late19th century, and the works of the living photographer, Sally Mann.
        Two artists could scarcely be more different in both medium and outlook, yet both reflect the importance of place in artists’ work, and both seek to reveal the inner life of subjects caught in the light of their time.
Cezanne painted more than 200 portraits, 26 of himself. These examples follow the course of his artistic development from youthful painter to the launching of Modernism. Many are from his time spent in Provence, and though some are clear precursors of Cubism, all reflect the complicated world of the individual in any age.

             Self-Portrait, 1880-81                  
              Madame Cezanne in a Red Armchair, 1877

        The latter paintings have what might be called a solidity of soul, regardless of the sitter’s place in society, for Cezanne made some sit for more than 100 hours “like an apple.” These included his devoted wife. 

                    The Ditch, 1987, gelatin silver print 
Some of Mann’s photographs are haunting portraits of rural Virginia manipulated during printing to evoke an overall sense of apartness and decline. The portraits of her own children manage to be both beguiling and vaguely disturbing, present-day sentinels from a tragic past susceptible to all the conflicting cultural impulses of today.
     The same soulfulness reigns in free and seemingly happy kids before the internet bloom and the scourge of video games, yet some are perhaps too privy to the allure of the lens.

                            Deep South, Untitled (Stick) 1998

 Last Light, 1990

        Seeing both shows in one visit requires sitting quietly in one of the National Gallery’s covered courtyards between viewings. The overall effect is reaffirmation of human complexity and the necessity of the artistic vision in a free, sometimes chaotic world.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Podcast for Napa at Last Light

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

My piece in The Altantic, their headline

Rich People Are Ruining Wine
… and Napa Valley is forever changing as a result.


    Seven years ago, Donald Trump bought a vineyard and winery in Albemarle County, Virginia, a few miles south of Monticello. The property had belonged to the ex-wife of John Kluge, the late founder of Metromedia (which later transformed into Fox News) and once the richest man in America. Kluge’s 1,300-acre property went to his former wife, Patricia, in a divorce settlement, and it was she who had the vineyard planted and a small winery built.
    According to Trump’s son, Eric, his father doesn’t drink and bought the property because “wine’s sexy.” In so doing, Trump joined the ranks of a relatively new class in America, the “lifestyle vintner,” a type of hobbyist investor who makes money in another field and then buys into wine, mostly for the social and financial cachet. Trump is but the most famous of them; the owners of thousands of smaller enterprises across the country—wine’s now made in every state in the union—qualify as well.
    Vintner is a word that implies a knowledge of vines, husbandry, and winemaking, and a significant amount of physical labor. Not so the lifestyle vintner. It is a somewhat deprecating honorarium for mostly wealthy individuals with none of the above. Their surnames hover artfully on bottles of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, all deeply punted and impressively expensive.
    These bottles are social entrées of a sort, often representing a quick, handy makeover. Former labels—oil man, developer, sports mogul, tech entrepreneur, financier—are jettisoned for a new title redolent of European nobility. Those defined by their accumulation of money turn their backs on that past, benefiting from a kind of lay transubstantiation in which wine washes any previous grubby associations away.
    Lifestyle vintners’ websites sag with paeans to nature, viticulture, and terroir (as well as, of course, themselves). But few truly embody the back-to-the-land credo of the ‘60s and ‘70s that made world-famous places like Napa Valley, now first choice for American lifestyle vintnerhood. I have been writing about Napa since the mid-‘80s and have watched this increasingly glamorized culture change the nature of the valley for the worse. The wines have become—with notable exceptions—standardized, and the gap between real agriculture and the glamorized version has grown.
    This has proved to be a very lucrative distinction. Napa wine accounts for only 4 percent of California’s total, but in conjunction with tourism and related industries generates about $13 billion a year, according to trade-group estimates. Though it’s impossible to say precisely how much revenue is earned by lifestyle vintners, it is considerable—and made possible in large part by capable immigrant labor.
    Thanks to the rise of the lifestyle vintner, the market is now glutted with new wines in a numbingly similar style. Critics generally favor them, most costing well over $100 a bottle, and as a result many of the richest American palates have developed a taste for alcoholic, overripe cabernet. Napa still has its small, inspired producers, but also mega-companies—Constellation, Treasury Wine Estates, Kendall-Jackson, Gallo—that churn out bottles for nationwide distribution.
    Lifestyle vintners have also left their mark on Napa’s landscape. Most refer to themselves with straight faces as “farmers,” even as “environmentalists,” while more trees are cut on surrounding mountainsides for yet more vineyards. They loudly praise the valley’s exemplary past and glorious future while exploiting its present. For instance, a prominent computer-boom beneficiary named Mike Davis has spent more millions on his sprawling new winery than will likely ever be recovered through wine sales. Since the Napa Valley floor is all planted, only the hillsides are available for new vineyards. And Davis is bent on scraping out a vineyard high on Howell Mountain that would adversely affect a precious wildlife preserve, one of the state’s most biologically rich remnants. (Davis did not respond to an interview request.)
    There’s been a clamor over similar plots of land as a changing climate has prompted vintners to get the most out of Napa before possibly having to move on to the Pacific Northwest or the Rockies. Many lifestyle vintners are developers who resent objections to their plans by members of the community. Such names are common on labels. One—Craig Hall of HALL Wines—has been in a decade-long struggle with a local community that’s trying to prevent his cutting of some 14,000 oaks on more than 2,300 acres in a remote part of the county. A Dallas developer and former co-owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Hall, like Trump, has bounced back from bankruptcy and moves among high-risk investments.
    Hall’s new project in Napa would deforest a 2,300-acre untrammeled swath that has never been ravaged by forest fires and supports many very old trees. This destruction wouldn’t be for something useful like growing food, but rather for yet more derivative wine beyond the financial reach of most people.     Locals fear that mansions will follow, as they so often do in California. (Hall declined to be interviewed for this story, and a representative of his referred me to the county’s public records about the new project.)
    After several disputes like this, social discord has grown steadily in the valley. Thousands of Napans signed a petition to put an initiative on the 2016 ballot to increase regulation of timber cutting in the hills. But a phalanx of trade groups—the Napa Valley Vintners (the host of an exclusive annual wine auction), the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and the Winegrowers of Napa County (a coalition of corporations and wealthy individuals)—opposed it. The industry’s sway was clear when the county disqualified the initiative on a technicality.
    A similar initiative is back on the ballot this year, but as lifestyle vintners leave their mark on the landscape, the influence of a different type of vintner is receding. Salvestrin Vineyards lies at the end of a dirt driveway just up Highway 29 from its antithesis, HALL. Its white-frame farmhouse was built in 1879, adjacent to a vineyard that was planted in 1859. The owner today, Rich Salvestrin, is blue-eyed, burly, and burnished by the California sun. His grandfather came to the area from Northern Italy, via Ellis Island. “He helped neighbors with their vines, and bartered his labor for the use of a horse,” Salvestrin said. “My father took over, and in 1950 bought a tractor. I’ve been tied to this land for as long as I can remember.”
    Salvestrin worked in the vineyard growing up and is a useful case study in the opportunities and difficulties of small winemakers in Napa Valley. Salvestrin Vineyards is 18 acres—less than it used to be, as he sold some acreage to the local school—adding value to the crop by turning it into wine that is sold at a much higher price. But there construction stopped. The operation supports his family, including three daughters, and his parents who still live in the house. As for current tensions between development and agriculture, Salvestrin says, “We’re at the tipping point. This place should be about the wine.” More and more people are thinking just that.


