Saturday, April 20, 2013

Go: Donleavy's Ireland

While in high school I read a novel called The Ginger Man, set in Dublin and written by an American, J.P. Donleavy, who had caused an international sensation. The book was temporarily banned in America and would make the author rich. Donleavy bought a country estate in Ireland’s lovely, rolling County Westmeath, called Levington Park, and set himself up as a kind of latter day lord. In an 18th-century manor house on 100-plus acres fronting Lough Owel, he wrote more books and plays, painted, and contributed in one way or another to a legend that grew even as his literary star descended.

I thought his writing suggestive of James Joyce’s, but wildly entertaining and proof of the possibility of escaping the up-tight America of the late 1950s. I read some of his less adventuresome work and then more or less forgot about him. Only much later, when planning a trip to Ireland, did I think of his house, Levington Park, and decide to ask for an invitation. I wanted to see how it and Donleavy, a native of Brooklyn, had fared in the worlds of Guiness, fox hounds, “wellies,” and Anglo-Irish stiff upper lips in a famous house with eight bathrooms, an indoor swimming pool, and a history of colorful owners.

     “Mr. Donleavy would be happy to receive you here to see Levington Park, which does have some architectural and historical interest.”
The note, written by his secretary, contains directions from the outskirts of the city of Mullingar to a dirt road and a big, rusty, anonymous gate that requires strength and determination to open. On the far side, amidst un-mown grass, are beech and chestnut trees and a curving driveway leading to “an old discolored house,” in the words of James Joyce who visited here in 1900, as a child traveling with his father, and wrote about it in Stephen Hero. Joyce’s description still applies, with the additions of an ancient Toyota hairy with green mold abandoned out front, next to a functional Suburu Outback with gloves and a walking stick on the back seat.
I press the doorbell next to the flaking front door. Levington Park was built, according to The Buildings of North Leinster in the Westmeath county library, in 1748: “The present nine-bay, two-storey entrance front disguises its early origin, as it was renovated c. 1810, when the three center bays were given a shallow eaves pediment with a fanlight window” and the low Doric porch added. Before that, “the house was simply a long gabled block of limestone rubble” two stories high, with long vaulted corridors in the back framing a courtyard and lily pond. The original owner, Sir Richard Levinge, “was a celebrated eccentric. Among many whimsical projects was a scheme to train vines along the s wall of the house and introduce them through the holes of the ceiling joists in his bedroom, where he might pluck the fruit at his leisure.”
The door is opened by a pleasant woman in red sweater and jeans who ushers me into a long narrow room with indoor shutters and tall, unwashed windows letting in lovely, pale Irish light. The breakfront is jammed with books and electronics, the green flocked walls haphazardly hung with old photographs and abstract watercolor sketches by the author. Every available horizontal space – tables, a couple of chairs, the floor – is piled with newspapers and magazines. The long sofa, flanked by aged floor pillows, faces a cold hearth and mantelpiece crowded with, among other things, a photograph of Winston Churchill holding a submachine gun, and several champagne corks.
The rakish protagonist of The Ginger Man, Sebastion Dangerfield, was interested mostly in alcohol and sex, but with a cultivated mien. He may have been modeled on a friend of Donleavy’s at Trinity, but things aristocratic clearly fascinated the author, particularly the ability to live as you pleased, both gentlemanly and outrageous, unaffected by opinion or the need of employment. Dangerfield was darkly handsome, urbane, scathing, and physically overpowering when drunk, which was much of the time. So I expect a more imposing figure than the slight, deferential man entering the room, white hair combed forward, with a thin white beard, gold-rimmed glasses held in place with red cord indifferently tied, and lively eyes.
More surprising is the absence of the country toff’s tweedy ensemble seen so often in the old photographs of James Patrick Donleavy. Instead, he wears khakis and an old gray suede-like jacket “tossed to me,” he later explains, “from a box of haute couture on the 17th floor of the Waldorf Towers in New York, by one of the wealthiest women on earth. She just said, ‘This is for you.’”
Many Donleavy’s stories, as I am to learn, are about un-named women; almost all the stories are inconclusive, amusing, difficult to verify, and slyly self-referential. “I apologize for the lack of furniture,” he says, dropping onto the couch. “My second wife came by with a horse box and took half of it away. This couch was too big to fit, which is why I still have it.” That was two decades ago, but Donleavy seems to think of it as last week - time means little to gentry – and not to miss the amenities. Tea, served by the woman who answered the door, comes not in Staffordshire china but mismatched mugs.
The word abroad in the county is that Donleavy hires young women willing to work “for a pittance, claiming penury.” But then there are many stories about him, including his own, not all of them necessarily true. “You can be his friend, if you have a title,” I am later told by a manor owner in a nearby town, one of the many Anglo-Irish left over from centuries of British dominance who doesn’t have a title. “Mr. Donleavy’s the ultimate observer. He wrote in Darcy Dancer or some other book about foxhunt breakfasts and the bunners [gluttons] tucking into the salmon and oysters. Well, nobody could afford to serve those then.”
That was before Ireland became the economic wonder of western Europe, when Donleavy was more active in the hunt and other local affairs than he is now. “I fell in love with this place when I first saw it, and bought it on the spot. I later realized that the land was very important” - as a natural and historic bulwark against development. He has always run it, he says, casually, as a cattle farm. “The herd’s organic, not by design but because I’m too cheap to buy them feed,” and his beef is highly sought after by local butchers. “Everything’s done here for convenience’s sake. They graze right up to the windows, adding to the landscape.” 
