Q&A: Bonfire of the Vineyards

Napa beware: Writer James Conaway is back on the beat.


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Journalist James Conaway, who charted Napa’s messy, meteoric rise in his best selling books Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and The Far Side of Eden: New Money, Old Land, and the Battle for Napa Valley, recently released Nose, his first fictional take on the wine region. We sit down with the writer to discuss fruit bombing, blogging and the Gatsby-esque qualities of not-a-few nouveau winery owners.

Wine Enthusiast: Why fiction instead of nonfiction this time?
James Conaway: I wanted to write more imaginatively about a subject I’m familiar with but to have some fun. For once I didn’t want to be bound by the strictures of journalism and almighty fact, and to explore the vaunted high-end wine trade. Specifically the hidden life of a critic with the world’s most celebrated nose.

WE: Why is California wine such a fascinating topic to you?
JC: I’ve always thought of wine as a keyhole through which to view society. California still epitomizes the American success story, with many of those in it wanting just to make great wine, but as many wanting to transform fortunes acquired in less glamorous ways into an approximation of art. I sometimes think of Napa and Sonoma as gigantic hot tubs full of latter-day Jay Gatsbys, trying to get 100 points on someone’s scale and soak up the adulation.

WE: What does Napa represent to you as time marches on?
JC: Napa is the apotheosis of the American family farm, with a product of little value in the 1950s that became one of the most valuable legal ones anywhere. Farmers have since been replaced by industrialists, entrepreneurs, showbiz personalities and inheritors who hire the real work out to immigrants.

WE: What’s your favorite way to spend a day there?
JC: I like hiking up behind the old Bale Mill and on the Palisade trail from Mount St. Helena down to Calistoga. I love the art collection at the Hess winery and the di Rosa art preserve, and walking the streets of St. Helena and the increasingly vibrant city of Napa that has begun to attract young people from all over the country, a kind of mini-Portland.

WE: What wines are you liking?
JC: I prefer reds, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon blends and those of the Rhône Valley, that have balance and slightly tighter structure, particularly those with lower alcohol and less fruit-in-the-face. I used to have a more extensive cellar but nowadays that’s less necessary, with wine being made more readily accessible and at reasonable prices. I still write about high-end wine on my blog, but for the most part I’m a mid range guy.

WE: Is Napa’s future bright?
JC: Quality will continue to rise while alcohol and fruit bombing will decline, which is good. There are still many more small, quality producers than large ones, but we have an odd bifurcation: so-called boutiques, and big corporations. The latter will continue to grow in size, and in my view are a great danger in such a small, vulnerable place.

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