In the late 80s, James Conaway chronicled the rise of America’s most famous wine region in his book “Napa: The Story of an American Eden.” A decade later, he came back to find a Napa Valley with more traffic, more mansions and more glamour. This was in the middle of the “roaring 1990s,” Conaway writes, “with everybody getting rich and a few people willing to consider the consequences.” Vineyards were expanding into the hillsides and Cabernet money was rolling in, but behind the modern winemaking facilities and glitzy wine labels, trouble was brewing.
“I also heard on all sides contending views and strongly expressed expectations that each view must prevail,” Conaway wrote in the introduction to his 2002 book “The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land and the Battle for Napa Valley.” “I believe that what happened in Napa Valley is relevant to the rest of the country, however altered now are our interior landscapes.”
This book is centrally focused on the political and legal wrangling surround the Sierra Club’s lawsuit against Napa County for failing to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act. In the suit, which challenged hillside vineyard expansion, the group also named some individual defendants, including Jayson Pahlmeyer. Conaway tells the tale by constructing two opposing camps: wealthy vintners (led by high rollers like Pahlmeyer and Cakebread) vs. agitating environmentalists (led by the feisty Chris Malan, Peter Mennen and the Sierra Club).
I’ve read lots of responses to this book (considering more than a decade has passed since it was published), and a common complaint is the author’s bias in favor of environmental regulation. The author is sympathetic to environmental protection — shouldn’t we all be? — but Conaway seems concerned more with the health of the land and native species than any of the individual actors in the fight.
I haven’t interviewed the Napa vintners profiled in Conaway’s book, but I’m guessing they may have some problems with the way Conaway portrayed them. “These men were accustomed to getting what they wanted, that was clear,” Conaway writes. “They were determined to find a way around environmental regulation, but there was more: they hated all restrictions placed upon them by county, state, and nation, apparently on philosophical grounds and also because these laws gave people without their means some influence.” When describing Dennis Groth, Conaway writes: “Underlying it all was an ideological resistance to all regulation and a belief in the hallowed right of free enterprise and capital accumulation that benefitted a successful CPA.”
Still, I’m partial to accept Conaway’s premise that when one possesses massive wealth, large amounts of highly-prized vineyard land and unbridled praise from wine media and consumers, one could easily become removed from reality, especially from a healthy relationship with the environment. “Unaccustomed to criticism,” Conaway writes, “suddenly they were being condemned by the spiritual heirs of John Muir, and the legitimacy of their way of life was being questioned, and some of them were too angry to discuss this rationally.”
“Winegrowers of Napa Valley, Jack Cakebread’s conservative, deep-pocketed Breakfast Club,” features prominently in the book, which Conaway describes as a “haven for men who did not want to compromise and who believed that their financial gain was synonymous with the general good.”
“The tendency among its members,” Conaway writes of the group’s reaction to the lawsuit, “was to lump all environmentalists together as part of a conspiracy against wine, when in fact there were myriad differences among environmentalists that became more pronounced each day.”
The author addresses the reader directly in the introduction and epilogue, but in the meat of the book Conaway assumes the narrative perspective of an omniscient, omnipresent eye, swooping through the valley, jumping in and out of minds and moments. I don’t take well to this point of view — I find it a bit presumptuous to assume omniscience in the realm of nonfiction. When a nonfiction writer takes a POV atop a pedestal, I’m tempted to kick that pedestal. The POV also lends itself to some of Conaway’s stranger passages, like: “Jayson Pahlmeyer stepped out onto his patio and turned first to the east and then to the west, his hawklike profile to the wind.”
It’s during Conaway’s analysis of vintners like Dennis Groth, Jack Cakebread and Stu Smith (of Smith-Madrone) that his omniscient point of view becomes most irritating. I love hearing the words of these men themselves, because they speak their minds with clear language, unlike Conaway. But most of the time the reader gets only Conaway’s paraphrasing, not words from the source. Conaway writes for the major actors, not as a reporter who has conducted an interview, but as a remote consciousness that has complete access to his subject’s inner thoughts and feelings. And, given this approach, I can see why some readers react negatively.
Out of all the characters in this piece, I connect most with is Volker Eisele. Conaway clearly spent a lot of time with Eisele, listening and writing down his little witticisms and profound musings.
Unfortunately, this Napa icon recently passed away. I never had the pleasure of meeting Eisele, but I’ve enjoyed his wines and respected his approach to conservation and land use. “One of the first things you learn is that natural processes take time,” writes Conaway, paraphrasing Eisele. “People who don’t live in a natural setting — absentee owners, daytrippers — don’t feel this.”
Conaway continues in his chapter focused on Volker Eisele: “The disconnect between the land and the investments of the owners made it difficult for them to understand the land they owned, or even to talk about it. Yet their radical altering of the landscape would have long-term consequences.”
Elsewhere in the book, Conaway takes this theme and runs with it, getting right to the heart of the chasm between the architects of the American Eden and the ecosystem in which they operate. “One difficulty in the advocacy of good land use was that the average American had little real experience with nature. To many Americans, the natural world was an abstract notion. Western lands in American were burdened with a history of economic possibility, a tabula rasa upon which one wrote one’s fondest wishes, whether for wealth, status, or solitude, often with little understanding of the place itself. The champions of Manifest Destiny had used the language to fit their needs and ambitions, rendering the notions of wilderness and the natural state undesirable.”
In addition to the details of the legal battle, Conaway occasionally lets his subjects cut loose, resulting in some interesting crumbs of wine wisdom.
Jayson Pahlmeyer has one of my favorite quotes, a riff on a theme I’ve heard from many older male winemakers: “A vine is like a male Homo sapiens. For the first third of his life he’s vigorous, and then as he ages he loses productivity, and in old age he’s slower and wiser.”