Monday, December 30, 2019

Modern-day Neanderthals

Backstory on a Billionaire: Mayor Pete’s Favorite Wine-Maker Hasn’t Been a Good Napa Neighbor


Photograph Source: Jim G – CC BY 2.0
When wealthy Californians pay $2,800 to meet a presidential candidate, they expect to be wined and dined.
But, thanks to a recent debate exchange between Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, future fund-raisers among members of the Democratic Party’s donor class will probably not be held in the nearest wine cave.
Warren made this venue a bit radioactive on December 19 when she denounced Buttigieg for partying with several hundred well-heeled supporters at the Hall Rutherford winery in Napa Valley.
The vineyard owners, Craig and Kathryn Hall, have given $2.4 million to Democratic candidates, party campaign committees, and PACs since the 1980s. But, on this occasion, the disclosure that the Halls served $350 bottles of cabernet sauvignon under a chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals drew the populist wrath of Senator Warren.
“Billionaires in wine caves should not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren declared, a sentiment shared by Bernie Sanders, who later needled Buttigieg, during the same debate, about the 40 or more billionaires and their spouses who have contributed to his campaign.
Amid the resulting negative publicity, Mayor Pete’s own billionaire hosts tried to position themselves as ordinary civic minded Democrats, sympathetic to his positions on climate change, gun safety, and immigration.
“I am just a pawn here,” real estate developer Craig Hall complained to the New York Times.  “They are making me out to be something that’s not true.  And they picked the wrong pawn.  It’s just not fair.”
Wine Cave Defenders?
Rallying to the Halls’ defense were several neighbors in swanky St. Helena, CA, all well versed in the ways of wine caves. One denied that partying in them “connoted something snobbish.” Another noted that such storage places provide cheaper, natural temperature control, thus reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
“It’s the green way to keep wine and preserve it for aging.” explained Jonathan Ruppert, general manager of Gary’s Wine & Marketplace, a local purveyor of Hall Rutherford wines.
James Conaway, author of the Times best-seller Napa: The Story of an American Eden and, a more recent sequel, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in the Age of Calamityhas a very different view of nouveau riche “vintners” and their environmental impact.
In Napa at Last Light, Conaway chronicles the Halls’ relocation to Napa from Texas, where Craig made his real estate fortune and once owned the Dallas Cowboys. In Dallas, the Associated Press has reported, “Craig Hall’s role in the 1980s savings and loan crisis” included making “risky investments” during the savings and loan meltdown” that required a $300 million federal bailout. His lobbying of House Speaker Jim Wright triggered a congressional ethics investigation that drove Wright from office in 1989.
Rebounding from that scandal, Hall arrived in Napa where, according to Conaway, “they quickly became benefactors of charities, the arts, and political causes.” Being big Democratic Party donors during the 1990s helped make Kathryn Hall our ambassador to Austria during Bill Clinton’s scandal-scarred second term.
An Environmental “Hall-O-Caust?”
Since 2008, the Halls have been trying to expand their existing wine making operations in both Napa and Sonoma Counties by creating new vineyards on the Walt Ranch, a 2,300 site they purchased for $8 million in the Howell Mountains. Concerned neighbors and local environmentalists have opposed this project because it would require cutting down 14,000 trees, resulting in hill-side erosion and damage to Napa City’s drinking water supply.
As Conaway reports in his most recent book, critics “fear that houses will soon follow, vineyards having become stalking horses for serial McMansions and more ambitious development.”
The Halls are used to getting their way in wine country, even amid protestors brandishing signs warning their customers about “Chainsaw Wine” and an environmental “Hall-O-Caust.” According to Conaway, one of their earlier winery expansion schemes involved tearing down a nearby trailer court, thereby “eliminating a significant portion of St. Helena’s rare affordable housing.”  Meanwhile, Craig and Kathryn live in a lavish home of their own– located above the Napa Valley resort known as Auberge du Soleil–where their house guests have included Bill and Hillary Clinton.
In 2016, the Halls lawyered up again and used their political clout and bottomless bank account to persuade county supervisors to back their plans for the Walt Ranch. But, as the San Jose Press-Democrat reported three months ago, foes of that project won a partial victory in what is now an 11-year legal battle,
A state appeals court ruled that “county officials did not properly show how preservation of an unspecified swath of woodlands on the site would offset the harm to the climate by the tree removals”—and sent the case back to a trial judge. Says Aruna Prabhala, a lawyer for the Center for Biological diversity:“We see this as a victory for the Napa forest.”
In a phone interview this week, Conaway described the Halls’ overall environmental record as “appalling.” He warned that they remain committed to cutting “down thousands of oak trees, among them old oaks that are crucial to holding up the hillsides” on one of the largest remaining undeveloped tracts of oak forest, chaparral, and open meadow in the area.  According to the author, “Napa Valley doesn’t need to lose whatever hillside it has left just to make another $900 cabernet for a billionaire’s vanity project.”
Conaway believes that the Buttigieg event hosted by the Halls illustrates how ultra-rich Californians cultivate friendly Democrats— as candidates for president or county supervisor. “Their wine cave,” he says, “is a wonderful metaphor for the ways in which these people are divorced from the average American.”

