Book Review: James Conaway on the Napa Valley Wine Wars

napaJames Conaway, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (Simon & Schuster, March 2018).

Hegel wrote that the Owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk, suggesting that wisdom (the owl) finally awakes when the day is nearly done and the opportunity to benefit from insight has almost passed. It is a sad thought — I hope that Hegel is wrong — but it captures pretty well the gist of this new book by James Conaway, who has been writing about the Napa Valley for many years.

Conaway’s new book presents a series of vignettes and profiles that collective capture the ongoing wine war in the Napa Valley. Conaway is not a neutral observer in this battle, so this is a tale of white hats and black hats.

The White Hats include Andy Beckstoffer, Volker Eislele, and Randy Dunn, leaders in movements to preserve Napa’s farming and environmental heritage. The Black Hats include Mike Davis, Jean Charles Boisset, and especially Kathryn and Craig Hall, who have told their side of the wine wars story in their book A Perfect Score.

Reading Conaway’s book about what’s wrong with the Napa Valley made me sad because it reminds me about something that is wrong with society today. The Napa Valley of Conaway’s book is full of people with their backs to the wall, angry, suspicious, and unwilling to bend or compromise. Reminds me of any number of issues in society today (guns and immigration, for example).

There doesn’t seem be much room for meaningful dialogue. Sometimes it seems like there isn’t even a common language, much less common values or goals. Gridlock prevails: movement is slowed or stifled, but threats remain.

Only at the very end of the book — dusk, I suppose, or last light — does Conaway give a sense that there might be some coming together, working together. Hope it is not too late. But recent news is not encouraging.

Pressures continue to grow. Last week, for example, the Napa Country Board of Supervisors voted to put an initiative on the June ballot that would shut off development in certain areas. Pro and con forces seem to be prepared for a serious fight over the future. Meanwhile an interview with James Conaway suggests that he’s given up hope. Too little, too late.

I learned a lot about the Napa Valley,  wine wars, and the White Hat and Black Hat combatants from this book, but I admit to being disappointed. Conaway takes a strong stand with his White Hat friends and his anger and outrage come through clearly. But I wonder what the conflict looks like from the perspective those who are in the middle, trying to balance interests and reconcile development and environment before the last light is gone?  That’s a book that I would like to read.

Not that there aren’t glimpses here of what a working consensus might look like. I was especially intrigued by the sixteenth chapter, which gives an account of how John Williams of Frogs Leap Winery led a successful movement to restore a stretch of the Napa River. Water, Conaway suggests, is at the root of all conflict in Napa. Rivers both divide and unite. The Williams story shows that it is at least sometimes possible to find common ground.

Building that common ground where shared values are developed and real progress can be made is important both for Napa and for society in general. Having started with Hegel’s owl, I conclude with William Butler Yeats’ falcon, from “The Second Coming.”

   Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …

9 responses

  1. It has been a growing concern (no pun intended) of mine for years, having the privilege of knowing some of the finest people in the industry, not just in Napa but in the rest of California and Europe.
    Back in 1980, I stopped being a wine snob when I met Joe Heitz, a protege of Andre Tchelistcheff, and a huge contributor to wine quality, along with his neigbor Joe Phelps, and many others. But then it became a rich man’s hobby. Hire a flying winemaker, make 200 cases of wine, get 90 points from Parker and who cares if you paid $450,000 an acre (current price in Yountville). True, some of these people are dedicated to it but at whose expense? The pathfinders who know that, as Joe Heitz told me, “it isn’t romantic, it’s farming, and no matter how good you are sometimes you come up with a bad wine due to mother nature.”
    I have a book project to tell the stories of the wonderful, dedicated people I have met and learned from. Those are the ones whose wines I buy, and Two Buck Chuck isn’t one of them.

  2. Sadly agree with James Conway, it’s all water under the bridge at this point. Money is patient and will wait out those trying to protect what’s left. We’ve lived in the Napa Valley mre than 30 years and experienced the excitement of the 1960’s and 70’s to the overwhelming push today to monetize everything. Wineries offer “experiences” not tastings, each one trying to outdo the other in the fight to get direct sales because there are simply too many wineries and too many brands for anyone to make sense of. They inundate planning commissions begging forgiveness after vastly exceeding production and visitor levels, as though wine country residents are responsible for their poor business plans and ignoring laws. We’re starting to see some of the ego wineries being sold as their “founders” realize it’s hard work and takes more effort than getting one good score and opening the gates to the waiting masses eager to buy their vastly overpriced wine. The Napa economy (and Sonoma county, too) are now reliant on wine tourism. Housing prices are too high for workers and weekenders snap up available homes. Welcome to ultra premium wine in the 21st Century.

    • Very well said. I have lived my entire 70 years in Napa, now watching my grandchildren grow up here. It makes me so sad to see how money is pushing citizens out. The headlines in the Napa Valley Register today, tell of the budget woes of the Napa Unified School District. Falling student enrollment, because rent and home prices are sky high. The quality of life here is only for those who can afford it. That price continues to climb, evermore quickly, So very sad.

  3. In these brightly lit, HD twilight days, the predators–owls, falcons and humans–all need, so let’s disabuse ourselves of any quaint Black Hat/White Hat dialectic and see pellucidly that water is more important–and central–than wine. More water, less wine. Same for Capetown.
    Minerva would agree.

  4. Let Yeats have the last word.
    “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

  5. Might be wise for the stakeholders of Napa to familiarize themselves with the work of Elinor Ostrom, the first (and only) woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economics.

    Her works examine the use of collective action, trust, and cooperation in the management of common pool resources (CPR), her institutional approach to public policy, known as the Institutional analysis and development framework (IAD), has been considered sufficiently distinct to be thought of as a separate school of public choice theory.

    Granted, the wine *industry* in Napa may not be an example of the Tragedy of the Commons, but from the thematic thrust of Conaway’s book and the blog comments I read here, tragedy may well indeed lurk in the wings for the less deep-pocketed denizens of the grape.

    • Thanks for this, Thomas. I agree that Ostrom’s work is remarkably insightful and would provide a good lens to view the Napa situation. Thanks again.

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