Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Here's my bio, a live radio interview, and a review of Nose. (Also a link for for the ebook and on-demand editions of The Big Easy, Memphis Afternoons, World's End and The Kingdom in the Country)

                                                                 James Conaway
                                                             Photo by Peter Menzell

     I’m a former Wallace Stegner writing fellow at Stanford University and an Alicia Patterson journalism fellow, and the author of three novels, The Big Easy, World’s End, and the just-released Nose.
After I left Stanford I had a new wife and a newer baby and badly needed a job. The Times-Picayune dangled one: general assignments reporter. I grabbed it although I never took a journalism course and didn’t know New Orleans. I arrived alone right ahead of Hurricane Betsy, drank too much Dixie beer the night before I was to report for work, and woke up surrounded by downed trees and streets full of glass. I got to the old Picayune building two hours before anyone. When the city editor arrived he asked who I was and then, because I was the only person available, told me, “Go out and write a story about the effects of the storm on New Orleans.”
     It wasn’t a very good story but it was printed on page one, with a byline, because no other reporters had showed up. For the next two weeks I worked 14-hour days, learning more than I ever would have in J-school, and thereby became indentured to a great profession that would later inspire and inform my fiction.
     I’m also the author of nine books of nonfiction including the best-selling, Napa: The Story of an American Eden. Frank Prial writing in the New York Times said I was "a reporter with a Saroyan-like sense of humor and a Balzac-like eye for detail," which made me very happy. That book has been in print continually since 1990 and people still tell me they enjoy and learn from it.
Napa’s sequel appeared in 2002. The Far Side of Eden: Old Land, New Money and the Battle for Napa Valley was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and described in the New York Times Book Review as "an important story, emblematic of our time."
     My other books include the memoir, Memphis Afternoons, about growing up in Memphis in the Fifties, and The Kingdom in the Country. It’s a personal journey through the public lands of the American West described by Wallace Stegner as "a very lively book... He got into places and activities that most westerners never even get close to," and by novelist Jim Harrison as "a wonderful and well-considered evocation of the New West."
     Of my history of the Smithsonian Institution, Evan S. Connell wrote, "Nobody will attempt to one-up Conaway for a long time because he, like his subject, has gathered all things relevant." I’m also the author of America's Library: A History of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000, published by Yale University Press.
     For four years I was the editor of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I took up oil painting around that time, some of it inspired by travel. Those paintings reflected landscapes, structures, and artifacts affected by accelerated change, what had developed as an on-going theme in my writing. One series was inspired by photographs of western landscapes I took from the windows of airplanes, done in both the conventional manner and by moving paint on the canvas to capture the mystery of land viewed from 35,000 feet.
Painting was another way to reflect the land and the rapidly altering face of our natural and cultural worlds.
    My next book, Vanishing America: In Search of Our Elusive Landscapes, was a collection of travel essays about lost culture and landscape. Lehrer wrote that it represented my “journalistic and insightful best,” and I agree. Writer Tracy Kidder kindly described it as “an enthralling, lovely tribute to a lot of what is precious in America.”
    My new novel, Nose, from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), is about the winegrowing culture of northern California and described by the publisher as “Bonfire of the Vanities meets Sideways.” Jim Lehrer calls it “the novel for all seasons—and readers... a love(s) story, an under-all-the-soil good and evil saga plus a marvelous tour through and about the world of winemaking. And Jim Conaway’s prose is as gorgeous as some of the Northern California scenes he describes.”
     I’ve written for lots of magazines over the years, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, Gourmet, Smithsonian and Nat Geographic Traveler. I won first place in a North American Travel Writers Association competition for my series, “Walk into America,” that appeared in Traveler, and I’ve taught creative non-fiction at the University of Pittsburgh and at Johns Hopkins and George Mason universities.
     I still contribute tor Geographic’s travel blog, Intelligent Travel, as well as my own I’m working on a prequel to Nose, about the explosion in the popularity of previously little-known California wine, the beautiful countryside of northern California that produces it, and the rise of a young British critic, Clyde Craven-Jones.
     Meanwhile my wife, Penny, a caterer, and I divide our time between Washington, D.C., and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with frequent trips to California. Our mutual hobbies are cooking, travel (our children live in the Midwest and on the West Coast), hiking, and some fly fishing.

      From Jeff Schechtman's radio show, "Specific Gravity"

Fiction Chronicle: A Consummately Pleasing Taste of Napa

A lively satire of California's "Enotopia" and the local passion that has become big business.

