Napa Valley:

Glitz Grafted Onto Deep Roots

Paul Franson


Though you wouldn’t know it from most of the articles you read, Napa Valley isn’t really the glitzy scene you see for a few days each year during Auction Napa Valley, the world-famous charity wine auction.


It’s a farming community, not a retirement community or a destination resort. There’s a very strong sentiment among local residents to keep the Valley as it is, and people in the valley zealously protect the farm land and fight incursions. There’s as much distain among residents toward those who want to make Napa Valley a trendy playground for the wealthy as there is for those who want to fill it with housing development and tourist attractions.


A wealthy newcomer who spurns environmental laws is a pariah among most of the valley community – including other wealthy newcomers --- for arrogantly flaunting environmental and other county regulations as well as their success.


By contrast, the way to gain acceptance and respect is to protect the environment or help the needy. The local heroes are people like Joseph Phelps, who donated valuable land for farmworker housing, and Robert Mondavi, who’s given so much to education and the arts, and the many people who’ve donated their valuable land to the local Land Trust or placed it in permanent agricultural or natural preserves. Local landowners price themselves on restoring the rivers and creeks, and they value the wildlife. A vineyard owner who had four bears killed – legally – for damaging his fences was condemned so heavily by other growers that he sold the land and left the valley.

It’s often difficult to tell the wealthy vintners --  owners of wineries – from the hired winemakers who make their wine, and in fact, in some cases they are the same people. There’s no hierarchical society like that found in most cities; the life of the valley is wine, and if you’re involved in the wine business, you belong. The former school teacher bootstrapping a winery or the Mexican-born vineyard manager is as welcomed as the rich developer, though naturally people tend to develop friends with similar interests and assets.


The “aristocracy” is the old time families who’ve owned property for decades – even generations -- but they’re not that exclusive and seem to welcome others if they play by the rules: Respect the environment, don’t flaunt your wealth and do good things for the valley and its people. The way for newcomers to get accepted is to participate in charitable  and wine organizations. Giving lots of money to good causes (including big purchases at the wine auction) helps, of course: Wealthy people here spend a lot of time and money supporting each others’ favorite causes. 


During the summer, the elite we read about in the San Francisco society columns like to party in Napa Valley, with San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, a part owner of Plumpjack Winery in Oakville, joining Gettys and Trainas at the home John Traina once shared with ex-wife and novelist Danielle Steele, and some locals like the Swansons of frozen dinner and winery fame are members of that informal club. City swells do like to invite locals to their parties for color, but most Napans don’t take that scene too seriously.


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