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.
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