Sunday, March 31, 2013

More Hollywood silliness (mine)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

James Conaway's "Nose"

James Conaway is 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 newly-released Nose.

About Nose:
In a gorgeous wine valley in northern California, the economic downturn has put a number of dreams on hold. But not so for wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones, a man whose ego nearly surpasses his substantial girth. During a routine tasting in advance of his eponymous publication’s new issue, he blindly samples a selection of Cabernets. To his confounded delight, he discovers one bottle worthy of his highest score (a 20, on the Craven-Jones-on- Wine scale), an accolade he’s never before awarded.

But the bottle has no origin, no one seems to know how it appeared on his doorstep—and that's a problem for a critic who’s supposed to know everything. An investigation into the mystery Cabernet commences, led by the Clyde’s wife, Claire....
Here Conaway shares his choices for the leads in an adaptation of the new novel:
When Nose is made into a film I'd like to see Alec Baldwin as Craven-Jones (if he can master an English accent) and Scarlett Johansson as his wife, who's both smart and hot.
Learn more about the book and author at James Conway's blog.

Writers Read: James Conaway.

--Marshal Zeringue

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Friday, March 29, 2013

From "Hollywood on the Potomac" (really)



Photo & video credit: Janet Donovan
     “I have a long bio here that I have created which I am not going to read to you,” said Richard Rymland, co-host with wife Catherine Wyler at a book party in their home for Jim Conaway’s   “Nose”: A Novel
     “I have a great affection for his work.  Usually people invite you to a book party so you’ll buy the book.  I feel like Cathy and I invited you here tonight because this book is really fun and a great read, so this is a treat for all of you.  If you don’t buy this book, you’ll be missing a fabulous laugh. 
     In Jim’s earlier books, of which there are many, one sticks in my mind, “Memphis Afternoon,” which was the first time reading a book where I found myself sobbing in my bathroom.” 
     “That is about the best thing you could say about an author,” replied Conaway.
Jim Conaway
     “It’s hard to know what to say about the subject matter of the book. We all think we know what Napa Valley is about and it’s often obnoxious. 
     The two ways of thinking about it is … it’s sort of helpful if you’re going to read my novel to know … one is that Napa and places like it are really big hot tubs stuffed full of naked little Gatsby’s who are all trying to stand up and shake it and be noted.
Photo credit:
     So that’s the first thing to remember.  The antithetical other side of the coin is that Napa Valley is physically one of the most beautiful places on earth if you can somehow push the people aside.  It’s an incredible composite because it’s so small.  It’s two steep mountain ranges and a valley that goes down into San Francisco Bay.  As little as 200 years ago, probably, when a raindrop fell on those mountains which were covered with Red Woods, it took a week for that water to get from there to the earth, so that’s why the place is so rich.  Water ran year round and it was sort of the epitome of what we like to think of when we think of America before the doctrine of Manifest Destiny became the rule by which we live now.
     Those two tensions are there.  That really is the reason for thinking about the place and looking at it.  It’s the (epitome) of the family small farm.  They grow the most valuable legal crop probably in the United States and the world.  What
has come out of that is the essence of the American story, kind of on steroids.  That was the idea behind the book.  I wrote a couple books about Napa Valley, nonfiction books, and I often thought wouldn’t it be nice to write something where you weren’t bound by almighty fact, where you could just sort of let your imagination go and sort of build something out of the stuff you knew.  The weird thing was that what I ended up with was a 300-pound British wine critic who is a bit of a pompous ass that has a great nose.
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The "authority" on American wine sure doesn't sound like one

Jancis Robinson, author of 'American Wine'

