Posted: October 4, 2011
Books discussed in this essay:
Napa Wine: A History from Mission Days to Present, by Charles L. Sullivan
Napa: The Story of an American Eden, by James Conaway
The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley, by James Conaway
The House of Mondavi: The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, by Julia Flynn Siler
A Tale of Two Valleys: Wine, Wealth and the Battle for the Good Life in Napa and Sonoma, by Alan Deutschman
No paean to California ever runs more than a few sentences before celebrating the state's vaunted "diversity"—of people, industry, culture, climate, flora and fauna, and above all geography. Ambitious categorizers attempt to divide the place into regions and sub-regions, distinct states-within-the-state whose boundaries they explain by delineating the multifaceted character of Queen Califia's magical island.
But at the elemental level, there are only two Californias, and they are not Northern and Southern but west and east. The first—the glorified, envied, and legendary California, the Golden State and home of the California Dream—is defined by the coast and by El Camino Real, the old road (today U.S. 101) linking the Spanish Mission chain, the historic heart of what became the 31st state. Within, say, a dozen or two miles of that highway lie nearly every landmark that defines California in the public imagination, two of the world's greatest natural harbors, North America's most perfect and moderate climate, two of this country's most visible and profitable industries, and some of the most spectacular housing stock to be found anywhere in the world. This is the California whose residents have endless tolerance for governmental dysfunction and rapacity, where two bedroom Craftsman bungalows seemingly will stand any price, and whose allure is utterly impervious to countervailing facts, logic, or circumstance.
Then there is the other California, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, the foothills and the mountains, the deserts High and Low, the plateaus, and the basins, and the Delta. This is, for lack of a better term, Red State California: farmland, ranches, oilfields, tract houses, eight-lane surface streets, mega-churches and mega-malls, McMansions and foreclosures, motorcycle gangs and meth, Ford F150s, fishing poles, facial hair, and plaid shirts and cowboy hats worn with no trace of hipster irony. The terrain, the weather, the clothes, the food, the faces, the prices—the very air...everything is different.
There are exceptions. Palm Springs, with its Berkeleyfied downtown full of hippies and head shops and its expensive suburbs from La Quinta to Rancho Mirage, is a little island of Haute California in the Low Desert. Salinas, barely five miles from the sparkling Monterey Bay, could have been scooped up from the eastern San Joaquin Valley and dropped by accident.
But by and large, in California, east is east and west is west and rarely the twain do meet. It wasn't always like this. There used to be vast neighborhoods—even whole cities—that in today's terms we would describe as culturally and politically Red, which is to say, middle-class, middle-income, middlebrow, nestled in the midst of what are now deep blue idylls. Those places—for instance, the Valleys San Fernando and Santa Clara (redubbed Silicon)—long ago either disgorged their native-born residents to cities and states farther inland and replaced them with immigrants (the fate of Van Nuys, for instance) or else, if blessed with enough charm, proximity, or some other irreducible virtue, became so expensive that only California's lavishly paid professional overclass can possibly afford them (e.g., Palo Alto).
California, Only More So
In a small and dwindling number of places, the two Californias manage to coexist and sometimes collide. Nowhere is this truer than in the Napa Valley. International playground and agricultural backwater, home of two of America's nine Michelin three-star restaurants (the only two in the state) and taco trucks lining the Silverado Trail to feed countless Mexican day-laborers, where farmers' F150s follow tech billionaires' Lamborghinis and environmental litigators' Priuses in the slow crawl up Highway 29 through St. Helena—the Valley is too beautiful to be called Dickensian. But the contrasts, heightened by their cheek-by-jowl proximity, sometimes seem just as strong.
If California is America only more so (and it is), then the Napa Valley is California only more so. The state's Great Seal depicts the goddess Athena presiding over a beautiful and bounteous landscape of peaks and valleys, bays and inlets, tall ships, an enormous grizzly, and (of course) gold. Her presence was originally intended as a metaphor for the legal process in which California became a state in barely more than a year and without having to endure the purgatory of becoming a territory—just as Athena sprang fully grown from the mind of Zeus.
But it also evokes, as its designer could not have foreseen, the mayfly quality of the place. Virtually empty when discovered by Europeans—at most, 300,000 hunter-gatherers roamed hills and valleys that today hold nearly 40 million—California remained untouched for another 200 years, when the Spanish finally tried to build something but found the place so remote and inaccessible that only a handful of pious friars committed to converting souls could be bothered to put down (very shallow) roots. Another century passed before the Americans came, and another half century after that before they started to arrive in force. And then—zero to civilizational 60 in 3.3 seconds. Not content to cruise at a safe speed, California keeps accelerating to the point that 120 and crash! perpetually seem right around the next corner.
