Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The View From Napa Valley

Drink wine, and you will sleep well. Sleep, and you will not sin. Avoid sin, and you will be saved. Ergo, drink wine and be saved.
--Medieval German saying
My past excursions to California were always work related, and always to the southern portions, Los Angeles or San Diego, where the weather is warm and the skies sunny. But the California of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Malibu and The Palisades has never seemed entirely real to me. I longed for a more authentic experience, where the land and history combine fortunes, where the geography is rugged, the air brisk, and nature lends a hand. This past week, Andrea and I journeyed west, to the Golden State’s northern confines, to San Francisco and Napa Valley, for a week of rest, food, wine, and exploration. I hope to return soon.

Having never ventured previously to San Francisco, I soon discovered why Billy Graham once said of it, “The Bay Area is so beautiful, I hesitate to preach about heaven while I am here.” Although we had only two full days to explore and wander through the city’s streets and neighborhoods, I would have to place it among the most splendid and interesting cities in the United States. From the deck of our friends’ house in Pacific Heights, I viewed Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge with my morning coffee as the fog settled over the San Francisco Bay. The city’s incredibly steep inclines were a challenge to walk but provided spectacular views of San Francisco’s varied hillside neighborhoods, charming enclaves of houses and shops, restaurants and pubs, most of which have retained individual ethnic and historic flavors.

Although the fog in the Bay Area can be incredibly thick and, while the climate is not as warm as the state’s southern regions – Mark Twain once remarked that his coldest winter “was the summer I spent in San Francisco” – the region is possessed of an inherent beauty that blends with the natural landscape. From Fisherman’s Wharf, we walked along the San Francisco Bay to the Ferry Building, a grand and historic structure which has been transformed from a rundown train terminal into an architectural masterpiece, a marketplace of art galleries, shops and gourmet restaurants. The financial district contrasts sharply with the hills and valleys of the rest of the city. From Chinatown to the gay-friendly Castro district, to the remnants of post-hippie-culture in Haight-Ashbury, the streets are lined with a balanced blend of residential housing and small businesses, coffee shops, and diverse retail stores, each fitting nicely into the surrounding neighborhood.

“You wouldn’t think such a place as San Francisco could exist,” Dylan Thomas once wrote. “The wonderful sunlight there, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes. Beautiful Chinatown. Every race in the world. The sardine fleets sailing out. The little cable-cars whizzing down The City hills. And all the people are open and friendly." On our second day in the city, we drove through Golden Gate Park, admiring its lush, expansive, green lawns, intricate gardens, diverse geography, and its many walkways, museums, and trails. A model of city planning, it rivals the majesty of New York’s Central Park and ranks among the nicest, most impressive urban landscapes in America. We dined on a cliff overlooking a fog-covered view of the Pacific Ocean, then crossed the Golden Gate Bridge on our way to Sausalito, another gem by the Bay, a picturesque waterfront community of galleries, shops, and cafes.

Two days was hardly enough time to do San Francisco justice, but even so, I understand Rudyard Kipling’s sentiment, “San Francisco has only one drawback. ‘Tis hard to leave.’”

 * * *

A far different, but equally rich experience awaited us in Napa Valley, where rows upon rows of grape vines line up precisely on rolling hillsides, a perfect symmetry of beauty and sense-altering aromas in the mountain surrounded peaks and valleys of wine country. We tasted several of the region’s fine wines, from sweet Rieslings and smooth Zinfandels, to complex Merlots and deep, rich Cabernets. For obvious reasons, we visited the Ehlers Estate, a small but elegant winery in St. Helena, where I announced my presence as the “long lost cousin” who had finally arrived, in search of a “family” discount. They were unimpressed. Apparently, I was not the first Ehlers to have sought special dispensation at the winery, claiming lineage to our “Uncle Bernard” who made his way to these parts in 1886. But the wine was exceptionally good and the wine club manager, a pleasant sounding South African woman, led us on a tour of the grounds, where we tasted the grapes straight off the vine.

It was interesting to experience a part of the country so defined by one industry. Much as horse farms define Lexington, Kentucky, vineyards distinguish Napa, one vineyard after another, hundreds of family and corporate owned “grape farms” that support a multi-billion dollar wine industry. The wine here is among the best in the world and justifies the rhetorical question first asked by Cardinal Duc de-Richelieu of 17th century France, “If God forbade drinking, would He have made wine so good?”

In my younger days, I drank beer. Simple, straightforward, masculine, it fit my self-image as a slightly aging, unpretentious, ex-jock. Perhaps in a foolhardy attempt to round out my rough edges, Andrea introduced me to the world of wine several years ago. Now, as Vito Corleone exclaimed in The Godfather, though I suspect for different reasons, “I like to drink wine more than I used to.” There is nothing like three days of good wine and good food to relax the spirit and soothe the soul. Several vineyards and wine tastings later, I understand the sentiment expressed by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Wine is bottled poetry.”

* * *

A glass of wine in hand, and with Election Day approaching, I watched with some interest this past week the California governor’s race between Jerry Brown and Meg Whitman. I began following Jerry Brown’s career when, during winter break of my junior year in college, toward the end of 1979, I visited the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. As I admired its Ivy League splendor and picturesque, tree-strewn campus, a barrage of television cameras and reporters interrupted me as they made their way across the commons. I moved a little closer and saw the then-Governor and presidential primary candidate strolling in my direction, greeting everyone in sight. I shook his hand and followed him into the auditorium, where he gave a thoughtful, intelligent speech that continues to impress.

