The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley

Overview

James Conaway picks up the story begun a decade ago in his earlier book about Napa Valley, the premier American wine country and a place synonymous with the good life. By now the struggle over the valley’s future has grown sharper and its success more glaring. Awash in dollars generated by the boom economy of the 1990s and the social ambitions it inspired, Napa is beset by too much of a good thing: new arrivals determined to have a vineyard of their own despite the fact that available land is running out, ...

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The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley

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Overview

James Conaway picks up the story begun a decade ago in his earlier book about Napa Valley, the premier American wine country and a place synonymous with the good life. By now the struggle over the valley’s future has grown sharper and its success more glaring. Awash in dollars generated by the boom economy of the 1990s and the social ambitions it inspired, Napa is beset by too much of a good thing: new arrivals determined to have a vineyard of their own despite the fact that available land is running out, cult-wine producers in thrall to fabulously expensive “rocket juice” (cabernet sauvignon) that few locals can afford, established families wishing to hold on to the old ways, and camp followers caught up in the glamour of it all.
What has transformed a natural and agricultural beauty spot into a coveted global destination has left inevitable scars, and a small, impassioned band of environmentalists determine to resist further change. Alarmed by the wholesale felling of trees to make way for vines, the diminishment of the Napa River, and the decline in the health of the watershed, they strike back in a way rivets the valley and strongly divides the valley between those in favor of unbridled economic development and those insisting on limits.
Written by the author the New York Times credits with “a Saroyan-like sense of humor and and Balzac-like eye for detail,” The Far Side of Eden takes us to the frontlines of America’s ongoing conflicts about money, land, and power to tell a tale that has ramifications for us all.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A quite important story, emblematic of our time." New York Times Book Review—October 20, 2002

New York Times Book Review Notable Book

"Thoughtful, compelling and graceful narrative...it's a story that Conaway tells well, with considerable passion but also with due objectivity." The Washington Post

Publishers Weekly
"If Napa Valley can't be saved, no place can," says the county planner, and Conaway's second volume on one of the wealthiest enclaves in America echoes this sentiment, picking up where his first (Napa: The Story of an American Eden) left off, with some overlap. Beautiful Napa in the 1990s is threatened by McMansions, by the blindness of "lucky spermers," (like the Mondavi heirs) and by the nouveau riche desire for boutique wineries with "rocket juice" (cabernet). The first third of the book describes the super-rich with incredulity: Francis Ford Coppola purchased the former Inglenook winery in the mid-1990s and outfitted it with the desk from The Godfather, movie memorabilia and screens for a "multimedia tasting experience." The Sweeneys, owners of Embassy Suites, dynamited to build their five-bedroom house (complete with feng shui) on a visible hillside. They don't flinch when locals complain. The center of the book is the Sierra Club's suit against Jayson Pahlmeyer (among others), whose now-cult wine appeared in the movie Disclosure, for clearing a hillside and violating the California Environmental Quality Act. The prose is often portentous and heavy on description; even minor characters are given full bios. Conaway uses a semifictional style to get into the characters' heads ("Hugh was pulled at by conflicting emotions"), while the author remains invisible, although his preferences are obvious. This is a who's who for anyone in the valley, a must-read for anyone in the business, and will be of interest to those invested in the often clashing interests of agriculture and the environment. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Conaway, the author of nine books and a contributor to Smithsonian and National Geographic Traveler, explored the subject of the Napa Valley a decade ago in his best-selling Napa: The Story of an American Eden. In his latest book, he carefully examines the invasion of Napa in the 1990s by the nouveaux riches who view vineyards as status symbols to be exploited for their social value. In an accessible style, Conaway offers an insider's view and shows how these newcomers are increasingly denuding the land in attempts to create vanity-label wines. Environmentalists and established valley dwellers are fighting the exploitation, but major damage has already been done in the form of polluted rivers and eroded hillsides. As Conaway rightfully concludes, Napa may never recover from the ravages wrought by the greed of the Silicon Valley wonder boys, the movie producers, and the other absentee landlords who now own much of the valley. This important and timely exploration of the ramifications of the unbridled power of the rich to do whatever they wish with America's land is highly recommended for all libraries.-Mary V. Welk, Chicago
Kirkus Reviews
Visions and desires clash memorably in the bottle green valley of the Napa River. The Napa Valley has a long agricultural history, from prunes to cattle, and, of course, winemaking, but the rise of the boutique operations has brought contention, with all their ostentatious cultural baggage and, in a number of cases, deleterious environmental impacts. Conaway (Napa, 1992, etc.) paints a grim picture of the changes afoot in the valley: the steroid houses, monuments to money and their absentee owners; the hunger for a vineyard of one's own-not that the owners would get their hands dirty, these would be vanity vineyards-for display purposes; the making of cult wines, the swells needing an imprimatur that associated them with the oldest expression of husbandry and cultural accomplishment, thinking its spiritual worth would rub off on them. Problem was that in the "lost decade of the nineties," there wasn't any land down in the valley for sale, so the arrivistes had to buy the hillsides, where their plantings-homes and vines-resulted in erosion, the runoff fouling water supplies. Such changes signaled that a way of life was ending, the small town's sense of proportion and responsibility, and inevitably horns were locked over development. The majority of Conaway's work details the struggle between and among various local organizations to pass land-use laws, or simply to have existing laws enforced, and winemakers bent on maximizing profits, where another row of vines another step closer to the stream means many thousands of dollars. Conaway's sketches of the personalities involved-a bouillabaisse of wealthy honchos, countercultural trust-fund folk, local politicos, environmentalists, oldwinemakers and new-can be wicked, but he tries to present a relatively fair picture of their concerns and circumstances as they jockey for position in the evolving landscape of the valley. What Napa was, what it is, where it's going: Conaway weighs them in the balance, and shudders.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618067398
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

