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For more than a year now they had been searching: on the highway, near the river, atop oaky knolls that rose abruptly from the valley floor, up wild canyons, and along the spines and scarps of two rugged coastal ranges. What they were looking for was not easily put into words, but the quality of the ideal was absolute and unassailable in their minds. They were searching for ... They would know it when they found it.
They didn't want a hut in the woods. They didn't want a roadside attraction. They didn't want one of those Victorian piles built in homage to Europe, with too many rooms and too much view (views could be just as pretentious as architecture) and strange names like Chateau Montelena, Chateau Chevalier, Freemark Abbey — white elephants all, and all for sale, with weeds in the yards and blank windows staring back into the illusions of the founders.
The couple's name was Davies, and the fact that these near-ruins existed in an agricultural backwater given over to prune and walnut trees, pastures and some vines, intrigued them. The valley, named for the Napa River that flowed through it, was still tenuously connected to a process going back thousands of years and halfway round the world, to the Transcaucasus, south of the Caspian Sea, where similar vines clung to rocky ledges and the grapes were once placed in earthen pots, and the substance that came of them, wine, made its way down the Euphrates, through Egypt, Greece, imperial Rome, and France, to arrive at this redoubt in northern California sometime in the previous century.
Now, in the spring of 1964, Napa Valley was about to achieve something unique in America — again. Wine, lately considered the dubious beverage of immigrants, made in basements, would soon be transformed into a symbol of high culture, and winemakers would be heralded as artists. The owners of wineries themselves would be celebrated as a new class. These self-made baronets — formerly real estate speculators, developers, academics, brokers, dentists, oilmen, and purveyors of products as varied as frozen food and feature films — would put their names on bottles, tacitly associating themselves with an older order and an endeavor above ordinary commerce. They would invite the public into a romantic association not unlike that involving movie idols and real royalty.
The children of these "vintners" would grow up on little fiefdoms, accustomed to the sight of workers among the vines and to the pleasures of life far from the raucous cities and suburbs their parents had left behind. They would reject the unsavory methods of earning the money required to have brought about such a change in their families' fortunes. Some would seek to turn the land into tourist attractions, increasingly urged to exploit the place. Finally, the valley would take on a gloss that had more to do with money than with the product for which it became famous; it would be transformed into a paradigm of material ambition and dissent, threatened by the very brilliance of the imprint it left on the world.
No one had yet thought of these things in 1964. The Davieses — he of the quizzical smile, she of the pale green, catlike eyes — had more immediate concerns. They would, of course, be influenced by history and the natural beauty, but also by practical considerations like sufficient living space, plantable land, a decent bam, good water — all part of a daring, maybe harebrained scheme to get out of Los Angeles.
The Davieses, like many people in the country at that time, sought to change their way of life. The dim notions of freedom they brought with them to Napa Valley, and many of the problems they encountered, were representative of a broader exodus. Jack was the vice president of acquisitions for a large, privately held metals distributor. At forty-two, he had a solid reputation as a businessman; he was methodical and judicious. Those qualities augured against the scheme for escaping, and if it became reality, he was going to have some very surprised associates.
His wife, Jamie, thirty, wore her blond hair short. The breadth of her smile left people with the impression that they were talking to a taller person. To her, the vineyards of Napa Valley, the parched hills against the deep green of oak and conifer and the arching blue sky, seemed timeless and dense with promise.
The house had been vacant for quite a while, the real estate agent warned them as they drove up a narrow defile on the eastern slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. It was spring, and hot. The riven road jarred the car and offered up its dust. Jamie Davies could no longer see the thrust of Mount St. Helena off to the right, at the top of Napa Valley, but she could see water running in the streambed — a good sign — and big eucalyptus, redwoods, madrona, and oak trees leaning into one another. Wild vines grew in tangles in the branches, their canes extending clear across the road. The property had once belonged to a German barber in San Francisco named Schram, who came up a century before and fell in love with the setting. He had made wine there but the vineyards had gone to seed since Prohibition, overrun by the same wild vines, poison oak, and impenetrable red-stalked manzanita.
The land was steep, but then the Davieses wanted hillside property. To the south lay a state park, another plus Then Jamie saw the house. It was made partially of stone and commanded a kind of courtyard, with an old winery on one side, a mountain on the other, and a porch that turned the corner. Victorian, all right, but not a pile. Robert Louis Stevenson had stayed there, the real estate agent said, and had written about the place in a book called Silverado Squatters
He led them up the steps and into the old house. Drapes blocked the light from tall windows; covered furniture stood mutely in the shadows. Jamie felt a palpable tug from a previous age and knew that Jack felt it, too.
