James Conaway, chronicler of Napa Valley wine industry, warns money threatens to ruin America’s Eden
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.