James Conaway, the author of nine previous books, is a contributing editor for Preservation and a regular contributor to Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, and Food & Wine magazines, among many others.

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Read an Excerpt

Prologue

At the south end of the valley, the Carneros hills roll in great earth swells down toward San Pablo Bay, and at the north end the lowering presence of Mount St. Helena sits like a cork in a bottle of opaque green glass.
The Napa River between these two points covers just thirty miles, and the valley floor is only a couple of miles wide at its most commodious, yet here, under skies oceanic in depth and color—a blue impossible in most of the world’s climes—there occurred over the course of the twentieth century something truly remarkable: agriculture withstood the assault of development that overwhelmed the rest of this coveted bit of California, and the product of that effort—wine—was made into a symbol of privilege.
Meanwhile the valley, as is often said, became the envy of the world. But in the last quarter century some of the idyllic character has disappeared, and the valley, like the rest of the country, felt the pressure of opposing views about what it should be and what it should look like. In the 1990s those tensions came forcefully into play here, and I was drawn to the struggle in the belief that it embodied rudiments of the American character and held clues about the future of the American landscape.
I had already written a book about Napa Valley, from research done in the late 1980s, entitled Napa: The Story of an American Eden. I had not been back for several years. When I did return I was surprised to find many additional vineyards, more traffic, new mansions high in the rugged but not inviolable hills, and a heightened sense of glamour; I also heard on all sides contending views and strongly expressed expectations that each view must prevail. Some people wanted only material prosperity, others only to capture the moment in time, and these were clearly on a collision course.
I moved back for a time, the highway drawing me in like memory, past the outskirts of the city of Napa in the south, into those broad expanses of vineyard like unfurled bolts of corduroy planted also with houses and recent manifestations of the booming tourist trade. I actually live on the other side of the continent but here felt, in a way, that I was home, too, or at least in some approximation of it: more than a tourist, less than a citizen.
I knew something of the valley’s history and topography, having hiked in the bracketing, north-south–trending mountains that to the unknowing eye are secure in their ruggedness and isolation—the Mayacamas range on the west, dense with redwood and Douglas fir, separates Napa and Sonoma valleys, and the Howell range on the east, droughty, with a denser mix of chaparral amid the conifers, walls off the farther reaches of Napa County—and I knew that the valley supported great biological diversity. In addition to some of the finest Vitis vinifera on earth there was a good complement of California’s native oaks, steelhead trout, deer, black bears, and a few spotted owls.
The valley’s story, like California’s, is essentially one of success, but in my absence some volatile elements had been added to the human mix, and they were potent indeed. The engines of commerce and electronics had carried the country into the greatest hegemony in human history, producing unimaginable new wealth, and a disproportionate amount of it had found its way into the valley. At the same time, there had flowered a school of protest with no roots in the commodity that had made the valley famous and was in fact hostile to it. These two elements were new, and already on the way to a showdown.
I found a place to live, in St. Helena, one of four “up-valley” towns: a room with a bed and table, windows shielded by mock orange trees, a sun-washed kitchen and a deck. There was a good restaurant just down the block, but I used it infrequently. I listened to the sprinklers each night, and awoke each morning to a fresh world, the exuberance of roses and mallows lining the fence replaced by the smell of baked earth that is so Napan. A few steps led to vineyards that surrounded the town and made available to the lowliest visitor open, matchless vistas of mountains and sky.
The months I spent in that little house were happy and productive, and I am grateful for them. It was the end of the nineties, that lost decade so full of hope and opportunity, and it seemed to me, in that place, at that time, that the future lay out there, just beyond the garden.
I still believe that what happened in Napa Valley is relevant to the rest of the country, however altered now are our interior landscapes. How people living in a contained, beautiful part of America dealt with threats to established order is in large part what this book is about. The account is factual, and it is important to note that the story isn’t over yet. In this new century ideals share equal space only if they are luckkkkky with hard global reality; meanwhile, the valley’s fate is being fixed in the long weave of ambition and desire, wealth and restraint, vines and the wildness of chosen places.

