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L. Pierce Carson, an institution in the Napa Valley, dies at 76

L. Pierce Carson, an institution in the Napa Valley, dies at 76

As a reporter for the Napa Valley Register, for 50 years, L. Pierce Carson chronicled the evolution of an obscure agricultural valley into a world-renowned wine producer. He told the stories of the people who were drawn to it; vintners, chefs and artists, as well as those of the people who had always called it home, and always, as a former colleague, Andy Dempsky recalled, with “an elegant puckishness and a twinkle in his eyes when he was up to something and loving it.”

Carson died early Saturday of cancer. He was 76 and was just two weeks shy of his 50th anniversary with the Napa Valley Register.

“Pierce was in the front row of life,” said vintner Tim Mondavi. “He was in the front row, center, and he shared it all with us, the news of the valley, the news of each other.”

Carson was 26 when he arrived in Napa in 1967 to take his first civilian job as a reporter for the Napa Valley Register. He’d been serving with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, 1965-66, when he met Ross Game, an editor with Scripps Newspapers, who spent a month in the war zone.

A communications student at Temple University, Carson was editor of the American Traveler, an Army newspaper. Game, reading his work, told the young soldier to get in touch with him when he’d finished his tour of duty if he wanted a job.

After Carson was discharged, he contacted Game, who said he could offer him a choice of two reporting jobs in California. One was at Lake Tahoe and the other was in a valley called Napa.

“I’d had enough snow,” Carson explained his choice later. “And this place, Napa, was close to San Francisco.”

The son of Lyle and Helen Carson, he was born on Sept. 17, 1940, in Trenton, New Jersey and grew up used to traveling by train to New York with his theater-loving parents. Before “Uncle Sam tapped me on the shoulder,” as he described, a retail job in New York City had introduced him to wine. In Vietnam, he’d lived in an apartment in Saigon and made time to explore the French restaurants of that city.

The Napa Valley he arrived in had little of that sophistication. Although a wine industry had taken root and thrived in the 19th century, Prohibition had all but destroyed it, and only a handful of wineries remained in operation. The culinary scene was typical of a small rural community, with hamburgers, pizza and a few standouts like Ruffino’s Italian restaurant in Napa and Vern’s Copper Kitchen in St. Helena.

“It was pretty,” Carson said of the valley he would make his home for the next 50 years. “But it was quiet.”

Carson’s first beat, however, was not food, wine and arts, but courts and county stories. One of his most memorable experiences, he said was when Judge Thomas Kongsgaard locked him up in a jail cell overnight so he’d know what it was like to be a prisoner.

He also covered the contentious creation of the Ag Preserve in 1968, which protected the valley’s agricultural lands from development. For wine coverage at the Register, Carson noted, “we’d write about the harvest or a calamity like frost in the vineyards, but there was no perceived need for a wine reporter.”

At the time, Carson said his knowledge of wine was limited to Europe, “mostly France. Working in retail on New York’s Fifth Avenue, I had numerous opportunities to prop myself up on a bar stool of a nearby French restaurant not far from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

He’d first heard of Napa wines when Brother Timothy from the Christian Brothers, then at Greystone in St. Helena, shipped wines to the Public Information Office in Vietnam while Ross Game was embedded with the troops.

But then Carson received an invitation from “the new kid on the block,” Robert Mondavi, who, in 1966, had opened the first new major winery in Napa Valley since Prohibition.

“I can’t recall if that invitation was for an event other than a tasting of Mondavi wines,” Carson wrote in an article after Robert Mondavi’s death. “I would soon learn that vintner Mondavi didn’t budget for advertising — preferring instead to pull some corks and let word of mouth spread the gospel. At first, he told us he believed California wines could keep company with the best in the world. In less than a decade, he assured us that California wines — which, of course, included those made in the Napa Valley — belonged in the company of the world’s best.

“Bob Mondavi took me under his wing. I didn’t ask for help but I think he knew I needed it. Sure, I was a journalist, but in those early days of discovery I was covering county government. Perhaps the fact that I sat through all those rancorous hearings preceding enactment of the valley’s landmark ag preserve had made an impression.”

