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December 6-12, 2006

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Two Napa Valleys

Glass wear: The tourist and wine industries combined have deepened the divide between the so-called upvalley and downvalley sections of Napa County.

Upvalley, Downvalley

Outsiders essentially have no idea, but a largely unspoken rift divides the two ends of the Napa Valley

By Brett Ascarelli


Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series looking at the dichotomies and growing pains of Napa.

This fall at an art opening in the city of Napa, a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings migrated outside for cigarettes, taking seats in the neighboring smog-check facility's parking lot. Although it was dark, they chatted under shelter of a canvas sun umbrella that was strung with tired Christmas lights.

Not everyone knew each other, so they gingerly introduced themselves. In the city of Napa, introductions can be particularly uncomfortable. With a population of roughly 71,500, Napa is mostly a place of working-class families and city dwellers who have rewarded themselves with lavish country pieds-à-terre. The few young people living here often arrive in answer to the savory call of its vast service industry; very little else exists to draw them. Meeting someone new who's between the ages of 24 and 38 and doesn't have a family is surprising.

The saying about never having a second chance to make a first impression carries a lot of weight in Napa, where there are so few first impressions to be made.

Puffing on his cigarette in the smog-check parking lot, a young man introduced himself to the group. Despite the pressure to get the first impression right, he got off to a good start.

"I grew up in St. Helena," he offered amiably. "And I spent my whole life correcting people who'd say, 'So, you're from Napa?'"

Then, with a grin, he revealed how he usually answered these queries: "No, I'm from Napa Valley."

Everyone got the joke but no one said anything to protest the volatile distinction he had just made. This is typical. People don't like to talk about it. With just a few words, he had exposed a latent, long-standing bifurcation in the mindset of Napa Valley.

Valley Views

Featuring swimming pools and vineyards, a "Living the Wine Country Dream" advertising supplement in a recent Sunday New York Times implied that the Napa Valley is one cohesive entity, a peaceful land of bacchanalian luxury. With the Robb Report as its constitution and Francis Ford Coppola as its prime minister, this fantasy Napa Valley bears Pat Kuleto as a mascot and sings Screaming Eagle for a battle cry.

While this marketing ploy may have framed public perception of the region, Napa Valley is far from uniform. In fact, the phrase "Napa Valley," while it has long existed, has only gained popularity during the last 15 years as a way to bring tourists to the whole valley, not just St. Helena. For example, the county's daily paper, the Napa Valley Register, established in 1863, didn't add "Valley" to the middle of its name until 1991.

Although what we call Napa Valley roughly encompasses Napa County, the term excludes certain areas. Among these forgotten places is the largely Seventh-Day Adventist community of Angwin, where stores downtown generally don't sell alcohol, tobacco or meat. Also overlooked is the burgeoning suburbia of American Canyon, a 14-year-old bedroom community that is seemingly always involved in negotiations with Wal-Mart.

Opposing attitudes in Napa Valley boil down to roughly two camps: upvalley and downvalley. The terms pepper conversation and commercial signage. Local companies--especially real estate agencies--eagerly bill themselves as upvalley. On the other hand, businesses at the south end of the valley aren't as keen to use the phrase "downvalley." These are loaded terms, and even making a correction as simple as "No, I live upvalley" can carry a snide connotation to some ears.

It's almost as if an invisible line divides the two regions. Locals say it falls just south of Yountville, and when pressed, give its exact coordinates: Oak Knoll Avenue, on Highway 29, just north of the popular restaurant Bistro Don Giovanni. Latitude: 38°21'11" north.

Upvalley comprises the towns of Yountville and St. Helena. Though situated even farther north than St. Helena, Calistoga, population 5,200, is not quite an upvalley town. It has spas and the posh Calistoga Ranch resort but still lacks even a community swimming pool of its own. (The city, where many immigrants and service workers live, does finally have plans to build one, despite complaints from the Concerned Citizens of Calistoga--a group concerned mostly with the noise of laughter and belly flops.)