I A Vineyard of One’s Own

1

Something had happened, something momentous, something involving money, lots of it—what didn’t at century’s end?—but more complicated and subtle. It pervaded the lives of Americans considered blessed by any standard, with houses close to some of the best restaurants on earth, the value of their property on a near-vertically ascending plane, their views of a gorgeous pastoral dream: mountains, agriculture as old as human history, wild mustard blooming in the spring and, in autumn, the air perfumed by fermenting wine as precious as that of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne.
San Francisco lay just across a sparkling inland sea, but the finest things could be had right here, too, at stations of the new cross—truffles at Sunshine Market, demi-glace at Dean & DeLuca. Appetites were enhanced by the best weather in a state famous for it, and the proximity of visiting Hollywood and other sorts of stars imbued existence with a certain frisson. And even if there were five million tourists a year to deal with, well, those already here in the Napa Valley were the envy of all who weren’t.
Yet something was wrong. People disagreed over when “it” had happened, and why, but not about the effect: a real, and growing, sense of loss.
They felt it while sitting in a long line of cars on Highway 29, looking up at once pristine slopes dense with conifer and chaparral, studded now with “steroid houses,” “muscle houses,” “McMansions,” all contemptuous names for places built not to live in but as monuments to finance, visited by absentee owners. The locals felt it overhearing conversations about vanity vineyards, “cult” cabernets, and gardens with “water features” to cover the traffic noise.
If they wanted to buy a house to actually live in, or to trade up, they had to listen to sales pitches not about the valley’s illustrious history, its neighborliness, schools, and churches, all the old-fashioned values, but about the proximity of Tra Vigne and the French Laundry. If they owned a house already, they had to wait for a carpenter or a plumber because these tradesmen worked for the owners of the muscle houses or redone Victorians, and then the locals had to pay fees often inflated by the presence of so much outside money.
Worst of all, they had to listen to the stories. Many of these featured limousines but were otherwise interchangeable. “I was pruning my roses when this couple gets out,” began one such account. “He’s got on wraparound shades and a five-hundred-dollar shirt with not enough buttons, bought in Beverly Hills, and she’s wearing haute safari from wherever.” The visitor might also be driving a new Lexus and looking nerdy in pressed jeans and granny glasses, sure sign of a Silicon Valley weekender. These were the young beneficiaries of the computer boom, and realtors referred to them as “the children.” The procedure was much the same: “He says, ‘I’ll give you . . . ,’” and here the figure varied among the millions, but was never less than one. “I tell him the house isn’t for sale. He doubles the price. I have to go inside to get away from him.” Later, the visitor calls and triples the offer.
The problem was, many of the stories were true, like the one about the house that sold for one-point-three, already an amazing sum for such a modest place, and then the new owners “tweaked” the landscaping—added some exotics and a stone wall—and sent to France for a containerful of furniture. They put the house back on the market for two-point- nine-five and received three instant offers for more. During escrow, an unsuccessful bidder offered the buyer point-five just to step aside—half a million dollars to get out of the way.
There was the house listed for four, bought by a venture capitalist who had seen it only once. Upon seeing it a second time, he decided he no longer fancied it and resold the house at a half-million-dollar loss to a thirty- five-year-old working in the acquisitions department of a major bank. And there was the cottage in the town of St. Helena, listed for point-nine-two-five, bid up to one-point-three. After that, everybody with a three-room Victorian guesthouse with one and a half baths thought it was worth one-point-three, and it was.