Napa was even emptier, stayed empty longer and then filled up faster. For the first several decades of its life as an American state, the California that mattered—the only California—constituted the gold fields of the Mother Load, the docks and counting houses (and whorehouses) of San Francisco, and the supply depot and paddle-wheeler river port of Sacramento, chosen as the state capital because it was the mid-point between the other two. Santa Barbara and Monterey were the state's other great metropolises. Los Angeles was a pueblo. Napa was nothing.
The first straggling settlers to the Valley farmed prunes and walnuts—staples of Napa's crop until well after Prohibition. A handful of adventurers and immigrants (Germans mostly, at first) planted vines. The wine they made ranged from very bad to indifferent to (in rare cases) almost good. But quality didn't matter much in those days. Only European immigrants and the San Francisco and Monterey nouveau riche—the Palace Hotel and the Del Monte were big customers—drank the stuff, and they had to be satisfied with whatever they could get. The few American-born American oenophiles were all in the East and they imported their wines from Europe. The idea of drinking California plonk never occurred to them, though they unwittingly consumed some anyway, relabeled as French by dishonest merchants. The biggest out-of-state market for Napa wine in those days was ooh-la-la New Orleans, where quantity mattered far more than quality.
Phylloxera—a miserable little aphid that sucks the life out of grapevines—traveled from the Old World to the New on imported rootstock and turned its attention to Napa after destroying the storied vineyards of Bordeaux. It put many of the first and most successful Napa vintners out of business. The building boomlet of the Gilded Age that produced some of Napa's most famous landmarks—from the Rhine House of Beringer to the caves at Schramsberg to the monumental Greystone—was over, not to be resumed for nearly another century.
Prohibition did the rest. The half dozen or so wineries that survived did so making sacramental wine, which the law allowed. Growers got by selling grapes in bulk to Italians and other Mediterranean immigrants: it was legal to make your own wine for home consumption.
Wine Country Tales
The early history of the wine country—which is to say, from the founding of the Sonoma Mission (the last and northernmost in the chain) in 1823 to about World War II—is ably told in Charles L. Sullivan's Napa Wine: A History. The book is a public service and reads like one: detailed, tedious, repetitive, the prose has an obligatory quality, like something you know is good for you but can't help finding bland and unpalatable. Still, no one else has gone or will go to the trouble of putting together all this forgotten lore. Names that deserve to be remembered but aren't are all here, along with photos, maps, labels, advertisements, tonnage tables, and reports for every vintage going back to 1872. Everywhere else the past is a foreign country but in California the past is a distant planet—not so much forgotten as never seen, wholly unknown and unimagined, so remote and alien it may as well not exist. It all happened just yesterday. Yet despite this immediacy, and the tale's inherently fascinating and, dare I say, uplifting character, the history of the state is not taught in schools—beyond, that is, the ethnic cheerleading ("first Latino LGBT to serve on the Coastal Commission!") that was once obligatory merely by social custom but is now required by law. Long-time locals such as Sullivan are modern-day Schliemanns keeping the flame alive for those who care, who become ever fewer as wave after wave of indifferent newcomers impose yet another layer on the wreckage.
James Conaway is the rare outsider who cares. By his own account, he has spent two long stints in Napa solely to understand and write about the place and to a great extent his time was well spent. His Napa: the Story of an American Eden is a beautifully written and almost elegiac account of the Valley's founding families, the Niebaums and the Daniels, the Beringer brothers and the Schrams, the de Latours and the Krugs, the Mondavis and Martinis, and also the second wave that launched the modern American wine boom, the Davies and Heitzs and Winiarskis and Phelps and Barretts. The stories are rich and well told—that is, until Conaway carries the narrative into the more recent past, at which point his biases take over and, worse, he can't refrain from giving detailed descriptions of every planning meeting he attended so that the book starts to read like the official minutes.
The story of John Daniel and Inglenook is especially tragic. The inheritor of Napa's finest estate, Daniel abandoned his place in San Francisco society and spent down much of his fortune on a loss-making enterprise. Quality mattered above all, and at a time when he couldn't sell his wine for much and hardly anyone sought it out. Plagued with an impossible family life and a wife anyone would have forgiven him for locking in the cellar (or drowning in a fermenting tank), Daniel nonetheless managed to produce impossibly spectacular wines for 31 straight vintages before selling out in 1964. Tired, depressed, without a winery and therefore without purpose, he took his own life in 1970. The year before, the only other surviving Napa family of comparable stature, the de Latours, had sold the only other Napa winery of comparable stature, Beaulieu Vineyard, to the same Connecticut booze distributor, which proceeded to run both into the ground.
