Socially, Gatsby might have had an easier time in Napa than in East Egg. The vintage of the money in Napa is a lot less important than the vintage of the wines that are stored and poured there.
Some of the money in Napa is old, even older and more deeply rooted than the arm-thick vines in the vineyards that survived Prohibition. But much of Napa has been built in the last decade with money from semiconductors or sinsemilla or silver scams. As a result, there’s a kind of rough-and-tumble economic democracy on Napa’s flat and fertile floor. Growing grapes isn’t a club tournament limited to members only. All you need to become part of Napa’s economy is the admission fee. Joining the crowd of vintners is like signing on for a pro-am golf tournament in Pebble Beach or Palm Desert. Just ante up and play with the stars.
There is one condition, however: the money has to be real. None of this dollar-down-and-bet-on-the-come bullshit that works in the rest of California. Inherit your fortune, earn it, politely steal it or find yourself a wealthy silent partner. Whichever. Just make sure that your assets are as liquid as your Cabernet Sauvignon.
There’s a very good reason for that kind of fiscal snobbery. You have to have money in order to lose it—and that’s just what will happen. You’ll lose money. A whole lot of it. When you strip grape growing and wine making of its romance, the process is called farming, and there are a thousand ways to go broke farming. Ask anybody who has ever tried to turn a profit with a pitchfork and a hoe.
Oh, sure, there’s money to be made in the rich creases and on the flats between Spring Mountain and the Cedar Roughs, between the salt marshes of San Pablo Bay and the black rocks at the top of Mount St. Helena. Napa Valley grows wondrous grapes which become magnificent wines which fetch premium prices all over the world. A smart, trendy, innovative vintner can make a fortune in good years, break even in middling ones and hold losses below the threshold of bankruptcy in those years when the frosts come late in the spring and the rains come early in the fall, and when the mites and the leaf roll and the systemic viruses cripple the vines.
But all told, your odds of making a killing are probably a lot better in Las Vegas. Ask Coca-Cola or Nestlé or Seagram’s or any of the other capital-rich conglomerates that fueled the vineyard boom of the middle 1970s. They poured cash into Napa as though it were a slot machine, and they kept on pulling the green handle. But they couldn’t even turn up a double cherry. The guy who runs the casino had reset the drops while no one was looking. The payoffs were irregular, the return on investment minimal, the bottom line dismal.
One by one the conglomerates backed out of Napa Valley, leaving behind the only folks who could still afford to play the game: the old-time farmers who owned their land in fee simple, and the very wealthy boutique winery folks for whom the romance of the wine country was as bewitching as the sound of Daisy’s voice was for Gatsby.
I can sympathize with Gatsby. I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich, and rich is indeed better. But as a group the recently arrived always have been and always will be the butt of well-bred disdain . . . and more dangerous forms of aggression as well. I know something about what the nouveaux riches are up against. My late and lamentable Uncle Jake, the last of the hippie outlaws, left me a steamer trunk full of untraceable currency that my ex-wife, Fiora, turned into a fortune. Granted, my asset sheet wouldn’t intimidate J. P. Morgan or J. D. Rockefeller, but it gives me a freedom that is sometimes hard to describe.
You have heard, perhaps, of “fuck-you money”?
However much I enjoy the aspirations and excesses of the newly rich, my favorite folks in the Napa Valley are the old-timers, the farmers who are not necessarily rich but who have been there since before the boom, the people who rooted themselves and their vines in the land thirty or forty years ago, when the valley started to crawl out from under Prohibition.
Actually, some of these families go back more than a century. Barley farmers and dairymen and European grape growers gravitated to the valley not long after the gold rush. They were drawn not only by the soil but by the light and the clean air.
Unlike Iowa or Kansas, where farmland has the utilitarian aesthetics of a John Deere tractor, Napa has an enormous, fecund beauty. The hills are sexy, like black eyelet lace smoothed over tanned skin. There is a sensual fullness to the country that is palpable. The feeling comes from the contrasts of cool and heat, damp and dry, and from the visual impact of heavy, bushy vine heads along straight trellises in row on row of field on field of grapes. Even in the spring, when the vines are just past bud-break and the grapes are more potential than actual, there is a feeling of immense growth and fertility.
The nights are still crisp in the early summertime, when the gray evening fog spills over the crest of Spring and Diamond mountains along the west edge of the valley. Yet those same June days are warm and getting warmer; the sun is back and, like a young stud horse, just beginning to focus blinding, instinctive heat on the requirements of procreation. By July the days will bake. The south- and west-facing hills and canyons will become chimneys drawing up valley heat and pouring it over the small vineyards in the side canyons. All day long the vines will soak up sunlight, changing it into the complex sugars and tannins and acids that eventually will become fine wine.
The contrasts between the mountain and the valley vineyards are part of what has always fascinated me about Napa. The valley vines have an easy time of it, comparatively. Granted, the soil is rocky rather than Iowa-loamy. Each vineyard has its walls of red and brown and gray boulders, from hand-sized to head-sized, some grubbed from the ground by Chinese coolies a hundred years ago and some stacked last winter by Mexican field hands.