By SAM SACKS in the Wall Street Journal

    Set in Northern California, James Conaway's "Nose" (Thomas Dunne, 326 pages, $24.99) introduces the transplanted British wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones, whose magazine, "Craven-Jones on Wine," has the power to make or break "reputations, vintages, business deals, marriages, even lives." Imperious and obese, he sees himself "as the rightful successor to noblemen of old, preserving that most august expression of culture against the onslaught of the vine louse and the wine blogger." His olfactory sense is so keen that an uncapped magic marker can irreparably disturb a tasting.
    Craven-Jones is just one character in the besotted rogue's gallery that populates the California subculture Mr. Conaway dubs "Enotopia." Other figures include the downsized journalist turned muckraking wine blogger Les Breeden; the feuding Hutt family, which owns the high-end label Copernicus and is struggling to stay afloat; the iconoclastic Cotton Harrell, an innovator of organic viniculture; and a host of noisily opinionated amateur wine connoisseurs (in any other setting they'd be called drunks).
    The lively plot concerns the search for the maker of an unmarked bottle of Cabernet to which Craven-Jones has awarded the highest possible score. But the mystery is a genial MacGuffin. Mr. Conaway's real interest is in giving a loving, lightly critical portrayal of a region where wine has grown from a local passion to a cutthroat big business. "God, what an incestuous world it had become, and what a wonderful one," Craven-Jones thinks at a soirée for Copernicus's annual grape harvest. "Twenty years ago there would have been real farmers here, ruddy-faced men not in tuxedos but in lumpy jackets and their friendly wives enjoying a party, companionable and full of advice for newcomers. Today, the burnished complexions all belonged to golfers and mountain scramblers."
    To borrow from the wine critics, "Nose" offers a burst of hearty comic notes and finishes with a lingering penumbra of bittersweet nostalgia.     

To order my latest novel, Nose, click on:  
My first novel, The Big Easy (Houghton Mifflin) is available now in ebook form, as is my memoir, Memphis Afternoons (Houghton). Very soon my travelogue about the American west, The Kingdom in the Countryand my second novel, World's End (William Morrow), will also be available. Go now to: 
On-demand new editions of The Big Easy and Memphis Afternoons will also soon be available.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Birth of a (fictional) wine blog

In this excerpt of the novel, due out next month from St. Martin's Press, the young Les Breeden finds himself in the grip of the master's wife, Puligny Montrachet, and the blogosphere:
        "That was wrong."
        "You shouldn't even be here."
        "You can shower before you leave."
       The guest bathroom, spiffy towels, rosemary-mint shampoo. Tepid water ran over his body while he tried to hold onto her in his mind. The bungee was still there, on the up-swing, tightening again although he would soon be gone and this sweet respite a memory he could already see trending bitter. He came out toweling, and remembered that his clothes were in the hallway.
       Claire held the pillow slips while he, wrapped in terrycloth, stuffed. She said, “You left a sock in the dryer,” schoolmarmy, back in her ugly smock. He went back into the guest bedroom and put on his jockey shorts, and she came abruptly in, without knocking. She sat on the bed. He reached for the clean jeans and felt a hand on the soft bump of him. Claire said, “You’re bad.”
       “We’re not doing this.”
       But she pulled his shorts down and knelt before him, adding, “This is just ridiculous.”
       They ended up together on the narrow bed, she on top, his hands full of her hips, Claire’s arms twisted above her head like a piece of lovely, tortured bonsai. He heard a sound like none other, a sort of melodious exclamation. Were those words? He was acquainted with the panoply of orgasm – howlers, mummers, catatonics – but this was entirely new.
       “You can’t stay.”
       “You’re probably hungry.”
       “I suppose we could order in.”
       The delivery guy recoiled as Les flung open the front door and plunged both hands into the big, padded envelope. Grabbing two fistfuls of paper bag, the slick white cartons with little wire handles emitting a medley of smells: pad thai, chicken with cashews, soggy veggies, something on skewers.
       They attacked them at the desk, across from each other as before, he ravenous, she controlled but persistent. The feast moved as if by prearrangement to the floor, kilim as table cloth, fingers as serving utensils, Claire politely excusing herself and going into the kitchen and returning with a golden, sweating bottle he recognized from the label as a primo anti-Californian: Puligny Montrachet. She poured two tumblers full, raised one, and said, “Just this once.”
       "Would you like a shrimp?”