The tragedy was obscured by the rise of a new crop of wineries and winemakers, what Conaway calls "the exciting wave." People who got rich or at least well off through other careers started buying long-abandoned wineries—"white elephants," Conaway aptly writes—and pouring their savings into them in the hope that somebody, somewhere would drink their wines. The places sold for a song but making them productive again was expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain. Although it's easy in hindsight to see this trend as the harbinger of a certain kind of lifestyle amour propre that today defines the tonier parts of California—extravagant consumption masked as "back to the land" simplicity (think Ted Turner buying his first hundred thousand acres)-in fact the pioneers of the exciting wave were risk-takers and hard workers. Americans did not drink wine in the mid-1960s and what little they drank was not domestic. The prospect of losing everything on those white elephants was ever-present. And at least in those days, a law or business career abandoned was not so easy to rekindle. These people were not dot-commers who, if they lost 10 or 20 million, could simply write (and shrug) it off. Helped along by three extraordinary vintages (1968, 1970, and 1974) they made a go of their improbable dreams, managed to make their white elephants pay, and in less than a generation became Napa's second establishment.
The House of Mondavi
Ironically, the founder, leader, and patron saint of the exciting wave was not an outsider at all but one of those whom Conaway derisively terms the "lucky spermers." In 1966, Robert Mondavi—scion of one of the North Coast's legion of Italian winemaking families—opened the first major winery in Napa Valley since Prohibition. No single ethnic group ever dominated the Napa Valley but the Italians came the closest, in part because nobody else cared about wine, or cared as much.
Most Italian immigrants to America were from Italy's south and they mostly stayed in our east. The great exception was the Northern Italians who populated California's fishing ports and agricultural valleys. Cesare Mondavi, from the Marches, came to Napa via Minnesota and then Lodi and in 1943 bought the whitest of Napa's white elephants, the Charles Krug Winery, California's oldest—a dilapidated wreck that hadn't produced a drop of decent wine since before Prohibition. He put his sons, Robert and Peter, to work revitalizing the operation, which they did, before turning on each other with a fury worthy of the Book of Genesis. If this material had been available to Steinbeck, East of Eden would have been a better book.
Conaway sketches the outline but the story is told more fully in Julia Flynn Siler's House of Mondavi. Siler writes like the business journalist she is but the tale's inherent dramatic power is engrossing enough to carry the reader along—up to a point. Beyond that point, she suffers from the same affliction as Conaway. Source material naturally becomes richer the later the events she covers but the end of the story is a lot less interesting than the beginning or the middle. Unfortunately, the book's pages are heavily weighted toward the former, for no apparent reason other than that she had a lot more to go on.
The bigger problem is that Siler misses the real significance of the Mondavi story to the Valley itself, while Conaway only hints at it between sputters of vituperation at what the Valley has become. Robert Mondavi receives (and deserves) credit for transforming the way Americans think about wine and the way foreigners think about American wine. This much he set out to do. He also did more than anyone to transform the Napa Valley from a rural idyll into a country estate destination for the NetJets set. Or to be more precise, he helped overlay the latter onto the former.
It was Mondavi who not only made wine fashionable but created the whole wine lifestyle which he personally embodied. His winery was one of the first in the Valley designed to accommodate tourists and to encourage them to come, with dinners on the lawn, concerts, cooking demonstrations, wine appreciation courses and the like. More than wine, Mondavi was selling "the gracious way of life," as he himself phrased it on every bottle of wine he sold—until the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms forced him to scrub his beloved "mission statement" from his labels because it seemed "misleading."
Robert Mondavi certainly practiced what he preached. He was one of the first to build one of the mega-mansions, which he named Wappo Hill, that today define "up valley" Napa—12,000 square feet, an indoor pool, and only one bedroom—a short drive from his winery, which he presided over nearly every day. He traveled the world enjoying the best of everything, at home and abroad, but of course he could afford to, at least once his winery was on its feet. Those he lived amidst mostly could not but they didn't begrudge him his plutocratic ways because they understood that the rising Mondavi tide was lifting every boat in the Valley.
The Third Wave
It was different when the third wave started to come. They had more money than the Mondavis—a lot more—no connection to the terroir, no idea how to make or even properly judge wine, only the vaulting ambition to elevate themselves to the social level of Bordeaux's Rothschilds, or as close as they could get with New World trappings. Lucky for them, the elements were on their side. In a biopic of California, the near-perfect weather would be the central character. And it is nowhere more perfect than in the Napa Valley. Napa's climate does not suffer the vagaries of Bordeaux or the vicissitudes of Burgundy. One reads of frosts and rains causing Napa winemakers to pace their vineyards filled with dread but the worst danger is mostly reduced yields, and thus less juice and lower profits, not, as in the Old World, disastrous drops in quality. There are almost no bad Napa vintages and few merely acceptable ones. Francis Bacon described the modern project as the conquest of nature for the relief of man's estate. In the California wine country, nature not only does not put up much of a fight, she does almost all the work. A California wine shop salesman once said to me of the legendary 1985 vintage in Napa, "It was the kind of year that, if you picked a bunch of grapes randomly and crushed them in your bathtub, you would have made a great wine." The vintages are not all like that today, not quite, but close enough. And wineries can count on at least two or three per decade. TechnÄ“-learned with scientific precis