Fly over Napa County, California, and what you see below are vineyards and industrial buildings for the mass production of wines. Roads crisscross the valley and climb into the hills and mountains. They also carry tourists from hotels and motels to vineyards, wineries and restaurants where they’re told that they’re seeing and tasting the real Napa. A woman who teaches wine marketing says that after a few days of tasting, eating and driving, most tourists don’t know whether they’re in Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino. That’s what happens in a monoculture.
Indeed, after a while, the landscape begins to look and feel remarkably similar all over “Wine Country.” Vines go up hill and down hill. (One agricultural writer said they made here think of troops in a regiment. Indeed there’s something militaristic about them.) Vines extend for as far as the eye can see. They also run along creek beds which are dry at least half the year because of climate change — Napa is hotter now than ever before — and because water tables are dropping. Wineries and vineyards suck water out of creeks and out of the ground. So, water is a big deal in Napa.
I am continually amazed that the wine industry goes on and on, year after year, that more grapes are planted, that vineyards are replanted, and that more people drink more wine than ever before. At times, it seems that the main pastime of people in Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties is drinking, eating, and ingesting locally grown cannabis which gets connoisseurs stoned in a minute or less, if it’s top grade weed.
Right now the wine and grape industry is trying to figure out how to combine forces with the cannabis industry and create new products to lure new consumers.
I have rarely heard anyone say they don’t drink wine or beer and don’t like them, though recently I met an environmental specialist for the city of Santa Rosa who said “Fuck grapes and fuck wine.”
We were standing on a platform on the edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a vast watershed and wetland, that’s home to all kinds of birds, bees and insects that can’t survive in a vineyard. For those creatures, a vineyard is a desert, as one veteran Napa beekeeper told me. On that platform, the specialist and I could see a newly planted vineyard that struck us both as an affront to nature.
These days, everywhere I go in Napa and everyone I meet, I ask “How much longer can the wine and grape economy last?” I have asked dozens of people and not a single one has given me a satisfactory answer, though some predict a long, extended life for the reign of the grape, while others predict imminent decline and fall.
It depends largely on water and on the banks.
I am not eager for the collapse of the Napa wine economy; if and when that happens thousands of people will be out of work and unable feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. The governor will have to declare a state of emergency and call out the National Guard.
Most of the people who work in the grape and wine industry — they’re largely Latinos and Latinas — are employed by corporations, many of them foreign owned. They work hard and they work long hours. They are not in open revolt and they are not now asking consumers to boycott Napa wines made from Napa grapes. When César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and the United Farm Workers asked consumers to support their cause in the 1960s by boycotting grapes they were talking about table grapes, which don’t fetch nearly as much money on the market as wine grapes.
Some young, white farmers grow vegetables for multi-millionaires and for elite restaurants. Many are environmentally friendly, though one woman, who works for a Napa restaurant that has received the highest ratings from the Michelin Guide for over a decade, told me that she lived in “the land of milk and honey.” She also explained that the communications director at the company she works for denied her permission to talk to me. Increasingly, Napa is all about its image.
I also meet people who tell me that there are good men and good women making good wines and who are not harming the environment. I know there are. Some of them, like Will Bucklin at Old Hill Ranch, are my friends. I have written about them, their organic vineyards and organic wines. But they are not the masters of the industry and they are having a hell of a time surviving in unfriendly environments, some of them ecological, others social and political. Those growers and wine makers are a minority and they are getting smaller by the day.
Napa has given the English language at least one fairly new word: Napafication, which, according to The New York Times, is a worldwide trend. Under napafication, wine is controlled by corporations who care about the weight of the grapes at harvest, the price they fetch and the most efficient and profitable ways to market wines, which can sell for several hundred dollars a bottle. Hey, man, my wine is better than your wine.
Societies that grow one big crop, like societies that choose to go totalitarian, can last for decades, like the apartheid regime in South Africa. But sooner or later the power of the people catches up with them. Totalitarian societies decline and fall. Napafication, which is “totalitarianism lite,” aims to wipe out anything and everything that stands in its way.
The farmer, or more likely, the corporation, eliminates opposition, including all living things that undermine the drive for control and for profit. So, big agriculture fences in what it wants to exploit, and fences out what it wants to destroy. Then it sprays chemicals, kills weeds, crams crops into every single inch of cultivatable land, harvests every single grain of wheat, every ear of corn and every grape on every vine.
It turns workers into “hands,” industrializes production and creates what Carey McWilliams called “factories in the field” in his book of the same name, published in 1939, when Steinbeck published Grapes of Wrath. Both books, one fiction and the other non-fiction, tell stories about California agriculture that began — if one doesn’t count Native Americans who tended the landscape and cultivated crops — as capitalist agriculture. Now, California agriculture is capitalism on steroids.
In Grapes of Wrath, when a freaked-out farmer confronts a tractor driver demolishing the homes of evicted families, he asks, “Who can we shoot?” The tractor driver replies, “Maybe there’s nobody to shoot. Maybe the thing isn’t men at all. Maybe the property’s doing it.”
When that same tractor driver has lunch, he eats processed white bread, a pickle, some cheese, a piece of Spam and a slice of pie that, Steinbeck wrote, was “branded like an engine part.” There’s nothing alive and nothing nourishing about his meal on the fly.
There’s no open rebellion against the grape and wine oligarchy, but there is political resistance in Napa, as there is in Venice, Italy and Barcelona, Spain, both of them tourist destinations that are losing their identities. Napa citizens go against the grain by growing fruits and vegetable, selling them at markets, at roadside stands and by subscriptions through “Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).” They’re defying the monoculture and the tyranny of wine.
Napa citizens, like Geoff Ellsworth, are running for public office, in part, to break the monopoly exercised by local newspapers and magazines that rarely if ever say anything negative or critical about grapes and wine.
Charlotte Helen Williams lives in Napa and has her finger on the pulse of Napa.
“Many people around here have small dreams inspired by too many glasses of wine,” she said. “They don’t share Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s big dream. They’re enthralled to the god, Bacchus, and if they have their way Napa will look like a factory.”
(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)