Author of ‘American Wine’ Doesn’t Seem to Know Much About American Wine

British writer Jancis Robinson dismissive, unenthusiastic at recent discussion
    In the intro­duction to her chapter on Cali­fornia in her newest book, American Wine, the preem­inent British wine jour­nalist Jancis Robinson writes, “Cali­fornia is the most important wine­growing state in the U.S., the grand­daddy of them all in both prestige and production.” And of that small region within Cali­fornia, she says: “The Napa Valley AVA is the king of the U.S. wine realm. No wine region in America has a finer repu­tation around the world for high-quality grapes and wines.”
    Which is why we were a little surprised by a recent conver­sation we had with Ms. Robinson and co-author Linda Murphy. In response to a fairly straight-forward question about the evolving style of cabernet sauvignon in Napa Valley the two writers laughed. Neigh, their cackling actually inter­rupted me, the ques­tioner. “That’s random,” mused Murphy. Not that random, I thought. “Napa Valley is in your book,” I pointed out.
    “It is in our book, yes, but it’s not the way our brains have been working,” said Robinson by way of recovery. “I do feel slightly uncom­fortable being set up as an expert on Napa Valley cabernet. I would never claim to be. I mean Linda, as co-author of American Wine, has been exposed to far more Napa cabernets than I have.”
    Fair enough — that is what co-authors are for. But it made us start to wonder, if Robinson, whose name appears first on the book jacket, is no expert on what she crowned the “king of the U.S. wine realm,” just what is her expertise?
    “I’m not the closest observer of Napa.”
    Robinson, who says she is in London “364 days a year,” admits “I’m not the closest observer of Napa.” In London, says Robinson, “We see so few good Cali­fornia wines. It’s really sad. … Our dear Geoffrey Roberts, who was our importer of top quality Cali­fornia wines died in, I think, ’94. Nobody really picked up where he left off.” Probably, she sees a lot of Virginia chardonnay or Michigan riesling or, perhaps, pinot noir from New Jersey?
    After our interview, Robinson appeared on stage with Murphy for an hour-long tele­vised interview hosted by a boda­cious fake blonde who had just returned from teaching wine classes on a cruise ship and began the evening with this delightful joke: “People say that I must work my ass off and I say honey, I work my ass on!”
    Robinson — wearing magenta tights, Joseph tech­ni­color heeled booties and a garish grape cluster broach that hinted at a sense of humor in spite of her repu­tation — vacil­lated between leaning heavily on Murphy’s knowledge and under­mining her enthu­siasm with sidelong glances and smirks that suggested she thought the whole thing ridiculous.
    Seated next to the blonde (“People ask me what my favorite wine is and I say ‘the wine that is in my glass, because I can drink it!’” was another gem) and Murphy, a former sports writer, it appeared that the tiny, prim Robinson had not only been swal­lowed by American Wine, but by America itself.
    Robinson mentioned the same three wines that she had during her earlier NPR interview: Gruet, a sparkling wine producer from New Mexico (whose name she struggled to pronounce) “makes a very credible copy of Cham­pagne,” said Robinson of a wine that — grown in the high desert in sandy soils at 4,300 feet — is nothing at all like Cham­pagne but certainly distinct and incredibly affordable. She tells the Finger Lakes that “the time has come to be prouder of your local product,” (as if those growers who brave unfriendly condi­tions every year to make such tasty riesling weren’t proud already) and of Virginia — which Murphy holds up as one of the most promising regions — she says gener­ously, “I was very impressed — they are making some serious wine.”
     But shoots down one of the area’s best producers who dares to sell his wine for fine-wine prices: “Does the world need another Bordeaux blend? The answer is probably no.”
Murphy at one point tried to make a case for New Jersey cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay by citing at a Judgement of Paris-inspired tasting held in Princeton where the local wines triumphed over First Growths. But when ques­tioned by Robinson with a smarmy smirk, she admitted that the judges “weren’t neces­sarily wine people.” And then Murphy impli­cates her own palate: “I rated two New Jersey cabernets above Chateau Latour. Boy was I embar­rassed. … We were all a lot off base,” she finally concluded, tail between legs.
    Okay, so, no New Jersey wine.
    But back to the most important region in America. What does Cali­fornia do well?
    You don’t have tradition, but a lot of leaders have a lot of money which helps. … You do have the advantage of great American deter­mi­nation along with money in many cases. A lot of wineries are vanity projects. They are people who made a lot of money already, and this is how they choose to spend it – the needed a hobby. It is a large hole in the ground into which money is thrown. I take my hat off to them.”
    So Cali­fornia has deter­mi­nation and money. To quote one of our favorite Amer­icans, “You’re not wrong, Jancis, you’re just an asshole.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Writer Richard Alley on the craft (and us):


Writer. Memphian.