      He tried to feed her, and she bit it off down to the tail. He fed her another. She watched him shovel rice into his mouth as demurely as possible with chopsticks.
      Suddenly it was dark outside, conversation futile. Les couldn’t keep his hands off her, or his lips; she tasted of basil, and crispy orange beef. Back in the guest room, she shoved him onto the mattress and pulled off what was left of his clothes, then her own. She stood for a moment with her hands on her hips, breathing deeply, deciding something, then firmly pulled him out into the hallway, back past more notables – Tchelistcheff, de Latour, Parker, Masson, Ray - and into the master suite where the bed was vast, the white comforter like surf into which they waded.
      Again urging him down, mounting, then under him, back muscles flexed, arching her neck and forcing him to kiss her. He had a view of the valley through tall glass panels as they moved, his hands sliding from her delicate pelvis to her breasts, back again, stunned by pleasure and the spectacle of that shadowy land suffused with pale green light.
      He woke up suddenly and lay listening. The only sound was Claire delicately snoring, the comforter over her shoulders and her hip exposed. He got up, fondly kissed her ass, and pulled the comforter over it.
      Out in the kitchen, cold floor, ruins of their repast. He poured himself half a glass of Puligny-Montrachet and ran a finger around the dark interior of a paper carton. Peanut sauce. Back in the bedroom, he got her laptop from amidst photographs of her family, stolid-looking types in big collars, standing under deciduous trees. Shots of CJ, too, in foreign climes, younger, thinner. Also a piece of quartz, a buffalo carved from soapstone, a ceramic lamp from the Mediterranean, a brochure from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
      He carried the computer and his glass to the divan in front of the window and powered on. The screen assumed a gibbous glow like that emanating from the dead satellite grown smaller in the western sky. He pulled up a blank page and touched the keyboard. Like one of those hot-air balloons that in a few hours would add bright pricks of pigment to a dawn sky, he levitated, words winging in from elsewhere, un-summoned, unstoppable. Moon to moon.

      Could that be the collective stench of a thousand wine opinion mongers and publicists and wannabe sommeliers pouring with sweat as they turn out a collective magnum opus of bullshit so prodigious that it threatens to destabilize the globe and send it off-orbit?
      It could. And while, dear reader, you’re searching for what’s left of your emasculated skepticism, the load has gotten heavier. Seismologists are warning – LISTEN! - of a reactivation of the San Andreas fault and the tipping of millions of gallons of vitis vinifera into the bowels of the earth. 
     You might as well watch, having nothing to lose but your subscription to that brothel serviette, The Wine Taster, and its lame imitators. You don’t need them. You’re tired of being bloviated about which wine to buy, but not who’s doing what to whom in which cellar (is that wine thief going into a cask of aging cabernet or into the proprietor’s spouse?), of lifestyle vintneramuses and celebrity auction addicts buying matched sets of jeroboams of old Dripping Creek cabernet.
All passé. Forget numerical ratings and the latest Two-Buck Fuck, forget medals. What you need is an un-sanitized, morning-after whiff of the infinitely varied, often tight-assed infiniti di vini on America’s western edge, where they’re staging the last agrarian act in that amazing, transformative, longest-running, sputtering musical, “Manifest Destiny.” And now you’ve got one! Right here!! Nose!!!
So just log on, kick back, sniff, sniff...

 To order Nose, click on:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Welcome to Enotopia

