Editor’s note: These two excerpts are from “Napa At Last Light, America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity” by James Conaway. “Napa at Last Light” is the third in Conaway’s trilogy about the Napa Valley.

Reprinted with permission from the author and publisher, Simon & Schuster.


The board of supervisors is meeting in a new venue off Corporate Drive south of the city of Napa, instead of downtown where a recent earthquake damaged the county administration building and left the historic courthouse in plastic-shrouded rehab and side streets full of rubble. The hearing in progress concerns the controversial project involving vineyards and maybe houses on steep hillsides where water is scarce and roads narrow.

Signs on sticks are in mostly middle-aged hands—SAVE OUR WATER, SAVE 28,616 TREES, FORESTS = HEALTHY AIR, and my favorite. WATER OVER WINE, a succinct summation with biblical resonance. If that’s really the choice then the answer’s obvious but, as with everything having to do with the environment, it’s also devilishly complicated and ways to ameliorate or bypass restrictions almost infinite.

People come to the podium one at a time to voice displeasure and regret for loss of oaks, productive wells, habitat, and community. A grape grower, channeling Jefferson, says, “Agriculture’s the highest and best use of the land. Let’s keep it that way.” He points out that recent legislative changes have allowed event centers at wineries, part of every new business plan now. They mean more traffic, more arable land taken out of production, more demand for water and waste disposal, and more pollution. Vintners who praised preservation of agricultural land when applying for permits, and agreed to abide by current law, now can’t live without an event center.

“We have a diminishing quality of life,” says another speaker in a down vest. “We’ve lost our way, people are talking of leaving.” The familiar activist Chris Malan stands to say, “I’m lucky to live here, but do we want to continue to strip our land? It’s a moral question,” and gets applause.

The project under consideration is the Walt Ranch high on the eastern side of the valley, 2,300 acres, of which about five hundred will be “disturbed,” meaning cleared, and three hundred of those are to be put under vines. The fear is that houses will soon follow, vineyards having become stalking horses for serial McMansions and more ambitious development. The Walt property belongs to Craig Hall, a former owner of the Dallas Cowboys but primarily a developer and a significant player with extensive connections in Texas. He’s also a “vintner,” the symbolic term evoking wine and history that once softened commerce’s sharp elbows, but no more. Though relatively few vintners actually make wine, winery owning is assigned roughly the same cachet as collecting art, and the Halls do that, too, much of the latter reportedly from Eastern Europe where during the second Clinton administration Kathryn Hall was ambassador to Austria.

She’s a Democrat and friend of Bill, but her husband’s political beliefs, like most things about him, are ambiguous. They are among the wealthiest couples in a valley known for them, and Kathryn—an attractive woman in tasteful white knit—drove to this meeting in her familiar blue Porsche roadster with the khaki-colored top. I approach and ask her if she’ll discuss the Walt project with me after the meeting.

She goes off to consult with her lawyer and her winemaker, since in recent years winemakers have come to perform increasingly ambitious lateral arabesques for their employers. Not only do winemakers tweak wines for the market, but they also serve as courtiers and confidants of vintners navigating Napa’s political thickets. The former ambassadress comes back and says, “We’re not going to talk about that.”

Local activist Geoff Ellsworth leans against a wall, having progressed from St. Helena’s issues to the county’s. This morning he wears a tie and a seersucker suit, to all appearances a businessman jotting memos on a clipboard. Others in the room are, like Geoff, part of the perennial bloom of citizen activists who flare, flame out in various struggles, and flare again. They’re clearly fed up with deforestation and vineyard development in the hills that demand much water, but they burn with a new intensity, and I’m struck by how many more there are than in times past. And by how much older they seem.

Geoff says softly, “Projects like these are ruining the quality of life here. One woman was just weeping. People like her are the ones most sympathetic to keeping the agricultural preserve whole, but the preserve’s very existence has lulled us into thinking we’re protected when we’re not.”

Less than two centuries ago, trees grew so densely on the western ridge that a raindrop could take a week to reach the earth. It’s difficult to imagine this valley as one of the southernmost reaches of the temperate rain forest that starts in Alaska, but it is. As recently as the nineteenth century grizzlies romped here, scooping salmon and steelhead from the Napa River, and its tributaries ran year-round in a paradisiacal setting brimming with groundwater and wildlife.

“We don’t have defenses here against raw capitalism. It encroaches on the common welfare, adversely affecting water, air, noise, and traffic. And elected officials do nothing.”

