Wednesday, March 28, 2018

James Conaway, Chronicler of the Dark Side of Lifestyle Vintners, Land Use Battles in Napa and Grassroots Gumption

Author James Conaway came to speak to an audience from the East Bay - and Napa - earlier this month, about his latest book, the third (and final) in the trilogy about Napa and winery development pressures - Napa at Last Light: America's Eden in an Age of Calamity. (You can read an excerpt using that link).

The talk took place in the site formerly occupied by one of Berkeley's book stores that was once a popular hub for activists - Black Oak Books. Today the space is home to Books Inc.

"I come from DC and I bring you tidings from that coast," Conaway said to the 20 or so concerned citizens collected there.

"Trump wanted his name on a bottle, so he bought a winery that was formerly owned by John Kluge, who owned the predecessor to Fox News," he told the audience.

I personally had not heard of John Kluge so I had to look him up when I got home. Sure enough, Kluge ran the chain of Metromedia television stations, which he sold in 1986 to 20th Century Fox tor $4 billion, becoming the richest man in the country that year, according to Forbes. Following their divorce, his former wife, Patricia Kluge became the winery owner, and she sold the place to Trump. Trump's son Eric, the butt of so many Saturday Night Live skits, now manages it. Trump Winery made news recently when it made a request to employ Mexican vineyard workers.

"So Trump's a lifestyle vintner, too," he said. "In Napa, being a lifestyle vintner, people then wash themselves of their past associations with oil or shoddy condos in LA, or derivatives. Wine washes away their pasts. As applied in America, being a vintner is a way to instant glamorization and cleansing the past."

LOOKING BACK

Conaway talked about his previous books - Napa: The Story of an American Eden (1990) and The Far Side of Eden (2002) - and about how much had changed since they were published.

"Those were stories about the first wave of lifestyle vintners who arrived in the 1980s," he says. "They were different than the lifestyle vintners of today. Those lifestyle vintners were more grounded. Back then it was really about wine."

"Those lifestyle vintners lived in houses that they owned - they lived there - and there was a kind of glue in the society."

"Then in the early 90's, different people began to flood in. These newer lifestyle vintners didn't know how to make wine. They bought and hired big gun winemakers and began to make the same style of highly alcoholic, overripe wines that are a big frontal assault on the palate. These big cult Cab wines didn't complement food. But [the wine critic Robert] Parker liked them."

When he first began the trilogy (back in 1990), there were no cell phones. "I had a sack of quarters, and I knew where all the pay phones were," he joked.

"There was one in the Mercado in Yountville, and another one on a wall in Rutherford. In St. Helena, I would go into the little hotel there and when the desk clerk on duty wasn't looking, I would go to the pay phone there where it was quiet and I could talk for an hour."

His previous books chronicled the way Napa's unique Agricultural Preserve came to be - through the efforts of many citizens and campaigns - and the ongoing struggles of conservationists to preserve the environment and the watersheds that sustain the region's beauty and vineyards in further legal battles and legislation.

The tales are told with such an eye for detail and character that readers who are not interested in wine or preservation find them captivating nonetheless. They are simply a very good read for a certain type of reader, and, for others, a long-awaited treat - since there have been only three books in 28 years of the saga.

But for each book, Conaway said he has kept to the same methods, using a lot of novelistic techniques in his nonfiction writing. "The particular book is the story of a lot of little stories," he said.

TODAY'S NAPA: ORCHESTRATED AND OVERPRICED

In Napa at Last Light, Conaway tackles what for many has become the fundamental issue in Napa: changing the definition of a winery, a concept ensconced in the preservation of the valley and a fighting word in a valley that is victim of touristification in the extreme.

For years, the local laws put agriculture at the center, but the wine industry has tried hard to chip away at that restriction, preferring to promote more and more events, food service, and even building wedding centers (like the big new one at Charles Krug in St. Helena where the base price for a wedding is $36,000).

"Really Napa is in the 'hospitality business' now," he said.

