James Conaway, Far Side of Eden: NewMoney, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley, Houghton Mifflin, pp.384, ISBN: 0618067396
Reviewed by Orley Ashenfelter
A visit to the Napa Valley is always a pleasure, and this book takes you on one. Conaway’s new book about Napa is a kind of sequel to his widely praised Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and it will appeal to many of the same readers. But this time the Eden has a blemish: disputes between vineyard developers and environmentalists.
The environmental disputes that Conaway chronicles are set amid the backdrop of wealth and privilege that Napa has become, but it introduces some new characters too. On the one hand are wealthy newcomers like Garen Staglin (an actual Democrat!), whose house was used in Disney’s remake of The Parent Trap. But the character that really fascinates Conaway is the suddenly wealthy environmentalist Peter Mennen, heir to a fortune, but who is otherwise the eccentric local postmaster. Lurking in the background, of course, are some of the old timers like Jack Cakebread, whose “breakfast club” is portrayed as a right wing bunch of old coots who slosh down sauvignon blanc with their scrambled eggs.
Conaway tries to use the environmental issues he encounters to weave a narrative around these characters and at the same time convey some of the social and economic changes that have assaulted the Napa Valley. One of the most interesting of these changes is the invention of “cult” wines, made in small quantities by super-star winemakers (most of whom are women) and sold by mailing list for $100s per bottle.
Many people in Napa were apparently willing to speak on the record to Conaway. But when it came to a discussion of the ubiquitous wine critic Robert Parker’s coronation of these bottles of “rocket juice” the talk moved off the record. Anonymous source “Pat” reports, “Everybody used to just let him taste, until they realized that was the wrong way to do it, that you had to talk to him and be very patient. If he tasted blind he wouldn’t come up with those findings. Although he may not realize it, the findings aren’t impartial, they’re engineered by the winemakers.”
Although this anecdote demonstrates the enhanced commercial role of wine critics, it also demonstrates the absence of the old-time “mavericks” that Conaway identified in his first book. For example, the last time I talked (and tasted) with Joe Heitz, a man who always spoke his mind, I asked him what he thought about the new cult wines. At the time he was trying to recover from a second stroke (he never really did) and it was apparent that he would not be saying very many words that day. His answer to my question: “10 percent grapes, 90 percent bullshit!”
That conversation with Joe and Alice Heitz four years ago also demonstrates how badly out of date a book like this can become before it is even published. At the time of our meeting, Silicon Valley money had moved to Napa Valley and some vineyard prices had topped $100,000 per acre. Alice wondered aloud if maybe they should sell out! They didn’t, but Justin Meyer (Silver Oak), Bill and Joan Smith (La Jota), the Martinis, and many other old-timers did. Since then California grape prices have tanked and even first rate Napa producers will say, at least privately, that this is a tough time to be in the wine business if you need to make a living from it. The Berkeley economist, Nobel Prize winner, and Napa grape grower Dan McFadden acknowledged that the price of his super premium grapes had fallen from $4,000 to $3,000 per ton in the last two years.
In the wine business, the usual rule of thumb is to price a bottle at one-hundredth the price of a ton of grapes. With grape prices as low as $200 a ton in some places it is no wonder that Trader Joe’s can make money with its now infamous “two buck chuck” Charles Shaw brand, which sells for just $2 a bottle.
There are other problems with this book as well. Many of the best chapters were written and published as magazine articles. If, like me, you first learned of vineyard owner Jason Pahlmeyer’s tangle with the environmental police in Conaway’s article in Outside magazine you will find it repeated here. I also have many reservations about the accuracy of the reporting in this book. At a social function in San Francisco I asked vineyard owner Clarke Swanson, reportedly a member of Jack Cakebread’s “breakfast club,” whether sauvignon blanc really went well with scrambled eggs. Swanson reminded me of what I already knew: drinking at Napa business functions is discreet and certainly not the norm at breakfast!
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