New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley

By James Conaway

Houghton Mifflin. 365 pp. $28 As a farmer, I've always believed that producing a great wine requires a good steward of the earth working with rich, fertile farmlands. After reading "The Far Side of Eden," James Conaway's detailed and revealing expose{acute} of Napa Valley and the wine industry that has flourished there, I realize that beneath the bouquet of the renowned Napa wines there's just as likely to be a whole lot of dirt mixed with sour grapes.

A decade after writing "Napa: The Story of an American Eden," Conaway returned to the valley to discover that new immigrants and their money had transformed the landscape. Here, he tells the inside story of the struggle for power between Napa's business community of vintners, seeking ever-expanding growth of wineries, and environmental activists opposed to unbridled development in the Napa hills, with both sides claiming ownership of the natural bounty that blesses this valley north of San Francisco.

The newcomers to Napa were of varying breeds. Some came from Silicon Valley -- young, newly rich dot-commers who had discovered that owning "a vineyard of one's own" offered the "latest, best way of transforming money into status." Others were celebrities like Francis Ford Coppola, who purchased the historic Inglenook winery and installed a staff that placed "the emphasis . . . on sales," looking for ways to "enhance the merchandise." Wine, of course, was only one part of what could be sold, and to some observers, the regal chateau took on the feel of Disneyland. Finally, there were the speculators who migrated into this unspoiled land with dreams of even greater wealth.

These migrants were not Steinbeck's Joads, but they would soon transform the valley's treasures into the grapes of wrath. Arriving in "big, bright SUVs," they brought with them a driving ambition to grow some "rocket juice," as they referred to the "good Napa Valley cabernet that had propelled many fortunes." "Few of the new arrivals understood or readily accepted the idea of restraints," Conaway writes. "Making money had become a necessary component of social and cultural authentication."

The newcomers and many of the old-line vintners -- those who had "a vineyard of one's own" -- would soon clash with those who cherished a passion for the land. Led by a community activist named Chris Malan and supported by the Mennen Environmental Foundation, environmentalists girded for battle to protect the Napa hilltops from new vineyard development. Malan sought a moratorium on new vineyards on the valley's steep slopes, citing damage to the Napa River from erosion. She and her supporters felt that prior efforts at regulation -- the 40-acre minimum lot size for the hills set in 1973 and the 1988 winery definition, which restricted business activities at new wineries -- simply were not enough. Ratcheting up the rhetoric, "environmentalists [began] calling grape-growing 'alcohol farming,' the act of planting a vineyard 'graping the land,' and wineries 'alcohol factories,' " Conaway writes.

In Conaway's account, a county board of supervisors election in 2000 serves as the backdrop to the unfolding drama. Land-use policy provided the flash point for the race, in which Kathryn Winter, an incumbent who had supported many environmental issues, was running against political unknown Bill Dodd, who was largely supported by the pro-development vintners. Then Malan entered the race. Though she knew she'd never win, her goal was to keep the issue of hillside development before the public. (For many, this represented bittersweet parallels to the national presidential election that year.)

Add to the mix a Sierra Club lawsuit supported by the team of Malan and Mennen. Filed against the county for failing to enforce its own environmental regulations, the suit eventually would be settled and all agricultural development made subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, slowing vineyard expansion to a crawl. Meanwhile, Dodd was elected, brightening the future for pro-development policy.

Who won? Who lost? As Conaway writes, "the whole drama engulfing the valley [was] a kind of California Rashomon -- a tale told very differently from different points of view."

Conaway has spent time in Napa Valley, getting to know the lay of the land and listening to conversations at vintners' breakfast meetings and over glasses of wine at the annual wine auction that raises millions for Napa Valley charities, primarily health care. He uses the language of a subculture to enrich his story and create a sense of place: "Mountain fruit" are grapes of the newly developed and controversial Napa hills; "lucky spermers" are those who have inheritance to thank for their vineyards and jobs; "crush widow" is what you call a vintner's wife during the all-consuming grape harvest.

The story of "The Far Side of Eden" is replete with a vivid cast of characters. There's Peter Mennen, the hippie postmaster with the ever-present pet parrot on his shoulder; he inherits a fortune, establishes an environmental foundation and challenges the U.S. Postal Service. There's Jayson Pahlmeyer, an Oakland attorney and real-estate developer who dreams of producing a wine "that drops you to your knees," but who instead channels his energies into divisive politics. There's Delia Viader, the impeccably dressed, philosophy-reading daughter of an Argentine diplomat who develops a vineyard without a permit and insists she has done nothing wrong after a rainstorm washes tons of topsoil into a nearby reservoir.

At times, though, all the names and stories become blurred -- there are too many to remember and the reader is unsure which ones it's important to keep in mind. Occasionally, Conaway repeats information, and the board of supervisors election, which takes up about 70 pages, seems to go on and on. The reader starts to feel like the residents of Napa, grown weary of the politics and tired of the bickering.

Still, the book is effective. Robert Louis Stevenson once spoke of Napa's potential for producing "bottled poetry." "The Far Side of Eden" captures a dark poetry of winemaking and shines a light on the ominous future for valley agriculture. What Conaway reveals in this sobering, intriguing book is that the apple in this garden of Eden has already been picked.