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Reassigned BLM workers get a pay cut, too

From The Hill:
A new internal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website designed to answer employees’ questions about the agency’s upcoming relocation out West says staffers should expect a drop in their overall pay.
The information was included in an internal page available to staff seen by The Hill that contained questions and answers about the controversial plan to move most D.C.-based BLM employees and establish a new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo.
In the page, BLM leaders lay out their rationale for the move, touting one of the benefits of relocating as “general cost savings for the bureau because of less expensive office space, in most cases, and decreasing travel costs.”
“An employee reassigned to a relocated position will remain at the grade and pay of his or her current position; however the respective locality pay will vary based on the location of the position,” the website says. 
A question about whether employees can keep the locality pay that contributes to their current salary, the answer is a simple, “No, this is not an option.”
When reached for comment, BLM said in a statement that the agency has "given multiple briefings to committee members, testified before the committee and provided numerous supporting documents to answer all of their questions about the relocation."
"While we hope all affected employees will be able to follow their positions to the new locations, we understand that the decision for most people has many factors," the agency added. "We are committed to making sure that all employees have the information and resources they need to make the best decision and will continue to work with employees to ease the transition."
The BLM has argued the moves will bring those employees closer to the lands they manage. But critics see it as a way to dismantle the agency and upset the balance between conservation of public lands and prioritizing energy interests. 
Lawmakers have spent months pushing the agency to justify its claims that the move will save money — requests that have thus far gone unfilled.
Steve Ellis, who retired from the top career position within the BLM in 2016 after 38 years of federal service, said losing that locality pay is to be expected — it’s simply tied to where the employee lives. But he questioned why the BLM won’t turn over the financial justification for the move that lawmakers have requested.
“They may save a few bucks here or there on rent and salaries. However, they’ve not provided this cost-benefit analysis that takes into account flying people back and forth, that takes into account the lack of presence in the nation's capital of the senior career people that have to work with all the other agencies and NGOs and so forth," he said, referring to nongovernmental organizations.
"How do you put a dollar value on that?” he said. “So at the end of the day what’s broken here that they have to fix to move 3 percent of the workforce out West and move leadership out to the briar patch, so to speak? What are they trying to fix? I’d argue they’re going to create more problems in the long run by not having that presence in the nation's capital.”
A letter to lawmakers when the move was announced in July said the agency planned to save money on staff salaries, but it was not clear whether the BLM anticipated saving money with new hires or if they would change the salaries of current employees.  
There are upfront costs to the move. The Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, plans to use $6.6 million within last year’s budget to cover the costs, but lawmakers in both chambers have thus far blocked funding for the move in the 2020 budget.
Costs of the relocation include a house-hunting trip for each employee, moving costs and one-time incentive payments. 
The website also further spells out the agency’s thinking behind selecting Grand Junction for its new headquarters. The 60,000 person town on Colorado’s western slope is at least four hours from any major city and has only a small regional airport and no direct flights to D.C. 
The site says the agency considered cities where the BLM already has a presence, including “large cities as well as smaller communities.”
The list was further narrowed to Colorado, Utah and Idaho, and potential locations were evaluated based on locality pay, cost of living, relative purchasing power, ease of air travel to the BLM’s most frequent travel destinations and office space lease rates. 
Lawmakers have been particularly hung up on the ease of travel from Grand Junction as well as how the move will actually save money. 
“Why Grand Junction? What is the justification for locating there?” Rep. TJ Cox (D-Calif.) asked the BLM’s acting chief, William Pendley, at a hearing in September. “There’s no major airport there. Denver is 250 miles to the east, Salt Lake is 200 miles to the northwest. There’s no other federal agencies in Grand Junction. How can Grand Junction be more efficient than someplace else out west, be it Denver or Reno?”
The website also gets to another point of concern of critics: that the move will lead to a flight of expert staff as longtime employees will refuse to uproot with their jobs. 
“We hope employees will be able to follow their positions to the new locations but there are many factors that an individual may consider when deciding whether or not to relocate, so, it’s difficult to say at this time exactly how many people will choose to relocate,” it says. 
“For these employees who are directly affected there are opportunities and benefits, but also difficult decisions as some people will not be able to or will not choose to relocate to the western offices.”
In other cases, relocations of federal agencies have gut them of staff. When the Agriculture Department moved the Economic Research Service to Kansas City, Mo., nearly 80 percent of employees left the agency rather than relocate. 
The site says the BLM may allow staffers who choose to move to extend their time in D.C. in order to allow children to finish the school year or if an employee has holiday travel or medical concerns.
The website also has information about many of the places BLM employees have been slated to move, giving tips on where to live.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Real help