Urf! blog

James Conaway's NOSE: a review

Way back in 1993, James Conaway published his memoir MEMPHIS AFTERNOONS. Not long after that, he came to Memphis for what was then the River City Writers series of lectures at the University of Memphis. I went to a reading and signing of the book, and we later met for drinks at Old Zinnie’s in Midtown. I was writing then, though I never would have said of myself, “I’m a writer.” It was all too new for me, I was an unfocused and gangly 23-year-old, still green on the vine. But I wrote every day and I told Jim this and he told me that, if that were the case, then I was already far ahead of many of the graduate students he’d taught. He implored me to continue. I didn’t ask him to read anything I’d written and, blessedly, he didn’t ask to see any. I can’t imagine what I might have been working on then, but know for a fact it would have gone down bitterly, with an aftertaste of youth and angst throughout.
To order my Nose, click on:  

A review from:

Title: Nose
Author: James Conaway
Categories: Adult, Literary Fiction, Mystery, 
Format: Paperback, 336 pages
Published: March 12th 2013 by Thomas Dunne Books
Source: Won a free review copy from a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway
Rating:  (Two Stars)
Recommend? Yes, for those who love and/or interested in wine, Napa Valley, those who like slower character driven novels, mysteries.
  Bonfire of the Vanities meets Sideways—a saga of secrets, family, and a mystery bottle of wine that could change everything foreverIn a gorgeous wine valley in northern California, the economic downturn has put a number of dreams on hold.  But above it all is esteemed critic Clyde Craven-Jones, a man whose ego nearly surpasses his substantial girth. As the novel opens he blind taste-tastes a sampling of Cabernets and to his confounded delight discovers one worthy of his highest score (a 20, on the Craven-Jones-on-wine scale), an accolade he's never before awarded.

But the bottle has no origin—and that's a problem for a renowned critic. An investigation into the mystery Cabernet commences, lead by the critic's wife, Claire, and a couple of underdogs—one a determined throw-back to ancient viticulture, the other a wine-stained, Pygmalion-esque scribbler—who by wit and luck rise on incoming tides of money, notoriety and, yes, love.

The stage is set for this true theatre of the varietals—where the reader joins the local vinous glitterati and subterranean enthusiasts hanging out in a seedy bar called the Glass Act. Soon Clyde Craven-Jones finds himself in a compromised position in a fermentation tank, a prominent family finds its internal squabble a public scandal, and a lowly vintner seeks redemption for a decades-old wrongdoing. This is a witty, delectable, and fast-paced novel that, like a good Cabernet, only grows more enjoyable once opened.
The List ...because brevity is not my strong suit

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From the Campaign for the American Reader

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

James Conaway

James Conaway is 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 newly-released Nose.

A couple of weeks ago I asked the author about what he was reading. Conaway's reply:
I'm reading contemporary British fiction right now, probably because I'm working on a prequel to Nose, set in the late 'seventies, when the young wine critic, Clyde Craven-Jones, first comes to California and gets involved with a near-defunct wine-making family possibly bound for greatness, a kind of far-side of Downton Abbey. But I'm having serious trouble getting through Martin Amis's work, whose prose seems overly weighted with London low-life colloquialisms and is in no way elegant. Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth starts well but the literary device doesn't work as well as the one in Atonement, I don't think. And the novels of St. Aubyn are pretty bleak but beautifully, tightly written and highly recommended.
Learn more about the book and author at James Conway's blog.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Well, the sommeliers didn't spit me out...

