Book Review: Napa at Last Light, by James Conaway

Posted by | Posted in Book Reviews | Posted on 04-16-2018

Napa at Last Light Book CoverWith Napa at Last Light, James Conaway brings his trilogy on America’s most iconic wine region to a close. His conclusion, based on decades of experience in the region, is that Napa, like so many other once-pure places in America, has been despoiled by commercial interests, and perhaps irrevocably so.

But Conaway does more than state the obvious. He does an excellent job of exploring some of the specific instances of self-interest and political and legal maneuvering, if not outright corruption, that drove Napa to this place.

In 1968, the powers that be in Napa County voted unanimously in favor of the Napa County Agricultural Preserve, an ordinance that established agriculture as the “highest and best use” of land in Napa Valley. Conaway homes in on a “small change” to the ordinance from 2008 that “seemed innocuous but was in fact as potent as an aggressively metastasizing cancer cell.” That change was an eight-word addition (see italics) to the long-held definition of agriculture: “Agriculture is defined as the raising of crops, trees, and livestock; the production and processing of agricultural products and related marketing, sales and other accessory uses.”

This new definition said, in effect, that the activities of wine tourism were just as much a “highest and best use” of Napa land as grape growing.

Napa at Last Light looks at both sides of this battle between agriculture and commercialism, preservation and development, through the stories of individuals and families living in valley. Conaway’s account is, however, highly biased; it’s by no means objective journalism. (He actually describes it as a combination of “narrative journalism and personal reflection.”) Conaway distinctly aligns himself with the farmers and preservationists who hold to the spirit of the original ordinance and the old definition of agriculture, not the “drifting one percenters” who flock to Napa to develop the land and become “lifestyle vintners.”

I understand Conaway’s protective stance toward the place he holds dear and once labeled an American Eden, but I grew tired of his negativity. He tends to draw stark good-vs-evil contrasts, and even gets nasty with the people he dislikes, referring to a group, at one point, as “lucky spermers.” There’s no need for that.

It’s hard to keep track of all the characters in the book, but perhaps the most interesting, even admirable, and foremost among those whom Conaway glowingly profiles, is Randy Dunn, winemaker and owner of Dunn Vineyards. It was Dunn who, in 2005 and 2006, led efforts to acquire and preserve a 3,000-acre parcel of land on Howell Mountain known as Wildlake, even putting up $5 million of his own money. Conaway, who appears to be a friend of Dunn’s, admires the winemaker’s mix of sentimentality, agricultural know-how, and self-determination, and shares the story of the time he helped Dunn safeguard his property against approaching wildfires.

Conaway has a flair for the dramatic. In the wildfire story he imagines a scenario in which the fires have encircled them and he and Dunn are forced to stand in the middle of the property’s pond and listen to the fire consume all that Dunn had built.

You can tell what Conaway dislikes by what he renders absurd. Most notable are his belabored descriptions of Napa’s more opulent attractions, like the Red Room at Raymond Vineyards. But the root of his ire are the wealthy individuals, particularly from Texas (which made me laugh), who, having accumulated their fortune elsewhere, move on Napa like they would any land ripe for development and profit taking.

Conaway’s crosshairs here fall on Craig Hall, owner of HALL Wines and one time part owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Conaway laughs at the décor at Hall’s winery, calls his wine “another overripe cabernet sauvignon reaching for cult status,” and delivers a selective biography with emphasis on Hall’s shortcomings. But Hall’s principal sin is Walt Ranch, a vineyard project, potentially including some other development, which would level thousands of oak trees and steal the water supply from a community of innocent retirees.

While I take issue with Conaway’s unwillingness to take a serious look at opposing viewpoints and his tendency to disparage those he disagrees with, I ultimately come down on his side. Napa is a finite resource and there has to be a line drawn when it comes to development.

A few final comments on the structure of Napa at Last Light.

I admire Conaway’s non-linear approach, but it jumps around a bit too much. The storylines converge and diverge, characters appear and disappear, making it hard to keep everything straight—although the moments when everything clicks together are rewarding. There’s something to be said, too, for simple expression. There’s no need, in my view, for opaque sentences like this one from the first chapter: “The essence of a thing that by virtue of excellence testifies to an aspirational ethos promptly loses it by embracing brand, which is primarily the assertion that one has arrived, whether or not one really has.“

My Recommendation
Napa at Last Light is one-sided and pessimistic, but strangely, still a great read. And few books are timelier. With a major vote on what some consider the fate of Napa to occur in June (for a great overview, see Esther Mobley’s recent article), Conaway’s book is essential background reading that’ll give you at least half the argument.

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