My new book, “Napa at Last Light,” will be published in February 2018. For 25 years, I have written about the social and natural evolution of Napa, a diverse county that includes rare and valuable biological “hotspots” and 140,000 people, most of whom are associated with what’s now referred to as the wine “industry.” During that time, I have learned something about developers.
Foremost is the fact that inside all of them is a 6-year-old kid dying to get out and dig a really deep hole. When they finally do get to do so, they fill the hole up with something that wasn’t there before and then repeat the experience with minor variations ad infinitum.
More disturbing, with far-reaching ramifications for all Americans, is the other fact: developers deeply, irrationally, and often vindictively resent anyone who objects to their plans, for whatever reason. This includes neighbors, citizens, scientists, clergy, and elected officials. But none receive more opprobrium than “environmentalists.”
Developers’ discourse, already full of Orwellian neologisms — “decrepit” for uncut forests, “unimproved” for pristine land (by this reasoning Mount Desert and Bridle Veil Falls are unimproved) — turns nasty when developers find themselves up against the committed, knowledgeable people living on or near land for which they have “improvement” plans. In Napa, the very definition of agriculture is being changed to better accommodate yet more development.
Which brings us to Trump, as all discussions do these days.
Remember his reaction when a handful of locals on the west coast of Scotland at Aberdeen objected to his building a heretofore illegal dune between them and the sea? A farmer and his animals were “disgusting,” according to the man now president of the United States.
Napans protesting disruptive winery practices in their own neighborhoods are dismissed by developers and their clients as “having nothing better to do” and being “out of touch,” as well as “geezers.” The same language is applied to hundreds who have, in one decade-long struggle, so far prevented the cutting of thousands of oak trees on more than 2,000 acres in a remote part of Napa county by Dallas developer/lifestyle vintner Craig Hall.
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This disruption of one of the last bits of untrammeled Napa isn’t for food crops, it’s for more wine in deeply-punted bottles far beyond the financial reach of all but the upper two per cent. Meanwhile, locals fear more mansions in gorgeous, fragile terrain where vineyards in California often serve as stalking horses for more real estate development.
The amount of ready money sloshing around the valley in search of a vanity project is enormous. Much of it comes from abroad, including China, and not even global warming can scotch this bonanza. (In fact, it seems to have inspired some to get in on the last vendage, before everybody moves on to the Pacific Northwest or the Rockies.) The Napa Valley floor has no more plantable land available, which means all eyes are now on the forested hills, a priceless watershed for the valley below whose visual appeal draws more than 3 million tourists a year.
But the craving for lifestyle vintner status is inexhaustible and apparently untrumpable by concerns about conservation, social discord that has grown in the valley, and Napa’s reputation as home of America’s grand crus slipped.
Last year, thousands of Napans signed a petition to put an initiative on the 2016 ballot to increase regulation of timber cutting and bulldozing in the hills. But the Napa Valley Vintners Association, the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Farm Bureau and the Winegrowers of Napa County, an oddly named coalition of corporations and the wealthiest individuals, all opposed it. And the county’s so firmly under their purple thumb that it disqualified the initiative on a technicality.
These struggles may be of little import to most Americans, but what the Lifestyle Vintner-in-Chief is doing on a national scale is something else again. Appointments such as that of Scott Pruit to head the Environmental Protection Agency, a man dedicated to its neutering, is, in my opinion, a direct result of Trump’s many fights to get concessions wherever he wanted, and occasionally being thwarted. As all the world now recognizes, he lashes out with force and vitriol, without regard for lasting damage done.
Opening up public lands in the West, one of America’s greatest legacies, to heedless, unregulated development is part of the same impulse to get even. So is the scrapping laws regulating clean water and air, sought by complicitous Republicans, will not harm just the country and the planet but also sicken and eventually kill Americans.
In the West, as in Napa, natural beauty is being “harvested,” in the argot of the developer. And selling public lands denies Americans recourse to what has always been a last resort, an abridgment of citizens’ rights and a squandering of one of America’s great achievements.
Meanwhile, the president and his minions in Congress dig on, as the like-minded do in Napa. At the end of four years that hole will be very deep indeed; America could well fall into it.
James Conaway, is an author, a contributing editor for Preservation and a regular contributor to Smithsonian, National Geographic Traveler, and Food & Wine magazines, among many others. His email is cjonwine.blogspot.com.