Epilogue: Wildlake Revisited

It’s late afternoon when we hoist our mountain bikes off the tailgate of Randy Dunn’s Ford pickup and ride down toward the entrance to Wildlake. He’s still waiting to hear from Cal Fire about the contested timber removal permit for the land next door, but work there has been delayed until that decision’s made, at which time a whole new chapter will begin.

Another vineyard is being developed on the mountainside, farther up, and a haze of dust hangs over it, creating in the distance a blemish like that of a nascent wildfire. It has been a full year since we prepared for the 2015 inferno on Howell Mountain, and this one, too, will be the hottest on record. Stories persist of land subsiding over in the Central Valley, and of dry spigots left by disappearing groundwater. Fish and other living things are threatened with extinction if the drought returns, as it must. El Nino pushed moisture past the North Pacific High out in the Pacific this past winter, but the relief was temporary. Another big fire in Sequoia National Park has filled the southern Sierra Nevada with smoke, and farther south, all the way to Malibu, brush fires keep Los Angeles on edge.

But today is about mountain biking, not firefighting, and we take off, broken clouds coming in from the northwest allowing a shaft of sunlight through now and then. The trip down is fast and, unless a rider’s somewhat adept, dangerous. Randy knows the road so well that ruts and exposed rocks have personas all their own, like the changing vistas full of chaparral and big trees.

Randy has the legs and lungs of a younger man. More than once he has taken those half his age down and back up the road from the dense bowl of Wildlake, only to see them vomit in the weeds. Now he wears a ripstop pack in which he carries water, a knife, microchips for the motion-sensor cameras he has mounted along stream banks, and replacement batteries. On every expedition he takes back the used chips and inserts them into his Mac in the office and watches the passage of wildlife: gray foxes, coyotes—sometimes a rabbit with lean jaws, black-tailed deer, and bears great and small that press wet black noses to the lenses.

Only the elegant mountain lion gazes knowingly at the light that comes on automatically at night, piercing the darkness she owns. In the beginning Randy rode with an automatic pistol on his hip, reasoning that if a lion dropped from a tree limb onto his back mid-pedal he might at least have a chance of surviving. But he found that the weapon changed his relationship with everything around him, and he stopped carrying it. He didn’t start again after he saw the first gear-laden human torsos on his computer screen—dope growers passing a camera—and started looking for their stash.

We leave the road, drop into low gear, and head up a serpentine game trail above the stream. Dismounting before a barrier of manzanita, we continue on foot, grabbing at roots and tree branches. Randy reported the trespassers to the state’s drug enforcement agency and that brought the authorities winging over this stretch of wilderness several times before spotting the cannabis patch below a seep. The agents later paid a visit and found the crop and the telltale black plastic drip line just like those used in the vineyards, but apprehended no one.

Randy has the coordinates and he enters them into his GPS, having decided it’s not suicidal to ground-truth the site and see for himself what the growers left behind. But neither does it make for the most comfortable hike. Then we’re in the midst of it, the ground torn up by trenching tools, the plants mostly jerked out. A few little spiky cannabis leaves remain, and a plastic line snaking on upslope, into shadow.

He keeps going. At the end is a half-buried blue plastic bin below a spring, the water crystal clear and probably still full of fertilizer brought up on somebody’s shoulder. The whole scene is oddly elegiac, no mechanical sound in this fastness, just wind and the call of a red-tail hawk winging determinedly northward. That’s the direction from which fiery disaster would have come a year ago. When that fire was over people called me from far away and asked, “Is Napa burning?” No, I told them, Napa isn’t burning, but the question stayed with me.

Misfortune seems inherent in every season these days, the future ever more likely to fill with falling embers, and with bulldozers. Vineyard development is legal but leaves more than an imprint on the land and bits of plastic pipe, owing to irremediable transformation. The time has come to say “No more,” both on principle and as a practicality, words not just for Napa but also for America. But even as they form on the lips they trigger a savage blowback from the collective harvesters of the last resource.

The hawk screams. From up there the valley to the south appears, as any pilot knows, a green-knit homogenous whole. Its verdancy is shared by vineyard and forest alike, and even human-built structures seem subservient to the natural order. This is an illusion as sure as the distant, hazy shimmer of what seems to be an unpopulated inland shore. That’s the San Francisco Bay littoral, home to more than three million people, a number that grows daily, and beyond it live millions more. By century’s end they will number eighty million. Many are likely in time to pass through these lovely mountains and will pause as they do now, nature-struck, whether tourists, investors, or refugees, all momentarily stunned by the beauty of the place. Then they’ll be off again, as they are today, an inexhaustible, ever-transient source of wealth, conflict, and impossible dreams.

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