His accent moves among broad, upper class vowels and the mid-Atlantic amalgam of British and American speech, with an occasional New York inflection. But then he has lived permanently in Ireland for almost 50 years and makes no pretense of being one of the people. He readily admits that he socializes with none of his neighbors, with the exception of the son of one farmer who reads his books. With another lordly perspective, he says, “I had some problems, then the IRA men said to leave Donleavy alone.” He won’t say more about the Irish Republican Army except that “every IRA man in prison read The Ginger Man cover-to-cover. They weren’t criminals, by the way, but chess champions and literary scholars.”
We get around to talking about the house. “The original owner lived three miles away before he built it. I’ve read his diaries. He brought in a piece of rare Kilkenny fossilized black marble for the fireplace in the dining room. Now the 27th Knight of Glin comes by and just sits and stares at it.”
Donleavy himself has done nothing to the house “except replace the slates to keep it from falling down.” He looks around. “It does lack something. The furniture somehow made a difference. A couple of my lady friends did do some things.” He points to a photograph of pretty brunette in a silver framed photograph, wearing a red dress, taken in the Rafael Hotel in Paris. “She was here for three years, grew 11 varieties of lettuce, and made jam. She was marvelously attractive. Everyone who saw her wanted desperately to get her away from here, and someone finally succeeded. Now she’s living in the south of France.”
He adds, “It takes a certain kind of woman to be here. It’s a wonderful house to live in. One gets lots of exercise - I walk six miles a day just getting around – and children love the place. They can run up a staircase at one end, and down a staircase at the other.”
He leads me up the one at this end, to a long, dim corridor paved with flagstones, their great weight supported by the vaulted ceiling of the corridor below. A succession of doors leads to rooms with beds under slightly skewed canopies, windows facing not front lawn anymore but front graze marshaled by a strand of electric fence. “These are ladies’ rooms. I’ve never spent a night in any of them.”
We go into the study, another long chamber with a poster from his play, Fairy Tales of New York, on the wall. Except for the desk the room is completely taken up with boxes of manuscripts and letters, a single corridor running between sturdy cardboard. “My archive,” he says. “Trinity wants all this, and we’re trying to come to some arrangement,” the suggestion being that the college will offer compensation.
Donleavy opens a box on the desk containing faded, marked-up typescript of The Ginger Man. “Brendan Behan signed it somewhere.” He thumbs through the faded pages. The famous Irish playwright was one of his many drinking companions in the turbulent, Bohemian ‘50s, later limned in The Ginger Man. And there’s Behan’s signature, in pencil, on page 80.
There was a lot of friendly fist-fighting among friends in the old days, according to various accounts. “Brendan and I exchanged a couple of punches once, and he went down in Fleet Street, I believe it was. The problem, you see, was that Brendan didn’t know how to box. I was quite a skilled pugilist, having been trained by the best practitioners at the New York Athletic Club.”
We descend and go for a stroll through the high-walled garden, most of it densely overgrown. Donleavy is remarkably agile and seems much younger than his 81 years. He pauses, and says, “James Joyce once stood right where I’m standing.” The nearby wing of the house contains the empty swimming pool. A derelict potting shed “would be a wonderful painting studio,” he adds, but some windows are currently missing. The inner courtyard’s cluttered and more or less in a state of nature. No lilies in what’s left of this pond. “If one were to have a windfall,” Donleavy adds wistfully, “one could fix all this up. Now let me show you the grounds.”
Standing water laps at the bottom of the Outback as we plane along the lower farm road. Handsome, healthy cattle, some of them a lovely mottled gray – “35 generations of the same mixed breeds” - judiciously get out of the way. Wildflowers abound in a big meadow untouched by anything more aggressive than bovine teeth in as many years.
We follow the lakefront on an old wagon way built on stones and end up in the field overlooking everything. We get out of the car and stand next to a depression in a grassy sward that may well contain the artifacts and remains of ancient Celts. “I think this was a burial ground,” says Donleavy, “which would make sense, considering the view.” But, typically, he isn’t interested in having it excavated.
Neighboring estates dip down to blue water, all neater than this one, some with the manicured look of the newly gentrified. The grounds of Levington Park, however, have retained the beautiful, untrammeled quality of the traditional Irish countryside. Hills roll in successive waves up to the big, slightly ominous house nestled in its mass of greenery.
One way to finance fixing it up, the “windfall” Donleavy spoke of, would be to open it to the public. The Irish are intensely interested in their writers, and Donleavy is one by choice, his portrait hanging in a hallway of Dublin’s Writer’s Museum and his name widely recognized here. So many Irish, and no doubt many of the millions of annual American tourists, would pay to walk through a house with Joycean and various eccentric associations, to view a controversial expatriate’s art work, champagne corks, and a manuscript or two withheld for the moment from Trinity College. And charging admission to Levington Park would fit right in with the practices of the titled peers Donleavy emulates, among them the 27th Knight of Glin, who also found commercial answers to the burden of expensive historic houses.
It occurs to me that Donleavy’s real accomplishment here, in addition to keeping that early Georgian house upright, is the preservation of a landscape that looks more 18th than 21th century, such natural settings being more threatened than structures these days, and immeasurably valuable. “I never thought of that,” he says, pleased with the compliment. “There really is nothing quite like this in the all of Ireland.”

