Thursday, September 25, 2014

From amphoras, the taste of place

         "Robert Parker has made things very difficult for us," said the publicist. Parker had given a 96 to one of their reds - Maldafrica, a blend of (you guessed it) cabernet sauvignon and merlot, with some native Sicilian frappato tossed in - although it's neither a characteristic blend for COS nor one of their best. However, Parker's review caused a world-wide run on all of them.
      It's a difficulty most wine producers would welcome, but not the Azienda Agricola COS. The acronym was formed by the first initials of the three Sicilians, Giambattista (Titta) Cilia, Giusto (Justo) Occhipinti and Cirino (Rino) Strano. They were friends who came late but enthusiastically to the trade. In 1980 they became the youngest winemakers in Italy by purchasing Joseph Cilia’s old family winery in the town of BastonacaTheir first harvest produced only 1470 bottles, but got attention beyond the region of Cerasuolo di Vittoria in southeast Sicily.                                           

     COS is farmed bio-dynamically, a radical step there and a measure of commitment. They conform to Rudolf Steiner's prescriptions for maintaining a self-sufficient agricultural enterprise, and presumably to the lunar requirements for planting and all that implies. Downspouts on the property lead into a single reservoir used for irrigation when needed; there are enough solar panels to meet the winery's appetite for power. Chopin is piped into the cellar, not so much for the music as for the vibrations inherent in piano sonatas.                                        

   Intrigued by ancient cellar practices, they decided to use big clay jars called amphoras instead of steel tanks or barrels for fermentation and aging. Modeled on ancient vessels, the new amphoras were shipped from Spain in 2000, and sunk in gravel where they remain.The practice raised eyebrows all over Italy, where winemaking innovations are often reluctantly received, adding to what was already a reputation for innovation and risk.   
"The amphoras allow the grapes to express themselves naturally in their evolution towards becoming wine," says Justo, although that doesn't really explain their appeal. Yet in 2005 COS earned Cerasuolo di Vittoria a prestigious DOCG designation (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), the only single region permitted to have it in Sicily. The 150 amphoras comprise one of the largest collections in the world, and today the Locanda COS near Acate is a world-wide draw.                    
   It's a magical spot overall, but don't drop in. First make an appointment, then chance your way through through  confusing rural byways of which there are thousands. Getting lost can be a pleasure until you realize you might miss lunch. We finally found the place in time to dine al fresco with the crew during their break in the picking of the last of the  pithos bianco, the local Grecanico grape.                           
    I later tasted through all the wines, the overall impression being one of intensity, a unique freshness of flavor, and low alcohol. I attributed this to the absence of wood in most of the wines, though I can't explain the low octane and COS can't either. ("Cool air comes down from the mountains," said the publicist, Joanna, "and cool breezes from the sea.") Usually hot countries like Sicily - think of the Rhone valley, or Napa - push the upper limits of alcohol, yet COS's hover for the most part between 12 and 13 percent. 
   Some of the reds do get a bit of time in barrel - the 100 percent Nero d'Avola, and the Bordeaux blend - but even in the amphora-bred ones there is detectable tannin picked up from the grape skins. The vineyard sits on thin clay overlying lots of limestone, hence the strong mineral component in the wines. One question is whether or not these wines age well. The frappato doesn't evince the guts for a long haul, though it's delicious when young and a good addition to the nero.                           
                                                      Dirt in the sky over southern Sicily
    Sicily shares the geology of both Sicily and north Africa, which is close enough for you to see the occasional dust storm blowing out of the Sahara. The name, Maldafrica, for the Bordeaux blend Parker swooned over, was chosen on a whim, and is indeed impressive. More characteristic, and interesting, is that Sicilian classic, Contrada, all Nero d'Avola in French oak for two years, with big body and a long earthy finish.                                 

     The 2012 Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico is 60 percent Nero d'Avola and 40 frappato and, yes, has lots of black cherry on the nose and real presence. The whites, too, are memorable, with deep golden hues that have nothing to do with oxidation and much to do with exotic grapes of a place where wine-making goes back almost to the beginning. 
       We slept in the manor house, in a bed watched over by a painting of sporting putti. That was fortunate because I was awakened at 2 a.m. by gunshots, not mafiosi but a neighbor unloading - I think - on a rabbit.
      I stepped out onto the balcony. Moonlight hung dimly in the eastern sky, and everywhere was the smell of arid earth and things growing: dirt, smoke, precious water, night-blooming trees and, as in the wine itself, the fragrant mystery of an ancient, unknowable land.                              
                                                          Photo by Penny Conaway


