Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Last advice for a beautiful, struggling valley


    Once upon a time a feature writer for the Washington Post was asked to take over the newspaper’s wine column, more or less in his spare time. He agreed, using one day a week to actually find out something about the beverage and to write about its world. Soon styrofoam cartons started showing up on his doorstep. He could soon have amassed enough to build a styrofoam version of a hay bale house, but he also gained an incidental awareness of a place called Napa and found that considerably more interesting than wine itself.
This led to his writing a book about what had happened in Napa, a unique American triumph of agriculture, artisanship and conservation over maximum exploitation. The book was built on close reporting about the lives of those who wrought the extraordinary feat that became “Napa Valley” and that of their descendants.
In other words, he took the subject seriously in a way wine writing doesn’t, including the human dramas and foibles. And many of those written about never forgave him. He was supposed to have labored, he realized, to praise them and their wine. Vintners wanted to be taken seriously in print and on on-line, often while behaving otherwise.
Those styrofoam packages are no longer landing on the wine writer’s front stoop. He long ago realized that the so-called “wine press,” however critical it might be of individual wines, is still an inherent part of the vast publicity machine driving wine sales and tourism. He gets no more invitations to faux “journalism” conferences at resorts, but he still lives in hope that wine journalism will someday throw off the styrofoam yoke and look a more deeply at the roots of all wine writers’ enjoyed largess.
Meanwhile, three decades later, the face of the wine industry no longer bears any resemblance to a collective portrait of recent greats - Andre Tchelistchef, Warren Winiarski, even Robert Mondavi - but rather to a figurative representative, an  overweight real estate developer with dyed yellow hair who’s a lifestyle vintner in Virginia who also happens to be the president of the United States.
Many of the descendants of those who fought to create the agricultural preserve in 1964 have lost their idealism while pursuing wealth at the expense of place. What many of these “leaders” now take seriously is the milking of a cash cow until it expires. Climate change, which should have galvanized them, has instead inspired recklessness. Their concern is no longer the natural integrity of the valley, but maintaining the corporate attitude at all costs, which is getting yours before others get theirs, even when that means tanking the resource.  
Much of the cadre that does take Napa seriously is sitting in this room, a remnant of Jeffersonian idealism working to limit developers and opportunists in the “hospitality” professions which unfortunately today includes wine. If it wasn’t for people like you room these issues wouldn’t be forcefully raised at all. But you need help if the bits of real Napa are going to be held onto, and I believe some of that help has to come from outside the county because the financial and social comfort of existing institutions here is so tightly bound up in the status quo ante.
Money and only money is the real interest of those in control today, and money is in this instance destructive. The philosopher, Edmund Burke, who referred to it as “gain,” recognized gain’s destructive power when it becomes the only value. Burke is the darling of so-called conservatives, but he acknowledged way back in 1756, in A Vindication of Natural Society, that, “The great error of our nature is not to know where to stop” and in the process “to lose all we have gained in an insatiable pursuit for more.”
That pretty much sums up the tragedy of the commons now being played out in Napa. Napa has had more, in Burke’s sense, for a long time, but unless current practices are curtailed it won’t have it much longer. Wine alone, without the physical integrity of this beautiful place, will not sustain the valley in a time of climate change. Everyone knows by now that natural explanations for global warming are baseless and that human release of greenhouse gases account for almost all of it since Edmund Burke’s time. They also know that the primary contributors are the burning of fossil fuels and the cutting down of trees.
The ramifications of all this are vast, but some real mitigation is still possible on the local level. Here are some obvious things that occur to me, admittedly just an on-looker but a concerned one with some knowledge of the place:
Keep a close eye on the privatization of public water sources by corporations and wealthy individuals. They typically want this most precious resource so they can eventually sell it back to you. 
Systematically measure carbon and other emissions from existing wineries to establish a baseline that can be used in future disputes. Citizens are going to have to do this on their own, and it can be be done inexpensively, or so I’m told, by using drones, private planes and satellites.
    Campaign for political contribution limits in  county races that equalize a playing field now heavily weighted toward corporate and developmental dominance.
