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
HE WEARS TEVAS and a denim shirt with embroidered eagle feathers. The clear stems of his glasses disappear into abundant hair that has turned from blond to off-white. He smiles at Ricki Lake, his brilliant-green half-moon conure from Mexico. The male bird lands on his desktop and picks up a blueberry Mennen has left there for him.

"He named himself," Mennen says, affectionately stroking Ricki's head. He handles Ricki so gently you would never guess that he's the author of vociferous letters to the editor and the person who, through his Mennen Environmental Foundation, pays the lawyers who sued the county, Pahlmeyer, et al.

For 25 years, Mennen, 57, has served as postmaster of the town of St. Helena, situated toward the valley's north end. A native of New Jersey, Mennen moved to California in 1972. Now and then, he's criticized by postal service bureaucrats for his avian sympathies, but he's cherished by locals who value individualism.

Back in 1994, Mennen inherited a large chunk of stock that came from the sale, two years earlier, of his great-grandfather's toiletries company (think Speed Stick) to Colgate-Palmolive. Discretionary income here ordinarily goes to causes like the local hospital, animal relief, or the American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts. Mennen put most of his money into environmental causes, including an inventory of potential wilderness lands in Utah and lawsuits at home. He and his wife, Carlene, are unaligned with the reigning social hierarchy—and they like it that way.

Witness Mennen's characteristic stance in a letter of his that the weekly St. Helena Star recently published. "Are we obliged to sit still," Mennen wrote, "while our local landed gentry, this new breed of feudal lords in their absurd castles on the ridgetops, rapes the public trust and destroys the natural beauty that made this valley a slice of heaven on earth, for no better reason than to sell some stranger a bottle of arrogance?"

The Mennen Environmental Foundation, endowed with $15 million of its founder's antiperspirant money, cannot file lawsuits directly because of its particular nonprofit status, but it can support other organizations, like the Sierra Club, that do. And in the determined crisis counselor from Atlas Peak Road, Mennen discovered a person willing, as he puts it, "to withstand incredible pressures and threats for what she believes is right. Thank God for Chris Malan."


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