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Here's my new bio

Photo by Jayne Taylor, Palermo Sept., 2014
In addition to a live radio interview, review of my books, a link for the ebook and on-demand editions of The Big Easy, Memphis Afternoons, World's End and The Kingdom in the Country, there's much here to read, including a lot that's new. If you want to comment directly or ask a question without going through the usual ordeal, just write to me at:
Please go to the archive, right, click on years and months to see previous posts. They make up an unofficial compendium of my work going way back - excerpts from novels, nonfiction, lots of articles including my round-the-world trip, the long essay on the Tongass in Alaska, wine criticism and profiles, cultural reportage and commentary, my paintings, etc. The site has a cleaner look, I hope, though I'm still working on that. If you're wondering about the odd line spacing it's because I haven't figured out yet how to fix it, and I had nothing to do with the broken lampshade. 
       I am a former Wallace Stegner writing fellow at StanfordUniversity and an Alicia Patterson journalism fellow, the author of three novels, The Big Easy, World’s End, and Nose, eight books of nonfiction, and too many magazine articles to count. I have been writing since I was a kid and have never been able to shake the habit, which brings an essentially ruminative view of the world that can be both an asset and a hindrance.
After I left Stanford I had a new wife, Penny, and a baby, Brennan, and I badly needed a job. The Times-Picayune dangled one: general assignments reporter. I grabbed it although I never took a journalism course and didn’t know New Orleans. I arrived alone right ahead of Hurricane Betsy, drank too much Dixie beer the night before I was to report for work, and woke up surrounded by downed trees and streets full of glass. I got to the old Picayune building two hours before anyone. When the city editor arrived he asked who I was and then, because I was the only person available, told me, “Go out and write a story about the effects of the storm on New Orleans.”
It wasn’t a very good story but it was printed on page one, with a byline, because no other reporters had showed up. For the next two weeks I worked 14-hour days, learning more than I ever would have in J-school, and thereby became indentured to a great profession that would later inspire The Big Easy, one of my three novels, the others being World's End and Nose. I’m also the author of nine books of nonfiction including the best-selling, Napa: The Story of an American Eden. Frank Prial writing in the New York Times said I was "a reporter with a Saroyan-like sense of humor and a Balzac-like eye for detail," which made me very happy. That book has been in print continually since 1990 and people still tell me they enjoy and learn from it.
Napa’s sequel appeared in 2002. The Far Side of Eden: Old Land, New Money and the Battle for Napa Valley was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and described in the New York Times Book Review as "an important story, emblematic of our time."
My other books include the memoir, Memphis Afternoons, about growing up in Memphis in the Fifties, and The Kingdom in the Country. It’s a personal journey through the public lands of the American West described by Wallace Stegner as "a very lively book... He got into places and activities that most westerners never even get close to," and by novelist Jim Harrison as "a wonderful and well-considered evocation of the New West."
Of my history of the Smithsonian Institution, Evan S. Connell wrote, "Nobody will attempt to one-up Conaway for a long time because he, like his subject, has gathered all things relevant." I’m also the author of America's Library: A History of the Library of Congress, 1800-2000, published by Yale University Press.
For four years I was the editor of Preservation, the magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I took up oil painting around that time, some of it inspired by travel. Those paintings reflected landscapes, structures, and artifacts affected by accelerated change, what had developed as an on-going theme in my writing. One series was inspired by photographs of western landscapes I took from the windows of airplanes, done in both the conventional manner and by moving paint on the canvas to capture the mystery of land viewed from 35,000 feet.
Painting was another way to reflect the land and the rapidly altering face of our natural and cultural worlds.
My next book, Vanishing America: In Search of Our Elusive Landscapes, was a collection of travel essays about lost culture and landscape. Lehrer wrote that it represented my “journalistic and insightful best,” and I agree. Writer Tracy Kidder kindly described it as “an enthralling, lovely tribute to a lot of what is precious in America.”
My latest novel, Nose, from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), is about the wine-growing culture of northern California and described by the publisher as “Bonfire of the Vanities meets Sideways.” Jim Lehrer calls it “the novel for all seasons—and readers... a love(s) story, an under-all-the-soil good and evil saga plus a marvelous tour through and about the world of winemaking. And Jim Conaway’s prose is as gorgeous as some of the Northern California scenes he describes.”
       My most recent book is a narrative built around photographs from Look magazine in the Library of Congress, called The Forgotten Fifties. For that book I tried to develop a first-person plural voice that reflected the confusion underlying the various conflicts that arose in the Fifties and have been largely misrepresented in books about that time.
I’ve written for lots of magazines over the years, including The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Republic, Gourmet, Smithsonian and Nat Geographic Traveler. I won first place in a North American Travel Writers Association competition for my series, “Walk into America,” that appeared inTraveler, and I’ve taught creative non-fiction at the University of Pittsburgh and at Johns Hopkins and George Mason universities.
I still contribute tor Geographic’s travel blog, Intelligent Travel, as well as my own I’m working on a prequel to Nose, about the explosion in the popularity of previously little-known California wine, the beautiful countryside of northern California that produces it, and the rise of a young British critic, Clyde Craven-Jones.
Meanwhile Penny and I divide our time between Washington, D.C., and the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with frequent trips to California. Our mutual hobbies are cooking, travel (our children live in the Midwest and on the West Coast), hiking, and some fly fishing.

