James Conaway, author of the Napa trilogy, donates his papers to UC Davis Library

Box of notebooks filled with interviews and observations during Conaway's visits to Napa

Box of notebooks filled with interviews and observations during Conaway's visits to Napa

Dozens of 80-sheet, 6×9-inch steno notebooks — some nearly 40 years old — will give researchers and scholars an inside look into the unique character, and characters, of the Napa Valley, thanks to their recent donation to the UC Davis Library by writer James Conaway. Conaway is known for his bestselling nonfiction trilogy — Napa: The Story of an American Eden (1990), The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley (2002), and Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (2018) — which together tell the story of a quarter-century of social history of the Napa Valley.

Photography of James Conaway, by Peter MenzelJames Conaway (Photo credit: Peter Menzel)

Conaway filled the notebooks with observations, profiles, impressions, place descriptions, meeting dates and other information during his visits to the Napa Valley and meetings with winemakers beginning in the early 1980s, and they became source material for his books about the region. The author of 13 books, Conaway also gave materials — drafts, notecards and research — that were part of the work on his book Judge: The Life and Times of Leander Perez.

“I am very happy my papers are going to UC Davis because of the university’s seminal role in the rise of California wine as a global phenomenon,” Conaway said. “I realized early on that Napa was a unique reflection of the American success story, combining truths from the past with respect for the land. Now this precious legacy is faced, as all are, with an uncertain future. This gift will help preserve a unique, sustained, and independent view of the decades covered in my trilogy.”

An uncensored view of Napa

Conaway’s writing on Napa examines the development of the valley through a political, social and environmental lens, and his collection will be valuable to researchers from many different disciplines, particularly those who are interested in understanding this agrarian community, which has become increasingly attractive to developers and lifestyle vintners. As Jancis Robinson has eloquently written, the books are about “the battle for this old land.”

Conaway’s books pull no punches, and the notes and thought that went into the trilogy’s production, as revealed in his notebooks, offer an uncensored view of the region — an inside look presented by an outsider: a hard-nosed journalist who got his start reporting in New Orleans for The Times-Picayune.

Looking beyond the wine

Page from Conaway notebook -- Carolyn Martini profileA sketch of Carolyn Martini written by Conaway (UC Davis Library/Archives and Special Collections)

An unapologetic preservationist, Conaway’s focus often shines on the land disputes and legislation that has shaped the physical reality of the valley, including environmental initiatives like the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, the Winery Definition Ordinance, and the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, a 2018 ballot measure that sought to curb vineyard development on the hillsides that border the valley to the east and west. 

That approach makes his work relevant for scholars and researchers looking beyond the wine, who recognize Napa as a microcosm of larger American trends and movements. 

At one time the author of a wine column for The Washington Post, “Conaway on Wine,” and a speaker at the Napa Valley Wine Writers Symposium, Conaway has challenged contemporary wine writers to present the region as the complex place that it is, saying in an interview with The Press Democrat that “wine writers ought to be tougher than they are. Not so much on the wines, but on the operations…Not just talking about mouthfeels and soft tannins, but what is behind the operations.”

James Conaway's Napa notebooksNotebooks that Conaway filled during a visit to Napa in 1988 (UC Davis Library/Archives and Special Collections)

More to come

Conaway has committed to donating other materials to the UC Davis Library in the future, including born-digital files, manuscripts, reviews, travel writing, and wine-related articles.

After the collection has been processed, it will be accessible to researchers to use. In the meantime, please contact Jullianne Ballou for access or for more information. You can follow Conaway’s current writing on his blog.

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