From Sommelier Journal

Book Review: Nose, James Conaway

by Patricia Savoie

     James Conaway is the author of several wine books, including Napa: The Story of an American Eden and its sequel, The Far Side of Eden, both nonfiction bestsellers about the pioneers who influenced California’s winemaking industry. In his latest work, Nose: A Novel (Thomas Dunne, $24.99), Conaway takes a fictional look at a verdant valley in northern California, where grapes and the wine they produce are the drivers of mystery, love, greed, and snobbery.
     One day, an unlabeled bottle of Cabernet is left like an orphan on the doorstep of transplanted British wine maven Clyde Craven-Jones, author of the hugely influential “Craven-Jones on Wine” newsletter. CJ, who is huge in his own right (at 300 or so pounds), and his wife Claire have no clue as to who might have left the bottle, but they include it in their next tasting of nine well-known Cabernets. It knocks the others out of the ball park, and CJ gives it a perfect score of 20—something no other California Cab had ever attained.
     Trying to identify the bottle, Claire hires Les Breeden, an out-of-work reporter for the valley newspaper, who is now working as a private investigator while hanging out at the local wine bar, Glass Act—a tacky joint with a stock of high-end wines. His search includes the Hutt Family Estate, a modern wine factory that is suffering cash-flow problems. Jerome Hutt is trying to pull off the illegal sale of a large portion of his land to evil developers for the construction of McMansions. His daughter, Sara Hutt, who lives next door, is opposed. So is Cotton Harrell, an ecologist who produces fine wines from a small, biodynamic plot next to the Hutt Estate.
     The real action starts when CJ, being nosy as always, gets stuck in a stainless-steel fermenting tank full of wine at the Hutt Estate and dies. Early on, the reader will guess the provenance of the “mystery” wine, but in the meantime, romance ensues, and lives are set on new paths.
     As a mystery buff as well as a wine lover, I read almost any novel that is written about wine. This one is entertaining, but like many in the genre (including those by Tony Aspler and Ellen Crosby), it does not really give us insight into wine or winemaking. Luckily, for that, we have Conaway’s other books.
—Patricia Savoie

To order my novel please click on:  

Friday, March 22, 2013

Washington Post weighs in on Nose

Book World: ‘Nose,’ by James Conaway

       By Warren Bass

      When you write a novel about a wine critic, you give hostages to fortune — practically daring reviewers to describe its contents as if they’ve just swirled the thing around in a glass, sniffed skeptically and gargled. In “Nose,” Washington writer James Conaway takes his chances and comes away more or less unscathed. “Nose” contains a few notes that are overly tannic, and it lacks the complexity of a grand cru, but it’s easy drinking, and it goes down quick and smooth.
      Conaway, the author of several previous books, including “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” gives us a memorable central figure in wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones. He’s a vain, obese, transplanted Brit whose palate and business model are distinctly reminiscent of Robert Parker Jr., the influential wine critic who helped America fall in love with California’s big, boozy wines. In his Wine Advocate, Parker famously uses a 100-point scale that can make or break a vintner, while Clyde deploys a 20-point system in his own “Craven-Jones on Wine” newsletter. (Perhaps recognizing that the name is, well, on the nose, Conaway has him referred to as CJ.) His judgments, like Parker’s, are powerful enough to force even haughty French producers to try to imitate “the Craven-Jones style”: intense, powerful, fleshy and fruity.
          “Nose” has a corker of a MacGuffin: When CJ is asked to sample nine local bottles of cabernet sauvignon “in the up bunch” (meaning they go for at least $130 per bottle), he also finds a 10th mystery bottle with no label that arrived “in a lovely cedar box, wrapped in a pashmina shawl.” CJ is floored by the nameless bottle and decides that it ranks a perfect 20 — a score never before given and a triumph for a California cabernet. So CJ and his wife, the fetching and supportive Claire, set out to find the bottle’s maker, pantingly aware that their quest for the mysterious master seems likely to unleash a flood of wine-world buzz that will benefit both critic and producer.
      The story moves forward into “Sideways” territory, the bucolic valleys of Northern California’s wine country so memorably traversed by the Merlot-loathing sad sack in Alexander Payne's 2004 movie. Paul Giamatti, in fact, wouldn’t be bad casting to play Les Breeden, a dissolute, pickled and wine-stained ex-journalist who’s hustling to stave off debt and despair by passing himself off as a private investigator. Les gets hired by Claire to track down the anonymous winemaker and, on the side, starts a wine blog called Nose: a cross between Wine Spectator, Gawker and "Gossip Girl."
      Meanwhile, we meet a series of other eccentrics, iconoclasts and appealing losers also caught up in the hunt for the mystery bottle, including Cotton Harrell, a Berkeley dropout who becomes an avatar of a purer, wiser, less commercial view of winemaking. Cotton’s idealism feels bracing after the grubbier motives of the other characters, and he’s the only oenophile here who talks about wine in clear, bright language unpolluted by jargon or florid prose. The comic tone gets markedly darker about two-thirds in, with a Roald Dahlesque plot twist that’s genuinely surprising but considerably less kind than the gentler preceding mockery. The book gains some comic energy from this pivot, but it also wobbles somewhat on the balance beam between sentiment and satire. And the big unveiling of the phantom vintner doesn’t quite match the crackle of the setup.
     Still, “Nose” is a swift, smooth read and is nicely aerated with a few love stories. Conaway clearly enjoys leading us through his beloved valley’s cellars and tasting rooms, down-at-the-mouth taverns and upwardly clambering vineyards. As Les muses, “Writing about wine was as much wordplay as expertise, and you could actually learn something about it as you went along.” Most readers will drink to that.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Here's an inspired review from

