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 precision at the oenology school at the University of California, Davis, 35 miles east, and judiciously applied by high-priced consultants—takes care of the others.
The people who pay those consultants understand that the real legacy of Robert Mondavi was to make wine, the wine industry, and above all the wine country glamorous in a way that farming—for that is what winemaking really is—had never been, in a way that all those plaid-shirted, cowboy-hatted vineyard hands in their F150s could neither grasp nor partake in nor effectively oppose. Chuck Wagner, a Napa native and former prune grower turned vintner whose Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the first to crack the $100 per bottle barrier, seemed like a dinosaur compared to the new blood, who view $100 as the floor price for a second label and charge multiples of that for their flagship "cult Cabs."
Conaway hates these people so much he returned to Napa for the sole purpose of writing a book to trash them. The Far Side of Eden is marred by all of the flaws of Napa and graced by none of its virtues. The prior book was at its best when Conaway was writing about the dead. Once he gets near living subjects who grant him access, he turns to tedious, fly-on-the-wall accounts of everything he saw and heard in their company.
But by far the book's greatest flaw is a failure of comprehension. Conaway objects to development, the flood of new money into the valley, the aesthetic taste of those who bring it, rising prices that force old families out, the production of wines that old-timers can't afford, and the loss of community that results. He finds a villain in the wine critic Robert Parker, not an original complaint in Napa, and repeats the widespread charge that Parker's taste has changed the character of wine made in the Valley: more fruit, more oak, more alcohol, less finesse. Certainly, Parker and the centimillionaires who make cult cabs enjoy a symbiotic relationship. They need him to put their wines on the map. He benefits as they further complicate the labyrinth of ultra-exclusive offerings that consumers have no hope of navigating without his help. There is an upside—at least for those of us who care about old school Napa wine—to the Parker phenomenon which Conaway and Parker's other opponents miss. By focusing attention on the big ripe cult cabs, Parker deflects interest from the old-timers, whose prices have risen much more slowly.
The lodestar of both Conaway books is the 1968 ordinance that declared Napa County an "agricultural preserve" and limited the development of farmland into housing, retail, and other commercial uses. Conaway is for slow growth and more agriculture. Yet he is merciless toward the newcomers whose primary interest in coming to the Valley—whose abiding passion—is to plant vines. Aren't they doing what he thinks should be done in Napa? Mostly he just hates their gaudy houses, which is fair enough; many are quite vulgar. Conaway blames these people for rising prices. There is of course something in that. But he fails to see that his own favored slow-growth policies also drive up prices. Limiting the expansion of the housing stock must necessarily make the existing supply more expensive. It's not easy to see a solution to this problem that would satisfy Conaway, beyond residency permits à la Red China, through which the government gets to decide who can buy in and who can't.
Conaway also does not seem to understand that if the uses of land are limited to agriculture, then the more expensive that land becomes, and the more productive it must be to be viable. In the Napa Valley, what that means in practice is that vineyards must produce wine that can be sold at very high prices. Otherwise no one will farm that land and the temptation to sell to a developer who will pave it over and build a strip mall becomes overwhelming—assuming the buyer can get regulatory approval.
Nor does this exhaust Conaway's policy myopia. He pauses often to praise the Mexican farm workers who pick the bulk of Napa's grapes, just as their primos pick the bulk of the crops in the Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Salinas Valleys. Flooding the land with perpetual waves of foreigners is bound to put upward pressure on land and home prices (just as it puts downward pressure on wages, as it is intended to do). The law of supply and demand has not been repealed. As once-American working class neighborhoods tip Spanish, Anglophones have fewer places to go where they can be understood and feel at home and those redoubts become more and more dear. Yet immigration policy comes up not even once—which in a way is fitting in a book about California, the state most affected by demographic change but whose people think about and understand it the least.