Good news from the Philippines
By Morgan Conaway and Natalia Martin

OCTOBER 27, 2019 
   This week we are writing to you all from the island of Bohol. The island is in the Central Visayas region of the Philippines and approximately a two hour ferry ride from Cebu City. For those of you who don’t know, Bohol is home to all of WI Microfinance’s current loan recipients. Over the past few days, we have had the pleasure of revisiting many of the beneficiaries to learn more about their business ventures, ranging from hog raising to hairstyling and beyond. Every beneficiary that we have spoken to has expressed an immense amount of gratitude for all of the support that WI Microfinance has been able to provide since the 2013 earthquake. 
   Although these individuals continue to endure socio-economic hardships, they have not remained victims. We have found that these entrepreneurs take pride in improving their lives, as well as contributing to the sustainable development of their communities.
   Witnessing first-hand the radiant smile of a mother who has been able to fund her child’s education or the relief of a wife who was able to afford the medication needed to nurse her husband back to health has made us interns hopeful for future of the project. It is incredibly inspiring to interact with the loan recipients on a more personal level and build upon the existing WI Microfinance relationships and partnerships. Furthermore, we have realized the importance of visiting our beneficiaries more than once. Upon returning for the second round of interviews, the beneficiaries seemed much more comfortable with our presence and expressed genuine enthusiasm in getting to know us.
    More often than not, the loan officers/collectors of our partner cooperatives are the only people who interact with the beneficiaries on WI Microfinance’s behalf. This, of course, is due to the resource constraints of both WI Microfinance and its partner entities, however, we hope that with increased donor support more funds can be allocated to meaningful interactions to educate and empower. It is important to note that despite the project’s achievements, many of the entrepreneurs still lack the training, capital, mentorship, and market access to bring sustainable change to their communities. At the same time, beneficiaries across various industries have expressed interest in moving beyond a transactional relationship with WI Microfinance to one that includes business education and training. We believe that this kind of relationship building is an integral and mutually-beneficial component of ensuring the long-term success of both this program and the micro-lending movement as a whole.
    As we travel around the island, it is a privilege to represent WI Microfinance and all of its donors. After all, we interns just recently became a part of the project and much of the its current success is rooted in the contributions of those who have supported the organization over the course of the last ten years. We would also like to acknowledge the overwhelming support of VICTO and our cooperative partners Carmen Multipurpose Cooperative and Bohol Community Multipurpose Cooperative. Our partnerships here in the Philippines play a crucial role in helping us develop and maintain a sustainable plan for micro-lending and social entrepreneurship. We hope that our work together this fall will continue to attract and inspire the kind of enthusiasm that has fueled the project from the beginning.

Monday, September 30, 2019

The back has it


One of the prettiest backs in all of art is currently on display in a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, The Touch of Color, featuring works in pastels from the 18th century's Benedetto Luti to Jasper Johns in the late 20th century. The pretty back in question, "painted" by William Merritt Chase in 1888, is entitled Study of Flesh Color and Gold (above) and, like all the works in the show, belongs to the National Gallery.
        The expertise of the masters of pastel, including those of the Venetian, Rosalba Carriera, became so popular that one critic in the 19th century complained of pastels having "inundated" Europe. Artists working in pastels would come to include Monet, Manet, Degas - yes, ballet dancers - Cassatt, Whistler, Luks, and Matisse.  
       During the Renaissance pastels were widely made from pigment with chalk or clay as a binder. The subtlety of flesh tones was often unsurpassed when smudged to blend colors. The medium proved to be as versatile and as stunning as oil or watercolor.
      This unusual show, in the West Wing of the National Gallery, runs from today through January  and is a rare chance to see the variety and quality of a medium almost as old as painting itself.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Clean water trumpts even clean energy

My latest column from American Scholar:

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

My new column in American Scholar

It's about the environment and comes out every month. Please take a look:

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Animals and us, Japanese-style

                  From The Twelve Zodiac Animals

   One of the most stunning exhibits of Japanese art ever at the National Gallery of Art in Washington just opened. The entire lower gallery of the East Wing is dedicated to The Life of Animals in Japanese Art, a gorgeous dip into Japanese culture as a whole that’s unique in presentation: paintings, sculptures, prints, screens, ceramics, kimonos, carvings and even costumes from the fifth century to the present.
   Animals there certainly are, all integrated into the Japanese aesthetic, a kaleidoscope of pleasurable, exquisitely rendered objects and images. These animals often reflect human aspirations and desires, and many of the pieces are beyond the western imagination - and much of the east’s, too.
Twin Monkeys, sixth century, wood
     Some of these works astound with their sheer beauty, complexity, and audacity. Check out, for instance, the erotic The Octopus and the Diver in the catalogue, in which one “pleasures” the other. I’ll let you discover how:
New Year's Eve Foxfires at the
Changing Tree, Utagawa Hiroshigo, 1857,
woodblock print
       As the excellent commentary points out, many of these animals enact human narratives and human desires, a kind of marriage in the shared drama of life. The yearning reflected is both fond and prophetic here at the outset of our common, disastrous Anthropocene.