 Nose has many meanings. 

  • an instinctive talent for detecting something
  • the aroma of a particular substance, esp. wine
  • the front end of a vehicle
  • a projecting part of something
  • a look, esp. out of curiosity (as in nose around)
  • an informer
  • thrust one’s nose against or into something, esp. in order to smell it
  • investigate or pry into something
  • make one’s way casually forward
    Nose is also a just-released novel by James Conaway and the title applies in almost every sense. Conaway is a reporter and journalist, first at the New Orleans Times-Picayune then on to the Rome Daily American, New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s Magazine, the Washington Post and more. He’s also a writer of novels (The Big Easy, The Texans) and non-fiction books (The Life and Times of Leander Perez). In wine circles, Conaway is best known as the author of Napa: The Story of an American Eden and his follow up, The Far Side of Eden, best-selling social reportage on the development of modern Napa Valley as a dominant wine region, the ups and downs of its powerful families, and conflicts over land, tradition and what Napa should represent.
    Nose, though, is a story of mystery and romance, new beginnings and untimely ends. One family is ruined by greed and new ones are created through shared passions and respect. Nose is also a story about wine: the seduction of wine, the growing and making of it, and the wine business in Napa Valley an imaginary place called Enotopia. It’s funny. It’s sad and exciting. It’s fiction that reveals truths. Did I mention that it’s funny?
    The story starts with Clyde Craven-Jones, a rotund wine critic with unparalleled olfactory acuity and the power to make or break producers through his newsletter and 20-point scoring system. [Surely such a person could only exist in fiction!] When an unlabeled but lovingly wrapped bottle of red wine inexplicably shows up at his doorstep, his devoted wife and assistant includes it in the next blind tasting. The wine is Cabernet perfection. That launches a sub rosa investigation wherein noses are nosed, noses investigate and detect, noses divulge, noses are punched, noses rub noses, and a wine blog puts noses out of joint.
    My nose was glued to the book. It’s page-turning satire. And it’s like a wine which makes you think, yet goes down easily — simultaneously complex and a guilty pleasure. Glasses fill and are quickly drained. Suddenly the bottle is empty. You want more but are also happy to spend the next week playing back its details in your mind.
    There are big differences between a good story and excellent writing: structure, character development, layers of complexity and, of course, language. Conaway is excellent in all respects. He grew up and learned his craft in a place and time — the south in the ’50’s and ’60’s — in which many of America’s greatest writers were active: William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Walker Percy, etc. Like them, he can turn even the most mundane event, such as someone arriving on a tractor to lend assistance, into very good reading.
    “She never heard the putt-putt of Cotton’s electric/solar-enhanced tractor because there had been no putt-putt, just a hiss audible at close range, an entirely un-reassuring sound when you’re used to the authoritative throb of a real engine. He had fitted it with a blade that rode perilously close to the ground, snagging the occasional weed, and he sat solemnly in the bucket seat under a baseball cap, in a Pendleton shirt gone in the cuffs and collar, his expression somewhere between dubiousness and elation. Sara had never been so glad to see anyone.”
    Conaway writes artfully but he’s also a reporter. Those familiar with his non-fiction accounts of Napa will know he doesn’t hold back from telling the truth, even if it pisses people off. In one of our recent conversations, he alluded to people who felt he’d told stories out of school and who said they would never forgive him. “I’m a journalist. I told them I was in Napa researching a book. I had a notebook with me all the time and they saw me taking notes during every conversation. But they didn’t think I was going to write about what they said?”
    He doesn’t have any regrets and has plenty of friends in Napa. But, while Nose also touches on consequential wine country issues, it is a work of fiction. He addresses ownership succession problems and family squabbles, bloated wines, the state of wine writing and criticism, the need for truly responsible and sustainable agriculture, and the occasional perversion of land preservation regulations for personal gain. But Nose’s geography and characters are jumbled, names changed to protect both the guilty and innocent. That said, there are enough clues in some cases to add yet another level of enjoyment to reading Nose, guessing at who might have inspired aspects of certain characters.
Nose isn’t intended to be the great American novel. It has serious aspects, but lampoons rather than preaches. Above all it’s an enjoyable and deftly written wine country whodunnit. So, buy a Nose. I knows you’ll like it.

