Thursday, March 7, 2013

Some origins of the novel

It began with an offer to write a wine column for the Washington Post, way back — a whim with benefits. It became a lot more: not just a pleasant way to learn, but also an ascent – descent? – into a subculture as broad as the Earth and as deep as history itself.
Wine’s complexity, I learned, was greater than I imagined, with chemical components that actually justified descriptors like “buttery” and “briary.”
And I learned that wine’s origins are closely aligned with our own. Making and selling the stuff, for one thing, must be at least the world’s third oldest profession.

     Photo by Peter Menzel

An ongoing interest in wine inevitably entails close encounters with stunning landscapes and fascinating people. A mere interest in wine broadens the traveler in unique ways and enriches any trip that touches on it. Nowadays that means not just visiting some part of the global vineyard, but also sharing in the rich social heritage of this ancient tradition.
Wine making and the people who do it have changed in recent years. Nowadays to own a winery means belonging to an international trade with great bona fides, as well as sharing some traits of an ancient European royalty dedicated to quality and culture.
As a budding wine enthusiast who wrote about wine, I found myself involved in wine’s sometimes all-too-human side — where, beyond mere sensory perception, a constant battle is waged for good reviews and scores, higher “price-points,” and increased sales.
This dawned on me when I came to Napa, like everybody else, to see what the fuss was all about and came away convinced that the valley contained a true American subculture.
This was unique then in the U.S, which came relatively late to an appreciation of fine wine. Eventually I wrote two nonfiction books about it – Napa, and The Far Side of Eden – but even then there was much I still hadn’t divulged, including my own ideas about how landed families are affected by the sudden notoriety successful wine-making can bring. And how a suddenly coveted – and priceless – locale can see the destruction of farmland upon which its reputation is built.
That included epic battles over preserving the place itself, and larger-than-life characters straight out of America’s Gilded Age colliding with environmental proponents, a classic American story that is now taking place all over the world.
Each wine-producing region teaches its own lessons to visitors, and for those striving to write about it, and I eventually came to the realization that fiction has advantages over journalism when dealing with this world.
Novels give free reign to the imagination and allow surprising and quite wonderful revelations to surface have sat unexpressed for years. This is because they either defy documentation or involve intensely private relationships that only a novel can do justice to.
The result, in my case, was a novel called Nose that began to flow unexpectedly from my computer over a year ago as I sat alone on the couch with a view of Napa’s rugged Mayacamas mountain range in front of me.
My life hasn’t been the same since, and after it’s published next week, I intend to plunge back into the depthless pool of wine-related fiction. In fact, I already have.
Featured contributor James Conaway writes for National Geographic Traveler and other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more on his wine blog.

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