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On Memory & Forgetting in Wine Country

Soon after I became outspoken in my criticism of the regional wine industry, I began having conversations with local people for whom this issue is deeply personal. Across recent decades, the sprawling North Coast booze sector has recklessly reconfigured landbases, sucked waterways dry, killed off scores of wildlife, drenched the land with chemicals, and imposed its particular brand of sterilized country life on previously more vibrant pastoral settlements — all of this on the basis of exploited migrant labor, which comprise the industry's main contribution to the local job base. Although you would never know it by reading the Santa Rosa Press Democrat or tuning into local TV newscasts, these practices have not actually endeared Big Wine to most people — especially those who have experienced them first-hand. Some North Coast residents refer to the pervasive change from forest and rangeland to vineyards as “grape rape.”

Yet, for all of the deep-seated resentment the wine industry has bred, opposition to it has never been part of an insurgent social movement. That's in contrast to organized resistance to the timber industry, which was a significant regional political force throughout the '90s.

For the purposes of this particular article, I'm concerned with the way in which this lack of effective opposition to Big Wine is an expression of a bigger crisis of the dominant economic order. Even in the best of times (a highly relative statement in this case), the capitalist system reaps without replacing in an unsustainable drive, before dynamically moving on to harvest new, previously unexploited areas of the earth. It succeeds so well in transforming the earth into “resources” and human beings into an exploited pool of laborers, who must travel across vast distances in search of a wage, that it totally undermines the possibility of any truly sustainable human community existing in any given place.

Yet, communities serve as repositories of collective memory. Absent collective memory, it is impossible to notice when meaningful aspects of life have gone missing, or even that they were ever here at all. By extension, people lose their sense that things don't have to be the way they are. It is precisely this sense, however, that fundamentally animates all movements of political resistance.

Getting back to the conversations I've been having with people who have been personally scarred by the industry's destructiveness, my interactions with people in their 20s and early-30s have been particularly striking. These are extremely bright individuals who grew up in Napa, Sonoma, or southern Mendocino counties. Many of them have deep-seated negative feelings toward the wine industry. Yet, they never previously considered it a matter of political concern.

For example, a woman in her mid-20s had seen a meadow where she played in Sebastopol as a child replaced with monocrop grapes. Later, it became a shopping center. She is an inspiring and dedicated environmental activist, which is how I met her in the first place. But she previously regarded the death of the meadow and consequent snuffing out of frogs, newts, salamanders and other species who lived there as a source of private pain, rather than a particular local expression of a broad societal problem.

A man in his mid-20s, who watched Robert Mondavi install its Bald Eagle Vineyard development in Potter Valley while growing up in the '90s, experienced the well run nearly dry at the ranch where his family lived. A man of about the same age — one of the sharpest anti-war organizers I met while living in Santa Barbara in 2006 and 2007 — grew up in Cotati and had similar experiences, as vineyards took over the spaces that most defined the place where he lived. Both of these men are politically engaged, and each has privately harbored resentment toward the wine industry for many years. In neither case, however, had they considered the possibility of organizing politically against the wine industry.

I've detailed throughout the series on the wine business the manner in which it is a thoroughly integrated part of the global capitalist system. The regional wine trade is dominated by large corporations and investors, people who have speculated in our North Coast lands in an effort to increase their profit margins and raise more capital, which will further fuel their speculation in other markets and economies. In such an economy, with its basis in precariousness and dislocation for the many, there exists little formal possibility for preserving collective memory and, by extension, the sense that things don't have to be the way they are.

In a modest effort to restore an extremely small share of what has been lost, and as a small contribution to creating more of a collective memory of the toll that this extremely dominant economic sector has wrought on the land and psyches of the North Coast, I am sharing a handful of the written correspondences I've received since I started publishing my wine series in the AVA. A common thread among them is the dislocation the authors have experienced. These are people who have, almost literally, been chased out of the area by the wine industry's destructiveness. There are literally thousands of people in this region, no doubt, who have experienced variations on the same theme.

I begin with a letter from Jason Schwartz, a long-time Santa Rosa resident who grew so thoroughly disgusted with the wine industry's rapaciousness that he decided to move away. Dan Smith (alias), a food writer in San Francisco, recalls the destruction of Geyserville's gay enclave at the hands of E&J Gallo. And James Cronin mourns the loss of the Napa he knew as a child.

* * *

Hello Will,

I enjoyed your piece on NorCal wine. I agree 100%; it's very accurate. I have been a contractor with many clients in this business; it's one of the reasons I quit and moved. It makes me sick and the fake marketing image makes me want to puke. I even made some shirts that said:

Local Wine

• Exploit Immigrant Labor

• Rape Natural Resources

• Export and Enjoy!

But the industry dominates and permeates almost every aspect of the regions. You know the adage, “Don't bite the hand that feeds.” I guess I don't follow that advice. I lived in Santa Rosa for most of my life and have seen the industry rip and tear and consolidate; it's ugly stuff. Interesting your remark equating the pot industry to the wine business. This, too, I feel is very accurate. I also know many in this industry who have seen it basically go to hell as well. Once the bottom line comes front and center nothing is 'mom and pop' or 'bucolic' anymore; it's all volume and numbers.