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Excerpted from the novel due March 12 from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press) wherein the neophyte enters the shadowy world of Glass Act:
Les Breeden walked along the river, watching the tide go out. The little park was deserted except for two deeply suntanned men with bundles of clothes under their butts, contemplating mud flats. Les found his way blocked by what he thought was a fast food shack until he saw half a dozen stools on a sawdust floor, seemingly at odds with the name stenciled on the door, Glass Act.
Two shiny couches, what looked like walls of unfinished timber, and not a single customer. He went in and sat at the scuffed, darkly lacquered bar with no beer taps. Those walls were really the ass ends of wine crates, branded with family names. A heavy-set man in a leather jerkin and gray pony tail was climbing down from a ladder used to reach bottles stored in what looked like old feed bins. He asked, “What’s your varietal, cowboy?”
“My what?”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I just got hired by the Press. I want a beer.”
“That’s not a sin. The Press, huh? Well, you have my sympathies.”
 He was Ben Something-or-other, Slavic-like, extending a sand-papery hand at the end of a stout, hairy forearm wrapped with a sweat-stained leather bracelet.
“I’m Les Breeden. From Chico.”
“Well, Les from Chico, don’t you think you might like some familiarity with the valley’s main product? To adequately serve that great metropolitan daily?”
Not waiting for an answer, Ben held up a black bottle with an elaborate silver device in the neck and poured two fingers of red wine into a big, stemmed glass. Les wished he had just walked out, but it was too late. Then he noticed the price chalked on the board behind the bar. “Seven dollars? No way.”
“Indulge me. The first glass for a visiting fireman in hard times is free. Taste a pinot noir from the Central Coast to launch you on a voyage that, if you’re like the rest of us, will be long, and eventful. Stick your nose into the glass, inhale, and tell me what it smells like.”
Les went along with it. “Grapes?”
“Not specific enough. Think fruit.”
“Better. Now drink, but...” Ben already had a mouthful of wine. “... don’ schwallow. Shuck som’ air. Then closh lips and blow out da nose...
Les tried. A surprisingly potent, fragrant liquid went up the wrong way and came painfully out his nostrils and all over the bar. Ben clawed the towel from his shoujlder and wiped down his jerkin first. “That wasn’t auspicious,” he said. “Let’s try again.”
“Don’t think so, but thanks for the introduction.”
“Wait, you’ve got to try the syrah, for contrast. Don’t aerate this one, and you don’t have to spit.” A web of smile lines transformed Ben’s otherwise scary face. “Okay, syrah’s called shiraz in Australia, and in France. Persia’s where it came from. Got that? Ancient grape, modern renditions.”
This wine was darker than the first. Les could smell it from two feet away, and feel it coating his teeth like little, furry sweaters. Ben was sloshing his wine around in his mouth, so Les tried that, too. The syrah was delicious. “Hot around the gums,” he said, taking a chance. “No resemblance to the stuff in jugs, or the wine coolers we used to drink Davis.”
“We’re progress. The heat comes from high alcohol, our big problem in California. And a paradox: if sun’s good for grapes, how can it be bad for wine? Because it drives up the sugars.”
“What are sugars?”
“Don’t get hung-up on the lingo, Chico. Words like ‘sugars,’ ‘varietal,’ they make some people sound smart so they’re here to stay. The important thing is, sugar makes wines pop, with the help of microbes. Basically the little buggers eat the sweet juice and excrete alcohol. The more sugar there is to eat, the more alcohol’s produced, the more powerful the wine.”
“So we get high on bacteria shit?”
“Basically. Alcohol also masks a wine’s defects, so winemakers love it. And big alcohol gets people thirsting for that initial blast of fruit, but it also makes them drunk.”
“What’s ‘Californicated’?”
“Too much oak – splinters in the gums from too much time in new barrels.”
They drank again. Ben placed a basket of crackers on the bar. “Cleans the palate,” he explained, and turned and climbed back on the ladder, the treads worn by the passage of many feet. Ben looked up and down the bins, fingered a bottle and brought it down. “Now for the coup de grace, cabernet sauvignon, the valley’s triumph. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. The best ain’t pinot, it ain’t syrah, it ain’t sangiovese. Merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, all fall beneath the jackboots of Almighty Cab. The fuel under the fire, the sex in the enological equation.”
With a stroke of a mounted contraption looking like a bronze bicycle pump he delivered the cork right through the metal foil. “Ideally the wine should breathe, but life’s short.”
Then he reached down two fresh glasses that might have held goldfish at the county fair and generously poured. Les found his mouth watering as he watched the wine rise in his glass, the smell differing from the others. He said, “Dusty.”
“That’s tannin. What else?”
“Some kind of berry?”
“Good. And?”
“Pencil shavings?”
“Spot on, Les.”
The door opened and a couple came in, he in a white shirt and jeans, his long, dark hair in ringlets, she looking Asian but wearing a safari suit and wide-brimmed felt hat. “Hey, Benny,” the young man said.
“Hey, Train. Kiki.”
They sat down and Ben dragged the bottle of cab over to them, covering the label with the soiled towel. “This gentleman and I were just sampling a very excellent expression of mountain vines on a southwest facing slope. What say?”
“Sure,” said Train.
Les noticed the Ferrari parked at the curb outside and was glad he had left his truck up the street. A clear plastic shield covered the outsized engine, which was painted red. “Testarossa,” said Train, noticing his interest. “Eats BMWs for lunch. Who’re you?”
“This is Les,” said Ben. “A reporter, and a damned good one.”
“I’m Train, this is Kiki. And this is...” Train smelled, tasted, sighed. “... is an ’02...”
Les didn’t catch the name, not that it mattered. Ben whipped off the towel. “Mi complimenti!
Then somehow the bottle was empty. Kiki went on text messaging, Train and Ben talking, Les looking up contentedly at the wall of famous wineries with proper names, some of them famous, but also those of mountains, ridges, creeks, valleys, trees, flowers, fish, mammals, birds, women, even pickups. The variety was mesmerizing.
“I’m feeling the need of a flatlander,” said Train, and Kiki squealed with delight and pushed aside her cell phone. Ben moved crabwise toward his ladder, saying in passing, “You’re on your own now, Chico.”