Houses that were not for sale were auctioned off without the knowledge of the owners, who were presented with offers as faits accomplis. Weekend guests bought their hosts’ residences. One such couple reportedly paid millions, first stipulating that everything had to be left as it was, right down to the terrycloth bathrobes, since they didn’t want to be bothered with purchasing their own things or didn’t know what was required. Not that it mattered. Experts materialized to perform that function for the newcomers, many of them living in San Francisco and tripping up on commission. They advised on the creation of cunning archways, the buying of period settees or Mayan urns, the planting of herb gardens “with a culinary bias,” the buying of wines from the Oakville Grocery, the joining of Meadowood Country Club, the ordering of cut flowers from Tesoro’s, the hiring of chefs and the vetting of maids and valets and the planting of the ultimate symbol of success, more important even than a house—a vineyard of one’s own.
Everybody who mattered suddenly had to have one. This link to ancient tradition was the latest, best way of transforming money into status, though what the newcomers really wanted was a vineyard and “a cabernet” made from its fruit that would be highly ranked by the critics and set them miles ahead of other merely wealthy people. The locals couldn’t afford these wines but had to listen to weekenders talk about them.
And they had to listen to the story about the woman with a vineyard of her own who sold her mauve Bentley because it had no rack for holding lattes, and the story about the couple building a glass house containing smoke machines, and the story about another couple with monogrammed toilet paper, each square resembling an illuminated manuscript. You laughed at the stories, but they had an effect.
Life began to feel like a lottery, or like Renaissance Spain, the gold ships coming in and their sails overshadowing all past custom and convention. Their modern equivalent was the stretch limo, the pilot fish of the nouveau riche lurking in restaurant parking lots and in the shade of olive trees on landscaped lawns. Much of this bullion had been mined down in the Santa Clara Valley, once lovely orchards since paved over and rechristened with that unlovely moniker Silicon, symbol of the greatest economic expansion in human history, a chemical that transmitted electronic impulses and churned assets, changing the world, spinning off money to computer whizzes and venture capitalists, dot-commers, “IPO sluts,” entrepreneurs, investment bankers, retailers, media- and consumer-related accumulators of capital, all belted to the marvelous economic engine of the fading American century. And not a few of them were disciples of personal gratification, and self-serving.
And there were the speculators, a category to which every winery owner and, in fact, many householders now belonged. That fact alone was galling. With the acceptance of it came another realization, even sadder, that in a few short years many longtime residents had gone from being members of a community to serving as its adjuncts. So many of the big old houses now belonged to outsiders the locals were unlikely to get to know, and so eventually, it seemed, would all the valley. These old-timers would be performing some service for the new people, if they weren’t already, even though the locals were relatively rich on paper. If one of them sold a house or a little vineyard, he couldn’t afford to buy another, not “up-valley.” He couldn’t compete at the wine auctions that raised money for the schools and hospitals, couldn’t get a new kitchen countertop put in, couldn’t get a table at Bistro Jeanty or even at Green Valley Café because of all the tourists drawn by the celebrity.

