Napa Sells its Soul to Developers
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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?"