Conaway (Vanishing America, 2008, etc.) pens a lighthearted novel centering on oenophiles cavorting in a lush, grape-growing California valley.
Conaway’s catalyst for his wine-country appreciation is an unlabeled bottle of Cabernet. The bottle ends up on the sampling table of Clyde Craven-Jones, known to wine lovers as CJ, head of the mega-influential Craven-Jones on Wine. CJ is a British expat and something of a corpulent, self-absorbed snob. His wife is the younger, winsome Claire Craven-Jones, who escaped Arkansas trailer-living by marrying the wine expert. It’s Claire to whom Clyde has assigned the task of determining the origin of the unlabeled bottle—“Big nose, briary, just enough forward fruit. Fine tannins”—the first California Cab he believes worthy of 20 points, a rating never before awarded by Craven-Jones on Wine. To trace the bottle's origins, Claire hires Les, farm boy turned reporter, out of work and unable to settle his bar tab, and so he’s pretending to be an investigator, thanks to recommendations from ponytailed Ben, owner of the Glass Act, a decrepit bar stocked with expensive, exotic wines. There’s Sara Hutt Beale, daughter of Jerome, a less-than-scrupulous developer now deep in debt after turning a valley vineyard into Hutt Family Estates, a modern high-end wine factory. Sara’s own land adjoins that of melancholy Cotton Harrell, a river ecologist turned philosopher turned vintner, mourning the death of his lover. Like blending Merlot-Malbec grapes for the perfect Bordeaux, Conaway uses this cast, and an assortment of quirky supporting players, to weave multiple narratives into a cozy, no-murder and not-quite mystery, all set in motion after CJ accidentally dies when he becomes stuck in a giant metal tank of wine. Les helps the conservative Claire reenergize Craven-Jones on Wine—and her love life—while simultaneously using an anonymous blog to decant murky wine-country secrets, the most damaging of which is Jerome’s machinations to turn part of the Hutt Family Estates vineyard into a forest of McMansions.
The cheerful complexity of Conaway's novel rivals the richest, most nose-worthy, palate-pleasing Cabernet.