'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."