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Streaming audio...

   Today, March 19, I'm the guest on Tom Simoneau's radio show in Santa Rosa, streaming at 1:30 Eastern time and 4:30 Pacific time.
   Please tune in.                         


To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Friday, March 15, 2013

A review of Nose from the Wall Street Journal

Fiction Chronicle: A Consummately Pleasing Taste of Napa

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



     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 novel, Nose, click on:  


This review's from the blog,

Examining the Mystery of Napa Valley’s Wine Culture

NosebookCulture. It is a combination of many things including facts, fictions, legends and landscapes.
Take my own Napa Valley. Valley culture is built on the facts of great wealth being produced here by old hands and newcomers to the winemaking industry that is largely sustained by a foundation of working poor Mexicans. The fiction that anyone can enter and be a part of this good and expensive life simply by moving to this region is a part of the Valley’s cultural make up. The legends of what Napa Valley was and is and what it should be are always impacting the culture here and readily transmitted to the visitors and newcomers. And of course the rich and iconic landscape of Napa Valley along with the battles it has spawned among conservationists, developers and entrepreneurs is at the heart of the culture of Napa Valley.
James Conaway’s newest novel, “Nose”, is about Napa Valley (and its wine) culture. Despite that fact that nowhere within its 300+ quick-reading and engrossing pages does the word “Napa” appear and despite Conaway’s claim in the book’s Acknowledgments that “though the terrain bears a strong resemblance to specific places in Northern California…they are all mere antic shadows of the novelist’s mind,” this new work is in fact a dramatic (and often both funny and tragic) rendering of the Napa Valley that Conaway has come to understand after 30 years of visiting and observing its people, places and culture.
At the heart of “Nose” is a mystery: who produced the unlabeled bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that was secretly laid at the doorstep of the great wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones and that was deemed by this most powerful and corpulent critic to be the first California wine to deserve a perfect score of 20/20 points? Uncovering the identity of the producer drives “Nose” forward and animates the actions or at least piques the curiosity of a number of the novel’s characters.
Along the way we become well acquainted with Craven-Jones, an ex-pat Brit who has risen to the post of most powerful wine critic in America who, while having embraced the inevitable cynicism that comes with that post, still possesses a reverence for wine that first animated his work and that draws readers to his influential newsletter, Craven-Jones On Wine.
Claire Craven-Jones, the svelte young, devoted and grateful wife of Clyde is perhaps the novel’s most intriguing JamesConawaycharacter. At once a trashy product of the South, she has clearly blossomed beyond that station after having pinned her star to Clyde and who gives him the necessary room to be the Great Critic. Cotton Harrell is the artisan winemaker, the books conscience and the foil to the inevitable rich newcomer to the Valley, Jerome Hutt, who looks to me like so many of Napa Valley’s own beautiful people. Meanwhile, Conaway presents us with the complex character of Lester Breeden, another newcomer to The Valley who finds, despite his common upbringing, that he can wear many shoes be it of reporter, wine blogger, victim, lover, idea-man, PI, savior or wine authority.
