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A parable of greed, written in wine

The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley, James Conaway, Houghton Mifflin: 366 pp., $28

November 17, 2002|Kenyon Webster | Kenyon Webster is an urban planner in Sonoma County.

Wine Country. Its mystique has captivated California from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo to Sonoma, Mendocino and, most notably, Napa, the epicenter of the state's wine industry. But this growth has not come without a price. The extraordinary accomplishment, greed, environmental destruction and political upheaval in the Napa Valley wine industry of the 1990s is a parable for an America that often destroys the landscapes it loves through wanton exploitation at the expense of the public good and of the forces of reaction, at times misguided, which have sought to protect that natural landscape.

James Conaway's "The Far Side of Eden" continues the chronicle of Napa Valley's evolution from a sleepy agricultural backwater to a land of international conglomerates, dilettante millionaire investors, gentleman farmers and aggressive resistance to environmental protection that Conaway began in "Napa: The Story of an American Eden," an account of the struggles of the early grape growers and winemakers in the Northern California county from the 1960s through the '80s.

Napa's eminence in the world of wine crystallized in 1976, when, in a blind taste test by French experts, wines from Napa bested some of the most renowned (read: French) names -- an extraordinary embarrassment to that country's wine establishment. The cachet of owning a Napa "estate" vineyard, of having one's own label and becoming part of the American wine aristocracy, blossomed from that singular triumph.

But along with rampant growth in the industry came problems. Napa County in the 1990s was the scene of epic struggles between environmentalists and growers, entrepreneurs and wealthy investors who resisted environmental regulation and, indeed, any other controls on their land and development. Rampant destruction of hillsides, bulldozing of oak woodlands, siltation of streams and hordes of tourists brought calls for government intervention and regulation from environmentalists and ordinary citizens. As described by Conaway, this led to a polarization of those whose natural interests should have coincided: grape growers who wanted to preserve agriculture and activists who wanted to protect the environment. Those who sought balance were derided by extremists in both camps.

While winemakers, ordinary citizens, politicians and bureaucrats debated the future of Napa County, others, eager for celebrity as superstar consultants or purveyors of $100 bottles of "rocket juice," pursued status and profit no matter what the cost to the community.

It was against this backdrop that the Sierra Club, with the backing of a wealthy, eccentric local postmaster, sponsored a lawsuit against Napa County for violating the California Environmental Quality Act. Napa County was a leader in creating grading standards to address soil erosion and runoff on steep vineyard sites. Ironically, the county's permit requirements created the opportunity for a legal challenge alleging that individual environmental reviews should have been conducted on each permit. The Sierra Club won, scoring a major tactical victory, but the club failed to capitalize on larger policy issues and opportunities.

Repercussions of the lawsuit were felt beyond Napa County. Supervisors in nearby Sonoma County, facing similar vineyard development protests, restructured their proposed vineyard grading ordinance to eliminate the possibility of the type of legal attack experienced in Napa. This approach precluded the imposition of conditions tailored to the unique circumstances of each project, lessening the effectiveness of the regulations.

The book stays locally focused but is a microcosm of the battles being waged at the grass-roots level all across California. While the shortfalls of developing policy by lawsuit are illustrated and the value of hard lines between urban development and agriculture through the creation of agricultural preserve zones is articulated, Conaway does not draw broader lessons regarding the need for strong statewide policies that balance resource protection with economic development and preservation of agriculture.

Statewide planning to limit unchecked sprawl, implement an effective system of mass transit and preserve prime agricultural and natural areas has been lacking in California, leaving cities and counties to their own devices. Given the ethos of private property rights, unfettered capitalism and a strong history of local control, there is, of course, little prospect of such a statewide vision being implemented.

Nor does Conaway explore the fiscal dynamics behind the county's allowances for high-end hotels and Disneyland-like wineries, epitomized by Francis Ford Coppola's Niebaum-Coppola winery, marketing everything from yo-yos to $85 espresso cups in a setting crammed with artifacts from the director's Hollywood career and catering to busloads of tourists.

Conaway, who has written a diverse range of nonfiction and fiction, opts for an understated style. His chronicle lets the players speak for themselves, revealing their follies, pains and aspirations. In the end, the future of Napa County, and other precious areas of California, will be written by their likes, for better or for worse.

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