The dream was mauve, smelling of some violent earthly upheaval. Darkness filled with faces, all women’s; each time he reached, they receded. Then he was drifting on an incoming tide that flooded the flats, unburdened except for the pain behind his eyes, something unspeakable gaining on him, the tide turning, carrying him backward...
Thin morning light lay in neatly scissored strips on the concrete floor of Les’s apartment. His cell phone alarm had used up the remaining battery power, and Les still wore his trousers and socks. A scrub jay sitting on the landlord’s rock-sawing bench outside the window reminded him that it was a new day, but he couldn’t let go of the faces of the night before. New ones had appeared at the bar, indistinct now, but not the feeling of bonhomie, everyone happy, knowledgeable, privileged, including Les.
He showered and put on clean clothes and drove downtown, parking outside a still-darkened Glass Act. What had Ben said? “If I don’t have one before eleven, I must have eleven before one.” The words had been attributed to a Spanish sherry producer, touched each day with a yearning for artisanal alcohol.
It was cool in the depths of Glass Act, the door hanging open to the view of willows on the far side, in the lee of half-finished construction out of another century. Ben was up on the ladder - lived there, it seemed - sleeves rolled, a case of something balanced dangerously on his head. Shirttail out, heels fleshy nubs at the back of clogs. “Yo, Chico,” he called. “Have a seat.”
Ben dismounted and plunged a hand into the cooler; he lifted a dripping, golden bottle like some miracle from a blessed fount, the fancy rubber cork coming out with a whishhh. The bottle advanced on two narrow glasses. “No,” said Les.
“Don’t tell a soul, but this is French. It’s also the best fucking Muscat on earth.”
Pouring now, the exotic smell swimming through the intervening air like something alive, the glass absorbing all available light. “Beaume de Venise.” Ben was grinning for, yes, it was the best thing Les had ever tasted. For a time he couldn’t speak, gulls calling as if from a great distance, car doors slamming, classical music Les couldn’t identify seeping from dusty speakers in the dark corners of the ceiling. “Albinoni’s Adagio,” said Ben. “We should settle up.”
“Settle up what?”
“Your bill.”
“I didn’t know I had one.”
Ben placed the itemized receipt on the bar, Les’s initials scrawled at the bottom but the items listed above it all too legible. “Two hundred and seventy-three dollars?
“You bought a Ridge zin, then insisted on buying into Train’s super-dooper Tuscan. I thought that one was a bad choice, but you guys wouldn’t listen. Then...”
“It’s the biggest bar bill in history.”
“Welcome to Enotopia, Chico.”
Next: Les Breeden, PI

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Letter from Maui

After a long absence from this blog, the indefatigable Doc Lang has just checked in again, this time from the South Seas:

   Aside from Spam dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner
and that Polynesian favorite - white rice with mayonnaise
and potatoes - Hawaiian cuisine has lately come up with a
food with mainland appeal - beer. Two microbreweries in the
islands are producing ales, lagers and porters that are as
good as suds get. Maui Brewing and Kona Brewing are little
known outside the islands, which consume nearly all the
output, but both are expanding and and becoming more
available especially on the West Coast.
   I think flavored beers generally have the lasting appeal
of flight attendants making cutesy PA announcements. Kona
offers one spiced with coriander and mandarin oranges (I
didn't dare). But both micro-breweries produce porters with
roasted coconut that are subtle, avoid sweetness, and are
worth the belch.      
     Doc offers this as a crucial part of "the library of
     Hawaiian cuisine"

Friday, February 8, 2013

New excerpt: The Interloper

     In this, from the novel due out March 12 from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press), the famous wine critic encounters his worst nightmare.
    (For earlier excerpts, go to Post Coitum (2/2/13) and Cotton (1/13/13).  