Up toward Calistoga, just off the Silverado Trail, I once ran across a rock pile that was ten feet high, a hundred feet wide and three quarters of a mile long. Every stone on it had been dragged from the soil by a pair of hands, tossed on a stoneboat and skidded to the pile. The huge rock pile was the proceeds of a few large vineyards, maybe a hundred and fifty acres. There are more than thirty thousand acres of vineyards on Napa’s flat valley floor. Each of them had to be developed the same way. One stone at a time. That tells you a little bit about what farmers are up against on the flats.
But the mountains are even rougher. The mountains test a vintner’s dreams, his wallet and his nerve.
Diamond Mountain was the first sizable mountain vineyard to be opened up in the recent boom. That was maybe ten years ago. A grape entrepreneur named William Hill took a real flier, brought in a couple of D-8 Caterpillar tractors and put them to work scraping the brush off one hundred and fifty acres of natural amphitheater on the shoulder of Diamond Mountain. The slopes were chillingly steep. The D-8s turned turtle a half dozen times, rolling over on their backs and waiting helplessly to be rescued. Nobody was killed, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
Then Hill brought in smaller, more agile Cats and cut stair-step terraces, gambling that the remaining soil was deep enough and special enough to justify development costs of ten thousand dollars an acre. St. George’s rootstock went in first. That took two years to establish itself. Then the scion vines were grafted on—Cabernet Sauvignon, mostly.
The yield was low, maybe half of what the normally stingy Cabernet vines would produce on the flats. But what grapes those mountain vines grew. Good flatland Cabernets might return four to six hundred dollars a ton. The stressed vines of the Diamond Mountain Vineyard produced half as many grapes but the fruit was extraordinary, world class. Sterling Vineyards, the big Seagram’s subsidiary down the road, was paying upward of two thousand dollars a ton when they finally got smart and bought Hill out.
There’s a little one-lane dirt road that runs straight up Kortum Canyon from the edge of downtown Calistoga, such as downtown Calistoga is. The road, once the stage route over the mountain to Santa Rosa, cuts along one edge of the Diamond Mountain Vineyard. Just before the road drops over the ridge into the next valley, there’s a spot where you can park and look down across the pepperwood and madrona and manzanita. In the foreground the vineyard is simmering in its natural punch-bowl microclimate, soaking up the hard summer sunlight. Beyond is the rest of the Napa Valley, all the way down toward Stag’s Leap and a dozen other of the most special wineries in the United States. The view is so grand that you hate to tell the rest of the world about it.
That’s the spot where Sandra Autry and I would go, back when we were seeing one another. Sometimes in the early evening, when the worst of the heat was over, we used to drive up there and park and admire the view and neck and get as hot and sweaty and passionate as a couple of teenagers.
After about an hour of that we’d both be lucky to get down the hill. Sometimes we didn’t. Get down the hill, I mean. But other times we’d check into the little hotel on Lake Street. The place wasn’t very genteel but it had its own rural California charm. With the windows wide open to catch the first evening breeze up from the bay, we’d sweat and love and drink cold white wine and have a hell of a good time.
Then we’d shower and go eat in the Mexican restaurant down the street, the one that was using mesquite charcoal a dozen years before the gringo importers discovered it. Broiled pollo and carne asada, carnitas and fresh corn tortillas. Mexican field hands tend to be beer drinkers, but as a nod to the lifeblood of the valley, the restaurant had a wine list of sorts. It extended from blanco through rosé to tinto. All of the wines, even the tinto, were kept in the cooler.
Sometimes Sandra would cook, which is what she had done every day since she was eleven and first discovered that canned tomatoes tasted better if you added something—almost anything—from the cupboard. Sandra was a natural cook. It came to her as easily as the violin had once come to me; but, unlike me, she learned early to value her gift from the gods. She didn’t throw her talent away because it never came up to her expectations, the way I had. She just worked like hell to develop her gift.
And gift it was. She understood instinctively, almost intuitively, how foods and wines and herbs and spices work together, in the same way that I had once understood the immense possibilities of music. She dreamed of tastes in the same way that I dreamed of sounds.
There wasn’t a pretentious bone in Sandra’s lovely body. She seldom talked about what she was doing, what spices she used, what elements of Pinot Noir made it particularly suited to her veal dishes or her cheeses. But her sensory acuity was remarkable and her sensory memory was perfect. On a summer night in Calistoga, one of her three-egg omelets with herbs and a tomato vinaigrette was better than most four-star meals. She could look at a raw egg and know whether to use more or less basil, one or two grinds of pepper, a three-dollar Chablis or a twelve-dollar Grey Riesling.
I have eaten grand meals and known some world-class chefs, but Sandra was both the best at what she did and the least willing to dress it all with fancy words. So far as I’m concerned, that’s the only reason she is less famous now than, say, Alice Waters, the trendy queen of Bay Area eating. Sandra could cook as well as anyone, but she didn’t talk as well and her politics and aesthetics weren’t as avant. So Sandra remained a quiet treasure.
Maybe it’s simply that Sandra was too busy living and eating and loving and tasting to be bothered with the talking of it.