To see all my posts on National Geographic Traveler's website, Intelligent Travel, where I am a featured contributor, go to:
To see the new releases of some of my books, go to: 

      For Jeff Schechtman's radio show, "Specific Gravity"  click here:

Friday, September 19, 2014

Back to basics

My new piece on National Geographic Traveler's site, Intelligent  Travel:

Wine Tasting 101

Wine-drinking’s pretty much self-explanatory. But no matter what’s in the glass, it will reveal itself best when approached systematically and when all sensory apparati are exposed to it (well, not your ears).
That doesn’t mean making a spectacle of your examination, or trying to out-inhale the person next to you.
It does mean thinking about wine from the get-go as special and maybe extraordinary, and taking great care to remember your initial impressions.
You can tell a lot about a wine without actually tasting it. By the time you do you’ll know something about its assets and shortcomings.
For openers, look at it closely against a light surface by tilting the glass away from you. Red wine should be bright and translucent, with good color right to the “meniscus” (the liquid’s rim). A slight brown tinge in older reds isn’t necessarily a defect, but cloudiness is.
Brown-tinged whites, on the other hand, are to be avoided unless they’re off-dry (slightly sweet) or dessert wines. Chardonnays of a deeply golden color are often oxidized—the result of being exposed to too much air or direct sunlight—or they’ve spent so much time aging in oak that they taste of nothing else.
Next, smell the wine. You are searching for “varietal” (i.e., the type of grape) character. After that, you are looking for complexity, and power. 
If the wine smells funny, it’s probably going to taste funny, too, though the smell of a newly opened bottle can change radically—usually for the better—given a little exposure to air.
The smell of sulphur isn’t necessarily damning, since sulphur is used in the sterilization process and usually dissipates quickly. But so-called “off odors” are damning—typically marks of careless wine-making—and don’t go away.
After the first couple of sniffs, you’ve lost your ability to smell much else. It’s time to give the wine a taste.
Take a generous sip and spread it around in your mouth (important note: wine is not Listerine!). The initial impressions you detected with your nose should be reinforced by your tastebuds.
During this “attack” (the wine’s impression on the palate), concentrate on the fruit, the intensity and variation of flavor, and the “body,” or heft, of the wine.
Still holding the wine in your mouth, breathe in over it and then exhale through your nose (being careful that none of the wine follows!), which presses the vapors high into the nasal cavity for a concentrated impression. Next, swallow.
The “middle palate” is a sort of second gear of wine tasting as the impression expands. In a balanced wine, the fruit, alcohol, and acid will all seem harmonious.
A wine deficient in fruit will taste watery, and one’s containing too much alcohol will give the impression of heat in the mouth, yet another defect.
The puckering sensation induced by some reds is the product of tannin, a derivative of grape skins and oak staves that acts as a preservative. With time, and exposure to air, it should subside (tannin’s no fun to drink). But if there’s too much, the wine may never age to graceful longevity.
Acid is the wine’s backbone; too little leaves it dull and flat-tasting. In whites, acid produces that crisp, clean dismount that can make even an off-dry Riesling refreshing.
The “finish” is the lingering impression that’s left in the mouth. A good wine’s taste should persist and even change after it has been swallowed. A great wine properly tasted sets its own drinking tempo and carves a memorable niche in the receptive mind.
Featured contributor James Conaway writes for National Geographic Traveler and other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog.
To see all of Conaway's Traveler posts go to:

Monday, September 8, 2014

Seeing is a necessary antecedent of writing (apologies to Jorge Luis Borges)

(The Bluebird, a new work in oil)

       My mother was a good painter and I took it up as an adult to get over writer's block, when I was editor of Preservation magazine and dealing as much with nonprofit politics as an endless flow of articles.  The writer's block passed, but not the passion inherent in the act and aftermath of painting. It inevitably opens the mind to new possibility, including writing, though the dance is delicate and the partners jealous.                                                

                The painting above (Seep, oil on canvas) was done from a photograph from an airplane window over Kansas. It was bought by somebody living in London and so I've seen the real thing for the last time. My interest in painting has endured, and the knowledge that there's an alternative to laptop, book, movie, and sleep, all ritualistic antidotes to ennui and the elbows of strangers.      Landscapes seen from upwards of 35,000 feet have a beauty and coherence all their own, and thanks to digital photography much of this can now be captured easily and in detail.  Landscapes, even wrecked ones, can reflect our deepest desires and aspirations, and in some cases our collective capacity for regeneration. 
         More on this later, for now we're  off to Sicily.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Politico on "Napa: The Story of an American Eden"


     Claire DeMatteis, SVP and general counsel of Affinity Health Plan in NYC and former senior counsel to then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden: … “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” by James Conaway: “Terrific history of the valley for wine enthusiasts.” (
You can get Napa at: