Rebecca Gibb of Wine-Searcher (http://www.wine-searcher.com/m/2013/08/nose-a-mystery-in-wineland) and I sit down on opposite sides of the earth:
"Nose": A Mystery in Vineland
"Nose": A Mystery in Vineland
Rebecca Gibb meets James Conaway, the author of "Nose," a novel set in a valley reminiscent of Napa.What’s your background in wine?
I was working as a regular journalist for The Washington Post in the 1980s, doing political and cultural profiles, and the wine critic, who was a Brit, went back to London. They didn’t have anyone, so I said: ‘Why don’t you let me do it?' until they found somebody else, because I’d lived in Europe for a little while and knew something about wine – not much.
Of course, they never did find anybody, so I had to find something out about wine. The wine column took me to Napa Valley, and I realized it was a genuine subculture and quite fascinating. I was interested in the social aspect of it than anything else and ended up writing a long book about Napa Valley families. I've also written books that are not wine-related.
What are they about?
One is a memoir about growing up in Memphis.
Is that where you are from? I thought I detected a Southern twang.
Yes, I used to see Elvis Presley when I was a kid, driving his midget racer around.
Back to "Nose." Who is Clyde Craven-Jones, the ill-fated British wine critic in your book, based on?
He’s not based on any one person: he shares characteristics with a bunch of those wine-writing guys. Michael Broadbent probably – the now quite old British critic.
Craven-Jones seems quite snooty.
Some wine critics are snooty!
Why did you make him English rather than American?
I don’t know. I lived in England for a number of years. There was a guy across the street called Craven-something-something – a triple-barreled name – and I thought it was hilarious and it just fit.
He scores wines out of 20 rather than 100, which for America is quite unusual. Why?
But that’s the old way of doing it. The 100-point scale is newer than the 20-point scale. I think the 100-point score is on its way out.
Why do you say that?
It’s a gimmick. How many wines do you see that are rated 47? It’s really just a dishonest 20-point scale, and really it’s a dishonest 10-point scale, because to get 89 or 90 is a condemnation.
In the book, Craven-Jones has popcorn as a palate cleanser. What’s wrong with a cracker?
Well, popcorn is lighter than crackers and it has less taste if there’s nothing on it. It’s an ideal sponge for soaking up everything. I was once in a wine-tasting group and there was a young woman who chose popcorn and I thought it was odd. It stuck in my mind and then it just came out. That’s the thing about novels, you remember things you’ve never thought about for years and suddenly they emerge again. Clyde Craven-Jones is a very exacting fellow.
Besides Craven Jones, the main characters are Lester the unemployed-journalist-turned-private investigator, and Cotton the wine producer. Whom do most associate with?
Les, the young failed journalist, convinces himself he’s a wine critic, which is what I always considered myself to be doing – in the beginning, anyway. So, I felt a little kinship there because wine can be quite intimidating for people who don’t know anything about it, or try to write about it
He’s the most exemplary character. The environmental issues and a community opposed to corporate issues were part of my other two non-fiction books about Napa Valley, and some of the things that happen to him actually happened to a couple of vintners I know: being offered money in a sealed envelope, things like that – that is not made up.
The multinational corporation gets a hard time in the book, whereas you portray Cotton, the small artisanal producer, in a favorable light. Is that a reflection of your personal views?
I fear that corporations will end up owning too much of places like Napa and Sonoma, because they are not healthy for the community in my overall opinion.
Is the valley that "Nose" is set based on Napa?
It’s very similar to Napa, but also resembles some other areas in northern California.
Craven-Jones comes to an untimely end. Why?
To me, Clyde Craven-Jones’s death is symbolic of the death of that kind of wine writing. He represents the heavy dependence on a points system, and the big, alcoholic, fruity wines that both Parker and the Wine Spectator like. I don’t. I may as well drink tequila if I’m going to drink some of these high-alcohol wines.
Wineries are in financial difficulty in "Nose." When were you writing this book and was it related to the 2008 economic crisis?
Yes, it’s right at the end of the Bush debacle.
I take it you’re not a Republican then?
Well, I’m not a Bush-ite.
Craven-Jones drinks only from Riedel glasses. What do you drink from and does the glass matter to you?
I drink from whatever is handy. I drink from cheap glasses that don’t break too easily in the dishwasher. It probably matters and if I got seriously back into wine criticism, I would get some decent glasses.
On a week night, what do you drink?
Normally I would drink Cotes du Rhone – red and white. I love New Zealand, the grassy style sauvignon blanc. I would drink Cloudy Bay if I could afford it.
Who are your three favorite wine producers in California?
Frog’s Leap: I like the Rutherford Cabernet. And Eisele Family Vineyards – not the ritzy one; this is a German guy who lives up in the mountains and makes a classically styled cabernet. And probably my favorite is Dunn and its Howell Mountain Cabernet. He’s a friend of mine, but I can’t afford to drink his wines.
What’s next for James Conaway?
I am writing a prequel to "Nose" about Clive Craven-Jones. He’s a good-looking, slightly slimmer younger Brit who shows up in the same valley in the late 1970s in the wake of the Paris tasting – when things were really starting to pop in California. And he gets involved with three sisters who have inherited a moribund estate and much mischief occurs. And that’s all I’m saying.