Conaway read from one section of the book about a tasting room architect, who calibrates the visitor experience and aims for perfection.

"You need to have curves in the room," to move people along, Conaway said, recounting what he learned from the behind the scenes class on tasting rooms.

"People don't want to be too close to others in their 'tribe,'" he said. "The tasting rooms are aiming for an ersatz intimacy," and featured objects of "feigned spiritual heft," he said, adding that the overall effect was to cultivate big spenders, who were willing to pay $800 for a bottle of wine.

"They're being treated like kings and queens," he said, "who are allowed to go behind the velvet rope" (and onto the wine club's allocation list and private chambers).

GRASSROOTS NAPA FIGHTS BACK

"There is a big change in wine country today," Conaway said. "And it's about people finally paying attention - not the people in the wine industry -  but the people who live there. They don't like what's taking place."

Something has happened to their county board of supervisors, he said.

"Back in the 1980's, the board of supervisors and the planning department staff were more rooted in the community. But  something changed in the interim. And that was that wine became a huge factor in their lives," he continued.

"The flooding of even more money had an impact. The valley floor is planted out. The hills - which are the watersheds that store rain and the water supply - came under development pressure."

Conaway expressed support for the new citizen initiative that seeks to protect streams and oaks - it will be on the ballot this June. "This initiative - which aims to implement small setbacks on streams - was denied on a technicality, in 2017" he said. His book points the finger at what he says is corruption at the very top of the county board of supervisors - Alfredo Pedroza, a 29 year old who he says the wine industry has bought.

According to an interview published in the book, Pedroza was the one who got the referendum disqualified last year - and used public funds to do so.

In the final chapter of the book, in a chapter called Voices, Conaway lets the people of Napa County speak for themselves, used excerpted interviews from locals.

One person, formerly with the former District Attorney's office, raises questions over how the law requiring that Napa Valley wines must contain 85% Napa grapes is enforced - and whether or not it is even enforced at all. (Some people say a lot of Lodi grapes go into a lot of Napa wines.)

Another speaks out about the plans vintner Craig Hall (of Hall Wines) has to develop a large tract of land and cut down 17,000 oak trees, subdividing the tract into smaller parcels that foes of the project say might become lifestyle vintners' homes in the future. Hall, a big real estate developer from Texas, who, with his wife Kathryn, owns two Napa wineries, has already subdivided holdings in Sonoma where he also owns vineyards and land with room for ranchettes and vineyards.

In a way, in Conaway's books each era seems no different than the ones that came before. There are heroes and there are villains. There are characters as powerful as those found in the great novels. There are epic battles - all for the soul of Napa.

I always recommend these books to anyone in the wine industry or anyone who's visiting Napa, because without this view of Napa Valley, you really don't have a clue as to what is going in this paradise. (Or is it even a paradise any more? - a question many people ask themselves sitting in summer weekend traffic on Highway 29.)

On tours, I like to take people to the one remaining parcel on the valley floor in Yountville that's an unpretentious public park owned by Fish and Wildlife - the Napa River Ecological Preserve. Here you can see what the valley once was. (You can find a lot more of this landscape up in the Ukiah/Hopland corridor in Mendocino County where agricultural and nature live in a better state of harmony - i.e. the oceans of vineyards haven't taken over completely).

When you look around at the preserve's wild bushes and stream, listen to the birds, and cross a muddy path, you realize just what this place once was. Many others in Napa still have access to private lands with this kind of biodiversity and beauty. The story Conaway tells about Randy Dunn's efforts - with his fellow community members - to preserve one treasure on Howell Mountain can make you cry. On the other hand, the voices section may make you cheer.

At any rate, you'll witness the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" in these pages. And you'll hear stories you won't find anywhere else about the real Napa.

Postscript: The Big Dogs of Napa who don't like what Conaway has to say have been barking a lot in their Amazon.com reviews. Don't pay attention. Just mark their negative reviews "unhelpful."

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