Take my own Napa Valley. Valley culture is built on the facts of great wealth being produced here by old hands and newcomers to the winemaking industry that is largely sustained by a foundation of working poor Mexicans. The fiction that anyone can enter and be a part of this good and expensive life simply by moving to this region is a part of the Valley’s cultural make up. The legends of what Napa Valley was and is and what it should be are always impacting the culture here and readily transmitted to the visitors and newcomers. And of course the rich and iconic landscape of Napa Valley along with the battles it has spawned among conservationists, developers and entrepreneurs is at the heart of the culture of Napa Valley.
James Conaway’s newest novel, “Nose”, is about Napa Valley (and its wine) culture. Despite that fact that nowhere within its 300+ quick-reading and engrossing pages does the word “Napa” appear and despite Conaway’s claim in the book’s Acknowledgments that “though the terrain bears a strong resemblance to specific places in Northern California…they are all mere antic shadows of the novelist’s mind,” this new work is in fact a dramatic (and often both funny and tragic) rendering of the Napa Valley that Conaway has come to understand after 30 years of visiting and observing its people, places and culture.
At the heart of “Nose” is a mystery: who produced the unlabeled bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon that was secretly laid at the doorstep of the great wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones and that was deemed by this most powerful and corpulent critic to be the first California wine to deserve a perfect score of 20/20 points? Uncovering the identity of the producer drives “Nose” forward and animates the actions or at least piques the curiosity of a number of the novel’s characters.
Along the way we become well acquainted with Craven-Jones, an ex-pat Brit who has risen to the post of most powerful wine critic in America who, while having embraced the inevitable cynicism that comes with that post, still possesses a reverence for wine that first animated his work and that draws readers to his influential newsletter, Craven-Jones On Wine.
Claire Craven-Jones, the svelte young, devoted and grateful wife of Clyde is perhaps the novel’s most intriguing character. At once a trashy product of the South, she has clearly blossomed beyond that station after having pinned her star to Clyde and who gives him the necessary room to be the Great Critic. Cotton Harrell is the artisan winemaker, the books conscience and the foil to the inevitable rich newcomer to the Valley, Jerome Hutt, who looks to me like so many of Napa Valley’s own beautiful people. Meanwhile, Conaway presents us with the complex character of Lester Breeden, another newcomer to The Valley who finds, despite his common upbringing, that he can wear many shoes be it of reporter, wine blogger, victim, lover, idea-man, PI, savior or wine authority.
As the mystery of the unlabeled bottled of perfect Cabernet unfolds at a brisk pace in “Nose”, Conaway, along the way, does an admirable and tricky thing. He deftly uses and examines both the stereotypes embedded in Napa Valley culture as well as many of the real and animating issues surrounding Napa’s and the wine world’s culture. The Self-Important Personage who finds in themselves great credit due to either their wealth or their proximity to wealth is on great display in Nose. This person is both a caricature of Napa Valley and the Wine World as well as a real species and they are examined fully in “Nose”.
Yet, Conaway also introduces the reader to a number of other issues that are important and are real to people in the wine industry and around it. The meaning of biodynamic winemaking; the importance of wine ratings and the folly of chasing them; the strain put on Napa Valley’s environment by development and the fight to exploit the landscape as well as save it. the impact of new media and bloggers on the sustainability of traditional media; the real problem of how an appreciation of wine can turn into the problem of alcoholism; the existence classes and a near caste system within Napa Valley and its economy.
Conaway is a generous and talented writer who clearly revels in painting pictures with words. He is comfortable and adept at putting his words in the service of the saucy and crude depiction of humanity adjacent to the tragic, the sweet and the noble. There is no hint in Conaway’s prose that he believes the reader ought to be written down to, but rather that readers wants and deserves to be written up to.
Conaway, in his long career as a writer and author and storyteller, has written for all magazines that matter. He is a product of the “Golden Age” of magazine writing when editors sought and hired the most talented writers and paid them reasonably well to report a story well.
The success of the new novel “Nose” demonstrates that at heart Conaway remains a reporter who tells stories. “Nose” is not the first time he has reported on the culture of Napa Valley. In two previous books, both non-fiction, he exposed a certain underbelly of my Valley in attempts to examine how this place represents so much of what is right and wrong about America. These efforts have made him both welcome and unwelcome among the denizens of Napa Valley.
“Nose” will most certainly spawn a party game among readers who live in Napa Valley and work in the wine industry: Guess who this characters is modeled on. Some of the modeling of Napa Valley’s real characters is transparent. Others are more opaque and likely composites. But even then, industry observers and natives may well be able to identify the separate and real individuals who make up the whole. It is a fun game. And “Nose” is a fun read that captures the culture of a special place, both real and imagined, wrapped in a mystery surrounding the thing that sits at the heart of Napa Valley: great wine.
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