“Nose” has a corker of a MacGuffin: When CJ is asked to sample nine local bottles of cabernet sauvignon “in the up bunch” (meaning they go for at least $130 per bottle), he also finds a 10th mystery bottle with no label that arrived “in a lovely cedar box, wrapped in a pashmina shawl.” CJ is floored by the nameless bottle and decides that it ranks a perfect 20 — a score never before given and a triumph for a California cabernet. So CJ and his wife, the fetching and supportive Claire, set out to find the bottle’s maker, pantingly aware that their quest for the mysterious master seems likely to unleash a flood of wine-world buzz that will benefit both critic and producer.
Conaway moves forward into “Sideways” territory, the bucolic valleys of California wine country so memorably traversed by the Merlot-loathing sad sack in Alexander Payne’s 2004 movie. Paul Giamatti, in fact, wouldn’t be bad casting to play Les Breeden, a dissolute, pickled and wine-stained ex-journalist who’s hustling to stave off debt and despair by passing himself off as a private investigator. Les gets hired by Claire to track down the anonymous winemaker and, on the side, starts a wine blog called Nose: a cross between Wine Spectator, Gawker and “Gossip Girl.” Meanwhile, we meet a series of other eccentrics, iconoclasts and appealing losers also caught up in the hunt for the mystery bottle, including Cotton Harrell, a Berkeley dropout who becomes an avatar of a purer, wiser, less commercial view of winemaking. Cotton’s idealism feels bracing after the grubbier motives of the other characters, and he’s the only oenophile here who talks about wine in clear, bright language unpolluted by jargon or florid prose.
The comic tone gets markedly darker about two-thirds in, with a Roald Dahlesque plot twist that’s genuinely surprising but considerably less kind than the gentler preceding mockery. The book gains some comic energy from this pivot, but it also wobbles somewhat on the balance beam between sentiment and satire. And the big unveiling of the phantom vintner doesn’t quite match the crackle of the setup.
Still, “Nose” is a swift, smooth read and is nicely aerated with a few love stories. Conaway clearly enjoys leading us through his beloved valley’s cellars and tasting rooms, down-at-the-mouth taverns and upwardly clambering vineyards. As Les muses, “Writing about wine was as much wordplay as expertise, and you could actually learn something about it as you went along.” Most readers will drink to that.
Bass, a former senior editor of Book World, is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp.
On Saturday at 6 p.m., James Conaway will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919.