Nicolaus Copernicus was the Renaissance scientist who figured out that the earth revolves around the sun, contrary to the prevailing conventional delusion that put it at the center of the known universe.
Copernicus is also the name of the flagship wine produced by the Jerome Hutt, owner of Hutt Family Winery in James Conaway’s new novel, “Nose.” It is set in an unnamed valley of Northern California with a sometimes grandiose tendency to consider itself the center of the vinous universe.
Conaway is a wine country troubadour, passing through and composing his works, which include the non-fiction studies of the Napa Valley, “Napa: The Story of an American Eden” and “The Far Side of Eden.” It’s fitting, therefore that his “Nose” combines elements of romance and satire in a highly readable, entertaining work.
That the fictional Hutt and his winery come to a sorry end is no surprise; he’s not only a a developer from Southern California, but he’s also the only unlikeable character in an engaging cast: Of course, he’s doomed. But the downfall Conaway devises for Hett, is so delicious — involving the headlong descent of a renowned wine critic into tank of Copernicus — it balances out the predictability.
First, however, one has to get through the first two pages, which include one sentence that is 102 words long and provides, in writhing detail, a description of an early morning coupling of this wine critic with his hard-working wife, who has to navigate her way between “twin masses of rendered haut cuisine and the very best wine” — his belly and his chin — to arrive at more essential anatomy.
Egads, one might think; have I just opened 50 shades of purple in the wine country? But skim on, with averted eyes if necessary. It gets better, and the prurient prose rarely reappears as the story takes over. I’m not sure what the point of the weird opening is, except to establish that the wine critic is large and his wife has the bulk, so to speak, of the duo’s work. But then again, I’m also not sure why any sentence is 102 words long.
The critic is Clyde Craven-Jones, a dinosaur, not only in size, but attitude: He refuses to bow to the power of the Internet, even greater than his nose.
“The last of the ruling Brits” he is the publisher of “Craven Jones on Wine,” distributed in print only to 120,000 readers, and “a pass-along influence of, yes, a million.” He is also the creator of the almighty 20-point ranking system for wine. Possessor of a legendary nose (which has appeared in Newsweek), he “breaks as well as makes, reputations, vintages, business deals, marriages, even lives.”
At the outset of the novel (after the first two pages), he stages what will be the climax of his storied career tasting 10 cabernets, nine from prominent producers, and one that arrives anonymously left on his doorstep, without a label, without any identification. And here in this bottle, he discovers, for the first time in his career, a perfect 20. He just doesn’t know who made it.
But we do. It’s because it can’t be Copernicus (that wine had a label anyway) and the only other winemaker in the book is a quirky, nature-loving loner named Cotton “Calamity” Harrell, who owns seven acres, named his wines Puddle-Duck and whom Hutt had tried his best to either buy out or destroy.
Harrell is not the only hero of the book: Another one is — how gratifying — a journalist.
Lester Breeden is a UC Davis graduate, who is lured away from his beat on The Sacramento Bee to work for a daily newspaper in wine country called The Valley Press. As soon as he finds a place where he can afford to live — in the converted garage of a retired geology professor — he is laid off.
In a brief aside here, I have to note that although the insider wine details are vivid, I didn’t find much to recognize in the brief glimpse one gets of the newspaper, overseen by a boss with a stop-watch and staffed by a “handful of people standing idly around or staring into the pale gray fog of their computer screens.” Then again, I’ve never been beaten up by a thug for asking questions at a winery, something that would generally be construed as bad public relations. I had to conclude the basis for this must be another daily wine country paper.
But no matter, the main thing is: A journalist in search of the truth as hero. No matter if he is unemployed; that is the realistic touch.
Inevitably, Les becomes a blogger, determined to tell the truth that the Press refuses to cover, particularly about Hutt. He also helps Claire Craven-Jones (the wife) find out who made the 20- point wine, and also to carry on after her husband’s unfortunate episode with Copernicus.
A second romance grows like a grapevine between the Harrell and Sarah, the daughter of Hutt, who has to come to terms with the fact that idealistic ode to values such as family, which her father had inscribed at the entrance to Hutt have little to do with reality.
Circling around these main characters are a cast of wine country characters, all drawn deftly, and all engaging, except of course, the Hutt PR pro.
Is “Nose” profound? No. Fun? Absolutely. And all too often, fun can be the missing element when one is trying to hold onto a spot in the center of the universe.