Napa at Last Light by James Conaway
The genesis of Napa at Last Light, the final volume of a trilogy, began with Napa: The Story of an America Eden (1990), “a journalistic foray to California in the early 1980s.” What appeared to be sunshine and flowers was revealed to be the dark clouds formed by avaricious multinational companies, shattered dreams, and insatiable efforts to squeeze every drop of profit from the land. Big business interests were in conflict with the traditional agricultural natives. The community of Napa Valley, a beautiful place where people knew one another and many were related, evolved into a money-grubbing, backstabbing society and the dissolution of so many ties.
Napa: The Story of an American Eden is “a social history comprised of the stories of the latter-day founders of great wine estates and those working to perfect their own sometimes idiosyncratic vision.” The Far Side of Eden (2002), second in the trilogy, examines “the growing conflict between new wealth and individual freedom” as land-use issues based on the “conflict between development and the agrarian ideal” rose to prominence. The present volume, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity “comes at the end of an era and combines narrative journalism with personal reflections.” It is, in Conaway’s words, “not about wine but about place and people.”
In Conaway’s view, the problem is simple. Napa is beautiful and the land produces fine wines so more people and money come. Trees are cut from the hills and vines are planted. Then it rains and the hills slide away, or a drought occurs and human-caused fires consume whatever vegetation exists. When the trees and natural vegetation disappear, water runs away and does not soak into the ground. The aquifers go unfilled or empty. Who then claims that reduced amount of water: people or the winemakers? The problems could be avoided, but the valley is beautiful and it produces good wines so the corporate owners resist efforts to support environmental regulations that could protect the land and the livelihoods of thousands.
Perhaps no one better illustrates Conaway’s thesis than H. William Harlan, who grew up in Whittier, California where he and Richard Nixon, a generation before him, learned that one’s bootstraps were an avenue to success. Harlan’s vineyard “produces a wine worth a thousand dollars a bottle, five vintages of which received a 100-point ranking” from Robert Parker, a renowned expert. Harlan scrambled through Berkeley with “a visceral imperviousness to the politics of the Age of Aquarius” and worked a variety of jobs that included being a union scab. Apparently influenced by only one book, Alan Moorhead’s The Blue Nile, Harlan says he traveled the length of Africa then learned to fly and sail, which led to real estate sales and ultimately to purchasing “a little country club in a valley—Napa….” He was a multibillion-dollar developer who brought in other billionaires to buy land. Yet, “he originally chose Napa Valley because it was ‘the last best place where development might be avoided,’ but he developed it nonetheless.”
On a personal note, after tasting more than 2,500 bottles of wine over the last 40-plus years, one thing is certain: the true value of wine is based on individual taste preferences, not on those suggested by a wine “expert.” An $8 glass of wine (about $40 per bottle) may be as tasty and as complex as a $100 bottle. Beauty is truly in the mouth of the drinker regardless of the millions of dollars spent to convince the consumer that a wine is superior. And, as Conaway so eloquently points out, the big wine companies spare no expense to convince wine drinkers their wine is the best. One commentator in the “Voices” chapter notes that “names still carry sales. Brand value, that’s all, not quality.”
Conaway is not hopeful that the competing camps of developers and corporate winemakers will resolve their issues. After the great fires of 2017 that caused considerable destruction (but less than we might have perceived through televised reports) the status quo remained. The developers called for clearing more land and planting more vines because “vineyards make good firebreaks. They also mean more water loss, more people, and more activities unrelated to agriculture – houses, roads, service buildings, power lines.” But, in a bit of guarded optimism, Conaway notes that the “county officials seemed increasingly uncomfortable with controversial projects.” Perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel is not an onrushing train.