An hour and twenty minutes later after the tasting began, Clyde Craven-Jones leans back in his wheeled throne and sighs. Nine bottles down, and not a clear winner. He thinks he knows who made half of them, and can come close to guessing the rest. Two hover in the mid- to-upper teens of his twenty-point ranking system, which will make their investors moderately happy, but no ecstasy in this tasting. If the mystery wine’s among them, then it’s merely good.
The brown wrapping paper disguised the last bottle, emblazoned with the number 10, the poured wine in the Riedel deeply hued. He pulls the glass to him, picks it up by the stem and quickly, deftly twists his wrist, driving the wine high up the sides. Its concentrated fragrance reaches him even from that distance. He dips his nose directly into the invisible pool of inspiration and inhales. He’s impressed by the wine’s power, and annoyed: surely this is not the mystery bottle, which means he failed to detect the interloper among the previous nine. He scribbles “... barely ripe black fruit... toasty... a lean, shimmering nimbus of cassis.”
He takes a mouthful and holds it for a moment, lips parted, drawing air in over the wine, then closes his mouth and, without swallowing, exhales through the nose, pushing the sacred “ether of harvest and extracted oak,” as he often puts it in his lectures, back out through his nostrils, with a surprising result. He’ll describe it as “reverberating cabernet bells.” St. Paul’s? Too grandiose. A chapel? Too parochial. This wine tolls on the nose with all the power and precision of Christopher Wren’s gem, the Church of Mary Le Bow... If you can fully appreciate that complex melody you’re not Cockney, you’re enchanted!
He swallows, the cascading flavors identifiable, married in an onslaught of what he thinks of as the essence of Bordeaux, not California – elegant, balanced, with a long trail on the palate that dwindles into the soothing convergence of light and shadow in a distant clearing... Yes, that will do nicely. The wine might well be one of Bordeaux’s best, from a first-growth estate, introduced as a joke. Detectable tannins, but overall so silky as to be forgiven. Less heat around the gums, meaning relatively low alcohol.
It could represent the glory of France, but the initial, decisive burst of fruit and lingering ripeness has the power of California. Has someone finally managed to make a wine in the valley with the contradictory merits of France and America, or is this a con? If so, it’s near the top of the chart and worth a great deal of money.
He takes a fistful of popcorn and crams it into his mouth, snowing all over his sweats. Now for the sobering second swallow, the true test. He tears the wrapper off the bottle and is confronted by a column of dark liquid in generic glass; that he has no idea whose this wine is or where it came from is humiliating. A wine critic without self-confidence is - how did he put it at the Friends of Wine lecture in San Francisco the week before? - in the evening of his being.
In the frenzy of stripping No. 10 he has upset No. 6, spilling inky cabernet over the white table cloth. He attempts to mop it up with the wrapping paper, without success. More tearing to expose the other bottles, an array of family and fanciful names - Eagle Ridge, Block 69, Trifecta, Copernicus. He knows them all and he knows their makers; No. 10 is indeed the interloper.
CJ confronts the wreckage of his tasting, takes another swallow: Ah, is there anything better than a glass of fine red wine of an afternoon? Well, of a morning, actually. He can feel the alcohol now, not just No. 10’s but the collective onslaught of the wines he has absorbed despite spitting, a hazard of his profession.
He peruses his notes. Numbers 2 and 5 - Block 69, and Trifecta - are clearly the stand-outs, after No. 10. What comes next is tricky. He stands and pads to the hallway door, opens it a crack, softly whistles. Then, “Missy.
A scrabble of claws on heartwood Doug fir, a blur of brindle hair ejecting from the bedroom, smiling if a mastiff can be said to smile, her soft brown eyes full of anticipation. He reaches down and digs his fingertips into her wiry coat, but the dog brushes past him.
CJ eases the door shut and returns to the disarray of the tasting. Bracing himself with one hand, he slowly kneels, groaning, and places the two winners on the floor while Missy watches, a timeless scene: dog, master, quarry, older than history.
Missy creeps forward and tentatively smells each glass in turn. She settles on Trifecta.
She obeys, still eying the glasses as if they might take flight, and waits while he crawls forward, carefully blocking her view. He replaces Block 69 with No. 10. If Missy picks the mystery wine, this will compliment his olfactory abilities since she’s infallible, and very close to his own palate.
He crawls out of the way, sweeping aside wine-soaked wrapping paper and dropped pencils. Spilled wine drips through the crack between the leaves in the table; popcorn litters the carpet.
Used to the drill, Missy sniffs at Trifecta, then at the interloper, hesitates, and stays with the nameless wine. “Ah,” says CJ proudly, since it’s his choice, too. He has to remind himself - down on all fours himself - that this colleague is, after all, just an animal.
Next: Glass Act 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Post coitum