As the mystery of the unlabeled bottled of perfect Cabernet unfolds at a brisk pace in “Nose”, Conaway, along the way, does an admirable and tricky thing. He deftly uses and examines both the stereotypes embedded in Napa Valley culture as well as many of the real and animating issues surrounding Napa’s and the wine world’s culture. The Self-Important Personage who finds in themselves great credit due to either their wealth or their proximity to wealth is on great display in Nose. This person is both a caricature of Napa Valley and the Wine World as well as a real species and they are examined fully in “Nose”.
Yet, Conaway also introduces the reader to a number of other issues that are important and are real to people in the wine industry and around it. The meaning of biodynamic winemaking; the importance of wine ratings and the folly of chasing them; the strain put on Napa Valley’s environment by development and the fight to exploit the landscape as well as save it. the impact of new media and bloggers on the sustainability of traditional media; the real problem of how an appreciation of wine can turn into the problem of alcoholism; the existence classes and a near caste system within Napa Valley and its economy.
Conaway is a generous and talented writer who clearly revels in painting pictures with words. He is comfortable and adept at putting his words in the service of the saucy and crude depiction of humanity adjacent to the tragic, the sweet and the noble. There is no hint in Conaway’s prose that he believes the reader ought to be written down to, but rather that readers wants and deserves to be written up to.
Conaway, in his long career as a writer and author and storyteller, has written for all magazines that matter. He is a product of the “Golden Age” of magazine writing when editors sought and hired the most talented writers and paid them reasonably well to report a story well.
The success of  the new novel “Nose” demonstrates that at heart Conaway remains a reporter who tells stories. “Nose” is not the first time he has reported on the culture of Napa Valley. In two previous books, both non-fiction, he exposed a certain underbelly of my Valley in attempts to examine how this place represents so much of what is right and wrong about America. These efforts have made him both welcome and unwelcome among the denizens of  Napa Valley.
“Nose” will most certainly spawn a party game among readers who live in Napa Valley and work in the wine industry: Guess who this characters is modeled on. Some of the modeling of Napa Valley’s real characters is transparent. Others are more opaque and likely composites. But even then, industry observers and natives may well be able to identify the separate and real individuals who make up the whole. It is a fun game. And “Nose” is a fun read that captures the culture of a special place, both real and imagined, wrapped in a mystery surrounding the thing that sits at the heart of Napa Valley: great wine.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A live radio interview with me about Nose

Raising Oenophilia

Often we associate writers with a particular place and their unique abilities to capture the essence of that place. Steinbeck with Monterey and Salinas, Frances May with Tuscany, Pete Hamil with New York, and James Conaway with the Napa Valley. The author of two international bestsellers, about the Valley, Napa: The Story of an American Eden and The Far Side of Eden, now turns to fiction to tell a story of wine, land and good & evil.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A review of Nose from the Napa Register