Although jokingly called “Governor Moonbeam” back then, I was enamored of Brown’s political style in part because of his eccentricities. He was, and in some ways still is, a politician way ahead of his time. His platform in 1980 summed up his visionary simplicity, “Protect the earth, serve the people, explore the universe.” At Dartmouth, he discussed a book I was then reading, Energy Future: Report of the Energy Project at the Harvard Business School (Random House, 1979), which advocated, from a business school perspective, tax laws and spending priorities that encouraged conservation and promoted the development of clean and renewable energy sources. These were considered essential to end our dependence on foreign oil and to gradually shift us away from limited, costly conventional sources of energy: oil, coal, gas, and nuclear (for my previous essay on this topic, see America and Energy: A Failure of Vision). 

Brown was young and energetic, intelligent and progressive. He appealed to reason and common sense, and articulated a detached public interest. He was the only candidate at the time discussing energy policy with the right mixture of vision and practicality (Independent Party candidate John Anderson would do so later). I even liked his campaign buttons – a plain, brown (get it?) circle.

Brown also had an intriguing personal history. After completing his freshman year in college, Brown entered a Jesuit seminary, where he took a vow of poverty and lived in seclusion for three-and-a-half years. According to a recent profile by John Judis in The New Republic, Brown “later said that he learned two fundamental principles from the Jesuits – agere contra, or ‘go against yourself,’ and ignatian, ‘detachment from creature comforts and worldly desires.’” Brown’s countercultural instincts were welcome in post-sixties California, especially on the heels of Watergate in 1974 and, at the age of 36, he became Governor.

I found Brown’s disdain for the accoutrements of high office a refreshing change of pace; he refused to be chauffeured in the state-funded limousine, driving a Plymouth instead, and he declined the Governor’s mansion, choosing to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Sacramento. He eschewed interest group politics and Democratic power brokers. He surrounded himself with idealistic intellectuals and espoused the principles of E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small Is Beautiful, which advocated humane, ecologically-sound, soft technologies. He understood that the planet cannot forever sustain undisciplined and unlimited economic growth.

Brown’s response to the energy crisis of the 1970’s helped make California a world leader in conservation and renewable energy. Under his leadership, California adopted the nation’s toughest air and water pollution standards and enacted strict energy efficiency requirements for all new buildings. Through smartly-applied, targeted tax policies, he promoted the development of solar, wind, and geo-thermal energy. Brown championed public transportation and mass transit, including high-speed rail lines, placing California at the vanguard of environmentally conscious communities. Although “widely mocked at the time,” according to Judis, even such Brown-like ideas as installing designated lanes for car pools and cyclists “is now a staple of metro planning.”

Though he leans to the left on many issues, Brown governs very much from the center and caters to no one’s ideological impulses. As Governor, he aggressively countered public waste, railed against “big government,” vetoed bureaucratic pay raises, and cut spending on many traditionally liberal benchmarks, including education and welfare, where additional spending was not resulting in added benefits. From 1998 to 2006, he was a surprisingly effective mayor of Oakland, where he worked closely with developers to revitalize the city center, backed charter schools, and adopted crime fighting strategies that had been successfully applied in New York City, aggressively enforcing anti-nuisance and loitering ordnances that provided fresh life to Oakland’s deserted downtown. As a result, a thriving art scene has flourished in downtown Oakland, and shops, restaurants, and high-tech startups have moved there.

Brown also possesses a refreshingly authentic honesty, which distinguishes him from more typical politicians. The son of a charismatic and well-respected former Governor, Brown once said that in his youth he was both “attracted and repelled” by his father’s brand of politics: “The adventure. The opportunity. The grasping, the artificiality, the obvious manipulation and role-playing, the repetition of emotion without feeling. . . .” When he ran for President in 1980, he was opposed to national health insurance because, as he explained, “You smoke. You don’t exercise. You eat junk food. Then you get sick. And you want me to pay for it?” When a reporter asked him recently why voters should believe him when he says that he has no interest in running for President again (he ran in 1980 and 1992), Brown replied, “Age. Hell, if I was younger, you know I’d be running again.” Now 72 and married, he added, “. . . you know, I come home at night. I don’t try to close down the bars in Sacramento like I used to do when I was governor of California.”

Brown certainly loves the limelight and, like many high profile political leaders, perhaps he is more entertaining from a distance than for those who must observe him every day. But much as California is ahead of the nation on important benchmark issues, so too is Brown. More intelligent than the average politician, more dedicated to solving problems, he articulates the right mix of liberal and conservative policies. The rest of the country should take note. For a large state with enormous problems, California could do a lot worse than put Brown back into the Governor’s mansion . . . or in his case, at least, a Sacramento apartment. If elected, he will jumpstart the state’s conservation efforts and expand its capacity for clean and renewable energy, thereby providing jobs for scientists, engineers, and construction workers alike. And he will do so in an undoubtedly entertaining manner. Seems like a winning formula. Next time I’m in Napa, I’ll drink to that.

No comments:

Post a Comment