“At long last.” Napa at Last Light by James Conaway


About three years ago, beginning in January though not as any sort of resolution, I began to fuel my interest in wine by reading books about the subject. My doctoral studies, akin to those of others, had been marked by many memorable milestones, yet were forgettable for their intersection with literature, most of what I had read during that more than one thousand days being either required by professors, drier than an empty bottle, or both. For that reason, I found tremendous joy in reading something that was fascinating, yet also seemed in some ways inconsequential. I did not have to read any of these books, was not required to grasp their content. It was reading as reading should be — it was reading for the pleasure of the act, and for the joys that only literacy can bring.

I read many, many books on wine that year, a few dozen in fact, but the two that entranced me the fastest and brought me back to my chair by the fire most frequently were Napa: The Story of An American Eden, and its sequel, The Far Side of Eden, both by James Conaway. In those two tomes I was introduced to the Napa Valley, past and present, from an environmentalist standpoint, and with a keen literary edge. Though I am myself an English teacher, reading Conaway’s writing was akin in some ways to reading Shakespeare; I needed a dictionary on hand, and went into the task prepared to read and reread until I had at last grasped the very essence of each message. Poignant, thoughtful, vivid, Conaway’s writing served only to enhance my love of Napa in ways I’d not previously imagined, and to warn outsiders like me of the impending dangers that lay ahead for that thirty-mile stretch of paradise just north of San Francisco.

Over the years that followed, I met many of the “characters” from Conaway’s books — real life people, who featured in his writing. Some I sought out, while others I encountered by chance. Some of them I wrote about, or reviewed their wines, and others I merely asked to tell me stories. Some had died since the publication of Conaway’s first and second book, now decades ago, an in their stead their children carry on their legacy. Sometimes I met those children. Some of these people became friends, others merely acquaintances. All of them, like Conaway’s books, enhanced my understanding of the Napa Valley and what makes it so special, and built upon my appreciation.

Most of those I met, though not all, were aware of their appearance in Conaway’s books. Many were appreciative of the nod, and some had become close with Conaway themselves. “He’s up here pretty frequently,” one told me a few years back when I was visiting their winery. “I think he’s writing another book,” (my first hint that Napa at Last Light was in the works). A few were less appreciative of the book and, more specifically perhaps, of its rather obvious environmentalist bent. “I’ll put it to you this way,” one told me over lunch. “He drove around Napa in a convertible Miata.” It didn’t surprise me to learn that agriculturalists, farmers, might not find sport cars endearing. “He got me about 70% correct,” said another at the same meal. “I guess that’s not bad.” Yet, whether people appreciated James Conaway or not, I found myself all the more intrigued by his writing as a result of these meetings.

Earlier this week, Napa at Last Light, the third book in Conaway’s series, arrived at my home courtesy of Big Brother Amazon. I rarely preorder a book, the last time being a few years ago with Go Set a Watchman, but this was one I felt I needed immediately, faster even than my bookstore-owning father could provide it to me. Eager to dive into page one, I nevertheless flipped to the index and scanned the familiar list of names, my eager desire to devour the book growing with each new name recognized:

Davies, Hugh, 77-94…

Dunn, Randy, 127, 160, 212, 260, 276…

Eisele, Volker, xx, 42-43, 65, 159-63…

Salvestrin, Rich, 119-20, 158…

Smith, Stu, 112, 246…

I’ll end by expressing both my eager anticipation of reading this text next week while on spring break in Florida, where my wife will enjoy most the beaches and my children their grandparents, and my gratitude to James Conaway, not only for writing books that I have very much enjoyed, but also for introducing me to so many new friends throughout the Napa Valley. Because of his writing, I sought people out, shook their hands, tasted their wines, and ultimately became acquainted with some terrific folk who, without these books, I may never have known. I’m looking forward to next week and to the time I’ll have to read. If you’re a lover of Napa — the wines or the land from which they hail, I suggest you check out the work of James Conaway.

Cheers to books, and to people who read them,


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