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Wine Economist on Napa at Last Light

Book Review: James Conaway on the Napa Valley Wine Wars

napaJames Conaway, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (Simon & Schuster, March 2018).
Hegel wrote that the Owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk, suggesting that wisdom (the owl) finally awakes when the day is nearly done and the opportunity to benefit from insight has almost passed. It is a sad thought — I hope that Hegel is wrong — but it captures pretty well the gist of this new book by James Conaway, who has been writing about the Napa Valley for many years.
Conaway’s new book presents a series of vignettes and profiles that collective capture the ongoing wine war in the Napa Valley. Conaway is not a neutral observer in this battle, so this is a tale of white hats and black hats.
The White Hats include Andy Beckstoffer, Volker Eislele, and Randy Dunn, leaders in movements to preserve Napa’s farming and environmental heritage. The Black Hats include Mike Davis, Jean Charles Boisset, and especially Kathryn and Craig Hall, who have told their side of the wine wars story in their book A Perfect Score.
Reading Conaway’s book about what’s wrong with the Napa Valley made me sad because it reminds me about something that is wrong with society today. The Napa Valley of Conaway’s book is full of people with their backs to the wall, angry, suspicious, and unwilling to bend or compromise. Reminds me of any number of issues in society today (guns and immigration, for example).
There doesn’t seem be much room for meaningful dialogue. Sometimes it seems like there isn’t even a common language, much less common values or goals. Gridlock prevails: movement is slowed or stifled, but threats remain.
Only at the very end of the book — dusk, I suppose, or last light — does Conaway give a sense that there might be some coming together, working together. Hope it is not too late. But recent news is not encouraging.
Pressures continue to grow. Last week, for example, the Napa Country Board of Supervisors voted to put an initiative on the June ballot that would shut off development in certain areas. Pro and con forces seem to be prepared for a serious fight over the future. Meanwhile an interview with James Conaway suggests that he’s given up hope. Too little, too late.
I learned a lot about the Napa Valley,  wine wars, and the White Hat and Black Hat combatants from this book, but I admit to being disappointed. Conaway takes a strong stand with his White Hat friends and his anger and outrage come through clearly. But I wonder what the conflict looks like from the perspective those who are in the middle, trying to balance interests and reconcile development and environment before the last light is gone?  That’s a book that I would like to read.
Not that there aren’t glimpses here of what a working consensus might look like. I was especially intrigued by the sixteenth chapter, which gives an account of how John Williams of Frogs Leap Winery led a successful movement to restore a stretch of the Napa River. Water, Conaway suggests, is at the root of all conflict in Napa. Rivers both divide and unite. The Williams story shows that it is at least sometimes possible to find common ground.
Building that common ground where shared values are developed and real progress can be made is important both for Napa and for society in general. Having started with Hegel’s owl, I conclude with William Butler Yeats’ falcon, from “The Second Coming.”
   Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …

Friday, March 2, 2018

Wine writer weighs in on Napa at Last Light

Napa Sells its Soul to Developers
© Visit California | Napa projects an idyllic image, but there's something rotten underneath, claims a new book.
It's not about the wine anymore, it's the real estate, according to author James Conaway.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Friday, 02-Mar-2018
If you're a fan of Napa Valley wines, James Conaway's new book "Napa at Last Light" might make you unhappy.
The book, Conaway's third about the valley, is a portrait of a community with inept and possibly corrupt politicians undermining agricultural protections without public hearings at the behest of corporate interests. He complains that all the major vintners' and grapegrowers' organizations are complicit in over-development, and posits that new vineyards have become more about real-estate flipping than creating good wines.
"Vineyards have become stalking horses for houses, and for ways for lifestyle vintner wannabes to get a toehold," Conaway told me by phone from his home in Washington, DC. "The valley is over-planted for the water table. The hillsides and mountainsides are part of the historic provenance of this place. It is time to say, no more carving out of vineyards in the watershed, for environmental reasons and aesthetic reasons."
This is not your usual wine book, but Conaway says that he is not a wine writer. I posed the thought to Conaway in a phone interview: that the book might make fans of Napa wine unhappy.
"Well, shouldn't it?" he bristled. "People should be kept in ignorance so they'll be happy? Is that the point of journalism? I'm a fan of Napa Valley. And some of the vintners. But what has happened there is that a wonderful self-made unique community has been taken over by corporate interests. It shouldn't make you happy. What happened there is not happy. Some of the conflicts there are fascinating. Good books don't always make you happy. If you're a fan of Napa Valley wines, why not ask questions about the provenance of the wine? Not what its alcohol is, or what the interests of the owners are. You should ask who owns it. How did he or she make their money? What side are they on? What part did they take in the past struggles? This isn't a wine book, Blake."
Conaway, a Memphis native, still has his accent after living in Europe for several years. He's the author of 13 books, including two previous non-fiction books on Napa Valley and one work of fiction set in the valley. He started his career as a police reporter in New Orleans and all of his Napa books focus much more on the workings of government than the machinations of winemakers.
If his answer to my question sounded angry, you should read the book. He's seething from the very beginning, against some of the usual targets – Robert Parker and the overripe wines Parker favors – and against some that get scant attention elsewhere.
But he also, literally, lends a hand to the preservation of the valley. In one of the most dramatic sections of the book, Conaway helps Randy Dunn prepare for wildfires on Howell Mountain, staying with him to clear rain gutters and chainsaw dead branches for long after the sheriff's department told them to evacuate.
"Randy's a friend. I've known him for a long time," Conaway said. "I called him up and he said, it doesn't look too good. I asked him how many people he had up there to help him get ready. He didn't have any. I said, I'll come up and give you some help. It was exhausting. It was really interesting. What you realize when you're on the ground is that nobody knows what's going on when you're close to a fire. Randy flies his own plane so he has pretty sophisticated weather prediction stuff. But you still couldn't really tell what was going to happen. I didn't worry about it that much during the day. But when it starts to get dark, you start to wonder, should I get out of here or not? We didn't. Everybody was gone. We made a big fat hamburger and drank a little wine. We went to bed not really knowing what was going to happen."
His main attention, though, goes to the gutting of the landmark agricultural preserve law that Napa Countycreated in the 1960s. In Conaway's tale, the law was undermined without a public hearing by redefining wine marketing as "agriculture." This was accomplished, Conaway writes, because corporate interests have backed the candidates they favor for the Board of Supervisors, notably Alfredo Pedrozo, who was just 29 when he took over as board Chairman.
"There's so much money sloshing around, Conaway says. "Everybody wants to get in: sports figures, entrepreneurs from Asia. Everybody who's selling real estate thinks it's wonderful. Now they're talking about people getting more planning rights on plantable land in the valley to build visitation centers. They've already got nearly 500 actual wineries. Then you've got another structure, you've got parking lots, you've got sewage, you've got all the problems. The government has changed the definition of agriculture to make that legal."
"Tourism is the real harvest in Napa today," Conaway says. "Not grapes. Eventing. You measure how well you're doing by your eventing harvest."
But there is still an important fight upcoming over oak trees and the county's watershed. The end of the book follows environmentalists as they succeed in getting enough votes to put a measure limiting tree cutting on this year's June ballot. It may be the "last light" of the title.
"Wouldn't it be nice if somehow or other, the vintners who were concerned spoke out and affected some change," Conaway said. "People started putting limits. They change the definition of agriculture back to what it used to be. These might be considered draconian steps, but wouldn't it be great if that happened?"