Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Book Review: "The Far Side of Eden : New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley""

This book hardly merits a review and I only finished it because I was on a 12-hour flight with nothing else to read.

The book reviews the ongoing battles, lawsuits and ballot initiatives between the wine and vineyard industry and Napa county environmentalists. With much of the valley planted, vineyards have crept into the hillsides and irresponsible land owners have often developed properties in inappropriate ways (by damaging waterways with excessive runoff) or by developing properties that should not have been developed in the first place (excessive slope with a tendency to slide). The battle has basically created a moratorium on hillside planting in Napa as the county has shied away from approving any vineyard project for fear of additional lawsuits.

The book was surprisingly poorly written, with some passages containing oddly high levels of irrelevant details and other important sequences were largely skipped (due to lack of research?). Ideas move in and out of paragraphs with no real logical flow. Few dates are presented to help the reader follow the timetable (which is likely because the scenes are re-sequenced for dramatic effect, based on my memory). I am an avid reader, but found myself constantly rereading passages to try and decipher the idea being presented or the scene being described. I finally decided that the editor either gave up or never tried. Much of the book reads more like a stream of consciousness than a documentation of events witnessed by the author.

Furthermore, this book is an amalgam of ad hominem attacks on everyone who dares to make money in the wine industry or starts with money from family or other business interests. Those with family money are repeatedly dismissed as "lucky spermers". Oddly, Peter Mennen, the biggest "lucky spermer" of them all is not described this way - because he uses his money to stop industrial "alcohol farming" (I kid you not, he really calls it that). Mennen is portrayed as the noble hero but seems to be more a naive idealist who works in the St. Helena post office with his pet bird crapping on his shoulder all day.

Certainly, there are forces of good and bad in any capitalist industry, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ending vineyard development would lead to one of two things - more houses in place of vineyards or higher and higher prices for vintners as the scarcity increased their profits. Certainly, there is a middle ground, yet Conaway, by following the bull-headed extremists, would have us believe that there can be no compromise and that the alternatives are as simple as returning the valley to its virgin state.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is just the kind of HONEST book review I'd like to see more of. I was actually thinking of reading it...but I have no interest anymore. Thanks HJ.

Lenn Thompson

February 09, 2005 11:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree that James Conaway’s book is poorly written, I disagree strongly with the glib, misleading, falsely black-and-white concluding paragraph of the reviewer. There was nothing in the book or the real life land use battles in Napa that proposed returning the valley to it virgin state. The issue was and is primarily about allowing poor land use practices—practices that decrease biodiversity and water quality in the valley. The reviewers so called “throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bath-water” people actually just supported the simple concepts of leaving streamside vegetation in tact (not planting vines too close to the water and stripping riparian protective vegetation), and common-sense steep hillside best practices to avoid proven, documented erosion and sediment damages downhill and downstream.

I am a scientist, a person who values rational thought, and a fan of capitalism. Having held a minor elected position in land use planning and having been involved for years in another city, I could just put different names on the same cast of characters that James Conaway describes. If one expresses a conservation land ethic (NOT preservation, but conservation—treating the land so it can bear resources for us year after year, generation after generation), one opens up a vicious Pandora’s box of personal attacks. Just like in the book when someone discussed conservation and was called “pink,” I once publicly discussed the concept of stewardship and was called a communist. How sad, bizarre and totally off the mark.

The last paragraph of the review is equally off the mark. No one proposes Napa Valley go back to virgin territory. Rather, to conserve the entire system—vineyards, river, forests—in a balance that can survive generation after generation.

July 20, 2006 12:41 AM  

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