James Conaway, author of two Napa Valley tell-alls, has turned to wine fiction with “Nose.” (Photo by Peter Menzel)
By DOUG ERNST / Napa Valley Correspondent
James Conaway took on the politics and culture of the Napa Valley wine industry with his first two books, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” (2002) and a sequel, “The Far Side of Eden” (2003). Now he has dipped his toe back into the pond with “Nose,” a novel that challenges the corporate culture of an unidentified but clearly recognizable Northern California Wine Country setting.
Conaway, 52, got into wine writing as a reporter for the Washington Post when the wine critic quit and he offered to take over. He divides his time between Washington, D.C., and Virginia’s wine country.
When you poke fun at the wine culture, are you warning folks not to take themselves too seriously?
It’s true, I do poke some fun at the culture in “Nose,” but I didn’t set out to do that. Most good novels come from some long experience, and that was true with this book. I was sitting in some good friends’ guesthouse in Napa one morning and suddenly had this vision of a very large, pompous British wine critic waking up under his wife. Odd, I know, but also hilarious. I kept going and wrote the whole first chapter, and only later did the more serious issues emerge.
I remember the first time I ever read a wine review and thought, “this language is preposterous.” Then I realized that much of it makes sense and is based in scientific fact. What doesn’t make sense is the pretension that’s often found in wine circles, most of it having to do with money and the very American notion that you can put on style and culture like a clean shirt.
That shirt is often a high-priced wine label that has little to do with the person who owns it and whose past — and sometimes his product — is shadowed by financial and other activities that are not exemplary. That, by the way, can include wine criticism.
At the same time, wine is so varied and the history and the process behind it so fascinating, that in the end it creates a society all its own, with not only its own language but also its own behavior.
In your first two books you focused on Napa Valley politics and culture; how did this translate into other wine growing regions?
Well, Napa’s unique, the most successful American wine growing region as well as the most famous. What happened and happens there serves as both an inspiration and a caution.
Despite the attendant glitz, Napa was saved back in the 1960s by passage of the agricultural preserve that prevented certain kinds of development. If it hadn’t been passed, I think houses would stand in what is now primo cabernet country.
Other regions must guard against wine being turned into a touristic rather an agricultural product. Sonoma, it seems to me, has done a good job in assuring that multi-crop ag survives, and true rural quality of life is really what it’s all about.
What kind of influence have you had on the wine industry?
I’m not sure I’ve had any influence at all, but I sure have feedback! I have enemies, and the sacred cows include development, ostentation and highly alcoholic wines. I haven’t had a vintner sic a dog on me yet, which actually happened to Robert Parker.
A number of people here have told me they like the novel and value the baring of some rarely portrayed antics. I’m pleased that many people get the fact that “Nose” is also about basic values, including family and love between two unlikely people that manages to triumph. Another important theme is the possibly toxic effect of corporate values on people and place, and how demands for profit must be better balanced with those of individual lives and community.
It would be a great shame if Sonoma and Napa and other blessed places became too dependent upon a relatively few conglomerates domiciled in distant places. Not enough people think about these aspects of the wine in their glasses and relate it to responsible agriculture and environmental health.
Are you considering another book about wine culture?
Yes, I am working on a prequel to “Nose” set in the late ‘70s, when northern California wine was beginning to pop in the wake of the Paris tasting. A young, slimmer, good-looking and naive Clyde Craven-Jones arrives in the valley in which “Nose” is set. He immediately gets involved with three sisters who have inherited a famous, if near-moribund, wine estate, and he attempts to save it and survive. That novel is mirroring much of what actually transpired at that time.
I also still intend to write the third volume of what will be my Napa nonfiction trilogy, but that’s a long range project. I want to pick up some of the same characters in Volume III, which will deal more with corporations and the ongoing effects on the place of money and environmental change.
What is your favorite wine?
That’s a loaded question. I could say my favorite wine is tequila and avoid some grief. I will say that I love cabernet sauvignon, but also the Rhone varieties and their New World expressions. I’m very happy to see all these varietals marching out of history and finding fans among young wine drinkers. Russian River pinot noir is one of my favorites.
When you aren’t writing, what do you do to keep yourself busy?
Unfortunately I’m writing most of the time, but I have a little place isolated in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge, and there I do some fly fishing and split a lot of wood. Most writers live primarily in their minds, for better or for worse, and a glass of good wine makes it a lot more comfortable.
Where do you like to go when you visit Wine Country?
I usually divide my time between the city of Napa, which has gotten quite cosmopolitan, and up-valley. I sometimes hike outside Calistoga and also go over the Oakville Grade to tool around Sonoma. I like Healdsburg particularly, and the square in the town of Sonoma, as well as the coast and environs of the Russian River.