The result, Conaway sees but does not comprehend. Like all of California, Napa has devolved into politics at its most elemental, the politics of Aristotle's Politics, poor against rich, the oligarchs versus the demos. There is no meaningful middle any more. Competing interests clash over finite resources—in this case land—with no sense of common purpose or the common good, only envy and resentment on one side and contempt, hauteur, and indifference on the other. The ongoing Venezuelanization of California is the true undercurrent of all the planning meetings Conaway records line by line but whose significance he misses. Only California's sclerotic, ineffective government prevents catastrophe—and only by preventing much of anything at all.
The Old World at Sunset
Alan Deutschman understands this better than Conaway but also wastes a lot of time in a very short book trying, and failing, to instill a sense of high drama into various local ballot initiative campaigns. The heart of A Tale of Two Valleys is a comparison of the fates (so far) of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. The latter has retained more of its rural, hardscrabble character, Deutschman believes, because of the tenacity of its hippie-granola activists. The same explanation accounts, in part, for why Santa Cruz—despite finer weather and a less remote location—never became Monterey. Yet even this example provides a cautionary note. The little beach town of Santa Cruz, with its inexpugnable shagginess and retrograde economy, nonetheless ties with San Francisco for the most unaffordable housing market in the nation. In coastal California, you may drive out the veneer of affluence with a pitchfork but its underlying reality will always scurry back.
"The old world in its sunset was fair to see." Those are Churchill's words to describe what it felt like to be young and aristocratic in Europe in July 1914. They could just as easily apply to being middle class in California as late as 1990. To say nothing of the rest of the state, ramshackle cottages in Yountville and St. Helena barely exceeded $100,000 and people who worked somewhere within the Valley actually lived in them. The hilltops of the Mayacamas were not yet dotted with $30 million grape-stained villas. Few wineries yet charged for tastings—continuing a tradition that the "exciting wave" vintners long considered sacrosanct. A good bottle of wine cost $10 and a great one $40.
Today much of the Valley does not look strikingly different than it did in 1990, thanks in part to land-use restrictions that (for instance) require a minimum lot size of 160 acres for new parcels outside the five historic towns, at once solving the sprawl problem but exacerbating the cost problem. Yet its character is wholly different. No one actually works any longer in the once working class precincts of the Valley floor. The little bungalows are now weekend retreats for tech people from the city and from that other valley. If you can trick your eyes into replacing green grass and leaves with limestone, Yountville looks like Upper Madison Avenue, only more chic—and that's before you get all the way up Washington Street to The French Laundry. Pebble Beach was always this way and built to be this way but Napa wasn't, and neither was most of the western half of the state. When did it happen? What was the turning point? The first vintage of Screaming Eagle in 1992? There was no date. It happened imperceptibly because it was happening all along.
The real tragedy, like all the greatest tragedies, is the extent to which this was inevitable. Whether Napa was cause or effect of the rise of America's foodie culture, it was destined to become its capital and thus bound to be affected exactly as it has been. More fundamentally, as Conaway's titles indicate, Napa really is an American Eden—and so, in many respects, is California. A place cannot simultaneously be beautiful, bountiful, temperate, underpopulated, and cheap forever. People were going to come. What Americans, Californians, and Napans could have done was try to preserve that Eden for themselves and for their posterity for as long as possible through sensible policy. But we didn't and it's too late now.
No matter. The sun will set into the Pacific tonight and tomorrow morning the marine layer will be sucked through the Golden Gate and up into the wetlands at the south end of the Valley, cooling the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as they slowly ripen on their Carneros vines. The linens will be changed at Meadowood. Tastings will be poured at Mondavi, at the revitalized BV, and at the restored Inglenook, reassembled over the course of 35 years by Francis Ford Coppola, a welcome penance for Godfather III. Harlan, Screagle, Colgin, and Bryant will offer private tours for their best customers—there are no public tastings, not even by appointment, at the culties. Commis chefs at the French Laundry will begin delicately chopping vegetables for their $270 nine-course lunches.
Modern Napa at dawn—like so much of haute California—is still fair to see. If you can afford it.