James Conaway, author who ‘unpopularly’ lamented sale of Napa wineries, to make rare local appearance

“I’m not popular with some people in Napa,” said James Conaway.|

Bestselling author James Conaway, who penned a nonfiction trilogy tracing the trajectory of the modern Napa Valley, will make a rare local appearance next week.

“I’m not popular with some people in Napa,” he said cheerfully in a phone interview from Japan, where he was attending his grandson’s graduation.

Conaway, who lives in Washington, D.C., will talk about his life as a writer Oct. 7 at the Writers’ Salon at Jessel Gallery in Napa.

His book, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” published in 1990, was a study of the people who rebuilt the post-Prohibition wine industry in the idyllic — though little known at the time — valley.

If you go

What: Writers’ Salon at Jessel Gallery

When: 5-7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7

Where: 1019 Atlas Peak Road, Napa

Cost: $10, includes refreshments; children attend free

More info: Reservations are requested; call 707-257-2350 or email jesselgallery@napanet.net

He followed it with “The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley.” And then, “Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity.”

Conaway’s notebooks, filled with his impressions, meetings and interview notes, are now at the UC Davis Wine Library. According to UC Davis, wine writer Jancis Robinson has written that Conaway’s books are about “the battle for this old land.”

In all, Conaway, a former Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford University, has written 13 books, including a satirical wine mystery, “Nose,” and a fairy tale, “Tio and the Blue Witch.”

Conaway, 82, said he is currently working on two new books: One is a prequel to “Nose,” and the other is a “journalist’s memoir” he has titled “My Unacceptable Life,” about “freelancing through the long twilight of the writers’ world.”

But it’s the Napa Valley that people still want him to talk about, said Conaway, who first visited Wine Country in 1963.

“The question I am asked most is, ‘Can Napa Valley be saved?’” he said. “It’s a nonsensical question — and the answer is no — because they are thinking about a Napa Valley that no longer exists.”

Coming from the East Coast, where he was writing for the Washington Post, Conaway said one of the first things that struck him about the Napa Valley was the ability to get outside.

“It had the feel of a beautiful place that could survive because of the quality of its crop. It didn’t last long,” he said. “I never thought it would come down to big corporations owning the valley.”

The encroachment of corporations into his “American Eden” began early with the sales of historic wineries Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards, he said. (Inglenook has since returned to private ownership under famed director and vintner Francis Ford Coppola.) The pace of multimillion-dollar sales, however, is accelerating as storied wineries are sold.

“The heirs don’t have the energy or the knowledge — they don’t realize the damage they are doing by selling the wineries their parents founded to large corporations,” Conaway said. “It’s a sign of not caring. Families whose parents worked hard to establish the Ag Preserve (passed in 1968). Sustainability has been abandoned by the next generation.”

The fight is always described as between vintners and environmentalists, Conaway said, but those labels are inaccurate.

“The vintner class doesn’t exist anymore,” he said. “They’re investors. And ‘environmentalists’ are first and foremost citizens; they are in it to preserve their home.”

Is there hope? He agreed there are wineries, founded in the 1970s and ’80s, that have remained family-owned: Cakebread Cellars is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and Peju is marking is 45th. Others include Grgich Hills and ZD.

“Going to the wineries is not the sole experience of Napa Valley,” he said. “There is the beauty of this valley. The tragic thing is that people are coming here and plucking up the last spots of beauty as fast as they can.

“It’s been such a heartbreak to see these properties go. They are encroaching on the natural beauty — the trees, the creeks, even the cows.”

Also reading at the Oct. 7 salon are Brian R. Martens, Sandra V. McGee and Bruce Overby.

The Salon at Jessel Gallery

Artist Jessel Miller hosted her first Writers’ Salon in October 2022 when she invited six local authors to read from their newly published works at her gallery, which she started in the former Hedgeside Whiskey Distillery in eastern Napa, 40 years ago.

The event was a surprising success.

“We had to just keep on bringing in more chairs and more chairs,” Miller said, “until we were running out of chairs and space.”

She decided to continue to host the salons on a quarterly basis, bringing in authors each time to read in a variety of genres, poetry, fiction and non-fiction and children’s books.

While she’s primarily known as a painter, Miller said she has “always loved the written word — and books.” She has written and illustrated six children’s books, including “The Slow Down Book,” “The Calico Cat,” “Angels in the Vineyards” and a three-book Mustard series. She received an award for one of her books, she said, “for literature not illustration, quite a coup for me.” She has completed her seventh book, “Soulful Voices,” which derives its inspiration from animals, asking help to save Earth.

Miller, who has expanded her gallery to represent other artists’ works in addition to her own, said that she is delighted with the community response to her writers’ salons. “I love expanding the dimensions (of Jessel Gallery) to honor all of the arts,” she said.

Martens, a Sonoma County poet, is the author of “Three Raven Gate,” a collection of haiku and other poems. Martens offers workshops on creativity and is an instructor for California Poets in the Schools. He co-hosts the Santa Rosa Arts Center’s Speakeasy poetry, music and open mic events.

McGee will read from “The Divorce Seekers,” which she wrote with her late husband, William L. McGee, a Montana cowboy turned writer. It’s a memoir of his years on Nevada’s Flying ME Ranch, a divorce ranch for the wealthy.

Overby’s novel of Silicon Valley, “The Cyclone Release,” is set in the late ’90s internet boom as his protagonist emerges from tragedy and lands in a pre-IPO startup that promises astonishing riches.

For more information, contact napavalleywriters@gmail.com.

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