With a population of 3,328, Yountville measures roughly the size of one-eighth of a teaspoon. But it makes up for it with mighty French restaurants, extolled globally by food writers with inexhaustible budgets. Ten minutes away, the city of St. Helena, population 6,000, is equally chichi; even the local burger joint serves ahi tuna.

Downvalley lies the city of Napa. Despite ongoing and contentious efforts to jump on the wine-tourism bandwagon, Napa is still considered by some as the spit bucket of wine country. At one end of Main Street, Angèle and Celadon restaurants have adopted upvalley's culinary standards. But at the other end of Main Street, the Salvation Army store and an ancient sewing shop, NorMar Fabrics & Gifts, still linger as reminders of more modest times. In the middle of Main, there stood until recently a meringue of an eatery: the Café Society, where for $5, Francophiles could go once a week for a bit of French conversation. The cafe has since closed, because in some senses, there is no society here. It's been priced out to make way for tourists.

To downvalley folks, their northern neighbors are snobby and stiff. To upvalley residents, Napa seems inferior, a reminder that wine country aesthetic doesn't extend indefinitely. Some refer to Napa as Vallejo North. Upvalley towns are immaculately manicured and exclusive to those who can afford the stratospheric housing prices, although downvalley's housing is not exactly affordable, either. Downvalley has a blue-collar feel, with strip malls, flood problems and grit. Upvalley has the French Laundry; downvalley has Denny's.

The spirit of St. Helena defines not only upvalley, but also the idealized, unified Napa Valley to which that New York Times ad section alluded. When the young man at the art opening told people he was from Napa Valley, as opposed to Napa, he was really getting in a jab at downvalley and disavowing any connection to it. And he's not the only one. A winery owner with a Napa address reportedly changed it to read "Napa Valley" instead. Farther south in American Canyon, the Wallaby Yogurt Company tacked a postally irrelevant "Napa County" onto its address.

While the city of Napa is located in the Napa Valley, it still lacks Napa Valley's cachet. Downvalley is where tourists land by mistake.

Class of 'Napkins'

It's a few weeks after the art opening on another dark night in the city of Napa, and cousins Will DeLong and Aaron Hill stand in their driveway contemplating how to better organize their tool shop. A hand-written sign asking "Got Wood?" is taped up in the open shop, and in the driveway stand a sawhorse and wheelbarrow, hinting at their business, Stonehill Construction.

DeLong, 33, has lived in Napa since he was three, excluding a six-year service in the military from 1991 to 1997. He has a young face, despite his dark beard and glasses. Wearing a tie-dye shirt and working on a beer, DeLong is hesitant to say that upvalley and downvalley are actually in conflict.

"I don't know if there's really a conflict where we would take arms up against each other," says DeLong. Instead, he sees it as a class difference. But from his point of view, almost nobody acknowledges this class divide, because talking about money makes people uncomfortable. Napans aren't particularly eager to identify themselves as earning a more modest income, and St. Helenans don't necessarily want to call attention to their wealth. "It's just sort of an understated thing," DeLong says.

Of course, gentility only goes so far, and extravagant architectural homages to wine do the talking that their owners shy away from. Although these edifices are starting to migrate farther and farther south--some of the most extravagant are now located on the Silverado Trail in the city of Napa--they don't belong to the downvalley mentality.

"Most people in Napa city are just--we repair the wineries," DeLong says without bitterness. "We're the working class folks that fix everything in the wine industry."

The epithet "Napkin," a play on the word for the city's residents, probably derives from Upstairs, Downstairs dichotomy of the valley. Napans claim that the dishrag moniker was created by the upvalley contingent but occasionally use it to describe themselves self-mockingly.

DeLong, who earns a large part of his living by working for people affiliated with wineries, looks forward to the jobs they provide him. "[These people] have good taste. They have money to create things to reflect their good taste."