An excerpt from the novel, due March 12 from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press), in which the famous wine critic is challenged:

Claire rose on one elbow, exhaled, and said with a smile, “Well, BTDT,” a jocularity intended to make her husband feel better about his, well, supine performance. True, he had been there, but he hadn’t done that. No matter; the day beckoned. “Anything special in the line-up?”
“Yes, you’re going to be challenged today, CJ. By this valley’s own. Nine cabernets in the up bunch,” which meant costing at least one hundred and thirty dollars a bottle.
“Why not ten cabernets?” It was the usual arrangement of American grands crus.
“Well, the tenth one’s a mystery. No label, nothing. I want to include it because it seems special and has been around for a bit. Arrived in a lovely cedar box, wrapped in a Pashmina shawl.”
Those things meant nothing. Vintners spend small fortunes encapsulating mediocre wine in a way that makes it seem of a higher order, the same logic used for building their expensive houses and wineries. Packaging, like labels, was deception. One of his duties as a premier wine critic – the premier wine critic, he liked to think - was to out deception in Craven-Jones on Wine, with its pass-along readership of, he often insisted, more than a million. “How did it get here?”
“By hand, that’s all we know.”
Why hadn’t the dog alerted them? Clyde Craven-Jones didn’t allow wine to be left on his doorstep; only the most audacious – or stupid – would attempt it. But he was curious, and any worthy critic welcomes the random chance to test his mettle. Besides, Claire had gone to the trouble of including it. “Let’s begin.”
Solemnly launching himself into a roll, the massive, custom-made bed protesting feebly, his wife nimbly getting out of the way. She went into the bathroom and he heard water filling a tub designed for corpulence beyond the American standard, with special handles for easing himself in and out. He thought he caught a trace of something floral – tansy? camellia? His policy was no manufactured fragrances of any sort in the house, perfume being the worst, an assault fraught with plant renderings and mysterious chemical compounds that gave him an immediate migraine and affected his ability to taste. He demanded plain soap for his morning immersion, baking soda for his toothbrush, an electric razor for the graying scrim of beard accenting copious, signature jowls.

            In team velour sweats – a gift from a wine distributor, unsolicited but comfy – and rope-soled espadrilles, Clyde Craven-Jones moves with deliberation from his boudoir to a hallway lined with cheaply-framed photographs of himself with every personage in the wine world who matters, among them two of his late countrymen, noble, modest scholars of the grape and fine practitioners of the English language, both dead now.
            He’s the last of the ranking Brits and long ago succumbed to the allure of the New World, with its lack of ceremony, its un-blinkered heat that even in the straw-hued mirage of summer he finds preferable to the damp determinism of his native land.
And, of course, the California wines themselves: heavily extracted, endowed with strangely-scented variants that his English colleagues found perverse but he has come to admire for their richness and power. He’s responsible for much of that intensity, favoring in his reviews those cabernets and pinot noirs with some flesh on their bones, much to the disgust of the French who have been made to compete with California and what’s sometimes called “the Craven-Jones style,” lest they languish on shelves absorbing light and drying out like old men abandoned in a sauna.
He pushes open the door. The organ that matters most to him – that distinctive protuberance bigger than other men’s, more sensitive, gifted, in fact, beyond the bounds of ordinary human perceptiveness – his nose, has guts of its own. Also the ability to raise its lucky owner to the top of his profession and into the company of some of the wealthiest, most talented, sometimes most reprehensible people on earth, an appendage so remarkable in it has appeared in the pages of a leading newsweekly: slightly hooked, increasingly veiny, near-infallible.
 The former dining room is heavily draped, temperature controlled, with overhead tract lighting, racks of Riedel glasses in every imaginable contortion for concentrating aromas, open cartons of wine, unlined writing pads, 3B drawing pencils - no pens! - a sterling spitting bucket with splash guard, and, on the white tablecloth, ten bottles neatly wrapped in brown paper by his obliging wife and numbered by her current assistant, the perpetually distracted James. One of a procession of helpers in love with wine, soon disabused of the notion that caddying for the critic is a spiritual pastime, he has removed the foils and poured an equal amount of wine from each bottle into a stemmed glass elegantly constricted at the rim.
CJ pauses, slightly elevating his nostrils, priming them with a barely perceptible twitch, angling in the direction of the sideboard. He has detected an alien odor among the familiar ones. Ah, the felt pen, left behind with the top off, the acrid smell emanating from evaporating ink. “Ja-hames!

