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