The Price of Paradise

Napa Valley is small and narrow, a geological wrinkle that both dictates and follows the course of a little river. Route 29 follows the river too, and traveling on it makes the valley seem even narrower. Roads have that effect: they take us from one place to the next, almost forcing us to ignore that we’re in a place the whole way there. When we’re driving, our lives depend on narrowing our focus and concentrating on what’s ahead and behind. We can’t spend time noticing the details that distinguish one mile from another.
Roads, like the evening news, also impose a sense of inevitability. It’s all marked out for us; the road goes from Here to There, and the fact that the road goes to it is what makes There a destination. Once we’re on the road, our choices narrow, sometimes right down to the binary of Stop and Go.
The first time I traveled Route 29, as a new Californian a few decades ago, I was treated to a standard of hospitality that amazed me. The scenery was as welcoming as the wineries, and the better I have come to know it, the more brilliant it looks. This valley is unassuming, its hills steep but rounded, its trees rounded too, their strength of the gnarled and complicated sort. Fascinating things lie hidden in its folds, revealing themselves only after the naturalist’s epiphany, the moment when the pretty wallpaper becomes dimensional, becomes distinct individuals, each trailing connections complex enough for years of study.
I’ve had the chance to drink some very nice wines over the years, too, and while I’m no expert I have learned the subtleties of that pleasure — a prosperous vineyard, a cool and must-scented cellar, red pouring into a glass. All by itself, wine is an earthly sacrament.
Wineries, many founded with money from the dot-com years, are experimenting, jostling each other for our attention with revelatory flavors that leave wine writers babbling. My, it’s good to be catered to, and it’s happening even at the low end of the market, where I shop. I really hate to think there’s a downside.
But I see that baroque valley landscape being wallpapered completely, as vineyards go from punctuation to monotony. It happens slowly, one place at a time, a pretty little estate and then another. It’s only the cumulative effect that’s scary. The voices of people who love what’s been growing here for millennia, wild and uninvented by us, get drowned out in a commercial chorus, as the very success of wine threatens the land that gives rise to it.
We hear we must choose between vineyards, cattle ranching, or suburban sprawl. Such an ultimatum is always suspicious. There are choices we haven’t thought of, and even the bogeyman might not be worse. Backyards don’t have to be a monoculture, and people do manage their gardens as mini-refuges. Cattle, run carefully and fenced out of streambeds, can be harmonious with an ecosystem that evolved with grazing species. Sonoma County’s new ag-preserve regulations, which privilege cows over grapes, suggest that some people have noticed this.
Still, it’s hard to talk about subtlety and complexity at the top of one’s lungs. As worried people do, we get perceived as “shrill.” Most people don’t see those individual lives — barely see them as wallpaper, let alone as wildlife. One can hardly fault their exasperated response: “Here, chill out, have a nice glass of wine. Look, we’re building a lovely chateau, and we’ll garden with lots of drought-tolerant lavender.”
Meanwhile, the market wreaks its own revenge. The industry is partly a victim of its own success, partly showing symptoms of terminal hysteria, as people dazzled by last year’s profit records rush to flatten more ridgetops into habitat for nothing but the Perfect Grape. Sound familiar? California has been through all this before, and not just with dot-coms. We practically define ourselves by the Gold Rush, and we’ve lately been treated to lots of relevant history lessons. One of the scariest is how the Gold Rush’s damage didn’t slow down as profits shrank.
Any industry, including the wine industry, gets troublesome at a certain size. We’re there, folks: The vine rows run all the way to the fences, wildlife is being squeezed out, and farmers — with notable exceptions — push their land harder and harder to bring in the crush of their dreams.
No one wants to deflate a dream, particularly one as marvelous as a great wine. We just hope the dream won’t crush the unnoticed lives around it or imperil the precious land and water resources we have left.
I don’t have any prescriptions. We might save what we can, by way of seedbank, founding line, and refuge for the renewal we hope for. Pay attention to wine makers’ practices and support and encourage the ones who do it with their unique place in mind. Make it our business to pull off the road, take a fieldguide, learn what’s growing on the edges of the vineyard. And then point it out to anyone within earshot.

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