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

More small beer from the Doctor

   Just a taste of beer can make you feel better (and immediately want another sip). That’s the startling conclusion of researchers at  Indiana University School of Medicine, published in the prestigious online journal Neuro-psychoparmacology. The study appears to show that just the flavors of beer in the first taste triggers the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward centers. It took just a half ounce of beer to give test subjects a sense of well being. The scientists made their findings by giving PET scans to 49 men with histories ranging from social to heavy drinking, as each tasted his favorite beer. Their scientific conclusion: “We hypothesized that beer’s flavor alone can reduce the binding potential of craclopride (a reflection of striatal DA release) in the ventral striatum, relative to appetitive flavor control.” In layman’s terms, gimme.
   In a lamentable scientific oversight, researchers did not test the men’s reactions to wine. However, they did give the test subjects sips of Gatorade to compare with the responses to beer and said the positron emission tomography detected no significant dopamine release.
                                                                      Doc Lang

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Go: Portland Redux

    Of all the city's extensive green spaces, none is better than the Portland Japanese Garden in Washington Park in Southwest, a transformative descent into the intricacies of the spiritual landscape.
    There's the Stroll Garden—one of five blending seamlessly, this one populated by colorful koi finning under the Moon Bridge—and the Natural Garden, a wondrously realistic mimicry of waterfalls and sylvan paths bordered by smooth stones and Japanese maples, engendering repose in everyone who pauses to look. The Portland Japanese Garden manages to accommodate 200,000 visitors a year without losing its air of remoteness and discovery.
    Trade the tranquil Japanese Garden for the busy streets of "The Pearl," epicenter of Portland's thriving art scene. This gentrified warehouse district brims with restaurants, cafés, and upscale chain stores, as well as Portland's legendary bookseller, Powell's. On the first Thursday of the month, a crowd of art lovers moves at a measured pace from gallery to gallery. Everett Street has edgy, electronic offerings, such as the interactive art exhibited at ON Gallery, while the streets around the Pacific Northwest College of Art are dense with middlebrow landscape paintings, sculpture, and crafts of all sorts, from cast temple bells to knives made from motorcycle chains. Gawkers—and buyers—on the Pearl's First Thursday may live in expensive condos overlooking Jamison Square, a handsome local park, but more come from highly individualistic neighborhoods in other sectors of the city connected to the center by light-rail. Lovely, Czech-designed trolleys trundle over rails in a modern mode of travel reminiscent of an earlier age. There's bus service, too.

    On the northern edge of the Pearl District take a seat in Portland's old Armory for some lively evening entertainment. "It's… it's…" "Live Wire!" screams the audience, in response to a card held aloft on stage by the prompter, filling the old stone fortress with an enthusiasm that makes Prairie Home Companion fans seem blasé. Recorded here in the Gerding Theater—a stunning architectural redesign of concrete, steel, and glass—Live Wire will be broadcast later on Oregon public radio. The audience is fashionably eclectic—spiffy grunge to quasi-professorial—but mostly just relaxed and warmly responsive to jokes, a performance artist, the mellow Portland Cello Project, and homegrown alt-rock band, the Dandy Warhols.