‘Nose’: Shades of purple in an unnamed wine country

      Nicolaus Copernicus was the Renaissance scientist who figured out that the earth revolves around the sun, contrary to the prevailing conventional delusion that put it at the center of the known universe.
Copernicus is also the name of the flagship wine produced by the Jerome Hutt, owner of Hutt Family Winery in James Conaway’s new novel, “Nose.”
      It is set in an unnamed valley of Northern California with a sometimes grandiose tendency to consider itself the center of the vinous universe.
Conaway is a wine country troubadour, passing through and composing his works, which include the non-fiction studies of the Napa Valley, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” and “The Far Side of Eden.” It’s fitting, therefore that his “Nose” combines elements of romance and satire in a highly readable, entertaining work.
      That the fictional Hutt and his winery come to a sorry end is no surprise; he’s not only a a developer from Southern California, but he’s also the only unlikeable character in an engaging cast: Of course, he’s doomed. But the downfall Conaway devises for Hett, is so delicious — involving the headlong descent of a renowned wine critic into tank of Copernicus — it balances out the predictability.
      First, however, one has to get through the first two pages, which include one sentence that is 102 words long and provides, in writhing detail, a description of an early morning coupling of this wine critic with his hard-working wife, who has to navigate her way between “twin masses of rendered haut cuisine and the very best wine” — his belly and his chin — to arrive at more essential anatomy.
      Egads, one might think; have I just opened 50 shades of purple in the wine country? But skim on, with averted eyes if necessary. It gets better, and the prurient prose rarely reappears as the story takes over. I’m not sure what the point of the weird opening is, except to establish that the wine critic is large and his wife has the bulk, so to speak, of the duo’s work. But then again, I’m also not sure why any sentence is 102 words long.
     The critic is Clyde Craven-Jones, a dinosaur, not only in size, but attitude: He refuses to bow to the power of the Internet, even greater than his nose. “The last of the ruling Brits” he is the publisher of “Craven Jones on Wine,” distributed in print only to 120,000 readers, and “a pass-along influence of, yes, a million.” He is also the creator of the almighty 20-point ranking system for wine. Possessor of a legendary nose (which has appeared in Newsweek),  he “breaks as well as makes, reputations, vintages, business deals, marriages, even lives.”
     At the outset of the novel (after the first two pages), he stages what will be the climax of his storied career tasting 10 cabernets, nine from prominent producers, and one that arrives anonymously left on his doorstep, without a label, without any identification. And here in this bottle, he discovers, for the first time in his career, a perfect 20. He just doesn’t know who made it.
     But we do. It’s because it can’t be Copernicus (that wine had a label anyway) and the only other winemaker in the book is a quirky, nature-loving loner named Cotton “Calamity” Harrell, who owns seven acres, named his wines Puddle-Duck and whom Hutt had tried his best to either buy out or destroy.
     Harrell is not the only hero of the book: Another one is —  how gratifying — a journalist.
Lester Breeden is a UC Davis graduate, who is lured away from his beat on The Sacramento Bee to work for a daily newspaper in wine country called The Valley Press. As soon as he finds a place where he can afford to live — in the converted garage of a retired geology professor — he is laid off.
     In a brief aside here, I have to note that although the insider wine details are vivid, I didn’t find much to recognize in the brief glimpse one gets of the newspaper, overseen by a boss with a stop-watch and staffed by a “handful of people standing idly around or staring into the pale gray fog of their computer screens.” Then again, I’ve never been beaten up by a thug for asking questions at a winery, something that would generally be construed as bad public relations. I had to conclude the basis for this must be another daily wine country paper.
     But no matter, the main thing is: A journalist in search of the truth as hero. No matter if he is unemployed; that is the realistic touch.
     Inevitably, Les becomes a blogger, determined to tell the truth that the Press refuses to cover, particularly about Hutt. He also  helps Claire Craven-Jones (the wife) find out who made the 20- point wine, and also to carry on after her husband’s unfortunate episode with Copernicus.
A second romance grows like a grapevine between the Harrell and Sarah, the daughter of Hutt, who has to come to terms with the fact that idealistic ode to values such as family, which her father had inscribed at the entrance to Hutt have little to do with reality.
     Circling around these main characters are a cast of wine country characters, all drawn deftly, and all engaging, except of course, the Hutt PR pro.
     Is “Nose” profound? No. Fun? Absolutely. And all too often, fun can be the missing element when one is trying to hold onto a spot in the center of the universe.

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