But he isn't as sanguine about the resulting tourism industry. With frustration, he imitates tourist looky-loos, who are too busy admiring grapes to even drive the speed limit. Clogging the valley's only two major north-south thoroughfares, tourists make getting to work on time an anxious adrenaline rush for locals. "But ultimately, it's my bread and butter," DeLong shrugs, acknowledging that everyone who lives in a destination area has issues with tourists.

Stonehill Construction co-owner Aaron Hill, 29, grew up in Oakville, a small area between Napa and Yountville, attended St. Helena High School, and now lives in Napa. Hill says upvalley/downvalley tensions are nothing new.

"It's always been there. Growing up in St. Helena, it's like, 'Oh, it's Napa'--it's lower class," he says, imitating a fey tone. "At least in high school, it was looked on as the little people in Napa. But when you get older, everybody lives in Napa, because nobody can afford to live in St. Helena.

"Even Napa, though, really, if we didn't have the good-fortune to buy this house from our grandparents, we would never have been able to afford to live here," Hill adds as an afterthought.

Town & Country

In a pastoral part of Napa city limits, telephones at the radio station KVON ring incessantly as residents call in two fires simultaneously blazing in the valley. General Manager and KVON program director Jeff Schechtman, 56, sits in a glass-walled office across from a giant, glass coffee table. His hair is slickly combed and he's wearing a salmon Fa┴onnable button-down shirt, dark tie and jeans. Originally from Long Island--evident in his accent--Schechtman worked as a movie producer in Los Angeles for many years, moved to St. Helena about 10 years ago, and relocated to the city of Napa three or four years later.

Schechtman characterizes the upvalley/downvalley opposition not as a schism, but as a difference between two very unlike places. "Yountville and St. Helena represent the wine business," he says. "They represent everybody's vision, the fantasy vision of what Napa Valley is."

Schechtman has long advocated for gentrification and economic development in the city of Napa, which would bring it up to par with its upvalley counterparts as a tourist destination. "The city of Napa for a long time was not a part of that," he explains. "It didn't share in that at all. The irony of it is that it shared in it by virtue of its name. So to most people outside of the Bay Area, it was part of the Napa Valley, but it did nothing to take advantage of that. Even though if it had tried to take advantage of that sooner, it probably would have helped economically. But it didn't! And part of the reason why it didn't is because of the old-timers, [who] had a kind of resentment for what was changing their valley."

Historically, Napa and St. Helena have stood for different things. Even before the tourist boom, St. Helena's population primarily comprised gentlemen farmers and, later, university-educated men who bought vineyards there. In comparison, Napa has long been the industrial center of the valley, with a tannery, a butcher shop and a state hospital for the mentally ill. Napans worked in heavy industry at Kaiser Steel and the Basalt Rock Company, or commuted to work at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near Vallejo.

Speaking by phone from her home in Napa, Lauren Coodley, author of Napa: The Transformation of an American Town and professor of psychology and history at Napa Valley College, says that for a very long time the upvalley/downvalley areas have been separate in terms of industrial vs. agricultural economies and urban vs. rural environments. Coodley characterizes these as "ancient polarities between country and town."

"I think the things the groups imagine about each other are not really very valid," says Coodley, whose ex-husband grew up in St. Helena. "But it's true that there is a distance. If you put it into a historic perspective between town and country, it makes sense."

"The origin of the rift is probably pre-tourism. Country people see city people as different--maybe rougher, less agrarian," says Coodley. She doesn't necessarily agree that St. Helenans look down at Napans, but if such snobbery exists, she attributes it to "a kind of class contempt for people who work in industry."

From the historical perspective of those in the city of Napa, upvalley was a world wholly unrelated to them. "Upvalley meant more affluent people, people who live in their little world of wineries, probably who don't work with their hands for a living. This was to some degree always a misnomer," says Coodley, who points out that working-class people lived there, too. But upvalley was at least perceived as a "Brigadoon community, immune from the stresses and strife of Napa," she says.