Sandra kind of put me together, I guess, after Fiora and I broke up the first time. Sandra was a wine-country girl. Her parents owned one of the most famous vineyards in the Napa Valley, a hundred and forty acres of fertile ground called Deep Purple. The Autrys were down-to-earth folks, in the original sense of the word, and that may have been where Sandra learned her natural reserve. She lacked the outgoing charm, the sense of showmanship, that professional cooks and hostesses often have. But her extraordinary talent had already taken her a long way when I met her at a fancy wine-tasting party in San Francisco three months after Fiora first moved out on me and went back to Harvard.
Sandra was tall and almost willowy. Almost, I said. She had a figure that most women would have killed for, but lots of men never noticed because she tended to dress in an understated way. She was not given to showing herself off, but she made quite an impression on me the first time I ever saw her.
The party was crowded, with people sliding this way and that to get through, and I was standing in the middle, watching it all with the detachment of the unattached. When I first saw Sandra making her way through the crowd, she was trying hard not to spill the tall glasses of champagne she was carrying in each hand. Most everybody else was having a good time impressing whoever they were talking to. I guess I had been a long time without a stirring, because I found myself watching Sandra—Venuslike with arms raised, seeming by her attitude to invite inspection—as though I had never seen a woman’s body.
She had come about halfway across the room before I realized that I was staring. Then I realized that she realized I was staring. Then I realized that she didn’t mind me staring, even if I wasn’t looking at her eyes. I think I got a little flustered, turned a little red. But Sandra just kept coming toward me, smiling, calm and sexy as all hell.
It felt so good to want a woman again that I got over my embarrassment and just kept watching, albeit a bit less like a chained wolf watching a lamb gambol closer. Sandra drew abreast of me, quite literally, and then slid past without saying a word, a faint smile of pleasure or pride parting her lips. Three steps beyond me, she turned and looked back over her shoulder.
“You like them?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said simply, because it was way too late to think up a polite lie.
Still smiling, she turned away and glided into the crowd.
Two hours later she was introduced to me as Sandra Autry. That’s where I got lucky again, since it took me less than two minutes to remember that S. Autry was listed on the menu as the master chef for the evening. This was back in the relative Dark Ages, when a woman who wanted her cooking to be taken seriously might hide her gender behind a single initial. Sandra seemed genuinely pleased when I put that little puzzle together, and she allowed me—maybe even encouraged me—to hang around while she oversaw the cleanup. Then she took me home, all the way out to a Victorian at the north edge of Golden Gate Park.
Neither of us mentioned my previous lechery until sometime just before dawn, after she had given me a hickey on my neck. It was a reward, she said, for not being afraid to leer in public.
“If I ever get to feeling drab and little brown henlike,” she said, laughing deep in her throat, “all I’ll have to do is bring back the memory of the look on your face. Every woman needs that once in a while. When I got close and saw those gray eyes and that slow, sexy smile, I knew that if I never had another man I had to have you tonight.”
That was Sandra’s gentle way of defining our relationship from the very start. We never lived together, and often were not lovers when we did get together. She was independent in a deep and abiding way. There was too much of life she wanted to experience; she had too many things to do to allow herself to be tied to one man.
And I had too many ties and too many directions to go to be bound inextricably to her.
Yet we were very close when we were together. I told Sandra about my failed marriage, and she explained Fiora to me, without ever having met her, because they were quite alike. There is an independence in some modern women that ought not to be trifled with. This wine-country woman helped me to get over Fiora by eventually sending me back to her. Maybe Sandra and I never stuck permanently together because Fiora and I had already done so. But Sandra and I got pretty sticky, some of those hot nights in the little hotel in Calistoga.
Now I was headed north out through the Tejon Pass, leaving the smog of Los Angeles behind, with Fiora sitting beside me in the car, headed toward Napa’s generous, fertile harvest because I had heard that Sandra was in danger of losing everything she had ever owned.
What I didn’t know then, what I didn’t discover until much later, too late, was that the trouble was bigger than Sandra, bigger than the hundred and forty acres of magnificent grape land called Deep Purple. The trouble was as complex as a good Chardonnay, as hidden as the roots of the silent vines, and as deadly as steel sliding between living ribs.
Yes, Gatsby would have loved the Napa Valley, but he wouldn’t have survived it.
I nearly didn’t.
“Maxwell manages a slam-bang climax . . . and the California wine business background is unusual and entertaining.”—Publishers Weekly
“Evokes with grace, elegance and love the colors, smells and sounds of Napa Valley wine-making.”—Vanity Fair
“By far [Maxwell’s] best, a California thriller with very real characters and dialogue and a violent, unexpected ending you won’t soon forget.”—Palo Alto Times Tribune
Gatsby's Vineyard will be published this month, November 2009. Find copies at your favorite independent, chain, or online bookseller. See the list at the right for some of the indies that support & stock BFP titles. Booksellers/librarians: Gatsby's Vineyard is available through Consortium, Ingram & Baker & Taylor.
A. E. Maxwell is the pseudonym of husband-and-wife writing team Ann & Evan Maxwell. Ann is now best known as New York Times best-seller "Elizabeth Lowell." Visit their website here.