The Bonfire of the Wineries

IPO sluts, "lifestyle" vintners, and eco-radicals bearing lawsuits. Eroding hillsides, glassy-winged sharpshooters, and an imperiled river with dying steelhead. Napa Valley has them all, and each lends its own bouquet of New Economy hilarity, nose-out-of-joint agrarian rage, and NIMBY intolerance to wine country's unique, full-bodied blend of environmental poli

Sep 1, 2000
Outside Magazine


THE WHITE '64 CADILLAC convertible takes up most of Atlas Peak Road on its corkscrew passage through steeply tilted land above Napa Valley, gliding past hillside property strewn with volcanic rocks and views to kill for, as they say in the real estate flyers.

The pilot of this chromed retro land-launch is a big, rangy guy in Levi's and a baseball cap on which is embroidered his last name—Pahlmeyer—a name that may ring a bell with those who saw the Michael Douglas&150;Demi Moore picture Disclosure. The movie's plot centers on a seduction attempted with a bottle of chardonnay—Jayson Pahlmeyer's chardonnay. "I could have sold 400,000 cases as a result of that movie," Pahlmeyer says, turning into his narrow driveway. "The mail was overwhelming. It came in bags."

Movie fame carries only so much weight in this tight little valley north of San Francisco Bay, a place inured to the presence of Francis Ford Coppola and unimpressed by news of Robert Redford's leasing a house and rumors about Madonna's shopping around. But producing good, exclusive wine, now that's important. Pahlmeyer makes only 6,000 cases of wine a year, a minuscule output by industry standards. Once you get on his mailing list, you can still wait three years for the privilege of buying a case at about $75 per bottle.

The greeting on his answering machine teasingly says, "Please leave a message while I uncork a powerful Pahlmeyer merlot." Which is just what he does—it's a '97—once we enter the angular steel-and-glass house where he lives with his wife, Paige. He sprawls on the couch in the raised living room, overlooking an interior he describes as "high-tech Italian industrial." Remodeled in 1988 by San Francisco architect Michael Guthrie, the house features a steel spiral staircase and a glass-paned wall that rises electronically like a garage door to allow the dining table to be rolled out to the pool. The far edge of the patio opens out into the viewshed: broad green valley, salty estuary where the ailing (according to the EPA) Napa River flows into San Pablo Bay. The spires of San Francisco are lost in a bank of fog to the south, and beyond, unseen but not unfelt, lies Silicon Valley.

Pahlmeyer, 55, is no endowed computer geek, but there are plenty of those in the hills—the latest grape-loving arrivistes in a long line of hopeful vintners who began showing up in droves back in the 1960s. Pahlmeyer came in 1985, when new faces tended to be real estate developers rather than high-tech CEOs, and today he has what the techies all want: an interesting house, a vineyard of his own, and a wine with his name on it that few can afford. Formerly a lawyer, Pahlmeyer had a vision—"making a wine that drops you to your knees"—and pluck. He helped smuggle clones of French vines into this country through Canada, hired good people, and was soon producing several varieties of dense, luscious wines, attracting favorable reviews, and, consequently, a call from the producers of Disclosure.

And yet if Pahlmeyer's own story were to be made into a movie today, it would not be about an attorney trading torts for a farm and creating a dazzling vintage. Instead, the pitch would go something like this: High-profile vintner tells cowboy to deliver new rocket-juice pronto, and succeeds, only to get slammed by radical environmentalists. That is, vintner (Pahlmeyer) engages a top-flight manager (cowboy) to create a choice cabernet (rocket juice) plot, which he does before he has an approved erosion-control plan. Two years after being cited and fined by Napa County for proceeding without the approved plan, the vintner then has construction on the final few acres of his vineyard temporarily shut down in September 1999, again because of concern over hillside erosion. Later that same month, the Sierra Club sues the County of Napa for failing to enforce the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and also sues Pahlmeyer and two other growers, The Best Cellar/Vineyard Properties West and Chateau Potelle, for expanding their vineyards with the county's "illegal" permits. The lawsuits result in a de facto moratorium on all permits to clear and plant Napa Valley slopes.

"I'm the poster child for hillside development," Pahlmeyer laments. "'Pahlmeyer rapes the land!'"

Behind both the lawsuits and the county's orders to cease construction was Pahlmeyer's neighbor, Chris Malan, and her benefactor, Peter Mennen, a surprisingly deep-pocketed postmaster in the nearby town of St. Helena. During 1999, after losing patience with the county's spirit of compromise, the two succeeded in delivering a stinging blow to Napa's elite. In their wake, the once enlightened choice of returning to the land to sow and reap a natural harvest has come under fire as an invasive "lifestyle" of rapaciousness and greed. Even the idea of agriculture as a bulwark against residential and commercial development has temporarily lost its luster—at least in wine country. And the uproar had ordinarily unflappable men like Jayson Pahlmeyer deeply dismayed. "I can see a time coming in America," he says, "when you have no idea what you will be allowed to do with your own land."


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