"Upvalley, they drank wine; down here, they drank beer and whiskey. The alcohol difference sort of epitomizes the irony of the situation," she says. "People down here had contempt for wine snobbery."

The reason why the upvalley vs. downvalley divide persists even today is, according to Coodley, a result of how the two regions perceived each other's development as the modern wine industry took hold in Napa County. Robert and Margrit Mondavi began paving the way for the wine industry's resurgence in the mid-'60s. And after the Paris Wine Tasting of 1976, a blind tasting that successfully pitted Napa wines against French wines, Napa's victories put the region on the global map.

Despite its new-found recognition, the valley didn't respond to the tourism demands uniformly. Upvalley towns seemed to transition almost seamlessly. But the city of Napa had a delayed reaction to jumping on the wine-tourism bandwagon, because wine wasn't really relevant to the community. Only in the past dozen or so years has the city clumsily struggled to become more of a tourist attraction.

Like many other residents, Coodley draws the invisible line between upvalley and downvalley just south of Yountville, but for a different reason: it represents the rural-urban limit. "Upvalley is where all the farms are. People resenting this remember when so much of Napa was farmland too. What is now Wal-Mart was the livestock auction place during the '30s and '40s," she says.

"Probably, people in Napa and St. Helena are shocked that Napa has allowed the sprawl, the subdivisions, the lack of planning," Coodley continues. "I think they're kind of scornful. It's obvious that Napa has made some disastrous planning--or lack thereof--decisions. I think it's clear that developers have had their way with Napa." But this issue has never really been articulated, and that's what Coodley thinks is causing upvalley vs. downvalley tensions to persist. "People who live in St. Helena are stunned by the traffic, the congestion, the chain stores. Why did they even let all that happen?" she says.

"Maybe St. Helenans think that Napa is just kind of," she pauses to search for a word, "metastasizing, and that its lost its identity. But there's misunderstanding on both sides. If they had an educated understanding, Napa would realize that St. Helena had militantly resisted their development."

But for all its Brigadoon charm, St. Helena has its own set of problems. The city has restricted development so much that affording a home there is almost impossible for anyone earning less than six figures, which means that there's practically no middle class.

On the other hand, the upvalley vs. downvalley rift could be more imaginary than real. All it takes to perceive twinges of snobbery or inferiority is a hint of suspicion.

Eric Nelson, who grew up in the city of Napa and is now executive director of the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, explains, "It's more a sense that every community sees that they're special in their own particular way, and like any of us, we tend to think we're more special than our neighbors."

Dr. Marty Nemko, part-time Napa resident and contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report, says, "We have prestige hierarchies everywhere, and people judge each other based on the most trivial criteria, like socioeconomic status. I'd be surprised if Napa Valley was immunefrom something that's almost a ubiquitous worldwide predisposition."

Full Circle

Back at the art opening in Napa, while the twenty- and thirty-somethings continued to introduce each other in the parking lot, some younger kids clustered around a craft table inside. They were making hood ornaments, which was surreal, because they couldn't yet drive. But the strangest thing was that cone-shaped hair dryers hung over their heads. The venue for this art opening was a hair salon. Meanwhile, spill-over crowd trickled in from another art opening, underway at a wine lounge a few blocks away. The only way galleries seem to be able to survive in the city of Napa is by doubling as salons, wine bars, frame stores or real estate offices.

Similarly, the city itself is leading a double life, transitioning from a place that serves its locals to a place that serves tourists. The hazy distinctions that characterize the valley's two ideological poles come into sharp relief here as the invisible line moves farther south, scrambling the innards of the city of Napa. Whereas upvalley's fate is already sealed, the city of Napa is the front line of a struggle between pro-tourist forces that want to make it continuous with the appeal of Yountville or St. Helena, and old-timers, who wonder what happened to their town.


Next month, we conclude our two-part look at the Napa Valley by examining how the so-called 'metastasis' of Napa city informs its growth and the impact on its populace.


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