Thursday, May 17, 2007

A Short Meditation on Vineyards

This California vineyard might well be in France, Chile, or Australia. Humans have cultivated grapes and made wine for thousands of years, and regardless of what other industries rise and fall, we can safely presume we will continue to nurture vineyards hundreds and even thousands of years into the future.

My brother and his wife live in a small village in the Cevennes region of the south of France. As you might imagine, there are vineyards within a stone's throw of their house. On my last visit, I walked a number of kilometers down one of the many country lanes, through a small valley of vineyards and other crops. Other than the sound of motor vehicles and the paved road, the scene was probably much like it was 100 or 200 years ago.

In the village, a large old building lies vacant. My brother tells me it once contained a silk factory. I knew from reading Braudel's "Civilization and Capitalism, 15th to 18th Centuries" (the three volumes listed in yesterday's entry) that France once had a thriving silk industry centered in Lyon. Tremendous wealth was generated by that industry hundreds of years ago, a boom which lasted many decades. Now virtually nothing is left of it.

Might the ugly concrete tiltup buildings of Silicon Valley be torn down one day, and replaced with "higher value" orchards similar to the ones ripped out in the 1960s to make way for the tech boom? It seems improbable from our narrow decades-long view; but from the view of "civilization and capitalism" stretching out hundreds of years, then the rise and decline of entire industries and entire trading empires is the norm.

I am not necessarily suggesting a "decline of civilization" or "return to agrarian poverty" in proposing such a scenario; what Braudel documents so entertainingly is how capital flows to the easiest and most profitable businesses. Thus when trade routes to India bypassed Venice and its Arab trading partners, the Venician capitalists bought land on the mainland and became wealthy agriculturalists.

Thus there could be a time when the work performed in Silicon Valley has moved elsewhere, and the owners of capital realize that the value of the rich land under the concrete in a hungry world far exceeds the value of the cubicles in the buildings. Then capital will tear down Silicon Valley and plant "higher value" orchards. Silicon Valley will the be seen as a brief interruption of a much longer and more enduring agriculturally based wealth-creation.

Two other issues lay just over the horizon of this bucolic image. One is that vineyards are labor-intensive. The tender care and harvesting will probably never be performed by machine, for the simple reason it will always be cheaper to hire homo sapien sapiens v1.0 than it will be to manufacture, maintain and deploy machines complex enough to trim the tendrils and snip off the bunches of grapes without damaging the plants or harvest.

The other issue which is revealed by what is not visible in this photo is land use. In unbridled capitalism, these vineyards would be gone, replaced by gaudy palatial McMansions and "mini-ranches" with a little vineyard in front for show, so the wealthy social-climbing wannabes could have their quarter-acre of grapes to show off to their phony friends.

Why would this happen? No matter how great the vintage, no mere vineyard can compete with $5 million cash for a relatively small plot of land. Some decry the imposition of land use on "free flow of capital." This particular corner of California is very tightly restricted by local government; you cannot plant new vineyards on slopes so steep that the erosion could damage the terrain, nor can you drill a well wherever you like and extract the precious groundwater. As a result of these "onerous" restrictions, the vineyards remain.

One result of these restrictions, of course, is the value of existing homes has been driven ever upward by limited supply. But even if most of the vineyards were paved over and a 1,000 new stucco box mansions were built, the price would still be high--for in a world awash with wealth and borrowing power, a mere 1,000 mansions is nothing. The demand for "luxury property" is essentially insatiable--at least until the Great Depression of 2011 comes round.

We cannot know what industry will rise or decline in the next 100 years; we can only know that industries will rise and others will decline to dust. But through it all, patient hands will be tending grape vines, and worrying about frosts, and testing acidity and sugar to decide if today is the day to harvest. Here is a clue to this particular location: RDS.

Those are the initials of the local vineyard owners' group. It's obscure, but the valley itself is too well-known and too famous to be worthy of a "where is this?" If you can identify the terroir, and you'd like a signed copy of my little novel about the American road and identity, I-State Lines, I'll gladly send one to the first correct guess. There is a tiny clue buried in the paragraph above.

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