Author says big wine money has ruined Napa and Sonoma may be next

Author James Conaway says big money in the wine industry has harmed the quality of life and the environment in Napa County. He warns Sonoma County could be next.|

James Conaway is angry.

Author and journalist, Conaway has been the foremost chronicler of Napa

Valley for more than three decades. His “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” in 1990 told of the early pioneers who turned a family farming community in the valley into the premier wine region of the United States.

He followed that book with “The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley” in 2002 that covered how new investors were changing the valley with their emerging focus on tourism and marketing higher-priced cult wines to consumers.

His new book does not hide his current feelings for Napa Valley. “Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity” takes aim at the investors and big companies, which he contends have transformed the area with crass commercialism that has overridden the quality of life and harmed the environment.

As he visited the region on a book tour last month, Conaway noted that he received a chilly reception from many in Napa County’s wine community, though he was embraced by citizens and activists who share his view.

“The establishment has never really cared for me. Now they are trying to undermine me,” said Conaway, 76, who started out as the wine writer at the Washington Post and is the author of 13 books. “People have finally woken up. They are paying attention this.”

Press Democrat Staff Writer Bill Swindell recently interviewed Conaway to get his thoughts on the local wine industry, the backlash against wine tourism, and what the future holds for the environment. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Napa Valley has always attracted rich people as investors. Was there a particular tipping point for you that was critical?

Back when Heublein Inc. bought Inglenook Winery in 1969, I guess that was the first corporate shock for the valley. It’s true there have always been wealthy people in Napa and they would often come to their ranches on the weekend. It’s an order of magnitude that’s greater than that now. There are so many wealthier people and they have so much money and less knowledge and interest in agriculture and grapes than the wealthy people before - that’s my impression. It was kind of a participatory investment in the early days. Inglenook founder Gustave Niebaum didn’t make wine, but knew a lot about it. He had his own standards and knew what he wanted. Today, depending on how much money you have, you can sort of obtain everything for you.

You contend many of these people are not actually vintners, and don’t know the essentials for winemaking or growing grapes?

These guys do tend to know that sort of stuff. It provides conversational opportunities for them. They may be intimately involved in the promotions side, but they aren’t doing the work. It’s questionable about how much they actually know. Large amounts of money changes all parameters really. There is so much of it now. Vineyards have become real estate deals as much as they have become opportunities to put in a vineyard. If you have a vineyard permit, you can flip it and you can make a lot of money. The thing is there is not endless resources. And doing this up in the hills really has an impact on the water supply.

What about the role the media plays, especially the constant focus on such exclusive brands as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate that can sell for thousands of dollars per bottle?

Wine writers ought to be tougher than they are. Not so much on the wines, but on the operations. I think readers are increasingly interested in that. Wine journalists need to work a lot harder. Not just talking about mouthfeels and soft tannins, but what is behind the operations.

What about the focus on cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley, given that the varietal brings higher profits than other styles? Is that part of the problem?

A lot of the new money doesn’t need to get the return. One of the problems is they don’t want to get the return. They just want it for the cachet. They can never make enough just by selling the wine to put in the cost of a $20 million winery - in most cases. If they flip it to an Asian investor that’s different. A lot of them are more concerned with ratings and the opinions of their wine. The problem is once they have those, then they start looking around for ways to expand. Often that expansion includes real estate.

Vineyard land is much scarcer in Napa County. The last major expansion is the Walt Ranch project, which would open up 209 acres of new vineyards between city of Napa and Lake Berryessa. But that battle is still being fought in the courts even though it was first proposed more than 10 years ago.

That is really the message there. Napa doesn’t have endless resources - meaning land to plant new vineyards. Putting them in the hillside destroys many of the trees and messes up the absorption of rainwater. You get runoff and foul streams.

Environmentalists have put forward a June 5 measure that would curtail new vineyard development in Napa County by providing greater protection to watersheds and oak woodlands. Do you view that as a hopeful sign?

