A Beach Book for Wine Enthusiasts

Rarely do wine enthusiasts have a summertime page-turner. There was Sideways, of course, the Pinot-drenched novel by Rex Pickett that became a blockbuster movie, but that hit bookstores nearly ten years ago.

Over the past decade, many writers have tried to replicate the success of Sideways with wine-inspired fiction. But the strongest narratives have been nonfiction — books like Benjamin Wallace’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar, which exposes the seedy underbelly of wine auctions, and Evan Dawson’s Summer in a Glass, which chronicles the history of the Finger Lakes wine region.

Fortunately, oenophiles once again have a work of fiction that’s perfect for the beach: James Conaway’s Nose, released this spring by Thomas Dunne Books.

If Conaway’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he’s been writing for more than 40 years. An essayist for National Geographic Traveler, Conaway is best known in wine circles for Napa:The Story of an American Eden, released in 1990, and his 2002 follow-up, The Far Side of Eden. Both works — juicy, social histories of America’s top winegrowing locale — garnered much acclaim.

At the center of Conway’s foray into fiction is Clyde Craven-Jones, a transplanted Briton who has become the world’s most powerful wine critic. From his adopted home in northern California, Craven-Jones — known as “CJ” — can move markets with the scores he publishes in his eponymous newsletter. So producers everywhere try to imitate “the Craven-Jones style” by producing big, boozy wines. (Without question, this character is loosely based on Robert M. Parker, Jr.)

Early in the novel, CJ sits for a routine tasting of nine different bottles of local Cabernet Sauvignon. Included in the blind tasting is a shiner — an unlabeled bottle that mysteriously ended up on CJ’s doorstep.

That shiner isn’t just the best in the lineup — it’s the best California wine CJ has ever tasted. So he gives it a perfect score, an award he’s never bestowed upon a California wine. An investigation promptly begins, spearheaded by CJ’s wife, Claire.

In Claire’s quest to identify the wine, readers meet a collection of misfits, villains, and unlikely heroes.

Helping Claire is Les Breeden, an unemployed journalist who decides to advertise himself as a private investigator after losing his job at the local newspaper. He spends virtually all his free time at the local dive bar, a wine geeks’ paradise called Glass Act.

As the investigation unfolds, readers become well acquainted with two others: Jerome Hutt, a developer-turned-winery-owner whose wines are as opulent as his lifestyle; and Cotton Harrell, an ecologist-turned-winemaker who is dedicated to biodynamic farming.

Like the cheerleader and the band geek in a classic high school drama, these men serve as foils to one another. Hutt is the symbol of all that’s wrong with California’s “cult” wines and Harrell represents all that’s pure about viniculture.

The book hints at some serious issues, from the madness of wine ratings and the changing media landscape to the alcoholism and class divisions that quietly exist in every winemaking region. But at its heart, Nose is a straightforward mystery novel. Predictable, to be sure, but with enough twists and turns it’s nearly impossible to put down.

David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.