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James Conaway's "Napa: The Story of an American Eden"

What if you read a history of the Continental Congress and then through some sort of time machine you were able to stroll revolutionary Philadelphia and rub elbows with random declaration signers and assorted founding fathers?  

That’s what it’s like to live in Napa after reading James Conaway’s NapaIn a history that has so recently been made, readers like me endow the people who made that history with a sort of wonky celebrity. At a birthday dinner a couple years ago I sensed a buzz in the restaurant and turned to see Robert Mondavi at the next table. I see Ellie Coppola at the movie theater on bargain night, the Trefethens at high school graduation and Beau Barrett  pouring  wine at the local community college. For those who don't have an interest in wine, names like these, if they are recognized at all, represent brands not people. But to a student of Napa history, it's like walking down the streets of Philadelphia with Franklin, Jefferson and Adams.

Conaway chronicles the history of a valley with rare beauty and even rarer preservation, and he tells the story through the lives of its pioneers. Krug, Schram, and Niebaum came to the valley in the years after the Civil War and recognized it as the Eden it was- for people as well as grapes. Barrett, Davies and Coppola, fled Southern California in the sixties and seventies and helped revive Napa wine from its post-prohibition torpor. Winiarski, Grgich, and Tchelistcheff, winemakers who made the wine of Napa famous, set the stage for grapes so valuable that development was forever banned in what was to become an agricultural preserve.

The book is also the story of the political wrangling, stalemate, and suspicion that surrounded three measures designed to preserve Napa Valley farmland. In 1968 Napa enacted the first agricultural preserve in the United States that now protects almost 40,000 acres from the encroachment of development.  Winery definition regulations delineated wineries as businesses that made wine, period, and restricted marketing activities such as tasting rooms, restaurants and gift shops. The “75% solution” required that any wine labeled Napa Valley must be made with a minimum of 75% Napa Valley grapes, a controversy pitting vintners against growers. 

Conaway is at his best when he is telling the stories of the early wine makers, characters who are as earthy as they are visionary. In 1933 when Louis Martini bought La Loma in Carneros it was considered not even suitable for sheep (which is the meaning of “Carneros.”) 

Low lying barren, swept with wind from San Pablo Bay, it was chilly even on summer nights. Few people lived in Carneros. Those who did grew vetch, if they grew anything and when Martini put in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay people said he was crazy.

Who can resist the description of Jack Davies, who with the encouragement of Robert Mondavi, embarked upon an adventure of making the first “methode champenoise” wine in California?

He strapped an old metal tank on a flatbed truck and took it down to Krug. An hour later, he drove home with the five hundred gallons of potential sparkler sloshing around in his tank, as nervous as he had ever been and utterly, ridiculously happy.

Conaway is at his worst in the final chapters when he rails with florid exposition against development, tourists, and the greed of “Lucky Spermers,” a clumsy idiom he uses for the decedents of the original Napa visionaries. His sequel, The Far Side of Eden, which I happened to read before Napa, is an even crankier account of what he considers the desecration of the valley. For someone like me who arrived here by way of South Bend, Indiana, Napa Valley is remains an Eden.  

I love Googlebooks. Take a peak at Napa here


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