This initiative that has been put forward in Napa is really kind of modest. There is a lot of complaining. It will eventually preserve oak trees. But it’s not like Napa doesn’t have a lot of vineyards already. Symbolically, however, it’s very important. It’s the case of the majority really wanting something, but being thwarted by the minority in cahoots with the county government.

How powerful is the wine industry in Napa County?

The wine industry is quite spoiled in Napa. They resent people, the proletariat pushing up this initiative that many people in the valley want. But they don’t want it. There is a bit hubris in their reaction. How much better would it have been for the Napa Valley Vintners (the industry’s top trade group) to side with the initiative? From a public relations side, it would have been the right thing to do. I also think it would have satisfied a lot more of their members than the big boys want to admit. They would have profited by it. They are very nervous about this for reasons that remain undisclosed.

Would wineries benefit from a cap on the number of vineyards because it would limit competition?

It’s the corporate way in America - grow or die. That might have fit at one time. But it doesn’t fit today with all the resources disappearing. Drought is coming back. Grow and die is more like it. Grow and sell out is what a lot of these operations are thinking about. Instead of getting involved in agriculture, you are getting involved in branding. You can make a lot of money in the short term until people find out what you have done.

What are your notable examples of wineries that sold out to bigger investors and lost their luster?

Beaulieu Vineyard. Beringer Vineyards. Robert Mondavi Winery. It’s an inevitable progression if you adhere to the corporate mantra of “grow or die” and make as much money as you can four times a year. Forget about long-term decisions. How do corporations make money? They cut down on the raw price on what goes into their product, and continue to sell it as if it was their old self. In fact, it isn’t. It’s a shell.

But why should wine be immune to business pressures of other products?

Business is supposed to be good for the citizens of America. It’s not just supposed to be good for corporations, the CEOs and stockholders. This whole notion we are talking about is very instructive of community. They will say, “We are job creators” and all that stuff. The bigger point is the quality of life, especially when you are cutting down the trees and subverting the definition of agriculture so you can build more real estate within the Napa County Agricultural Preserve. It’s destructive of communities. It’s destructive of the environment.

Climate change will likely play a major role in coming years. What is the local wine industry doing to plan for such a scenario?

The wine people that we are talking about, they don’t like to talk about that. They will have to make some hard decisions, and they have to look at things realistically. A lot of them don’t even want to admit that climate change is taking place. It’s put them in an untenable position on what is dictated by the politics of the issue. I think it’s clear that they are in a losing game. It’s short-term thinking.

What about Sonoma County?

The subtitle is “America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity.” I just don’t mean Napa County. Sonoma County is in the age of calamity too. Sonoma is about twice the size of Napa. It still has mixed agriculture, which is a blessing. People who live there should be grateful for that because that’s gone in Napa. It’s a more comfortable physical environment now for people coming through here in Sonoma County. People do have to get involved early on this issue. There are plenty of voices out there now and organizations out there to help. You need to speak out and get in with others quickly.

The cannabis business has essentially been shut out in Napa County. What’s your take on the crop?

It brings in a whole different clientele. Tourism in Napa is really important to everybody. Cannabis brings a different kind of tourist. It’s not a good kind of farming. It uses more water. I know some people do it a different way. But it is a little hypocritical of the vintners and growers in Napa to complain about cannabis. It’s a plant. What right do they have to nip this in the bud, so to speak?

Are there people in the wine business you still admire?

Randy Dunn of Dunn Vineyards in Angwin is one. There are some younger examples. Steve Matthiasson of Matthiasson Wines in Napa. He’s kind of famous. There are plenty of little guys. The problem is the little guys make the best wine and they are vulnerable to the big guys. It’s the old Standard Oil thing.

What should Napa County and the rest of the region do to address some of these problems?

The only answer is to stop creating new enterprises that are ancillary to wine; that is bringing in new people with activities that have nothing to do with agriculture. Tourism is what I am talking about. Tourism has never saved anything. It’s destroyed many things. Tourism devours what it loves.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.