Carson eventually would become a close friend of Mondavi and his second wife, Margrit. He discovered a soul mate in Margrit Mondavi, sharing her interests in food and the arts. After Robert Mondavi’s death in 2008, he became her frequent escort, attending shows in San Francisco and New York.

“He really in many ways, led the parade,” said vintner John Shafer, founder of Shafer Vineyards. “We came in ‘72, not too long after he arrived, very close to the beginning of our modern industry. When he came to Napa it was just a backwater with no culture.

“He grew and contributed greatly to the industry. A wonderful supporter, he never would knock a winery or a music event. He was always looking for the best in everything. He was much more than a wine critic, he was a cultural icon. What he did with music and later with food, he made it his business. We liked him so much.”

Always a supporter of the arts, Carson reviewed the Napa Valley Symphony, the local theater troupe, Pretender’s Playhouse, and high school musicals. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Robert Mondavi Summer Music Festival, which was established in 1969 and brought performers like Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, Benny Goodman, and Dave Brubeck to the valley.

“I have known Pierce since my Justin High school days, in the early ‘70s, when he was reporting on our theater productions,” said Larry Maguire president of Far Niente Winery. “Perhaps that was the most interesting thing to report on back then.”

The wine and food industry was a long ways away from the worldwide acclaim that it has today, Maguire added. “When wine and food finally ‘arrived,’ he was there. Actually, Pierce was always there for the local vintners doing his best to help tell our stories in ways that would shine a bright light on us all. I really can’t imagine a Napa Valley wine scene without Pierce. I will miss the stories that he is no longer here to tell and I will dearly miss him as a friend.”

Carson covered the Great Chefs program that Margrit Mondavi created at the winery, and he became friends with culinary luminaries like Julia Child and Lidia Bastianich. He reported on the growing culinary scene in the valley, and was the first reporter to review a new restaurant, opened by a chef named Thomas Keller in the old French Laundry in Yountville.

“I first met Pierce when I opened The French Laundry nearly 23 years ago,” Keller said. “Through our many conversations over the years, he maintained that the Napa Valley was the perfect location for a restaurant, which I always agreed with, and his tireless coverage showed a zeal for his work. Pierce has often regaled me with stories of his international travel and certain ingredients and tastes he has experienced. He did the same for Napa Valley for nearly 50 years at the Register, and he will leave behind a great legacy in sharing the stories the valley.”

Journalist and cookbook author Janet Fletcher, who lives in Napa, noted, “Many journalists burn out on the food and wine beat after a few years, but Pierce never lost his enthusiasm. His tireless reporting and educating helped transform Napa Valley from steak-and-potatoes country to gastronomic mecca.”

Carson covered the first Napa Valley Wine Auction in 1984 and attended every subsequent auction, with the exception of one, but only because he was in the hospital after a heart attack.

As Carson became known as the man about Napa Valley, he also became a legend in the newsroom, where generations of reporters learned from his eagle-eyed editing, his buoyant joie de vivre and his not infrequent explosions of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” when he was annoyed with his computer. Young reporters also became willing chauffeurs for Carson, who didn’t drive.

Kip Davis, who started as a reporter at the Register in the 1970s, said, “You knew that if you drove Pierce you were going to go to a great party, or to a restaurant and have a great meal.”

Carson was also notorious in the newsroom for his desk, which was buried in stacks of papers, memos, letters, reports and press releases from his long career. Jack Morgan, who was publisher of the Register from 1988 to 1994, recalled that he never tried to tell Carson what to do, except once.

“He was a great reporter. I was amazed at the depth of his knowledge of the arts. But one time I told him, ‘You’d better clean up your desk. If we have an earthquake, everything could fall on you and kill you.’ But he was a great guy. I really enjoyed associating with him.”

When the 2014 south Napa earthquake did occur, Pierce was traveling abroad, and later, called for a dumpster to clear his work space.

