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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Nose uncovers the world of Cali wine
An impertinent summer read
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First there's steamy sex. Then a mysteriously unmarked bottle of wine shows up on the doorstep of wine critic Clyde Jones. He's smitten; it's the perfect cabernet. Later, his body is discovered stuck in a fermentation tank. There's an ambitious gumshoe reporter, a beautiful widow, a reclusive winemaker, a disgruntled vineyard heiress, a seedy bar called Glass Act. And more sex.

Nose, by James Conaway -- part romance, part wine society sendup, part Encyclopedia Brown -- is your new summer wine thriller. It's an intelligent Fifty Shades of Cabernet for the poolside wine-geek set. You know you're out there.

New York Times best-selling author Conaway is known for his landmark book Napa, a sprawlingly detailed account of the valley's rise to international prominence. He followed that success with The Far Side of Eden, continuing the story he left off in Napa in 1989.

Nose is a fictional take on many of the themes of those previous books of nonfiction: social climbing, environmental degradation, greed, lust, megalomania and just plain criminality. A former New Orleans crime beat reporter, Conaway doesn't shrink from describing Napa Valley for what it is: a great place to wash dirty money and buy class.

The story takes place in a fictional northern California valley, but the scene is recognizable. A Robert Parker-like wine critic has a problem: a cabernet he can't identify. His wife, Claire, hires struggling 32-year-old reporter Lester Breeden to uncover its identity. Along the way, Lester also begins to uncover the social and economic dynamics that rule the valley. He starts to blog the dirty laundry on his website called Nose.

Conaway grew up in Memphis and lives in Virginia. His books have an element of Southern gothic. Characters are arranged in a small, finite community; their fortunes rise and fall in relation to each other; they have long memories and even longer grudges. And even though it's international, the world of the valley functions as a tiny social organism.

The narrative voice is writerly; piercing observations are mixed with wry wit. This is a light novel with a heavy underlying moral compass. The characters never become caricatures. Instead, they are intensely familiar, and watching them scheme is delicious.

But the novel can also be deeply melancholic. Conaway's lovers find each other out of mutual consolation, because events have got the better of them. Here searing indictment is mixed with great compassion.

There is a certain fidelity to the kinds of people one encounters in the wine world outside of the novel -- in Napa Valley, for instance. Along with the suspense built into the book, there is a sense that we are getting raw data culled from long experience now refreshingly digested in novel form. It confirms our own suspicions about what goes on behind winery gates.

Nose's breeziness makes it compelling for anyone craving a lively and informative summer read. For wine nerds, it will prove light to medium-bodied with well-balanced humor and bright acerbity.

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