              Swallow-tail Pleats Issey Miyake Miyake, 1999, polyester
For more read Phillip Kennicott's piece in the Washington Post:

Friday, June 7, 2019

Integrity can be contagious


The following is an excerpt from a reader's hopeful letter:
    There is no way not to notice the lifestyle marketing of wine that has taken over advertising, online and beyond (and which bears not a small resemblance to some form of fraud).  It has reshaped communities left and right and asserted a very smothering to to my eye an odd vision of luxury that drowns out other values such as hard work, knowledge, quality, and more.
    I hope that the better wine makers and enthusiasts are preparing new generations and have thoughtful proteges...  The greatest thing [winemakers] can do is to light a spiritual fire where one can and encourage people to pick up the training they need to become the stewards of the next generations. In our drive to create monuments to ourselves we lose sight of our better contributions. The better stewards aren't always who we expect. They could be from the environmental community or from the distribution community, or even an outcast from the USDA who falls out of favor with the administration.

   Napa ultimately may have more value for wine makers across the country who decide that what works for their communities is some other model, and who are somewhat more isolated from the lure of big money. As you have said, there is a discerning clientele forming across the United States. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

More than the land (and citizens) can bear


      The latest ploy by Napa Valley's developers and advocates for more growth is to pass new regulations for "small" wineries that would in fact be big wineries. The Board of Supervisors knows this full well but is afraid to cross the big producers and the organizations behind these pro-development schemes.
      Here's a letter written by a long-term responsible vintner to the board, which is now considering this latest scam to justify yet more building on the hillsides and more tourism:

Ladies and gentlemen,  
      For those of you who are not familiar with my last 40 years: I started Dunn Vineyards in 1979.The first vintage was 650 cases or 1600 gallons; about 10 tons, coming from about 4 acres.  So things progressed; up to 2000 cases, 5000 gallons, 33 tons, off of about 13 acres.
     You see where I am going--- 30,000 gallons is by no means a small, family, farmer, winery.  This would mean a crush facility for about 200 tons of fruit, coming off of 50-70 acres!!  Do you really think that this is within the economics of a small, family winery. This is about $10 mil in vineyard value, then, how much for the small winery?
I invite each of you to visit my winery.  We produce about 5000 cases, or 12,500 gallons. We are small in the grand picture of the wine world, but an operation about 2.5 times our size is not. Come see for yourselves. 
     Trying to push 30,000 gallon winery permits thru to protect the small guys out there is ridiculous, and I think that you all realize that. Sometimes, a person should look in the mirror.

       I think he means that the supervisors should look in the mirror since they know more wineries added to the hundreds already there is the opposite of conservation. It flies in the face of the intent of the Agricultural Preserve established in the sixties. Young people who want to get into the business cheaply are half a century too late.
        Land can't remain healthy, productive, and appealing if at some point people don't say no to development. That realization is part of growing up. 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Get Real

   John Ruskin, the pre-eminent art critic in Victorian England, wrote that painters should get out of their studios and into their subjects, so to speak, “rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing.” That meant painting every detail of rocks and anything else before the painters' easels, as Ruskin attempted in his famous watercolor, Fragments of the Alps (above).
    He mightily influenced such artists (and poets and other critics) as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais in his native England, where they became known as the Pre-Raphaelites. That meant rejecting the “mannerist” approach of artists who had followed Raphael and Michelangelo, in other words reject academic perfection and get real. 
(Mon Brave by William John Hennessy)

    A whole raft of American painters followed. Now the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, has brought many of them together in a small but exquisite exhibition called Radical Realists. It opened at roughly the same time the gallery launched its sumptuous exhibition of the works of Tintoretto, which sucks a lot of oxygen out of building, but in fact Radical Realists provides the ideal respite from Tintoretto’s exuberant genius.
    American Pre-Rapaelites were also staunch supporters of the Union during the Civil War, and committed Abolitionists. Ironically they, like their British counterparts, often portrayed beautiful (clothed) women in great detail and in a manner sometimes suggesting the Middle Ages, as opposed to the Victorian. Colors are sumptuous and the guises tinged with tragedy, but all fascinate and can demonstrate to all plein air painters today that beauty and inspiration reside in detail as well impression.                                              

(A Study of Trap Rock by John Henry Hill)
    If you’re not in DC your can buy the excellent catalogue, The American Pre-Raphaelites online at: