Back to Wine Country, warts and all
By Jon Bonné
Author James Conaway turned to fiction for his new wine book, "Nose."
Every culture has its warts-and-all chronicler. For modern Napa, that would be James Conaway.
In 1990's "Napa: The Story of an American Eden," Conaway, a former Washington Post reporter, detailed not only the valley's fame but its politics, its infighting and tarnished spots.
He continued that in 2002's "The Far Side of Eden," with a pointed view of the valley through its struggles over environmentalism, specifically as it battled over what would become a 1990 ordinance to preserve its hillsides.
More than anything, both books chewed into the displays of raw ambition and privilege that, in the 1990s, were coming to define Napa. In turn, Napa was miffed by discussion of what The Chronicle described in 2002 as a look at "what life was like when the glitz got out of hand."
Conaway, who resides in Washington, D.C., couldn't stay away from the West Coast. Earlier this year he published "Nose" (St. Martin's Press; 336 pages; $24.99), which extends his earlier work into novel form.
Its main character, Clyde Craven-Jones, is a curious hybrid of ubercritic - based in Northern California, wielding the power of Robert Parker (and the girth of John Candy), but hewing to his British roots, 20-point scoring and all.
Of course, Wine Country in 2013 is quite different from 1990. As Conaway tells it, he found the need to adapt. And his fascination with Napa continues: He's at work on a prequel to "Nose," set in 1970s Napa.
Excerpts from my recent interview with him.
Q: What made you want to circle back to Wine Country?
A: I never really left it. I published a book of essays after "The Far Side of Eden" and worked for a time as the editor of Preservation magazine, but returned often to California and the state of mind that is "Wine Country" was always with me.
Wine remains a great way to tell the American story, which is essentially of pushing the borders and making it, and nowhere has this been faster, more transformative, and more instructional than in Napa.
Q: I almost said, "circle back to Napa," but your new book isn't based in a specific place, more a fictional valley that specializes in fancy Cabernets. Any reason you didn't get more specific?
A: The valley in "Nose" resembles many in California, but is admittedly most like Napa. I didn't want to be hampered by the need for absolute accuracy and I didn't want readers to get distracted by identifying specific people and places.
Q: Why fiction this time?
A: To escape for a bit from almighty fact and give fuller play to the themes in the earlier books.
As I've often said, wine is less interesting in itself than as a keyhole through which you look deeply into a specific place. Looking deeply into motives and obsessions of people anywhere requires the unburdened imagination. That means fiction.
Q: Your two books on Napa were remarkable narratives, but certainly showed the wine industry with a blemish or two - something the valley didn't seem to take well. Did you expect that reception?
A: I was surprised at the reaction to the first book, since I carried a notebook all the time and recorded every conversation I had. I think some in Napa Valley thought they lived such a charmed life no one would notice the warts. Writers are supposed to notice those, but not to exploit them, and I don't think I did.
Q: I'm paraphrasing, but something you noted when I heard you speak earlier this year is that, especially at the top end of the wine industry, there are people who are not particularly nice human beings. What made you come to that conclusion?
A: At the top of any industry are some people less than exemplary. Just look at finance. Some have come forcefully into wine. I don't personally care for people who wreaked havoc on others or on the system to develop their hillside in Eden. Of course, Napa has its share of such fortunes.
Q: Is that simply endemic to the industry - or to the fancier parts of the industry?
A: I suppose to the so-called high end. And in a small, unusually prosperous valley, all forces are brought most forcefully together, throwing off sparks - and sometimes wine - that lead to unforeseen consequences. Michael Pollan says that eating is an agricultural act, but so is drinking wine. It's also an environmental act, or should be, and that's often the conflict between talking about doing the right thing and actually doing it.
Q: Wine criticism seems to have gotten a poke or two in "Nose." Was there something that made you want to shine a closer light on critics, and not just vintners?
A: Wine criticism can use a poke now and then. For too many years, too few people held sway over what one should and should not drink. The excesses of some in the wine press are well known.
Great expertise and pretension do sometimes come together, and they certainly do in Clyde Craven-Jones, the 300-pound wine critic whose opinion matters so much to everyone and who gets himself into serious difficulties in the novel. I see him as representative of the changing order - the demise of the numerical point system, and the rise of more democratic expression of knowledge and opinion via the Internet.
Q: Are there changes that you had in mind writing the books that you'd want to see the wine industry make?
A: I would like to see throughout California stricter and more vigorously enforced rules on what can and can't be done by developers, although Napa set the tone for this long ago by passing the first agricultural preserve in America.
Things have changed so much for the better in the quarter-century (since writing "Napa"), but more should be done. I'm particularly concerned about the intrusion of big corporations in the vineyard, and what this presages for the future.
Jon Bonné is The San Francisco Chronicle's wine editor.
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