    At intermission, people make straight for the state-of-the-art espresso machine in the lobby, which also features interactive monitors and a Wi-Fi system. The theater's community programs manager ticks off the building's environmental street creds: "the only sustainable theater renovation in the country with a LEED Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council; an outdoor 'bio-swale' landscaped with native species; irrigation by captured rainwater, which also feeds the minimum-flush toilets. These [features] give people things to think about." He's dressed in black shirt and charcoal jacket, also reviews restaurants and dance performances, and plays drums in a jazz band, "including sustainability, good air quality, and smart design." In tonight's printed program for Live Wire is a "Green Cleaning Guide" foldout. References to environmental concerns throughout the show get the biggest applause. Sustainability, it seems, is not just a mantra here—it's a social imperative.

    Another version of Portland's creativity in the Mississippi Avenue neighborhood is the Re-Building Center, a cavernous repository of used building parts and materials of every imaginable description. The exterior is a medley of whimsical mega-sculptures made of found objects, but inside it's all business: lumber, plumbing fixtures, barn siding, doors, flooring, railings, shutters, bathtubs—in short, a universe of building remnants turned into a $3-million-a-year business and a sight no visitor should miss, both for its astounding variety and variation on the Portland ethic. It's included in the itineraries of visiting VIPs "from New Orleans to Kosovo. It's really the small stuff like this that will save society, not technological breakthroughs. People all over the world want to see what we do and how we do it. We let them hang out and learn these skills."
    The 32-year-old artist and clothing designer who works as a barista for Stumptown Coffee Roasters, knows something about good water—and the other ingredients that make for a stellar brew: "The beans here are a mixture of Latin American, African, and Indonesian. The blend changes every year, depending upon the harvest," although the exact mixture is tantamount to a state secret. Stumptown's a homegrown coffee roaster that started on Division Street in Southeast and now has five locations around town. From these emanate the satisfying whoosh behind a crema or a soy latte and the aroma of Stumptown's unique, mahogany-hued brew wafting into the subconscious of anyone within nosing distance. This Stumptown café's attached to the Ace Hotel, in Southwest. Pass into the lobby and sit on a sofa covered in recycled green army surplus ponchos, listening to the chatter of a manual coffee grinder.
    "Stumptown is fast-paced, but you learn to pull the perfect shot on a beautiful Mistral machine, which has lots of controls." Jobs like hers are highly sought after by young creatives who want time off to go to the beach or to one of the many handy mountains for hiking, skiing, and snowboarding or just to stay home and work on their own projects, which, in her case, are fashion shows put on by boutique designers.
    The Ace Hotel may not be strictly sustainable, but it tries, with bookshelves full of used volumes of Johnson, Tolstoy, Wilde, and Bret Hart. The rooms upstairs are decorated in the latest in eco-chic: pipe fixtures to hold the toilet paper, recycled paint buckets for wastebaskets, custom made, pure wool Pendleton blankets on frameless beds. The hotel traffic is mostly young, hip, and apparently happy in cut-offs, porkpie hats, and long chains, with not a tucked-in shirt in sight.
    The lobby feeds into the Clyde Common restaurant next door, which is part of the scene, a kind of moveable feast where customers dine well together at big tables, and the bar offers everything from homemade, nonalcoholic lemon-ginger and lavender sodas to absinthe, that formerly forbidden fin-de-siècle libation served mixed with water—which turns it cloudy—poured from a vintage silver dispenser. Sustainability, like social responsibility, is admirable, but can highly competitive businesses like gourmet restaurants, coffee shops, and brewpubs toe this line?

