Manifest Destination

Can Napa Valley's cultural landscape survive?

By James Conaway

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The poolside poetry reading was organized by a slim, dark-haired woman whose family owns the sea of vineyard washing up at the patio's edge. Distant hills gold in the August sun, parched air, and shadows sharp as stilettos are familiar components of the valley of the Napa River, but this could as easily be Tuscany, or Provence. The guests who sit on folding chairs sipping Sauvignon Blanc made from the fruit of these same vines, wearing jeans or khakis, Bermudas or designer casual, all clearly belong, their lives at least tangential to one of the most valuable legal crops in America. Growing grapes and making and selling wine, or its downstream bounty—real estate, promotion, investment—produce income for most of these people, and they are happy to contribute to the local arts on a Sunday afternoon before going off to Bistro Jeanty or Tra Vigne for dinner.

Less than 100 yards from where they sit is a stone marker noting the settlement of Napa Valley by one George Calvert Yount, a peripatetic North Carolina trapper, rancher, and miller who in 1837 built an adobe house, long gone. The figurative distance between that commemorative stone and this contemporary scene is vast. The valley Yount first entered was almost Edenic: a redwood canopy on the western mountains that the sun rarely penetrated, streams running year-round and brimming with steelhead and salmon, grizzlies feeding upon them, and peaceable Wappo Indians soon to be extirpated by introduced disease and then slaughter. The lush valley floor would prove ideally suited to grazing and the growing of wheat. Yount, who would be granted the sprawling Caymus Ranch by the Mexican government, built a gristmill and a sawmill, and he is credited with planting the first vine in Napa Valley, probably criolla, the large, hardy variety brought up by the missionaries and a far cry from the stylish Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons of today.

Agriculture in some form has been a part of this place for at least a century and a half. The visual motif of farming is arguably more cultural than natural, and it once included fruit and nut orchards, vegetables in great variety, livestock, and cereals in addition to grapes. Napa Valley qualifies as a "cultural landscape," a phrase that is increasingly being used these days by landscape architects, theorists, and activists, among others. There is a growing interest in preserving not just structures but also their setting. This new emphasis amounts to preserving what's left of the character of the country, built and natural, and is bound to gather strength as preservationists realize that well-maintained historic buildings are diminished by wrecked surroundings.

Cultural landscapes reflect an activity or characteristic that shaped them historically, which in Napa Valley was agriculture. The survival of farming in one of the most lucratively developable stretches in America seems increasingly a wonder, and an anomaly. Demands upon the land are not new, but its finiteness is. This is true not just in Napa Valley but across the country.

The domination of the floor of this valley by vines instead of cattle or other crops is fairly recent. The grape crop is worth about $390 million annually, but the total economic impact of wine is probably 10 times that. Wine remains an adjunct of farming and is vital to the identity of a remarkable place whose preeminence in American viticulture is established. But the combination of money and fame has proven irresistible to forces destructive of both community and a landscape that has become an agricultural icon. How can farming, and the life and landscape inherent in it, be preserved in a discrete place celebrated not just for its product but also for its aesthetic value?

Threats to the valley's identity include multimillionaires determined to have their own monumental houses and wineries, but also expanding cities, tourism, and corporate control of the land. Napa Valley, in its highly visible way, embodies many of the challenges found elsewhere in America, something I realized when I first visited Napa 20 years ago. Here a seemingly alien substance —wine—had given rise to its own land ethic, the Napa County board of supervisors in 1968 having set a 20-acre minimum lot size (since increased). The law, which was passed after rancorous debate, would lead to the acceptance of agriculture as the best use of the land. It allowed the county to tax productive farmland according to its agricultural rather than its developmental value, thus ensuring that farmers—mostly grape growers—could afford to stay in business even as real estate in the Bay Area, and California in general, boomed.

It was the first official "agricultural preserve" in America, and I was interested in the people—the corporate and academic dropouts—who brought it about, acting on the old countercultural impulses of the '60s. By the '80s, however, some of these people were getting rich. They were longstanding members of a subculture that most Americans didn't (and still don't) recognize—a world in which local newspapers ran stories about vintages and grape varieties and printed ads for bud wood and smudge pots. I was struck by its interrelatedness: jobs, grape deals, marriages, shared equipment, advice, and spats, all of it grounded in a devotion to grapes as well as wine. It was a community.

No more. In 1988 a fight developed between winery owners and grape growers over winery definitions, presaging fiercer environmental battles to come. Some in the valley wanted limitations on the number and size of what were no longer just "boutique" bottling operations, while others—primarily the big wineries—wanted no restrictions, since there were larger profits to be made from development and tourism. These new tensions enlivened a social landscape that already had a high annual population growth. One point of my book was that for special places to survive, those in control must make concessions to posterity.

In 1999 I returned to the valley and was surprised to see so many big new houses and wineries, despite the limitations imposed, and to find the battles among the wineries, growers, and environmentalists more pitched, and more uncompromising, than before. The questions raised in the grower-winery fight a decade before had clearly not been resolved. And dot-commers and other newly rich had placed on the land hyperthyroid, choose-your-period mansions with baronial stone walls, giant lawn sculptures, and designer wineries. Despite this, at the end of the 20th century Napa Valley was still an exemplar of natural beauty and opportunity, but also showed symptoms of the gigantism that has afflicted so many new American structures—the architectural and intellectual equivalent of obesity. The forested heights of the Howell and Mayacamas ranges on both sides of the valley were being scraped raw to provide vineyards for those desperate to have them at any cost, and the valley floor was notable for long lines of often stationary cars.

