Author James Conaway takes a dim view in ‘Napa at Last Light’
In just one week the June 5 primary elections will be held, and each municipality will have its issues to decide. Next door in Napa County, voters will go to the polls to decide once again on the future of the wine industry in what has become the most valuable grape-growing region in the country, if not the world.
And, once again, author James Conaway has a book out that’s part of the conversation. “Napa at Last Light” was released this spring – and voters in Napa (and Sonoma) may want to grab a copy before they head to the polls and consider Measure C, which would limit cutting oak trees in the Napa River watershed – a result that would also curb the expansion of wineries up the Napa Valley’s surrounding hills.
It’s a contentious issue, pitting industry against environmentalists, with area winemakers on each side of the divide.
It’s not the first time that Napans have gone to the polls to rein in their cash cow. (In 1968, Napa became the first Agricultural Preserve in the country; in 1990, a Winery Definition ordinance was passed to put the brakes on non-vinicultural tourist activities and events.) Now, Measure C may be the latest vehicle to limit the growth of wineries, while protecting the dwindling native oak habitat.
As if titling his book “Napa at Last Light” wasn’t metaphor enough for Conaway to tip his hand, wait for the subtitle – “America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity.”
“It’s not just Napa, it’s all of us that are living in an age of calamity of one sort or another,” said Conaway between visits to Napa to promote his newest book, and perhaps research his next one. “How we adapt says a lot about character in the industry, and Napa’s not showing much of that these days.”
A Memphis native, Conaway said he was “fortunate enough, way back when, to win a Wallace Stegner writing fellowship at Stanford. That got me out of the south and got me launched.” He put the prestigious training to good use, landing a job at the Washington Post and becoming its wine writer when his predecessor moved back to London. “I wasn’t really qualified but I didn’t tell them that.”
The role eventually led him to California to learn more about the wines.
“I came to Napa in the 1980s, and it still had the feel of the old Napa,” said Conaway with a lingering Tennessee twang. That visit developed into the most rewarding theme of his writing career and the trilogy that began in 1990 with the best-selling “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” and continued with 2002’s “The Far Side of Eden,” culminating this year with “Napa at Last Light.” (He’s also written several novels and non-fiction on a variety of topics far beyond Napa Valley.)
By the time of the second book, said Conaway, “It was clear to me that people were coming up to Napa Valley – and I’m sure Sonoma felt this too – and offering to buy any house they liked for some outrageous price. Sometimes they wanted to leave it just as it was, with the pictures on the wall and the bathrobes in the closet. It was bizarre, and disturbing.”
Just where all this money comes from – trust funds, Silicon Valley, executive salaries – is outside the parameters of Conaway’s inquiry. But its effect on one of the world’s most venerable crafts is very much on his mind.
If the premise of American business is to “grow or die,” says Conaway, “that’s never really applied that well to wine.”
“If you conserve what you’ve got, don’t expect a winery to make everybody rich in your family and extended family. That’s not what it was intended for in the first place.”
He points out that Napa’s breakthrough moment came in 1976 with the Paris Tasting, when both Napa reds and whites bested French wines in a blind tasting. All of the participating American wineries have since changed hands and are now corporate-owned, he says; none of the French wineries have gone that route. “Not only are they mostly still in family hands, but some are still in the families that owned them when Thomas Jefferson was buying wine.”
The corporate take-over of family wineries is a trend that affects Sonoma at least as much as Napa. It’s a trend that also leads to a diminution of quality – a concept he uses frequently is “masstige,” taking a prestige wine to mass market.
Older wineries – like Inglenook, Beringer and Mondavi – are particularly prone to this, because their permits are “grandfathered” and they don’t have to hew as closely to newer rules.
“They bring in the grape from outside and they make a much inferior wine that they keep the same price on,” laments Conaway. “Most people won’t figure it out for a few years, and in the meantime they make a lot of money.”
Much of it comes down to what one anonymous source in “Napa at Last Light” says: “Vineyards are real estate, not wine.”
“The big threats to my mind are the multinationals,” said Conaway. “They show up from out of state, out of countries, and they have big plans. The community is not the first thing on their minds, unfortunately.”
Despite the dark pessimism he feels about Napa, Conaway holds out hope for Sonoma. “Sonoma is twice the size of Napa, you still have mixed agriculture. I love that when I go to Sonoma – the feel is totally different.”
More and more often, Sonomans are concerned that the county will go the way of Napa, and not in a good way. Conaway’s advice? “The only thing I can say is that people have to respond forcefully and quickly when these things come up. What I’ve learned just as a spectator is that you can’t depend anymore on the public agencies.”
He ends the conversation going big-picture:
“If corporations are individuals who have individual rights, according to the Supreme Court, then so should the land. That would be a very interesting argument for someone to put forward.”
Contact Christian at firstname.lastname@example.org.