Napa Journal: The woman who changed the face of Napa | Chroniclers

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KEVIN COURTNEY

A Canadian writer new to Napa spoke in 1979 at a banquet for junior high school journalism students. She electrified her audience.

“His whole being is full of energy,” reported a student journalist in the pages of the Napa Register.

The speaker was Moira Johnston who, the previous month, had written a 22-page publication in National Geographic: “Napa, California’s Valley of the Wine”.

In vivid prose, Moira presented the valley as a Shangri-La for its natural beauty, wine, and the people who lived there.

It was a shattering and exceptional article for the time. By 1979, Napa Valley was relatively new to the world stage, having had to rebuild after Prohibition. Local wines had recently beaten the French at the now famous Paris Judgment Wine Tasting.

For her article on National Geographic, Moira had interviewed key figures in the renaissance of the wine industry such as Louis Martini, Warren Winiarski, Robert Mondavi and Jack Davies. She presented the dilemma that has only deepened since then: if you preserve Napa Valley as a great place, how do you repel the onslaught of people who will want to come here?

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Moira would return to make Napa her permanent home, and then lead citizens’ efforts to control the Napa River flooding in a way that would be a great victory for the environment, public recreation, and downtown development.

This column is in a way a tribute to Moira who recently passed away.

I was a young journalist when we first met in the 1970s. To say that “her whole being is full of energy” was no exaggeration. I haven’t had half of his exuberance in life.

She had just written an article for New West magazine, “Are You Driving on Killer Tires?” About a road trip with his family on I-5 when a tire on his Ford station wagon burst. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but Moira discovered that other Firestone 500s were self-destructing in the same way. Its story was instrumental in the recall of 14 million defective tires by Firestone.

As she told the Register, “An angry mother with a signature was more deadly to Firestone than the media or the Ralph Nader attacks.”

When Moira next appeared on my radar, she had moved permanently to Napa and married doctor Alvin Lee Block. They were brought to life together in a house with a dock on the Napa River.

This proximity to the river contributed to his heritage project: to save the Napa River from federal flood control.

Traditionally, federal authorities have prevented flooding by placing rivers in straight jackets in hardened canals. Not particularly good for fish. Not particularly good for aesthetics.

Still, some sort of flood control was needed. Napa was founded in the mid-19th century as a port city. This proximity to water meant that homes and businesses were soaked after the downpours.

Moira helped form a community coalition that enlisted experts and politicians behind a “living river” concept. Where possible, provide an enlarged floodplain where high water can safely spread. Turn some of these features into parks. If necessary, build low flood walls.

Local voters have passed a sales tax to support this vision; the feds contributed their share. Nothing in the river in central Napa today resembles pre-21st century conditions.

While defending the Napa River, Moira turned out to be a New York Times bestseller, “The Bodyguard’s Story,” starring Trevor Rees-Jones, Princess Diana’s bodyguard on the day of her fatal accident.

This project was kept in secret, she told the Register. Outwardly she was sociable Moira enjoying her lattes at ABC bakery. But back home, it was journalist Moira working on an insider story about a tragedy that still captures the cultural imagination.

It was all very Moira, a woman with diverse passions.

Many writers are seduced by the vin de pays. They come and tell our story a bit.

Moira also came to write, but ended up settling here. His energy and environmental awareness have helped change our history.

Do you remember Helgeland? This Napa store was very popular in the late 60’s and early 70’s. It was owned by a woman named Hazelle Robison. Take a look at Old Helgeland and what the storefront looks like now.






Kevin can be contacted at [email protected]


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