Author stirs up vintner's nest with Napa Valley book
By Jerry Shriver
NAPA VALLEY, Calif. Every limo-borne visitor to this viticultural paradise 40 miles north of San Francisco knows the drill by now: Pop the cork of a local trophy wine at an elite eatery. Swirl, sniff, sip, wax poetic. Then try not to spit when the bill comes.
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Workers harvest pinot gris grapes for Yount Mill Vineyards in the Napa Valley. The growing dispute between wineries and environmentalists is the subject of James Conaway's controversial latest book.
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"Inherent in that taste are all the conflicts that are driving modern society," says Conaway, 61, a Washington, D.C.-based writer who is revisiting the valley at the height of this month's grape harvest, promoting his contentious new book about the local wine culture and its effects on the physical and social landscapes.
He maneuvers his car across the traffic that clogs St. Helena's boutique-pocked Highway 29 and heads for the back streets to the barn-like Napa Valley Olive Oil store. It's a remnant from the days when this was a sleepy community of prune, cattle and grape farms, instead of a tony tourism destination drawing nearly 5 million visitors a year.
"You get a feeling of authenticity here," says Conaway, who used to write about wine for the Washington Post and has just been named editor of Preservation magazine. "You can't say that about a lot of the old wineries now. You're not sure what's real and what isn't."
The reality for Conaway today is that his relationship with this still-enchanting area and its world-famous wine industry is entering a new phase, to put it politely.
"The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley" (Houghton Mifflin, $28) has just arrived in area stores, and few people have read it. But already it is provoking howls and hosannas from the people he depicts, some of who have been passing around printer's proofs of the book for weeks.
In the days leading up to the author's latest visit, some in the wine world are calling this mild-mannered Memphis native a duplicitous muckraker, a biased reporter, a tree-hugger and, perhaps most spitefully, a beer drinker.
Says Jack Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars: "Conaway has portrayed us (vintners) as a bunch of money-grubbing, secretive good old boys poking around in the darkness. It's just not right."
Powerful wine critic Robert Parker, whom Conaway chides for being too cozy with those he critiques, likens him to "a communist or a socialist, who doesn't like displays of wealth" and who "misses the big story, which is the revolution in wine quality."
Even the Napa Valley Vintners Association has issued a statement saying, "Parts of the book may be true, parts may be false and parts seem highly embellished. To the extent that Conaway brings more attention to our world-class wines, we're pleased."
The tourists who flock here to soak up the wine and the beauty of the steep, rugged hills that frame this narrow valley may easily miss the conflicts upon which Conaway dwells. Sure, there's more traffic, more restaurants serving $28-plus entrees and more wines for the elite only, but that's all part of the glamour.
The deeper issues Conaway writes of are behind the scenes land use, politics, bureaucracy, the environment and they involve powerful, passionate people.
Curiously, none of the aggrieved makes their presence known at a book signing/public forum that Conaway and a local radio talk-show host stage before a gathering of about 75 at an elementary school in St. Helena. Perhaps it's part of what Conaway says is a "public relations debacle" spurred by the wine community to create confusion about the event.
Conaway had hoped to conduct the forum at Copia, the new American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, but was turned down "because our plate was full and the event was not related to any specific programming here," says spokeswoman Kathleen Iudice.
The event was then supposed to be held at a theater in St. Helena, but that invitation soon was withdrawn as well, says Conaway.
Addressing the crowd, Conaway says with exasperation: "There is something disingenuous about an industry that spends millions on PR to get the media to come look at them, and then when someone like me does come to look at them, they go ballistic."
Conaway has gotten a taste of this before. His sweeping 1990 best seller "Napa: The Story of an American Eden" also stomped on establishment toes. It chronicled the valley's transformation into the ultra-manicured capital of the American wine industry.
Because of its gossipy nature, "some of the people who talked to me for the first book wouldn't talk this time," he says. But because so many new players had come on the scene, that didn't pose a problem.
Knocking the nouveau riche
The new book continues the saga through the go-go '90s by intertwining two pungent themes. The first is the arrival in the valley of newly minted multimillionaires seeking social status via their vanity vineyards and high-priced "cult cabernets." They bring with them "monogrammed toilet paper and bad taste in architecture," and, contends Conaway, little regard for Napa's agricultural heritage.
That leads to the second theme: The fierce battles (which continue) between the wine industry and a group of well-financed environmental activists over the issues of hillside development and the health of area waterways.
And it's that fundamental issue, much more than the book itself, that residents are itching to talk about in the days leading up to Conaway's public forum.
"If the vintners could be generous and do well by the place that nurtures them, they wouldn't have people like me crawling up their leg to bite them," says Peter Mennen, the former hippie and St. Helena postmaster who inherited millions in 1992 and has funneled much of it into slowing the spread of vineyards. "This place is so successful because it is so beautiful. The magic is not in the wine, good though it is. The magic is in the place."
"We are not the bad guys," counters Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone winery, who is portrayed as an outspoken opponent of additional governmental regulation. "We are the most environmentally sensitive farmers anywhere in the country. The environmentalists and the agricultural industry should be joined at the hip, against a common enemy, which is subdivision. Isn't the choice really agriculture or houses?"
Conaway says the "take no prisoners" tone of that debate, which has spilled into the courts and political races and left many vineyard projects in limbo, is the biggest change he has observed since the late 1980s.
"The emotions are much higher," he says, the day after the forum as he munches an 'ahi burger from Taylor's Refresher in St. Helena.
"There was a perfect storm here of environmental and land-use issues, the arrival of dot-com money and the glamorization of wine," Conaway says. "It raised the questions, 'How do you continue to make good wine and deal with all those bodies who want to live here and be entertained here? And how do you accommodate the needs of nature?' "