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On the Nose


MidSouth native Jim Conaway’s latest offering hits home for wine lovers andmystery aficionados


Story by  Kathryn Justice Leache


Book |  January 2015

The subtitle of Nose, James Conaway’s latest novel, could be “Everything you always wanted to know about insider wine country culture but were afraid to ask.” Specific questions might include—just how quickly can one rack up a $300 tab at a dive wine bar known for its rare vintages? Can the captains of the winemaking industry be trusted to adhere to strict viticultural standards if it means taking a hit on the bottom line? Can steeping a dead man in a vat of cabernet for several hours actually improve the quality of said wine?


Like a power tasting without a spit bucket, Nose is a fast-paced and often madcap romp through a fictionalized version of NoCal wine country, where we are introduced to a motley crew of vintners, critics, bartenders, and other denizens of the inner viti-sphere. 


Clyde Craven-Jones, California’s premier wine critic, publishes a monthly newsletter, Craven-Jones on Wine, “printed on actual paper, with a paid circulation of 120,000 and a pass-along influence of, yes, a million…(it) often breaks, as well as makes, reputations, vintages, business deals, marriages, even lives. Such is his power and, of course, his burden.” One day, a mystery bottle arrives on Craven-Jones’ doorstep. It’s wrapped in a pashmina shawl, nestled in a beautiful cedar box, and has no label. Despite the unorthodox delivery method, CJ can’t resist the allure of a truly blind tasting. 


When the mystery bottle reveals itself to contain a Cabernet distinctive enough to merit a never-before-given 20 on CJ’s eponymous scale, the critic and his wife, Claire, decide to investigate the wine’s origin in hopes of touting the mysterious vintage in the newsletter and boosting the publication’s flagging circulation. 


The investigation leads Claire to Glass Act, a ramshackle wine bar with sawdust on the floor and an “unrepentant air ofbohemia.” Ben, the establishment’s ponytailed proprietor, gives Claire Les Breeden’s card on the theory that a laid-off reporter with an affinity for rare wine might double handily as a private investigator for a unique case such as hers. 


Les, the “standard blond Californian” journalist recently relocated from Sacramento, has reservations about his qualifications as a PI—reservations partially assuaged by the salary and expense account he and Claire negotiate. His first stop as a newly-employed PI is, naturally, Glass Act, where he settles his bar tab. 


But it’s a side project that really beginsto acclimate Les to life in the Valley. Nose is the blog secretly started by Les and his Glass Act consorts for the purpose of disrupting the staid status quo of Northern California’s self-styled “enotopia.” Its debut is perfectly timed to provide snarky but highly informed anonymous commentary about the mystery and scandal suddenly fermenting at every turn.

Could the mystery Cabernet have come from Hutt Family Estates, a powerhouse local winery with a waning reputation and rumored to be drowning in debt? What better way to burnish its credentials than to create an irresistible wine country mystery and cast itself in the starring role? If anyone has the PR machine in place to pull it off, it’s Jerome Hutt, the scumbag patriarch of Hutt Family Estates. 

Or does the mystery Cab hail from Puddle-jump, Hutt’s neighboring vineyard run by Cotton “Calamity” Harrell, whose biodynamic farming practices seem, to critics and admirers alike, as a cross between primitive and voodoo?


Suddenly the Valley is struck by a tragedy that stomps these and other questions of reputation, credentials, and motive into an inky must of intrigue. Naturally, Nose’s band of bloggers can’t resist a tipsy game of connect-the-dots. 


Conaway’s latest is sparklingly erudite, a mystery full of eccentric characters and engaging subplots that any fan of light-touch suspense will appreciate. But it’s the in-the-know take on insider wine country culture that makes it a must-read for the wine lover. 


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