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In Napa, things are getting nasty

October 30, 2002|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

THE hottest topic in St. Helena right now isn't the latest one-acre Cabernet. It's not the escalating price of vineyard land. It's not the newest McMansion on Silverado Trail. It's a book. Go figure.

Don't panic. Napa hasn't gone all literary on us. This isn't just any book, but James Conaway's "The Far Side of Eden," and it's about all of those things.

The book begins with a bang with a deliciously gossipy portrait of cult Cab maker Garen Staglin and his wife, Shari. They've designed the Palladian pile of a villa they hacked out of the Mayacamas Mountains to resemble a Tuscan hill town.

"We've got a lot of lifestyle here," as Staglin says.

The Staglins' neighbor, Jack Cakebread, who comes in for his own share of pops, calls them "the Dennis Rodmans of the Napa Valley."

Of course, Cakebread was peeved because the Staglins leased their house for the filming of the remake of "The Parent Trap" and the lights, trailers and generators bugged him.

When he complained, the Staglins wouldn't bend ("Wine is about all these things," one of them is quoted as saying. "When you can say you have had dinner with Garen and Shari, and talked about 'The Parent Trap,' you've had a whole reinforcing experience.")

So Cakebread went to his old friend Robert Mondavi for advice. Mondavi was sympathetic, up to a point. Staglin had ponied up $1 million to help build Copia, Mondavi's pet project museum (which earned Staglin presidency of the board of trustees and a tasting room in his name).

It will probably come as no surprise then that Conaway's first public reading, which was announced as being at Copia, was canceled (whether it was officially scheduled is a matter of dispute).

And then so was the second reading, at a local movie theater. It seems the owner is a high school friend of the wife of David Abreu, vineyardist to the stars and a guy whom the book pictures as making a minor specialty out of raping hillsides.

And so it goes. The list of those skewered reads like a page from some wine geek's cellar book: besides Mondavi, Cakebread, Abreu and Staglin, there's Jayson Pahlmeyer, Delia Viader, Anne Colgin, Stuart Smith, Randy Dunn and perhaps most extravagantly Francis Ford Coppola, whom Conaway regards as being on the cutting edge of cheapening Napa into a kind of vinous Disneyland.

Probably about the only people in the area who are happy with the book are those who avoided being included in it.

It would be unfortunate, though, if all the fuss over gossip keeps people from following the book's deeper story. While the first section is easily the most fun, it is merely a setup for Conaway's real purpose: examining the collision of tradition and what he sees as its despoilers.

An editor at Preservation magazine, Conaway first wrote about the valley in his 1990 book, "Napa," which told in reverential tones of the battles to prevent the suburbanization of the wine country through the establishment of an agricultural preserve.

The preservationists took that round, but a decade later they might well be wondering exactly what it was they won. Having the Napa Valley declared an agricultural preserve, with its restrictions on minimum lot sizes, seems only to have succeeded in ensuring that land could be bought by only the very rich.

And there has been no shortage of them. Combine real estate scarcity with the wealth generated by the '90s boom economy, and what you've got is a very limited game that it seems everyone wants to join. When vineyard land on the valley floor was completely consumed, it drove those who were willing to pay quite literally up the hillsides.

And while hillside Cabernets may have grace and elegance, they sometimes come at the cost of chopping down hundreds of native oaks and "strip-mining" ecologically sensitive areas to establish the vineyards.

That Napa is an area of great natural as well as enological beauty complicates matters. Wine lovers are not the only ones drawn to the area. There is also a very active environmentalist community, and there is a lot of money behind it as well. (The number of prominently named trust funds that come into play on both sides of this little drama might startle those who have never visited Santa Fe, N.M., or Vail, Colo.)

Wine versus runoff

The environmentalists look at the Napa River and see silt rather than steelheads. The counterargument offered by a well-made wine convinces them not a whit. They want to impose restrictions on the vineyards in order to protect the wildlife. Or, more accurately, they want to see that the restrictions that already exist are enforced.

That does not seem to be something the winemakers want to hear about. A decade after leading the fight to protect the nature of the valley by limiting residential development, many of them seem to have become born-again property rights advocates. They own the land and they can do with it what they want. Downstream, beware!

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