Things were out of whack, not just in the real estate offices but also in the hills. Out of sight, larger muscle houses were being built, and caves dug to gargantuan dimensions to contain activities not related to wine, and outlandish embellishments put in. There was the persistent story of a canal built on a high dry ridge, complete with an operating lock and a barge that could be boosted up and down, this in a fragile place where water was scarce. Some people thought this a charming diversion, and others thought it disgusting ego gratification and bad taste, but they didn’t say so because for the most part people in the valley were accepting souls, polite, reluctant to criticize.
This was just another story, no worse than the one about the woman who moved from the Midwest to a house in the hills costing millions so she could make cheese and sell it to the CIA—the Culinary Institute of America. Thus a substance once the byproduct of mere agriculture had been elevated to a symbol of culture. For the first time in human history, people were spending fortunes to make chump change and in the process be associated with the most basic sort of enterprise—agriculture—which in this incarnation had become glamorous. It made no more economic sense than the muscle houses and vineyards on steep land where forest had stood, and people marveled at the cost of it all. Planting those steep slopes cost upward of a hundred thousand dollars an acre just to get the vines in, not counting the purchase price, unjustifiable on the economics, not arrived at by trial and error, as in the old days, but simply ordained, bought, and written off.
There was no space left on the valley floor for such “vanity” vineyards, but they had to go in somewhere, for the social and financial enhancement they promised, and that meant the hills. The visible new vineyards and muscle houses amounted to a fraction of what was going on out of sight, or so it was said; in the rainy season, development high in the Mayacamas and the opposing range to the east tinged the reservoirs of drinking water and turned the Napa River murky. There was too much happening up there for most people to keep track of and still live their lives. More and more of them worried about what it all meant, where it was all going, what was being lost.

Copyright © 2002 by James Conaway. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

contents Prologue 1 i A Vineyard of One’s Own 5 ii Passion on the Land 95 iii Divide and Fall 177 iv Turtle Island 257 Epilogue 363

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2007

    I really wanted to love this

    I am fascinated with the history of Napa and Sonoma, and was thrilled to discover the existence of this book. However, I cannot get through it. I've tried reading it countless times over the past 3 years and I'm always sadly frustrated with the terrible writing and confusing plot lines. At the rare moments I finally muddle through the prose to become engrossed in the interesting characters, the author drops the storyline and picks up a completely unrelated storyline. I respect nonlinear story telling, but this is just start and stop for no real reason. I hope to find a different book on this subject matter, written by an author who can truly tell a story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2002

    Eden Goes to Hell in a Hand Basket

    About a century ago California's Napa Valley made some notable wines and promised more and better, but Prohibition and the Depression turned the Valley into a mammoth truck farm for tomatoes, walnuts and prunes (these last, among the horticulturally correct, are now "dried plums"). Came the 1960s and a tide of hippies, back-to-the-landers, wine buffs, urban regugees; they rescued the Valley from mundanity by returning the vine. Some wanted the simple life. Others strove to beat the French at their own vinous game and a few succeeded. In a famous tastings in '76 Napa took top spots for red and white wines (the French were apoplectic) and the wines' reputations continued to grow, and profits with them. That brought corporate investors into the Valley, changing its tone from a place of pickup trucks, muddy boots and little guys to one of faceless absentees interested only in the bottom line. James Conaway, who witnessed the change in the late 1980s, was concerned enough to record the loss of innocence in "Napa," a best-seller published in 1990. Returned to the Valley a decade later, Conaway has written this fine sequel--told through heroes and villains--which finds America's Eden in crisis. Tsunami tourism (5 million visitors a year) is bad, the new-wave investors worse: dot-commers, lawyers, real-estate moguls and others skilled in pulling fortunes from the air and convinced of their right to do as they pleased, the law be damned. Vulgar McMansions profane lovely hillsides, spoiling the grand views for everyone else. Arrivistes craving the cachet of their names on top-dollar labels spend recklessly on vineyards dozered and dynamited into ever-steepening slopes. These grow fine grapes, but their runoff muddies Napa's river and threatens its watershed and wildlife. The wines themselves are obscured between $75 "monster cabernets" and "fruit bombs" and cheap stuff--often not even made from Napa grapes--meant to strip-mine tourists. Pretentiousness thrives: Napa Valley now has an "Office of Protocol." Existing legal controls might have limited damage had county officials bestirred themselves. They don't, and so zealots force the issue: Wine Guys vs. Enviros. Reasonable people capable of compromise can't stop the slide into unproductive rancor. Fulminative rhetoric draws neo-Prohibitionists attacking "alcohol farms," ex-urbanites utterly ignorant of agriculture, and radicals demanding an end to all local regulations, even seeking exemption from state environmental laws. In the background real-estate developers dry-wash their hands at the prospect of turning incredibly valuable vineyards into astronomically valuable housing lots. The result is one of those "mother of" lawsuits. It would be unfair to say who wins because Conaway, a brisk and vivid writer, maintains suspense to the end. But it is fair to say it accomplishes little and may mean ruin later on. Eden--it's not a pretty picture.

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