They were shown tunnels in the mountain, full of bats. Schram's tunnels had been dug by hand. Jamie could see old bottles lying about in the gloom, and collapsed barrels that had once held aging wine. Schram had wandered the valley with razor and shears, shaving frontiersmen and cutting hair to support his nineteenth-century obsession.
They talked about it all the way back to L.A. Their excitement seemed a bit irrational to Jamie. For starters, the property was too big. They would have to invite friends in as investors, lots of friends, if they tackled it. The house was only half painted; none of the rooms was fit to live in. Animals romped in the walls. The plumbing was a disaster and rain came through the ceiling. The winery needed a new roof. There were no vineyards. And those tunnels! A wonder of individual human industry, full of junk.
Jamie found a copy of Stevenson's Silverado Squatters. The writer had visited Napa with his new wife in 1880. Jamie lingered over his description of the approach to the Schram place. "A rude trail rapidly mounting; a little stream tinkling by on the one hand, big enough perhaps after the rains, but already yielding up its life; overhead and on all sides a bower of green and tangled thicket, still fragrant and still flower-bespangled." The Schram house was "the picture of prosperity: stuffed birds in the veranda, cellars dug far into the hillside, and resting on pillars like a bandit's cave: all trimness, varnish, flowers, and sunshine, among the tangled wildwood. Stout, smiling Mrs. Schram ... entertained Fanny in the veranda, while I was tasting wines in the cellar. To Mr. Schram this was a solemn office ... he followed every sip and read my face with proud anxiety."
Apparently Stevenson liked what he tasted. He wrote, "The smack of California earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson."
It was sheer luck that had led the Davieses to the same house, Jamie thought. Blind passage.
* * *
When the time came to move, she was again eight months pregnant. Her father, a lawyer, jokingly said she never did anything really challenging unless she was about to have a baby. Like the time she and Jack had sailed from San Francisco to L.A. aboard a thirty-seven-foot yawl. Now her father thought she was acting irresponsibly, moving to Napa. He had helped raise Jamie in Pasadena, with what was commonly referred to as all the advantages. She and Jack were turning their backs on a nice, comfortable southern California existence and moving to the ends of the earth — they were acting like beatniks!
Jamie loved her father. He had introduced her to the wonders of the California wilds, both desert and mountain. She told him that it was for her children that they were moving. She wanted them to know more than pavement, freeways, transience, and a present dimmed by the recent murder of the President and by an expanding war in Vietnam. At the same time, Jamie felt good about the future, encouraged by the success of America's space program and the coming of a new age that it implied. She and Jack were going to be part of something new and audacious.
Usually she heeded her father's advice. At the University of California at Berkeley she had studied political science because he didn't want her to major in art. He saw her as a schoolteacher, and she tried that for a while, but in Carmel she fell in love with art all over again, quit teaching, and started selling paintings out of a van.
Someone took her to a party at Jack's place, in San Francisco. She saw original art and that surprised her. Jack Davies didn't seem like the type to invest in works of the imagination. His words came out flat, without affect, his eyebrows rising and falling behind his glasses, like semaphore. He seemed remarkably straightforward. Later, after they were married, Jack told her that his grandfather had mined coal in Wales. Jamie thought that probably explained some things. Jack had studied economics and business management at Stanford and at Harvard; his career was eclectic — paper packaging, furniture manufacturing, management consulting. He criticized American business in general for talking down to the consumer and for growing fat and lazy.
When Jack announced that he was moving to the Napa Valley, his boss couldn't believe it. He begged Jack to remain in southern California. They were just getting in on the aerospace play! All Jack's associates said he was wrecking a fine career, and for what? Winemaking? Get serious. Where was the security? Americans didn't drink wine, they drank Coke. When they did drink wine, it was out of a bottle with a handle on it, produced by people whose last names ended in vowels.
Jack and Jamie knew people who drank wine, including good California wine, and some who made it, people whose names did not end in vowels. The most celebrated was Martin Ray, a former stockbroker who lived in Saratoga, near San Jose. The Davieses had been taken to lunch there by friends and had left twelve hours later, rocked by the experience. They had seen that another way of life was indeed possible. Ray was inspiring and argumentative; his stunning technical recitations were followed by displays of guile and charm, and sometimes anger. He popped corks from bottles of Dom Perignon and fine Bordeaux and dared you to compare them with his own creations. He was, in short, a wild man, but one committed to making something rare and unequivocal, and absolutely convinced it could be done in California. They could make wine there as good as the French.
* * *
Jack drove north with their four-year-old son in an old International pickup, followed by the moving van. He had bought the Schram place with savings and with the proceeds of the sale of their house in L.A. He had bought 51 percent of it, that is. Investors had bought the other 49 percent. Jack had run the numbers on a start-up winery and figured he would need eight years to make it profitable. Of course the figures that went into the equation didn't necessarily mean anything, but they were the best he could find.
