When you write a novel about a wine critic, you give hostages to fortune — practically daring reviewers to describe its contents as if they’ve just swirled the thing around in a glass, sniffed skeptically and gargled. In “Nose,” Washington writer James Conaway takes his chances and comes away more or less unscathed. “Nose” contains a few notes that are overly tannic, and it lacks the complexity of a grand cru, but it’s easy drinking, and it goes down quick and smooth.
Conaway, the author of several previous books, including “Napa: The Story of an American Eden,” gives us a memorable central figure in wine critic Clyde Craven-Jones. He’s a vain, obese, transplanted Brit whose palate and business model are distinctly reminiscent of Robert Parker Jr., the influential wine critic who helped America fall in love with California’s big, boozy wines. In his Wine Advocate, Parker famously uses a 100-point scale that can make or break a vintner, while Clyde deploys a 20-point system in his own “Craven-Jones on Wine” newsletter. (Perhaps recognizing that the name is, well, on the nose, Conaway has him referred to as CJ.) His judgments, like Parker’s, are powerful enough to force even haughty French producers to try to imitate “the Craven-Jones style”: intense, powerful, fleshy and fruity.
“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.
By James Conaway
Thomas Dunne. 326 pp. $24.99