An enthusiastic world traveler, Carson spent holidays in Hawaii and Mexico and was an expert at finding the best fares to Europe. He explored the wine and food of Italy, France, Germany and Spain, building a network of friends, and always bringing his adventures back to Register readers. After the fall of communism in Europe, he expanded his explorations to eastern Europe, writing about the wines of Croatia, Romania, and Hungary.

Eventually, he found his second home in Prague, the Czech Republic, and began traveling there several times a year. As he transitioned to part-time work at the Register, he rented an apartment in Prague, using it as his home base to travel throughout Europe. Always a promoter of new chefs, at the time of his death he was working on a guide to the restaurants of Prague.

“I’ve been to Prague many times but the first time was with Pierce’s expertise,” said Beth Nickel. She and her husband Gil had known Pierce since they came to the valley 38 years ago to restore and reopen Far Niente Winery. “He wasn’t with me, but pointed out the best hotel, all the best restaurants.

“He was the classiest man,” she said. “He wasn’t just a journalist, but a friend of the house, a super supporter of all of our efforts. He was always the guy who was the most fun at the party with his Hawaiian shirts.”

Brenda Speth, the current publisher of the Register, said, “Pierce’s goal as a reporter was to let the reader experience what he experienced through his writing. This is just one of the things that impressed me about him. He would attend events, and while everyone else was heading for home, he’d be back in the office late in the evening or early in the morning writing.

“On a personal note, it was always fun to check in with Pierce on the next big adventure he had in his plans, especially the last couple years when he was semi-retired. One of my favorite memories was of Pierce describing looking out over the Vltava river from his apartment in Prague last winter. With a smile he said he spent the day ‘thinking and enjoying the view.’”

In November 2016, he was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder, and after a subsequent surgery, he characteristically caught a plane to Prague where he spent the winter holidays. He also traveled to New York to see a few more shows, and to South America. He continued to write for the Register as long as it was possible.

As news of his illness spread, accolades poured into the newsroom.

“He was such a wonderful man,” said Michael Mondavi, the son of Robert. “He championed the wines, the food, the lifestyle and the people involved in the vineyards. He always found the positive story rather than the negative. People looked forward to being with Pierce and talking to Pierce. He had better balance and judgment than anyone I know. You could trust him and tell him what you were thinking. I never had a second thought about anything being misconstrued. I think that he saw the vision that my father and family ... He was the valley crier.”

Vintner Warren Winiarski recalled meeting Carson at the home of winemaking pioneers Nathan and Nellie Fay. “He was present for the whole history of the modern Napa Valley. Pierce was the voice of the wine industry but for food also. When Pierce wrote about something, he always managed to get to the core of it, to reveal the whole. Pierce had had this gift of seeing the significant thing. Part of it was his love for the valley — the affection he had for the valley.”

Chef Greg Cole wrote, “For me and for the 32 years I have spent as part of the culinary and wine scene in the Napa Valley, the name L. Pierce Carson was always the important and relevant voice for local media. Pierce was always there to support us along our journey in this world. He wrote truthfully and in such a supportive fashion. Never one to be harshly critical, instead Pierce was there to elevate us all. It could be art, music, theater, travel, wine or food, he made the world a better place for all of us to enjoy.”

Grape grower Andy Beckstoffer said, “Pierce is a part of the fabric of the Napa Valley and has been since the 1970s, not only for myself but for my children. Pierce has written about everything in the Napa Valley. Pierce is what is good about journalism, he is one of us. I consider Pierce a dear friend and is an inspiration for anyone who works in journalism and at the Napa Valley Register.”

“He is such a Napa Valleyian,” said Cindy Pawlcyn, who moved to Napa Valley in 1979 and is the owner of Mustards, Yountville and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, St. Helena. “He ate in the restaurants, he wrote about the restaurants and he encouraged the restaurants. He was very encouraging to all of us chefs.”

