Dunne on Wine

Napa expert grim about the state and direction of the valley: ‘I don’t see any hope’

James Conaway, author of “Napa at Last Light.”
James Conaway, author of “Napa at Last Light.” Shainah Conaway

Few people have spent more time thinking and writing about the Napa Valley than author James Conaway. Now, on the eve of the publication of this third book about the region, Conaway finds himself under gray skies, pessimistic and alarmed about the valley’s state and direction.

“I saw it as a special place when I first went there,” Conaway said in a phone interview from his home in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. “But it has become jaded, and I guess I have, too.”

Conaway has been visiting Napa for more than three decades, first as a wine columnist, more recently as a freelance writer. His principal muse has been the valley’s evolution from quiet agricultural enclave to the nation’s most precious and popular wine region.

From his visits he has harvested three books: “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” in 1990; “The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley” in 2002; and now “Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity” (Simon & Schuster, 336 pages, $26), to be released March 6.

Cover, Napa at Last Light
James Conaway’s “Napa at Last Light” Courtesy of author

With his books, focused more on social history than wine, Conaway has been working to determine whether Napa Valley is on course to retain its agrarian traditions and culture – a preserved and cherished agricultural Yosemite, if you will – or morph into a viticultural Disneyland, vineyards as sideshows, wineries as thrill rides.

His trilogy ends with no definitive answer, but his outlook is as dark as the title of his latest installment. “I don’t see any hope,” he said. “It’s too late for it to become an agricultural Yosemite. I hope the pressure to clear hillsides abates, but I don’t have much faith in its stopping.”

The timing for “Napa at Last Light” is astute. Napa Valley’s grape-growing and winemaking community is recognizing the 50th anniversary of its standing as the country’s first agricultural preserve, a series of measures that began to take hold in 1968 to protect nearly 32,000 acres of farmland from development.

At the same time, several residents and environmentalists, agitated by concerns over traffic congestion, water availability, deforestation, pollution and erosion in the valley, are lobbying for more restrictions on wine-related exploitation. For one, Napa County supervisors are weighing whether to put on the June ballot an initiative to safeguard the oak woodlands on hills above the valley floor from vineyard development.

When Conaway started his series, Napa Valley in attitude and practice was akin to Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal, where farmers, by their careful, devoted, hands-on stewardship of the land, represented the backbone of democracy, he said.

Since then, however, many of the principal players in the founding of Napa Valley’s modern wine trade – several of whom were proponents of measures to maintain the region’s agricultural essence – have died or have sold out to a “conglomerate class” that doesn’t share their sense of community, sensitivity and vision.

Conaway laments that many of the family wineries pivotal in establishing Napa Valley’s reputation as a fine-wine region – Mondavi, Martini, Beringer, Raymond, Stag’s Leap, among others – are in the hands of corporate CEOs rather than scions. By contrast, he notes, many French wineries have been in the same family for centuries.

“The ultimate goal of a corporation is profit – not community, not the environment, not agriculture. They are going to go where the profit is,” Conaway said.

He sees in Napa Valley a parallel with Silicon Valley; but instead of high-tech startups getting established and then selling out to large corporations, it’s vineyards and wineries. Cabernet sauvignon is just the latest hot app.

And in their search for profits, those corporate vintners – and some not so corporate – put at least as much emphasis on marketing as on growing grapes and making wine, thus their preoccupation with “hospitality,” a euphemism for “tourism.”

Granted, some wineries, even in Napa Valley, have difficulty getting effective distribution for their wines, thus their need to sell on-site. But even wineries with distribution beyond Napa Valley can enhance their profits by eliminating the middleman and selling at home, Conaway notes.

As a consequence, over the past 30 years, he argues, Napa Valley’s agricultural regulations quietly have been tweaked to broaden the concept of a winery so it can draw more visitors via fashion boutiques, art galleries, conference accommodations, “event centers” for concerts, weddings and the like. Wine-pairing salons, for example, really are de-facto restaurants, compromising space for growing grapes and making wine while exacerbating congestion and pollution.

The plow, in short, has been cleaned, polished and turned on its side as a salver to serve adorable canapes in a posh lounge that once was a barn.

And that’s just the start of Napa Valley’s transformation into something other than an agricultural enclave, Conaway argues, raising the specter of either prime farmland or the valley’s bracketing hills being sculpted into tony real-estate developments.

“Can solastalgia – that existential distress caused by environmental loss – be mirrored in a glass of wine?” he muses in “Last Light.”

Conaway is a public-policy wonk, but he leavens his reporting on procedure and politics with fine-line sketches and revealing anecdotes of several influential members of Napa Valley’s winemaking community, not all of them villainous.

One is winemaker Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards on Howell Mountain in the valley’s northeastern hills, who, with his wife Lori, was instrumental in persuading the Land Trust of Napa County to successfully pursue “the single-most generous conservation act in the valley’s history” – the creation of Dunn-Wildlake Ranch, a 4,000-acre former hunting spread between St. Helena and Calistoga and “the largest contiguous protected landscape in Napa County.”

Another is grape grower Andy Beckstoffer, “perhaps the most powerful vineyard owner in the Napa Valley,” Conaway writes. Beckstoffer’s holdings include a chunk of the esteemed To Kalon Vineyard, which dates from 1868. As Conaway tells it, Beckstoffer’s daring and novel way to raise the value of Napa Valley grapes so high that their preservation is assured is to tie the price of bottles of wine made from his fruit to what vintners pay him for the bunches.

Beckstoffer’s complex formula, Conaway writes, raises the price for his To Kalon cabernet sauvignon to $25,000 a ton for any vintner who asks $125 for each bottle bearing the vineyard name. By comparison, Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon this past harvest fetched an average price of nearly $7,500 per ton.

Beckstoffer’s plan, Conaway notes, has left him unpopular with vintners whose continuing success relies on his grapes. And whether Beckstoffer’s strategy actually helps to preserve vineyards or encourages more vineyard development on neighboring hills remains to be seen. (Beckstoffer declined to comment because he hadn’t yet read “Napa at Last Light.”)

While Beckstoffer, the Dunns and other farmers and winemakers are eager to maintain an environmental mix in Napa Valley, the region’s powerful wine-centric groups generally favor continued growth of wine tourism, Conaway writes.

At the same time, Napa Valley’s environmental groups, while also numerous and vocal, often are fractured and conflicted in their methods and goals.

How all these disparate forces ultimately shape Napa Valley, with or without potential complication from disease, climate change or a popping of the grape bubble, is far from settled, and while Conaway’s outlook is grim he clings to a thin thread of hope that the agrarian ideal will persevere.

“Real visionary people were there at first, and their agricultural and older American values should have prevailed, and they haven’t, but it isn’t too late to ameliorate the situation,” he writes. “It’s a moral issue, to hang on to what we have, in species and in places.”

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