GET IN AN AIRPLANE and fly over Napa Valley, and you will see miles of vineyards like corduroy patches on the valley floor, clusters of houses in the little towns, and large estates carved out of steep wooded canyons and chaparral flats on the flanks of bracketing mountain ranges. But on the tops of the ranges you will see something you don’t from the windows of the so-called muscle houses. A cosmic electric shaver has burrowed into folds of the Mayacamas Mountains, to the west of the valley, taking Douglas firs and redwoods, and has buzz-cut whole crowns and high slopes in some areas of the range to the east. Trees, chaparral, and open fields are gone, replaced by vineyards, and it’s easy to see how exposed soil from all these vineyards might wash down and pose a threat to the Napa River below. In fact, in March 1998, the California EPA declared the river “impaired” because of sedimentation, excess nutrients from fertilizers, and traces of bacteria. These conditions, plus falling water levels due to overuse, have endangered a dwindling run of wild steelhead and made the river a priority with local environmentalists. Only the June 15 warehouse fire at Frank-Rombauer Cellars, which caused an estimated $40 million in damage, was more dramatic than river politics in Napa over the last year.
Even to those familiar with Napa, these aerial views come as something of a shock. If anything, the valley has been known over the last few decades not for clear-cutting, but for a clear conscience, as an example of how a community can fight to preserve its natural beauty and keep the worst of suburban sprawl at bay through agriculture. True, some of the five million tourists a year do, on occasion, turn the main north-south thoroughfare, California 29, into a bumper-to-bumper parking lot. Sure, the population of Napa County, now 128,000, has grown 15 percent over the last ten years, the largest decade of growth in the county’s history. Yet that’s nothing compared to neighboring counties; overall, Napa Valley still looks infinitely better than the rest of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Two hundred years ago this country supported huge grizzlies, Tule elk, and Wappo and Pomo Indians—all driven out by the Spanish missionaries and ranchers and their Anglo successors in the mid-19th century. A former North Carolinian named George Calvert Yount supposedly planted the first grapevine here in 1836, but for nearly a century the primary crops were cherries, pears, prunes, walnuts, and grain. Although fine wines produced in the area garnered some national attention in the 1880s, the valley lost much of its early wine-related glory to an infestation of phylloxera, a root louse that kills grapevines, and, eventually, to Prohibition.
Then, in the 1960s, a mismatched collection of starving scientists, hippies, and academic and corporate dropouts, romantics all, came to Napa intent on making a go of that thoroughly un-American product, wine. Names like Martini and Mondavi gave way to the bell tones of the so-called boutiques: Heitz and Groth, Stag’s Leap and Clos Du Val, Schramsberg, Chateau Montelena, Caymus, and others. Their owners are justly celebrated for helping create something of value where some—well, the French—insisted it couldn’t be done.
A few of these folks worked hard to prevent the kind of metastasizing subdivisions that were appearing elsewhere in the region. In 1968 Napa became the first county in America to create an agricultural preserve that limited residential plots to a minimum of 20 acres (since amended to 40). This thwarted property owners, including farmers, who wanted to cut up the land to sell or pass on to heirs. Of course, the success of Napa wine, along with strict zoning that slowed growth, only made the valley more attractive to would-be wine barons in the decades that followed.
More recently, as the New Economy heated up, stock-option centimillionaires have come to bid on five- and six-figure lots of wine and sometimes offer millions—in cash—to home-owners who have no intention of selling. At June’s Napa Valley Wine Auction, Chase Bailey, a Lee Marvin look-alike and retired former executive at Cisco Systems, the network hardware giant, spent a record $500,000 for a six-liter bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle cabernet and another $700,000 on a few other bottles and local amenities. Between 1996 and 2000, the average price for a house in Napa, according to John Murdock, a loan officer at a local mortgage company, jumped 45 percent. Realtors, meanwhile, love to tell of houses bought for a seven-figure price, fixed up a bit, and resold for three times as much. Last year, 55 Napa County homes sold for more than a million dollars each. The first six months of this year, 40 such high-priced abodes changed hands. In fact, to get a sense of what the Napa lifestyle has come to, all you need to do is go along on one of the many social calls where the wealthy pay their respects to one another’s latest property enhancements.