But common sense as well as any honest science will tell us we can't grow forever, despite the prevailing economic and population models we employ. It's nice to read some good work on a good platform putting some sound ideas forth. Thanks, I look forward to reading the following articles.

— Jason Schwartz

* * *

Hi Will,

This is Dan Smith down in the City (13+ years), a former food writer in my native Chicago and long-time “green” food and booze enthusiast.

I spent the first half of 1993 — my first stretch away from Illinois — living on the River in “Northwood,” right across from Bohemian Grove. Sonoma County had (has?) the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS of any non-urban county in the United States, and right about that time the death rate up there and in the City was peaking.

Concurrent with this, the gay — and straight — population in the Russian River area was struggling with an all-permeating methamphetamine plague. My friends and I could often be found at Wohler Beach, getting away from the pressures of “the City” — in this case meaning Guerneville, now statistically the gayest City in America and even back then queer enough to support its own bucolic homo satellite.

Undoubtedly the Gallo erasure of neighboring MacMurray Ranch was the final nail in the coffin of Wohler Beach — no more dogwalking, nude sunbathing, bike riding out to cricket sounds, cruising in the warm sun... just mute concrete. And back to a town being crushed by death and drugs. It's always the most vulnerable populations that suffer the most. You'd almost think Gallo targeted the gays the way it targets the alcoholic with Night Train.

At least, I think Gallo no longer targets visitors to its Healdsburg tasting room with a FORTY DOLLAR charge (included “artisan cheese”). As Uncle Adolph's boy said, always go for the Big Lie. In this vein, you also found Gallo being named “ECOCONSCIOUS WINERY OF THE YEAR” by Food and Wine magazine almost before they spewed out their first bottle.

Gina Gallo, possibly the Gallo who “Comes Home to Sonoma” with resultant cataclysm, was recently in the news over her impending nuptials to a French Biodynamic Bordeaux scion: Who knew that WWW.BUMWINE.COM had a matchmaking service...?

Thanks, keep up the good work,

— Dan Smith, San Francisco

* * *

Having been born in Napa, and having watched the changes over the years, perhaps my observations will contribute to your article series.

Our family moved to Portland in 1948, but I nevertheless spent many a summer living in Napa with my relatives. Like many residents of postwar Napa, they were Italians, and members of the new middle class after years of poverty. These people, and many others like them, lived in a Napa that was by then a solidly working class and lower middle class community. Napa was then a happy, sleepy postwar town, where everyone knew everyone else, and one could interrupt the business day with many a conversation on the streets.

At the time, the wine industry was small: Beaulieu Vinyards, Beringer, The Christian Brothers, Heitz Cellars and one or two others. Contrary to myth, this industry was for the most part started by German immigrants, not Italians. We bought wine in bulk from Sutter Home in gallon jugs we brought with us, some if it to go into the vinegar barrel in the tankhouse in the back yard. The rest of the valley was in walnut, peach and prune orchards, and most was dry land oak forest holding a few scruffy cows.

The Napa Valley was one of the first and most successful attempts at land use planning that saved the beautiful valley from the wall to wall housing development that ruined San Jose and Santa Clara, but it also led the way to the development of the wine industry and the tax breaks that made losing money producing wine very profitable.

As the wine industry covered the valley floor, and then parts of the surrounding hills, it became a status symbol to own a home there, and the Bay Area elite moved in. The once cozy, isolated valley soon experienced a dramatic cultural change, and the housing market put the prices of homes well outside the affordability of the grown children of the old Italian families. Employment had typically changed to low pay service industry jobs, as in other places that suffered the same fate, as with Kalispell MT.

My mother had moved back to Napa in 1972, buying a nice ranch-style home in the hills with a view of the valley for $40,000. We sold it about two years before the housing bubble burst for $810,000. The tiny, run down, one bedroom houses of working people I was embarrassed to visit when my childhood friends lived in them (my Italian grandmother's house was only a step above them) were remodeled and selling for half a mil.

The most striking change was cultural. It was exemplified when a butcher of my acquaintance who worked for years at Vallerga's Grocery, the only grocery store my Italian grandmother would visit because it was Italian, left town for Arizona, telling me how mean and nasty the new, wealthy residents were to him. Many of the old families disappeared, the old Italians that used to play bocce in an alley off of Third Street vanished as well. It became a tourist town, in other words, and was no longer a community.

I mourn old Napa even as I approach my Seventies. The spirit of the town is gone, leaving only a shell of what the town once was. While change is inevitable, and of course Napa was never perfect, it was once a wonderful place for people, but is no more, despite the fancy restaurants, the wine train and the rest. More than a dozen members of my immigrant Italian family lie in Tulocay Cemetery, just outside of town where the once wild oak forest and hills begin. I can never go back, as the contrast between my wonderful memories and the new, sterile Napa simply bring too much sadness.

— James Cronin ¥¥

Contact Will Parrish at wparrish{at}

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