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.


21 Responses

  1. George Ronay - March 7, 2018

    Tom: Let’s face it, James is a “hack” also – no matter his writing skills. He was paid for this article, correct? One would assume that given the political leanings of Atlantic magazine, the article was designed to fit the expected profile.

    I’ve read James’ books on Napa and agree that he is an excellent writer, but here he’s writing for his audience – and I think your comments are quite accurate and pertinent!

    • Tom Wark - March 7, 2018

      George,
      James is no hack. He’s passionate, he sees a battle where he can play a part and he is willing to play a part. More power to him, I say. But he is also smart enough that he doesn’t expect that no one will oppose him either. And I’m sure he was paid. Professionals get paid.

  2. Clark Smith - March 7, 2018

    I am with you concerning James’ line of reasoning, but the title did move me. It’s not the rich people who own the wineries that are ruining Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. It is instead the rich people who buy them.

    I’m speaking of people too busy to do their homework to develop sophisticated palates, who have no appreciation of the profundities of well-made Bordeaux-style wines, but who really do adore raisined wines with 17% alcohol and 2% residual sugar, particularly if they come from prestigious properties and cost a lot of money. Napa has drifted further and further away from classic styles, partly because knowledgeable consumers know they can get better values elsewhere, instead pandering to wealthy clown wine lovers with more dollars than sense. These wines die quickly in the cellar, but they still have their impressive appellations and price tags, so who cares?

    It’s a vicious cycle. I do believe that Napa is one of the very best places on Earth to make classic Cabernet Sauvignon, but fewer and fewer producers are keeping the faith. God bless Chateau Montelena, Grace Family, Dominus, and others who remain loyal to styles of structural integrity and graceful longevity potential.

    As for producers who hang their fruit into raisins and then add alcohol and sugar, well, you know who you are.

    • Jim Silver - March 8, 2018

      Clark Smith has forgotten more about wine just this week than I will ever know in life, but I have to ask if his comment wasn’t actually written in 2007 because the type of wine he’s describing is very hard to find around here these days . I live and work here, taste wines every day here, and I have no idea where to even look for raisin-ed 17% Cabernet any more.

  3. Douglas Hillstrom - March 7, 2018

    You manage to include a good deal of unnecessary ad hominem savagery in this piece. It would be nice if you and Conaway could debate the woodlands initiative using old-fashioned facts.

    • Tom Wark - March 7, 2018

      Douglas,
      Thank you for commenting.

      If in my post it was not clear that I hold James Conaway is very high and warm esteem then that is my fault. As for a debate between James and I on the Initiative, I’d hope that would never happen if only because once we are in the same room it would be more likely that we’d be eating and drinking and talking.

      • Kathy - March 8, 2018

        Douglas – I find your comment interesting since Conaway’s comments are mostly opinion. Let’s face it. He was hired by what appears to be a very clever PR machine to support the Woodland Oaks initiative and his writing is being sold as fact by an expert.

        • Tom Wark - March 8, 2018

          Kathy,

          How are you??

          I’m going to come to James’ defense here. I’ve not spoken with him, but James has long been a strong conservationist when it comes to Napa. Both his new book and his Atlantic article are more than likely stong expressions of where he stands on the issue and the Initiative. Yes, it’s opinion, not fact. But I suspect he’s very much in his own pocket, not someone else’s.

  4. Dennis - March 8, 2018

    Now would someone comment on the crass commercialization that does exist in the valley, the over-crowding, the significant environmental issues, the pay to play mentality and zoning fights that do in fact exist, if not to the degree Mr. Conaway alleges, but to some degree certainly. Is everything he alleges false? Is it a matter of tone? Or does he paint the scene too vividly? Where does the truth lie in your opinion.

    • Jim Silver - March 8, 2018

      Dennis, I see your comments on Twitter, and now here too. I live in and own a home in Napa, I work here, my children go to school here, and I have no bloody idea what you are talking about. What is so crass here? Is it the castle? So what. What danger am I in environmentally speaking? Where is this over-crowding you are talking about? Is sitting in traffic on 29 proof of overcrowding? If so, Berkeley, SF and all of NY are equally doomed I suppose.

  5. Jim Caudill - March 8, 2018

    Of one thing we can be sure: James is in nobody’s pocket, and nothing in this latest book nor article should be a surprise since it’s consistent with every word he’s written since the first book. Like you, I’m an admirer even as I don’t quite believe all is lost and I know first hand that large companies do indeed care about things other than profits. Those with the most to gain often have the most to lose, and make decisions accordingly.

  6. Paul Vandenberg - March 8, 2018

    The rich ruined Napa long ago.
    Napa has long been the stuff of ego rather than substance. It’s about getting a big price not making kick ass wine. Any body from Napa want to come do a blind tasting with Washington wines under $50? $40? $30? $20?
    The French last came in 1988.