The door swings open and in steps the ingratiating amanuensis. In Bordeaux he would be wearing, at the very least, a buttoned-up shirt, but in California it’s open-necked rugby-style, with jeans: the uniform. Fuzz on the chin, smiling - everyone in California smiles - the young man’s big, brown eyes denoting apprehension. “What’s up, CJ?”
“The Magic Marker’s up, James.”
“Shit. Sorry about that.”
James scoops it up, smacks the cap in place and goes back through the revolving door. A handsome lad, maybe a tad too handsome, chastened but overdue for remaindering; has Claire found something of value in James beyond his ability to heft wine cartons, open bottles, and run the dishwasher? (No detergent!) But now Craven-Jones is distracted by the right smells: cabernet sauvignon’s infinity of masked components, its glorious potential enhanced by caresses of cabernet franc, petite verdot, merlot, even malbec, as well as oak and the panoply of botanical associations that push all else from his mind and bring to his palate an anticipatory wetness.
Almost daintily he takes his chair and eyes the delectable prey. The tease before the main event, the vinous equivalent of a naked woman walking around a boxing ring holding aloft a placard with a number on it. Where are the muscles and firm flesh, where the flab? Who will have the up-front power and fruit, who the longest finish in this match-up of potential champions? Sports references are absolutely necessary for communication in this, his chosen country, but CJ knows little of sport beyond the terrible memories of rugby in the damp desolation of his Midlands preparatory school. Metaphorically, he favors sumo wrestling: enormous combatants pushing at each other, stately, powerful.
At his elbow sits a cut-glass bowl full of air-popped corn, sans butter and salt, the perfect palate cleanser: weightless mopper-up of all vestiges of sampled wine. The popcorn’s smell reminds CJ of his gnawing hunger, to be put off until lunch, which today will commence with wafer-thin sole fillets over which scalding French butter has been poured, no other cooking required, complemented by a slightly chilled Puligny-Montrachet.

He’s getting ahead of himself; dining follows due labor, the reigning Craven-Jones maxim. Meanwhile no flaw shall pass this nose, these lips, this palate, without detection, no short-coming shall go unannounced in what Claire calls his doomsday book, Craven-Jones on Wine, printed on actual paper, with a paid circulation of one hundred and twenty thousand and a pass-along influence of, yes, a million. Craven-Jones on Wine often breaks, as well as makes, reputations, vintages, business deals, marriages, even lives. Such is his power and, of course, his burden.
Ready now, nasal chambers cleared with a mild saline solution, his copiousness fondly settled into the custom-made, re-enforced rolling chair set high enough to prevent his having to bend his knees, he passes flared nostrils over the glasses first, guessing the species of oak from which the barrels were made that until recently held these gems. Limoge? Alliere. My God, Arkansas! He will soon know exactly who made the wines and how long the fruit hung on the vines, the blend, the barrel regimen, the fining agent, and how well they sell on the futures market depends upon his evaluation.
He picks up a glass by the stem and angles it, examining the color against the white table cloth. Deeply mauve, cabernet’s own depthless version of purple, concentrated to the rim. Ah, these New World hues. His fellow Brits reeled in their presence, but CJ came to love them as a deliverer from the anonymous life of bottle drudge in the chilly cellars of Lily & Sons, Ltd., City of London, scribbling reviews for the firm’s news-sheet, before he branched out under a pseudonym.
Compressing now one nostril with a forefinger and passing the glass under the other, he inhales deeply. The olfactory equivalent of matins in a village chapel go off in a brain inculcated with associations: black cherries, currents, brambles, lanolin, tobacco, cedar, chocolate. But also flaws: blatant woodiness – it’s well known that Clyde Craven-Jones disapproves of harsh tannins – and a good but hardly spectacular finish.
He ejects a purple stream into the bowl, scribbles “gobs of fruit. . . too-rapid falling off on the middle palate. . . predictable,” and moves on to the next bottle.

  Next: The interloper