     So leave Stumptown, the Ace, and Clyde Common and head to the Hopworks Urban Brewery, on Powell Street in Southeast, to sample Portland's favorite drink: the microbrew.  Take a seat at the bar, which has a trellis of lovely old bike frames strung overhead. The spigots for draft beer made on the premises are designed to look like Allen wrenches, and banana bike seats decorate the men's room. Hopworks' west parking lot is made of permeable pavers. Rainwater feeds old metal kegs sawed in half to serve as planters for native species of grasses and flowers. The burners under the brewery's kettles are fueled with biodiesel, as is the owner's old silver VW Golf. The fuel includes "SVO"—straight vegetable oil—from Hopworks' own fries cooker. The refrigeration here is high-efficiency, and the furniture is made of recycled wood with low volatile organic compounds in all the finishes.
     "The main thing," the owner says, "is that you're criticizing convention every step of the way. Hopworks is the first eco-brewpub making certified organic beer, and it serves only local produce in the restaurant. Initially it was more expensive to do all this, but the long-term paybacks mean real money." Meanwhile, dozens of people get to work in an attractive setting, serving customers with something ineffable in common. "Portland revolves around things that are thoughtful. We're just local people trying to make a living responsibly, doing something we love."
     From National Geographic Traveler

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Go: Best b'god city in America

    There are at least three things you can do especially well in Portland, Oregon, and they're all important: eating, drinking, and getting around. Here in the self-proclaimed "city that works," restaurants pride themselves on their fresh, locally grown fare, and you're never far from inspired coffee or innovative brew-pub beers. What's more, few cities in the United States are as bicycle friendly. Add to this the ubiquitous local art and a widespread recycling ethic, and you've hit upon much of what makes this verdant, forward-thinking city so appealing.
 Portland is so thoroughly... well, retro. It's among just a handful of American cities that have managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Friendliness and civic involvement thrive here even as they decline elsewhere. The downtown farmers market on Park Avenue is jammed every Saturday morning with shoppers dedicated to buying organically grown arugula, Willamette Valley hazelnuts, and artisanal cheeses while listening to bluegrass and folk music. People live in town and in the suburbs, but farmland around the city has been preserved; and skiing and surfing are little more than an hour away.
    It's all about sustainable, low-impact living, including getting from here to there. Climb aboard a shiny red bike in the Southeast section of town and angle west toward the Willamette River, through a loose network of neighborhoods both funky and high-end. The bike's long, raised handlebars elicit appreciative bell tinkles from other riders. By the time you reach the river, it's raining. Ah, Portland.
    As often happens in this city, there's a place nearby to have a meal—in this case, the little Produce Row Cafe, set amid warehouses. The rain stops as you finish my beer-battered fries and mount up again and take the riverside bike trail north. The path follows the fast-flowing Willamette in its last northward stretch before its confluence with the more powerful Columbia River.

    Steer away from the water toward Mississippi Avenue, and the Laughing Planet Café, one in a local chain, whose owner wears Bermudas and a New York Yankees cap. "I realized Portland was home within 20 minutes of first arriving and riding around on my folding bicycle," the ex-New Yorker says. Struck by the "wonderfully cohesive neighborhoods," he decided Portland was a model city, showing "how it has to go if we're to survive as a nation."
    Every day, cyclists make more than 17,000 trips across Portland's four bridges. Eight percent of Portlanders bike to work. "Bicycles succeed here because we've built the facilities," says the bearded bike facilitator in City Hall, "bike lanes, parking places—and our distances are relatively short." Local tourism agencies, in sync, offer cycling tours. And then there are some 4,000 organized bike rides each year, including one in which riders pedal "as bare as you dare." Doesn't public nudity violate a city ordinance? "Yes, but what can you do with 5,000 naked people on bicycles?"

