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In Napa, It's Still the Best of Times

'Teflon Valley' prospers despite Sept. 11, Enron and the tech bust

June 30, 2002|SHAWN HUBLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. HELENA, Calif. — The sun was high by the time the live bidding started. Bottles had long since been uncorked, and the crowd under the big white tent was sweaty and loose. The spin was that the Napa Valley Wine Auction might not be much of a party in this hard year.

But no, here was Chuck McMinn, whose Cabernet was a hit even if his telecom company had been out of bankruptcy for just six months. And there was Orange County's David Doyle, who would spend $320,000 on one lot, though his software firm's stock was trading at about a third of last year's share price.

"We'll start the bidding at 10," the auctioneer was calling, launching an event that would include dibs on dinner with Ted Olson, the U.S. solicitor general whose famous wife, Barbara, was a Sept. 11 plane crash victim. "Do I hear $10,000, how about 20, 30, 40, we have 50, do I hear 70, 90, don't be afraid of six figures." In one corner, a CEO and a venture capitalist were betting on how far this year's auction proceeds would fall from last year's $7.6 million. (Less, as it turned out, than either expected.) In another, a woman in stripes was gamely repeating the oldest new-money joke in the valley: "How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large fortune." Not everything has changed in the nine months since the world supposedly changed forever. Here among the vineyards and villas, the summer resolution seems to be: Don't let the terrorists win.

Each year--beginning in June, with its signature auction, and ending in September, when the San Francisco Opera opens its season--the Napa Valley becomes a sort of Bay Area social hub. For the second-home owners and affluent summer people who have come to form a sizable minority in the still-rural region, this has tended to mean a party circuit so lavish that the place is regularly billed as "the Hamptons of the West" in society pages. This year, however, not even the Hamptons of the East has offered much respite from the post-tech-bust, post-Sept. 11, post-Enron anxiety, and the conventional wisdom here was that the wine country summer would, likewise, be a bust.

So much for conventional wisdom.

As the mercury climbs, this place is looking more and more like the Teflon Valley. "I have to say I don't see much difference--the parties seem to be the same as ever," laughed John Traina, a Faberge egg collector and former shipping executive who has spent summers and weekends in Oakville for decades. In fact, the only regular event he knows to have been canceled--or even downscaled--this year is his own Fourth of July barbecue, where some 400 socialites and farmers annually get together at his estate for line dancing. He's canceling, he says, only because scheduling conflicts forced him to move up the date of his annual trip to Europe with his children and Danielle Steel, the romance novelist who is his ex-wife.

Private parties are planned for Julia Child and Sophia Loren and the Washington, D.C.-based architect Leo Daly. Wine country caterers and chefs say their summer calendars have been solidly booked for months. "Let's see," murmured Urannia Ristow, who shuttles between San Francisco and her Ristow Estates vineyard in Napa. "I'll have my dinner for my wine group in July and probably some other sort of wine event, but it'll have to be in July too because August is just crazy, it's the big month.... "

"Life is short and fragile," explained Italian-born jet-setter Maria Manetti Farrow, who says her sole concessions to the times have been a decision to forgo wearing real jewelry on commercial airliners and to make her usual nonstop entertaining schedule more intimate this year at Villa Mille Rose, her 60-acre Tuscan-style summer home in Oakville. "Yes, I am a businessperson, and we expected things would turn around by now, but I am trying not to be upset. I would rather enjoy deeply my friends."

"I think all Americans are feeling, 'Use your good silver and drink your good wine because you don't know what'll happen tomorrow,' " said Traina's son, Trevor, an Internet company executive who also has a house in the valley. "Also, to the extent that San Francisco is a target city, you do feel safer [in the valley]--no dirty bombs up there."

The reluctance to go gently into social hibernation reflects broader resilience in Napa County, which is farther than other affluent retreats from scenes of the Sept. 11 attacks. It also has been less directly buffeted by the tech slump than most of the Bay Area. Its restaurants are bustling. Hotel occupancy, which has fallen throughout the Bay Area, is expected to hold steady here this summer. Unemployment--lower than at any spot in the Bay Area and less than half the rate of Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County--was a mere 3.3% at last count.

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