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, 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
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.
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