    Paul Vandenberg
    Paradisos del Sol

  7. Jim Silver - March 8, 2018

    I look forward to reading his book when I get to it – I have not so far – but your review, and that of Mobley’s in the Chronicle both seem to say similar things. The author seems to desperately need to be right about the end of all things beautiful in Napa. He sees ugliness and greed on every hillside. He sees gilt, avarice and destructive intentions in everyone’s avatar – everyone but his self-made Jeffersonian farmer friends, who also planted grapes and cut trees.
    Yet, he’s not totally wrong is he? Maybe his passions got the better of him because there must have been a better way to sound a warning. Or are we past the warning and now we’re reading a eulogy?

  8. Michael Rubin - March 8, 2018

    To try to compare James Conway’s comments to Trump’s form of discourse or any political effort is absurd. Conway gets to speak his piece and as a well respected writer gets paid for his articles. Those who disagree should do so on the points he raises, not attacking him because your opinion differs from his. As for the wealthy ruining wine, take a mental drive down Highway 29 from the mid 1970’s and back up the Silverado Trail and think about the overwrought ego palaces that have sprung up in the ensuing decades. I only wish we could still get some of the the wines made in those days.

  9. Brian - March 8, 2018

    With all due respect, Tom, there are wealthy people who buy Napa Valley wineries or built Napa Valley wineries that are dead set on sacrificing the environment. There have been lawsuits and fines that prove it. They are the minority, but they’re out there. Mr. Conaway isn’t lying.

  10. Tom Wark - March 8, 2018

    Brian,

    First, I didn’t accuse James of Lying.

    Second, can ou tell us who is “dead set on sacrificing the environment of the Napa Valley? Lawsuits can be filed easily. That’s proof of nothing.

  11. Brian - March 8, 2018

    Tom,

    If you’re not claiming he’s lying here then I don’t know what else it could be:

    “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.”

    Second, I know you know the Napa Valley and the wine industry very well. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy your blog. I hope you are not completely unaware of the history of environmental laws broken by some of these winery and vineyard owners. It’s been well publicized, with Conaway himself having written about some of these instances.

  12. Michaela Rodeno - March 8, 2018

    As a 40-year grower in Napa Valley, among other things, I dislike the tone of this divisive debate between those who think the end is nigh and those who wish nothing ever changed around here. We should all be grateful the Napa Valley is still green (with vineyards) instead of paved over as a Bay Area suburb. We should stop throwing rocks at one another and focus on doing the best we can to preserve the highest and best use of this rare place.

  13. Kellie Anderson - March 8, 2018

    Bremer Family Winery. Google them.

  14. Pam Strayer - March 9, 2018

    James Conaway has a lot of integrity so I’ve been LOL about insinuations that he’s in someone’s pocket. Aside from Conaway, there’s little that would really quality as wine journalism – i.e. we have very few voices talking about the real issues in wine country – pesticides and land use.

    In Napa alone more than 40,000 pounds of Roundup – or glyphosate – an herbicide the UN’s top cancer experts (including many former top US health officials – Dr. Jameson, Dr. Portier, Dr. Blair) have categorized as a probable carcinogen in 2015 – are used on vines each year.

    While vintner associations would have you believe that Napa is very green and is the land of the family farmer, in fact, it is “colonized” as a wine grape “plantation” by many giant corporations. No one else is brave enough to even enter the fray of these types of conversations. Would you like to be a local and have Koch Brothers funding the opposition – trying to build even more luxury hotels in the valley?

    Conservation issues in Napa AND in Sonoma have led to citizen revolts and picketing on occasion. The locals are trying their best to protect what little they have left.

    You won’t read about these elsewhere. Conaway is doing a great service to the community.

    The Chronicle, Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register and the entire wine press (esp. Sunset magazine) do not cover these issues (for economic and cultural reasons). They depend on ad revenues from wineries.

    The land use and pesticide issues are real concerns among the long term and the newer residents. What we see in Napa is the disappearance of many family enterprises and the continuing overuse of toxic chemicals. Local green campaigns (“sustainability”) attempt to get vintners to use less water and energy (California state taxes subsidize solar energy and more efficient equipment, and then vintners can trumpet their adoption of these in the green marketing) – but the county boards are interested in growth, baby, growth.

    Thank God there is one voice – Conaway’s – writing to a broad audience about these development issues and the real power behind the throne.

  15. Sonoma rebuttal - March 15, 2018

    To P. Stayer:
    Sonoma County covers over 1 million acres. Only 6% (<59,000 acres) are planted to vineyards, yet we contribute $13.4 billion in economic impact to the county, providing 54,000 jobs. What business are you in? What is your contribution?
    For every 1 acre of vineyards there are 2 acres of diversified agricultural (pastures, dairy, poultry, fig,hay, lavender, apples, limes, pears, olives, etc).
    Urban areas are 9%, forests and pastures combine for 85%.
    These are facts. Quit hating on us and think about it a little more.


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