Bill Phelps, owner of Joseph Phelps Winery, said, “He was the consummate gentleman at all times, he always wrote with fairness and integrity, was always accurate in every way as far as I could tell. He was a true gentleman of the old school and represented Napa Valley as well as anyone could ... I thought he did a terrific job for 50 years.”

“Pierce was part of old Napa,” Peter McCrea, owner of Stony Hill Winery, wrote, “I’ve known Pierce 40 years, something like that. There’s just nobody around who fits the mold that he did. He’ll be truly missed. He was not only a good reporter, but got to be such good personal friends with so many people. There aren’t that many people like that who are around any more.”

Vintner Miljenko “Mike’ Grgich, of Grgich Hills Estate, wrote: “I always admired and respected Pierce’s writing. I believe his constant support and writing about great wines in Napa is one of the reasons the Napa Valley is so well known today. Pierce will be remembered in Napa Valley for a long time.”

“Since the first moment I met him two decades ago, I fell in love with him,” said Amelia Ceja, president of Ceja Family Vineyards. “It was incredibly liberating to be around Pierce. We could have serious conversations but we never took ourselves too seriously. He was a man with so much love — for his craft, for food and wine, for art, for the evolution of Napa Valley. I think in another life he was Latino; with Pierce, every day was a celebration of food and wine and dance and music of life. What he did for the Napa Valley with his beautiful words won’t be forgotten.”

Doug Ernst, who became a reporter for the Register in 1978 and went on to serve as editor until 2004, said, “Pierce was already a veteran reporter at the Register when I arrived in 1978. He was already famous for coming to work late and having a messy desk, but what I remember the most is how late he stayed in the office, typing his stories and making last-minute calls. I remember his great sense of humor, his willingness to laugh with others and at himself, his generosity and his great writing.

“Pierce did not drive, yet he never missed an appointment or a deadline. He was a veteran of the armed services, yet a pacifist at heart. He loved people, he loved the Napa Valley and he loved writing. I envied his wide range of friends, gleaned from 50 years of relationships that grew from his reporting and truth-telling. Pierce was not afraid to tell it like it is, no matter whose ox may be gored.”

Ernst described a birthday party held in his honor at Robert Mondavi Winery, “where the guests ranged from superior court judges to Hell’s Angels. He was loved by many and an enemy of none.

“I’ll miss him,” Ernst said. “I’ll remember his wit and his charm. Most of all I will miss seeing his byline in the local paper. In all the years I’ve known Pierce, he seemed to be the face of the Register, always professional, showing grace under pressure and giving more than he was expected to give. He set a standard for excellence in journalism.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson has requested a congressional resolution honoring Carson, and the Napa Valley Vintners, which grew in membership during Carson’s tenure from some 50 members to more than 500 today, presented him with a tribute they’d signed and framed that declared him “a Napa Valley treasure of immeasurable importance.”

He is survived by his sister, Jill, of Maine and Florida.

St. Helena Star Editor Dave Stoneberg contributed to this report.

Many journalists burn out on the food and wine beat after a few years, but Pierce never lost his enthusiasm. His tireless reporting and educating helped transform Napa Valley from steak-and-potatoes country to gastronomic mecca.

“Many journalists burn out on the food and wine beat after a few years, but Pierce never lost his enthusiasm. His tireless reporting and educating helped transform Napa Valley from steak-and-potatoes country to gastronomic mecca.” — Cookbook author
Janet Fletcher

Many journalists burn out on the food and wine beat after a few years, but Pierce never lost his enthusiasm. His tireless reporting and educating helped transform Napa Valley from steak-and-potatoes country to gastronomic mecca.

Pierce was always there for the local vintners doing his best to help tell our stories in ways that would shine a bright light on us all. I really can't imagine a Napa Valley wine scene without Pierce. 

Larry Maguire, president Far Niente Winery

Many journalists burn out on the food and wine beat after a few years, but Pierce never lost his enthusiasm. His tireless reporting and educating helped transform Napa Valley from steak-and-potatoes country to gastronomic mecca. 

Cookbook author Janet Fletcher

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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