Sue the county to reverse the change in the definition of agriculture effected a decade ago to include marketing and by implication food service and entertainment. The change should have been subject to the popular vote and wasn’t, a stealth move by outside corporations in Napa that recently  announced, “We’re no longer in the agriculture business. We’re in the branding business.”
Along the same line, start a fund exclusively for suing the county for failing to enforce all existing laws concerning development and wine production. These get insufficient attention and action from those paid to do just that, some of them elected.
And organize a boycott of wineries and corporations that work to elect candidates inclined to do their bidding. Today the internet is a powerful tool with which to find and inform possible allies all over the United States and affect sales in ways boycotts of the past could not. Publicize the names of the wineries and brands that ignore the law and conduct campaigns of disinformation.
My final suggestion may be the most important, and it concerns access to information that should be public. “Democracy dies in darkness” is Jeff Bezos choice slogan for the masthead of the Washington Post, but the phrase comes from a judge in pre-Watergate days discussing wire-tapping. Your darkness here in Napa isn’t absolute, as far as published accounts of malfeasance are concerned; it’s more like persistent twilight. Since the newspapers are all owned by a corporation located not in the Bay Area but in Iowa and it indirectly a dictates what Napans know and don’t know about their issues. It reminds me of the ancient Romans sending the Britons encyclicals, after cutting down their sacred groves.
I have friends who work or have worked for the Register and they are fine journalists. But writers and editors are powerless against bosses who are closely in line with the valley’s prevalent corporate attitude. Finding sustained, meaningful discussion of issues of real importance to Napans lies mostly in the Letters to the Editor section, and there’s rarely real follow-up.
During the lead-up up to the vote on the oaks and stream set-backs initiative, the Register ran a purported list of names of opponents of the initiative without determining whether or not all those names were against it. (They weren’t.) The paper gave credence to other specious claims by the opposition that falsely determined the outcome of the vote, and finally ran an editorial admitting that everything the initiative proposed would be beneficial to the county.
But the paper withheld its endorsement because - you got it - this wasn’t “the right time” for such laws. Instead, the paper recommended more study. You will always know the enemy when he or she suggests forming a committee in lieu of actually doing something. It’s the surest route, if slightly longer, back to where you already are.
The Register’s circulation has fallen in the last couple of decades from 20,000 to about 8,000. But there’s a hunger out there for in-depth reporting on what’s happening, including investigations crying out to be done. There was a brief period when the St. Helena Star was in the hands of private investors, and it could have been a crusader for the valley’s way of life and possibly its savior but they sold out to the newspaper chain in fly-over America.
However, there’s another way in this, the new golden age of journalism under duress. The break-through is on-line, where virtual newspapers dedicated to social and environmental causes rising across America are buoyed by this hunger and America’s precious Constitutional freedom of speech. Work is required, but willing workers there are, as you have proven.
Such an “e-paper,” for want of a better word, would have to be general interest minus the boosterism and car chases, and unbiased as well as unsparing. I’ve done some asking around and getting started is easier and less expensive than you might think. So is the casting of light on activities and individuals who have operated with near impunity. Such publications are riding a wave of outrage breaking across the nation in communities deprived for too long of news and discussion by co-option of information by corporate mentality and outright falsehood.
I have it on good authority that such an on-line paper can be well-launched for as little as $50,000, though twice that is preferable. It’s a long reach for many places, but not for Napa. Needed are a few determined people, a paid local reporter or two, a freelance editor, and contributors willing to report, write, and photograph for the sheer value - and joy - of it. They could quickly make an appreciable difference, and produce revenue through advertising and the selling of shares to interested people, as has been done recently in Sonoma and the East Bay. Berkeleyside, one of the best such publications, recently raised a million dollars, and a similar success could blossom here.
Napa’s e-paper would have to be independent, generally focused, and unbiased. I believe it would make a crucial difference in a difficult and dangerous time, not just for the natural and cultural resources, but also for all citizens. It would have to be totally independent of Napa Vision 2050, of course, but the objectives would be the same: an informed public, elected officials held accountable, and a healthy environment which is the truest general interest.