    Every year the PedalPalooza festival hosts 270 events over 17 days; on Fridays, a supportive citizenry hands riders free pastries and mugs of coffee as they pedal past. Cyclist types range from Zoobombers—punks racing madly downhill—to cyclo-cross racers, who pedal up steps and over barriers, to a female dance troupe called the Sprockettes. One participant adapted a bike into a machine for making daiquiris.
    An unusual contraption dear to many Portlanders is the "tall" bike, which consists of one bike frame welded atop another, with vertical and horizontal chain drives and a seat six feet high. "You have to kick it off," says one rider, demonstrating, "like a scooter, and then hop on." Red-bearded, energetic, the technology director of a small social media company, he prefers "transportationalist" to "young modern," a common reference to thirty-somethings drawn to Portland. He owns six bicycles of various sorts, plus five unicycles—one of which he rode 50 miles to the beach—but at the moment he's making an arc in the middle of 4th Avenue in Southwest.

    A block away, I can see the food carts, kitchens on wheels that serve good Eastern European, Thai, Mexican, and other ethnic cuisines out of trailers to a hungry midday workforce. “Tall bikes have the same appeal as SUVs," he calls out. "You can see over things. Stopping is the problem. You have to get off, or put your foot on a lamppost, or"—he laughs—"on a car roof."

    To navigate Portland, by bike or otherwise, you have to master some basic geography. First, imagine the Willamette River neatly cleaving the city, south to north, with the northwest and southwest (home of the city's downtown) sectors on one side, the north, northeast, and southeast sectors on the other. The east-west dividing line, which extends to both sides of the river, is Burnside Street. Forest Park, a 5,156-acre urban retreat, gives the city's western horizon a wild, deeply green aspect. In 1903, John Charles Olmsted designed a system of open spaces for Portland so it could accommodate rapid population growth. Parkland took on an intrinsic value, as did relatively small city blocks and building plots, office buildings of limited height, and broad sidewalks that would encourage vibrant street life.
    And thanks to former governor Tom McCall, Portland also has an outer greenbelt, one of many in the state. Back in the late '60s, Governor McCall challenged every community in Oregon to come up with a plan for controlled growth and to establish no-build greenbelts to limit sprawl. These belts redirected growth back into the cities instead of onto farmland, emphasizing density over trophy houses—and helping to empower communities. A proposed interstate highway that would have wiped out whole neighborhoods, for example, was defeated. Money went into a light-rail system and other public transport.
    Nowadays, in new developments, shops are built at street level with apartments and condos above, reflecting a European model. Environmental sensitivity has become part of Portland's social fabric. Portland's Tom McCall Waterfront Park honors his legacy. The park's sinuous green ribbon draws walkers, skaters, bikers, and some sleepers; and on a clear day, it provides a glorious full-on view of the snow-creased mass of Mount Hood in the distance.

Coming: Portland Redux

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Doc Lang on climate change and grapes

     Remember you heard it here second: Idaho someday will be the place to go for your merlot. And Montana for the next grands crus. As for Napa? Nada.
     First word came in a report from the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: within the next four decades, up to 73 percent of the terrain suitable for wine-growing in the current major regions of viticulture will be ruined by climate change. Or it may be just 19 percent of these lands – in Spain, Italy, Southern France and California’s Central Valley – that will wither in the sun. The models of predicting climate change do vary.
     But one thing the National Academy is sure about is that, as lands are lost to wine-growing in the U.S., other areas to the north and east that are now too chilly for the grapes - Washington, Idaho, Montana - will become more vine-friendly.