I wrote a second book about these newcomers' impact, focusing on the fight over hillside vineyards and related development that affected the health of not just the river but also the carefully preserved landscape. The natural scenery had proven value for both citizens and visitors, but absentee homeownership of the sort that plagues many sought-after American places, was now a problem for the valley as well, as were the loss of commonality and demands for services unrelated to the practice of agriculture.

Today, new architectural "statements," some made on ridgelines, continue to alter the valley's character. Increasingly, wineries advertise the artistic sensibilities of owners whose interest in wine is more social than viticultural. The pioneering spirit of the '60s has been replaced by a desire for notoriety and a style of life unrelated to the land as anything more than a backdrop, and in many cases the architecture is clearly more important than the wine. Function follows fashion.

The internationally known Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, for example, created a massive stone winery outside Yountville for Dominus Estates that is visually stunning and totalitarian in aspect; it excludes visitors, including locals, and symbolizes the unapproachable "vintner" elite. And just south of St. Helena, architect Frank Gehry has designed a new winery that will swallow a smaller, historic stone winery built in 1885 by a New England sea captain and later owned by the Napa Valley Cooperative Winery, which in the '30s and '40s produced about half of all Napa Valley wines. Thus a highly visible contemporary structure reflective of fashion, not function, reduces the authentic and historically resonant to an ornament.

The objection of local residents to the new winery is that it will attract 500 visitors a day for the wrong reason—spectacle. The paradox is that tourists want natural beauty but at the same time demand amusements and accommodations that make change inevitable. Tourism is now worth about $500 million a year to the county. "But tourism depends upon agriculture," says Jim Hickey, the county's former planning director, over a glass of Chardonnay in the Bounty Hunter in the city of Napa, "and agriculture depends upon land. If you destroy ag, there's no reason for the tourist to come here."

It was Hickey who so famously said, back in the '80s, "If Napa Valley can't be saved, no place can." The unique combination of natural assets, good laws, extraordinarily valuable crop, and informed citizenry should have enabled Napa to withstand the more destructive demands of developers. Now, as Hickey points out, "everyone wants an increasingly larger piece of the tourist income. If we ever reach the point where tourism, not agriculture, drives the economy, we've lost the ballgame."

The most suitable land for development borders the proximate cities of Napa and American Canyon, a flourishing bedroom community, and the towns of Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. The agricultural preserve still exists, but even farming protected by legislation can't support unlimited additions. And tourists and new householders like agriculture in the abstract but complain of the dust it raises, the noise made by farm machinery, the use of chemicals, and the grape-hauling gondolas that contribute to rural traffic jams.

That many winery owners push behind the scenes for changes in land-use regulations to allow them to expand further is an ugly irony, since it is they who should be protecting the status quo. It was the struggling winemakers who back in the '60s got the ag preserve law through the local board of supervisors, but changes now proposed by the newer wineries would allow more parking lots and related enterprises capitalizing on tourism. Some wineries are tacit allies of developers and potential retailers who claim commercial "rights" in the countryside and argue that exceptions to the zoning laws are both necessary and inevitable. Meanwhile, the benefits of the natural landscape—repose, familiarity, a vital link between life and livelihood—are increasingly difficult to quantify in a fractured, transient, opportunistic society characterized by sprawl, new roads, and big-box merchandising.

To McMansions, winery expansions, and tourism is added another danger: large corporations, which own 20 percent of the valley's approximately 45,000 acres of vineyard and other real estate. Constellation Brands last December acquired what is perhaps the most potent symbol of Napa's phenomenal success, the Robert Mondavi Winery, a formerly family operation that is now a mere adjunct of a multinational based in upstate New York. Beringer, one of the oldest and most renowned names among historic Napa wineries, is owned by the Fosters Group, Australia's enormous beer-based conglomerate. Beaulieu Vineyard, established by Georges de Latour as a quality Gallic outpost here at the outset of the 20th century, belongs to the gigantic English liquor distributors Diageo. Other sizable portions of land are held by companies in Switzerland, France, Italy, and Argentina.

Corporations are efficient mechanisms for producing revenue but poor exemplars of social responsibility, since the ultimate objective is profits, not community or preservation. Corporations do not pay inheritance taxes, as individual growers and winery owners do, and when the going gets rough—if the provisions of the agricultural preserve were to be altered because the wine business temporarily tanked, as it has in the past—corporate leaders, unlike private citizens, are more likely to do what is necessary to prosper economically, including selling off vineyards for commercial and residential development.

More than a century ago, the notion was widely promulgated that America's destiny was the spreading of its people across a seemingly inexhaustible country, without much attention paid to what would come after. Now it is abundantly clear that the land is exhaustible, and that many citizens want what's left of the country preserved in a recognizable state. Today those two visions collide on the outskirts of cities and towns, even in the heart of Napa's ag preserve—one developmental and blatantly show-biz, the other agricultural and historic.

The valley's challenge—like the country's—is no longer to spread the populace and new enterprises everywhere, but to survive as a place. This means instilling in citizens an awareness of the evanescent qualities we know and love, and mitigating the effects of America's manifest destiny. Judging by what has transpired since the arrival of George Yount in 1837, that is going to be a much more difficult task.