- - Friday, May 10, 2013

By James Conaway
St. Martin’s, $24.95, 326 pages

It is a brave novelist who opens a book with his heroically obese wine snob, “a vast floodplain of undulating flesh,” flopping in marital bliss, with his wife “making that melodious sound that reminded him of mermaids singing in an unintelligible language of a place he had never seen.” James Conaway does just that, describing the elephantine epicure on Page 1, at dawn in supine union with the comely Claire, who is “mindful not to kill him in the process.” No joke, and no porn either.

It is quite apt, actually, as “Nose” sniffs out a world that seems essentially screwy to this reviewer, a dried-on-the-vine Easterner. This is California’s world of wine, a realm that Mr. Conaway has explored before in nonfiction perambulations. Screwy? Yes. How else to describe a state and state-of-mind populated by folks who are variously and simultaneously cerebral, engaging, excessive, earthy, enduring, fleeting, funny, fanciful, faddish, obscene, opaque, obscure, scurrilous, mindless, timeless, downright silly and deadly serious. This is a world as plain as a palate-cleansing cracker and as uselessly ornate as a McMansion in Potomac, as contrived as an ad campaign for a new line of plonk, and as mystical as tending grapes by the phases of the moon.

The book, too, is complex. A thriller? In part. A mystery? Somewhat. An exploration of a confused ethos or comedy of manners? Surely. And a gentle exegesis that explains the business of oenology out there on the other coast. One can learn liters about the making and marketing of wine from this fluid tale, a sweet-and-sour libation to Napa chic with a short finish. (Full disclosure: This reviewer and the author are acquainted, having both labored in the vineyard of Washington wordsmiths for decades.)

Mr. Conaway’s eponymous title character, wine authority Clyde Craven-Jones lives by his nose. A haughty English transplant, he is to wine what Howard Cosell was to sports, or Carl Sagan to astronomy, or Samuel J. Carter to little liver pills. Craven-Jones’ Thursday morning diversion is but an aperitif to his day’s principal task: blind-tasting the week’s crop of newly released vintages, and grading them on his patented numbered scale. He sniffs and sips, until —Eureka! — a mystery bottle rates a perfect 20. This launches CJ’s quest — and that of every smarmy sot, aesthete and epicure west of the Sierra Nevada who reads his newsletter. Their grail: to identify the wine and its vineyard source in a treasure hunt that will not end before someone dies in a fermentation vat full of ripening cabernet. Only in California.

The cast of characters in this cross-genre romp includes some inevitable types. The narrator starts out as a feckless cub reporter and becomes, by turns, a wine nut, private eye and blogger. The proprietor of the local wine bar, the Glass Act, is a ponytailed giant with an appreciation of cabernet as nuanced as the wine critic’s. There are blond bombshells, and a heart-of-gold heiress, and venal developers, and pure souls seeking solace in the dark of the moon.

It’s not hard to tell the villains by their slimy chat. “Give it a moment to breathe,” one vinifera magnate advises. “Now try it. Powerful, right? In that first pop lies the essence of Cabernet — rich black cherry, grace notes of cassis and cedar back in the shadows, doing the antiphonal bit. That’s Copernicus, my friend” — no, not the ancient astronomer, but a brand of vino as overpriced as his pitch is overstated. This is Jerome, who “had remade the land as it had never been, and himself as a principal in a retro-colonial pageant, part vaquero, part royalty. His tailored shirts of Pima cotton with the three-button cuffs, trousers without pockets, those sombreros.”

The overarching dilemma, as his daughter discovers it: “Wine was to make everything clean and wholesome. But daddy didn’t put on a plaid flannel shirt and a pair of lace-up boots; he bought a cravat and leased a Lamborghini. Wine hadn’t cleansed anything. Nurturing beautiful landscapes here didn’t make up for destroying them elsewhere; wine just whitewashed ignoble transactions and made celebrities of many who belonged in jail.”

Meanwhile, back at the vineyard downstream from Copernicus’ corrupted hillside, a salt-of-the earth vintner buries cow horns packed with manure and digs them up again, then puts the contents into an earthen crock insulated with peat moss. “Mix a small portion in a water tank and spray it on the vines,” he prescribes. “The weaker the solution, the stronger the effect.” When was less not more?

But, he preaches, the “cow horns and the other stuff are just the sacraments . Don’t get hung up on those. The main idea is to take care of your land, control what comes onto it, what goes off. Do the best for your place, whatever limits that imposes. Including limits on profits.” Now there’s a gutsy message, a challenge today for alpha characters on both coasts and in Middle America, too.

Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, drinks plonk and splits infinitives in the copses of Chevy Chase.

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