Jamie flew up from L. A. with the two-year-old and an Argentine live-in mother's helper, who brought her own television set. Jack insisted that the family spend the first night in the Calistoga Inn while he cleaned out a couple of rooms. The following morning they showed up early; the mother's helper told Jack, "Any man who would bring his wife and children to a place like this should be ashamed."
They had thirty days to render it livable. Jack and Jamie worked constantly. At night, they listened to mice, rats, and other creatures coursing through the walls and across the attic floor. Every day the Argentine nurse, her television set barely functioning in this crease in the Mayacamas range, stood in the doorway and told Jack, "You'll never make it."
Jamie delivered in the hospital in Vallejo, another boy. Jack finished painting the bedroom. After Jamie and the baby came home, he took the nurse and her television set to the airport and put them both on a plane.
There began a procession of "help" up their dirt road: housekeepers who wouldn't, handymen who weren't. Some came just to gander at the city slickers. The Davieses had social and financial advantages not shared by most of the natives, who had changed appreciably since Robert Louis Stevenson's time, when he described them as "rebellious to all labour, and pettily thievish ... rustically ignorant, but with a touch of woodlore and the dexterity of the savage. ... Loutish, but not ill-looking, they will sit all day, swinging their legs on a field fence."
One of the early babysitters tried to steal Jack's dime collection, but in the neighborhood Jack and Jamie soon came to know people they liked and trusted, on all levels.
Jack hired a man to help him put a redwood shingle roof on the winery, and cleaned out the tunnels himself, disturbing the bats. Often he had to turn his back on the demands of the tunnels, winery, and house, and fly down to L.A. to deal with an employer reluctant to let him go. Then Jamie took over the jobs, doing what she could while attending to three small children.
Jack would come home at night and see the fog blowing off the cold water of San Francisco Bay. The fog would follow him north from the airport, through the city of Napa and little hamlets named for dead and forgotten heroes — Yountville, Rutherford, St. Helena — and then stars would appear in the narrow wedge of sky at the head of the valley.
The dinner invitation came from the McCreas, up the mountain. The Davieses had met them at a wine tasting. Fred McCrea was from Minneapolis, Eleanor from Buffalo; they had courted in Napa Valley in the thirties, and Fred had gone into advertising in San Francisco. They had purchased an old 160-acre homestead during World War II for $7,500, planted a vineyard, and called it, appropriately, Stony Hill.
The McCreas made Chardonnay, a sign in the valley that they were a little strange. They had also planted Riesling and Pinot Blanc,' at the insistence of professors at the University of California at Davis, the campus for viticulture. The professors disapproved of amateurs pretending they were in Burgundy, where Chardonnay was grown, when they were in northern California, where white wine was made out of French Colombard, Chenin Blanc, and other white grapes better able to withstand frost. The McCreas' wine had won medals and considerable notoriety, however.
Jamie was surprised to discover that Fred drank gin, and Eleanor bourbon. Fred told her, "White wine before dinner is an affectation."
The Davieses and the McCreas hit it off. Fred had opinions about how to set up the sort of small winery the Davieses had in mind. He talked about "position" and "image." His wife gave off a kind of radiance. The McCreas were older than the Davieses, but they were all in this together — Anglo-Saxons with Mediterranean delusions, if truth be told. What a glorious thing it would be if the delusions ever became real!
There were others in the valley like them, refugees from business, academia, and totalitarianism, and some colorful misfits. J. Leland Stewart, owner of an upgraded hovel on Howell Mountain called Souverain Cellars, had left the meat-packing business to write a novel but had turned to making wine back in the forties. Lee Stewart had been a great help to the McCreas. So had Joe Heitz, who had worked for Gallo over in the Central Valley and for Beaulieu Vineyard before buying his own winery on Highway 29. Heitz knew a lot about winemaking and was notoriously abrupt; more than once he had reduced Eleanor McCrea to tears.
Stony Hill, Souverain, Heitz, Mayacamas Vineyards — these were the only creditable small producers in the valley. A couple of the Victorian piles, Beaulieu and Inglenook Vineyards, were also making good wine. There were a few graduates of UC Davis and Fresno State employed as cellar rats around the valley, but most of the grape growing and winemaking was done by people who had done it for years and whose names really did end in a vowel: the Martinis, the Mondavis, and others, all friends of the McCreas.
Excerpted from "Napa"
Copyright © 1990 James Conaway.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
Table of Contents,
Map of The Valley,
I. Terra Incognita,
III. As Good As the Best,
V. In the Eye of the Beholder,
VI. Noah's Children,
VII. The Tragedy of the Commons,
Acknowledgments and Sources,
The Far Side of Eden,
About the Author,