Wine, Napa, Hyperbole and the Adorable James Conaway
It’s hard to argue with James Conaway, the writer and essayist who recently savaged the culture of Napa Valley and many of its inhabitants in a piece he penned for The Atlantic. It’s hard to do this because I like James so much, respect him tremendously and marvel at his writing skills. But it’s because he does know that I respect him that I’m sure he’ll take the following critique of his hyperbolic, unfair and somewhat sloppy Atlantic article in the friendly manner it is meant.
Let’s start with the title of James’ hyperbolic essay: “Rich People Are Ruining Wine”. We know he doesn’t mean this since many of the people he admires in Napa Valley are exceedingly rich. James has often laid about in their palatial homes enjoying their fine company and wines. These rich people would, in James’ mind, be considered to be improving wine in America. So, we know out of the gates that James doesn’t mean what he writes, but rather writes in a mean way.
But the point of “Rich People are Ruining Wine” is to argue that the wealthy people who buy Napa Valley wineries or built Napa Valley wineries along with planting vineyards don’t care about the environment and are dead set on sacrificing the environment in order to burnish their social standing as a “lifestyle vintner”, as James puts it.
He knows this isn’t true either. However, there is an initiative on the ballot in Napa in June (Measure C) that would end any and all planting of vineyards in the hillsides and mountains of Napa Valley no matter how appropriate, well suited, protected and environmentally sustainable those plantings would be. It’s important to note that James’ recent essay is written as a mere campaign piece in support of this initiative, not as a genuine and truthful description of the state of Napa Valley.
The “lifestyle vintner” appears to be the main target of James’ essay. These are folks he describes as having little or no knowledge of winemaking or viticulture and who merely want their names on overpriced bottles of wine:
“These bottles are social entrées of a sort, often representing a quick, handy makeover. Former labels—oil man, developer, sports mogul, tech entrepreneur, financier—are jettisoned for a new title redolent of European nobility. Those defined by their accumulation of money turn their backs on that past, benefiting from a kind of lay transubstantiation in which wine washes any previous grubby associations away.”
“Grubby Associations”. In marking people who have been professionally and financially successful in the fields of energy, development, sports, technology and finance as the “grubby” among us, James isn’t declaring his honest, philosophical and cultural affinity for some idyllic “Jeffersonian” sort of America. He is politicking. He is campaigning. And he is doing so in a very similar manner to the way our current president Trump did so during the 2016 campaign by appealing to the unjustified prejudice against “different people”. It’s disappointing.
And what is the consequence of James’ grubby winery owners in Napa Valley? This:
“I have been writing about Napa since the mid-‘80s and have watched this increasingly glamorized culture change the nature of the valley for the worse. The wines have become—with notable exceptions—standardized, and the gap between real agriculture and the glamorized version has grown.”
It makes you wonder if the vines planted by Grubby Vintners and those planted by Jeffersonian Vinters have different reactions to the process of photosynthesis. Maybe they do, as James suggests in his essay, but he would have been doing us all a favor if he explained how photosynthesis works differently upon the vines planted by “grubby” vintners and those planted by “Jeffersonian” vintners. Alas…he doesn’t explain.
Nor does he admit the obvious: He and his palate, despite being very good, can’t distinguish between the wines made by grubby lifestyle vintners and those vintners whose vines photosynthesize in a more authentic way.
After demonizing people he doesn’t know, James gets to the crux of his hyperbole:
“Lifestyle vintners have also left their mark on Napa’s landscape. Most refer to themselves with straight faces as “farmers,” even as “environmentalists,” while more trees are cut on surrounding mountainsides for yet more vineyards. They loudly praise the valley’s exemplary past and glorious future while exploiting its present.”
It’s important to note that James doesn’t mention that many of the grubby lifestyle vintners have done more to preserve land in Napa Valley by deeding it to the Napa Valley Land Trust than most of the rich, clean yeoman farmers he prefers. Nor does he explain why his cleaner, more moral and ethical friends aren’t considered to have “exploited” Napa Valley when THEY planted in the hillsides. I wouldn’t have noted this either, particularly if my goal was to campaign rather than tell the truth about Napa Valley.
It’s too late in my life to ever develop the keenness of mind and writing ability that James Conaway possesses. He has honed his skill over a lifetime dedicated to writing beautifully and poetically, not to mention entertainingly. My skills rise only to the level of slightly above a Hack. And as I told a friend yesterday, it’s very difficult to try to go head to head with James over his Atlantic essay primarily because I adore him and his work.
But, I care as much as James does. And I suspect he’ll take this in the vein it was written: a friendly rebuttal on an issue that deserves to be treated better than he treated it.