To order my novel, Nose, click on:

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A grassroots view of my novel

Napa Valley Register

Vantage Point: The generosity of wine

     Perhaps because it was just before Passover and Easter, the recent meeting of the Napa Valley Vintners/St. Helena Star wine-tasting panel was even more affable than usual. This group, with an ever-changing roster, is mostly winemakers. They, more than any other set of imbibers, appreciate the constant struggle to craft good wine.
    At this session, we tasted inexpensive local chardonnays. Alas, only a few were notable. But Chris Phelps of Swanson encouraged his brethren: “We need a white wine” in Napa (regardless of any specific varietal). Swanson, in fact, is going to release its first chardonnay. The over-all tone of the discussion was one of encouragement. These men and women know well that each vintage is a new challenge, and that modesty and generosity are always needed.
    That’s true for the history of modern winemaking in Napa. There are countless stories of the pioneering Robert Mondavi providing support for the waves of newcomers in the ‘70s and ‘80s; he recognized that what was good for one was good for all.
     It is with that feeling of generosity that we should turn to James Conaway and his new novel about Napa, “Nose.” Which won’t be easy. In his two “Eden” books more than a decade ago, Conaway presented a highly individualistic take on the story of Napa wine. A longtime grapegrower recently said to me that depending on Conaway for a true picture of Napa is “like getting your news from John Stewart.” That is, selective, opinionated, almost ideological, and designed to provoke.
     Conaway harbors strong opinions on a broad range of subjects in Napa. He has attacked the Swiss-designed 15 year old Dominus Estate winery as “totalitarian” and “unapproachable.” In my view, his first point is about 180 degrees wrong. Totalitarian architecture, by definition, is massive and overbearing. Think of the monumental monstrosities designed by Albert Speer for a post-Nazi victory Berlin. That’s not Dominus. And the only thing unapproachable about Dominus is that nobody can visit it.
     For another perspective, I went to Mary Maher, veteran vineyard manager at Harlan and a connoisseur of winery architecture. She drives by Dominus ever day and in her view Dominus “fits California; it’s gorgeous and iconic.” Significantly, “it changed the level of architecture in the Valley.” To her, it seems that the building “breathes in and out.”
     Instead of domineering over its vineyard, Dominus almost disappears into the landscape. From  Highway 29, you have to look closely or you’ll miss it. And it may be the most energy efficient winery in Napa; its walls of stones (gabions) provide insulation year round.
     Dominus says it’s not open to the public “due to a restrictive Napa valley winery use permit.” Its owner, Christian Moueix, should appeal that limitation on the basis that his winery is a major work of art and not just a production facility. His architects, four years after completing the winery, were awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel. A modest flow of visitors would boost the cultural landscape in Napa.
     Conaway’s personal vision of Napa is clearly presented in “Nose.” The villain in the piece, a hyper-rich developer, is attacked for building “little more than underground nexuses of chemicals.” His hero — no surprise — practices biodynamic farming.
     The central focus of the book, where Conaway makes a real contribution, is an attack on wine journalism and its obsession with rankings that reduce judgments to a single number. In  “Nose,” an unknown wine wins an impossible to get perfect score of 20. It’s awarded by an oafish and obese British expatriate wine writer. Ah, the mystery. From that one number descends the plot of the book, which includes death, financial ruin, and the ultimate triumph of the virtuous.
     Writing fiction is no easy chore. The key, according to E.M. Forster, is “making the audience want to know what happens next.” And here Conaway succeeds. In any good mystery, the chase is the charm, and Conaway takes us on a bouncing ride up and down the valley. And if writing a novel is tough, writing sex is absurdly difficult. Conaway tosses in a couple of obligatory sex scenes. They work, and don’t induce chuckles of derision.
     If readers come away from  “Nose” with a renewed distaste for numerical rankings, then Conaway has achieved more than providing a couple of hours of entertainment. We can like, even love, any wine, or think it undrinkable. But to define it with one number has been and always will be foolish. And not generous.

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

This from the Sirius link for Bob Edwards:

Nose, by James Conaway

Writer and wine enthusiast James Conaway’s new novel Nose tells the story of an over-indulgent wine critic, a mysterious Cabernet, and the world of wine in California’s Napa Valley.  Conaway, a former wine critic for the Washington Post, makes his home in Washington, DC and has a weekend retreat near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  During our interview, he discussed some of his favorite local Virginia wines:
RdV Vineyards
Linden Vineyards
Barboursville Vineyards