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In Napa, things are getting nasty

Times Staff Writer

THE hottest topic in St. Helena right now isn’t the latest one-acre Cabernet. It’s not the escalating price of vineyard land. It’s not the newest McMansion on Silverado Trail. It’s a book. Go figure.

Don’t panic. Napa hasn’t gone all literary on us. This isn’t just any book, but James Conaway’s “The Far Side of Eden,” and it’s about all of those things.

The book begins with a bang with a deliciously gossipy portrait of cult Cab maker Garen Staglin and his wife, Shari. They’ve designed the Palladian pile of a villa they hacked out of the Mayacamas Mountains to resemble a Tuscan hill town.

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“We’ve got a lot of lifestyle here,” as Staglin says.

The Staglins’ neighbor, Jack Cakebread, who comes in for his own share of pops, calls them “the Dennis Rodmans of the Napa Valley.”

Of course, Cakebread was peeved because the Staglins leased their house for the filming of the remake of “The Parent Trap” and the lights, trailers and generators bugged him.

When he complained, the Staglins wouldn’t bend (“Wine is about all these things,” one of them is quoted as saying. “When you can say you have had dinner with Garen and Shari, and talked about ‘The Parent Trap,’ you’ve had a whole reinforcing experience.”)

So Cakebread went to his old friend Robert Mondavi for advice. Mondavi was sympathetic, up to a point. Staglin had ponied up $1 million to help build Copia, Mondavi’s pet project museum (which earned Staglin presidency of the board of trustees and a tasting room in his name).

It will probably come as no surprise then that Conaway’s first public reading, which was announced as being at Copia, was canceled (whether it was officially scheduled is a matter of dispute).

And then so was the second reading, at a local movie theater. It seems the owner is a high school friend of the wife of David Abreu, vineyardist to the stars and a guy whom the book pictures as making a minor specialty out of raping hillsides.

And so it goes. The list of those skewered reads like a page from some wine geek’s cellar book: besides Mondavi, Cakebread, Abreu and Staglin, there’s Jayson Pahlmeyer, Delia Viader, Anne Colgin, Stuart Smith, Randy Dunn and perhaps most extravagantly Francis Ford Coppola, whom Conaway regards as being on the cutting edge of cheapening Napa into a kind of vinous Disneyland.

Probably about the only people in the area who are happy with the book are those who avoided being included in it.

It would be unfortunate, though, if all the fuss over gossip keeps people from following the book’s deeper story. While the first section is easily the most fun, it is merely a setup for Conaway’s real purpose: examining the collision of tradition and what he sees as its despoilers.

An editor at Preservation magazine, Conaway first wrote about the valley in his 1990 book, “Napa,” which told in reverential tones of the battles to prevent the suburbanization of the wine country through the establishment of an agricultural preserve.

The preservationists took that round, but a decade later they might well be wondering exactly what it was they won. Having the Napa Valley declared an agricultural preserve, with its restrictions on minimum lot sizes, seems only to have succeeded in ensuring that land could be bought by only the very rich.

And there has been no shortage of them. Combine real estate scarcity with the wealth generated by the ‘90s boom economy, and what you’ve got is a very limited game that it seems everyone wants to join. When vineyard land on the valley floor was completely consumed, it drove those who were willing to pay quite literally up the hillsides.

And while hillside Cabernets may have grace and elegance, they sometimes come at the cost of chopping down hundreds of native oaks and “strip-mining” ecologically sensitive areas to establish the vineyards.

That Napa is an area of great natural as well as enological beauty complicates matters. Wine lovers are not the only ones drawn to the area. There is also a very active environmentalist community, and there is a lot of money behind it as well. (The number of prominently named trust funds that come into play on both sides of this little drama might startle those who have never visited Santa Fe, N.M., or Vail, Colo.)

Wine versus runoff

The environmentalists look at the Napa River and see silt rather than steelheads. The counterargument offered by a well-made wine convinces them not a whit. They want to impose restrictions on the vineyards in order to protect the wildlife. Or, more accurately, they want to see that the restrictions that already exist are enforced.

That does not seem to be something the winemakers want to hear about. A decade after leading the fight to protect the nature of the valley by limiting residential development, many of them seem to have become born-again property rights advocates. They own the land and they can do with it what they want. Downstream, beware!

Indeed, the portrait that emerges of the winemaking community is rarely flattering. Gorged on 20 years of adulation, squeezed by economic realities (the cost of an acre of planted vineyard in Napa Valley has gone from roughly $40,000 in 1990 to more than $120,000), the winemakers who were yesterday’s rugged agrarian pioneers come across more like crabby old industrialists today.

Indeed, the Napa wine crowd is ripe for satire. The rich have been with them always, but it used to be that wine was made predominantly by people of a certain rustic nobility who aspired to become millionaires.

Today it seems to be mainly made up of millionaires who aspire to rustic nobility. They buy the land, they buy the vineyard manager, they buy the winemaker, they put their names on the labels and imagine themselves Rothschilds.

As one of the ever-quotable Staglins says, referring to one of their other businesses, “Windshields just don’t do it the way wine does.”

This is not to say that the opposition is angelic. Spending time even in print with the Napa Sierra Club crowd is wearing. At a certain point, you’re tempted to throw up your hands, declare a pox on both their houses and wish the valley were back planted to prunes and walnuts.

Beyond the mystique

On a certain level it’s refreshing to see some of the varnish stripped off guys like Cakebread and Mondavi, who is pictured as being something of a puppet master behind the scenes. After decades of overblown praise, a skeptical eye is welcome.

Wine is a business, and a big one at that. When a fight over what seems like a fractional percentage of a vineyard is revealed to have consequences in the millions of dollars, some of the rustic charm subsides.

On the other hand, winemakers are not cotton farmers. They are, some of them, making something of real beauty, something that transcends mere commodity.

And that is where “The Far Side of Eden” comes up short. The plain fact is, Conaway doesn’t get wine. Although he can imbue a tramp on a scrubby hillside with an irresistible golden aura, he can’t describe a glass of wine without sarcastic quote marks (“his cabernet sauvignon [was] described ... as possessing undertones of ‘coffee and chocolate’ that mature into aromas of ‘cedar and cigar box.’ ”).

When he sips a glass of wine, he tastes a product, a symbol of social status, or a family business -- like a hardware store. It’s never as anything more. He can tap his feet, but he doesn’t hear the music.

This is not to say that because some of its members sometimes make something very special, the entire wine industry should get a free pass for all bad behavior. But land use is a complicated issue and it is impossible to weigh the arguments fairly if you don’t understand that there are genuine passions on both sides.

In the end, to Conaway winemaking is just another form of manufacturing, one that takes the raw materials of land, water, plants and sunshine and turns them into something for which some people are willing to spend a lot of money.

That he refuses to see it as more is both the book’s blessing and its curse.


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