Will Success Spoil California's Wine Country? Writer James Conaway Finds a Paradise Threatened, but Not yet Lost

updated 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/22/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Some wine writers raise a glass of Chardonnay from California's Napa Valley and see no further than the ends of their noses, which sometimes turn up. "Fruity and elegant," they might say, or, "technically flawless, yet lacking in character."

But for James Conaway, author of Napa: The Story of an American Eden, a glass of wine from that scenic valley north of San Francisco is a prism in which arc reflected larger things: an extraordinary American success story; a pageant of family dramas and blood feuds "more flamboyant than what you see on Falcon Crest"; a cautionary tale about corporate takeovers. Conaway sees a valley that went, with gold-rush speed, from being a poky agricultural backwater to competing—successfully—with the most celebrated European vintners. Suddenly grape growers were driving Mercedeses and hobnobbing with Rothschilds, while celebrities such as director Francis Ford Coppola arrived to start their own "wine boutiques."

"In the '60s, vintners were just ordinary people in California society," says Conaway, 49. "They didn't have any more cachet than cattle ranchers." But in the '70s, when wine became a new American status symbol, "wine makers were heralded as artists," he says. "San Francisco society began inviting them to parties. The valley began attracting rich people who wanted their fortunes associated with something a little more glamorous." Just by putting their name on a bottle, he says "real estate speculators, brokers, dentists, oilmen, frozen-food manufacturers could suddenly take on the mantle of 2,000 years of European royalty."

A former wine critic for the Washington Post, Conaway was born of stock ordinaire. Raised in Memphis, where his father was an engineer and his mother a home-maker, he graduated from Rhodes College, then won a writing fellowship to Stanford, where he met Penny, his wife of 26 years. At the time, he says, they "drank wine out of a bottle with a handle on it." But they loved good restaurants, first in New Orleans, where Conaway worked as a reporter for the Times-Picayune, and then in Rome, where he worked for the Daily American. In 1981 he went to work for the Post and became the paper's wine critic two years later.

"The wine columnist quit, and no one else knew a thing about wine," says Conaway, who has written two novels and four nonfiction books. "I had lived in Europe, and I drank a lot of wine." Though he considered much wine writing "pretty silly, with its preposterous words like masculine, feminine, brawny and pretentious," he and Penny, now a food consultant and caterer, dutifully began to hold tastings for their friends.

In 1984, Conaway made his first trip to Napa. Looking out at the fertile valley, nestled between mountains and shrouded by mist, he was moved "by the beauty...the feeling of limitless possibilities." But Conaway was hardly the valley's Columbus. By the time he arrived, the old-line wine families had been joined in Napa by dozens of neophyte vintners who had fled corporate or academic life to fulfill a dream, as well as by socialites and Jeep-driving yuppies attracted by the valley's rural splendor.

Captivated, Conaway decided to write a book about the place and soon settled in for a year. In hundreds of interviews, he reconstructed two decades of social and economic history in the valley, profiling the founders and custodians of California's greatest wine dynasties. There were the brothers Ernest and Julio Gallo, who got into the business years before it was chic, relying on do-it-yourself wine-making pamphlets from the Modesto Public Library; the ill-starred John Daniel, who inherited the Inglenook vineyard but later sold it to appease his emotionally unstable wife and eventually committed suicide; and the Mondavi family, riven by a furious fraternal feud that led Rosa Mondavi, shortly before her death, to proclaim one of her two sons "a devil" and the other "a saint."

Conaway credits Robert Mondavi, the "devil" who was banished from the family winery in 1965 and started his own, with "dragging Napa Valley into modern times." He was among the first to promote Napa wine around the U.S. But the valley's biggest promotional coup came in 1976 at the famous Paris tasting. On that occasion, French experts sampled unidentified bottles from California and France. "Finding these Californians is easy," one said. "You don't have to even taste. One sniff is enough. Smell this one. Almost no nose. Definitely California." That one turned out to be a French white burgundy. And when all the wrappers came off, Napa wines had been ranked first in both the cabernet and Chardonnay categories.

After that, "The phones started ringing in Napa and never stopped," says Conaway. "This is not a book about wine but about people really fighting first to succeed and then succeeding far beyond their wildest dreams." The last chapters of the book describe the fallout from that success, which now threatens the valley's future. Big corporations like Heublein and Seagram have taken over local wineries, Conaway explains, without always appreciating what made them special. Wine making has become a tourist attraction, and a special wine train now tootles up the valley to accommodate day-trippers. Meanwhile, rocketing land prices have made it more and more difficult to preserve agricultural acreage in the face of pressures from resort and condo developers. So far the preservationists have prevailed, but. Conaway says, "Napa is now at a delicate point. It represents an American Eden. The snake is there, but so are Adam and Eve—and they haven't eaten the apple yet."

—Joyce Wadler, Luchina Fisher in Washington D.C.

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