Pair a wine-centric novel with a favorite vintage for pandemic escapism
Unable to satisfy my wanderlust in recent months, and tired of binge-watching "Somebody Feed Phil" and "Chef's Table" on Netflix, I turned to my bookcase and dusted off a few wine novels. My favorites combine history with mystery, weaving wine lore and modern themes into thirst-inducing escapism. And they get the wine right.
So, turn off your television and radio for a while, pour yourself a glass of your favorite vino and curl up with one of these beauties.
Ever dream of living in Burgundy? Ann Mah takes us there in "The Lost Vintage" (William Morrow, 2018). The book introduces us to Kate, an out-of-work American sommelier who volunteers to help her down-on-their-luck French cousins in Meursault with their grape harvest while she tries not to stress about her imminent, final chance to take the Master of Wine exam or her hunky ex-boyfriend who is best friends with her cousin.
While helping to clean out the basement of the house the family had lived in for generations, Kate discovers a hidden cellar filled with rare, old bottles -- a treasure trove that could possibly solve the family's financial woes. But she also uncovers a mystery, including a diary written by a young girl during World War II, a great-aunt she never knew of from family lore. Mah weaves in the fraught politics of Resistance fighters and collaborators and the tenuous nature of life under Nazi occupation. Fans of Don and Petie Kladstrup's classic history, "Wine & War: The French, the Nazis and the Battle for France's Greatest Treasure" (Broadway, 2001), will love this book.
If your romantic ideal of wine is the genteel farmer quietly working her land to make artisanal wine that speaks to the soul through the generations -- like Mah's heroes -- then "Root Cause" (Turner, 2018) might terrify you. Author Steven Laine takes several of wine's villainous boogeymen -- Big Agriculture, greedy international corporations, genetically modified organisms and wine's biggest enemy, phylloxera -- and spins an international conspiracy that threatens the viability of wine itself. His protagonist is Corvina Guerra, a "flying winemaker" consultant for a company called Universal Wines -- no red flags there -- who discovers an infestation of the vine-killing phylloxera aphid in an Italian vineyard. She teams up with a British wine expert named Bryan Lawless to track down the origins of the infestation and stop its spread.
If Michael Pollan and Dan Brown sat down over a bottle of Barolo and brainstormed a novel based on all the neuroses of the natural wine movement, they might have come up with something like "Root Cause."
You may be excused for thinking Northern Virginia wine country is the murder capital of the world if you've followed Ellen Crosby's mystery series set in the Blue Ridge foothills just west of Middleburg. Crosby has penned 10 whodunits, with two more on the way, about the sleuthing exploits of winery owner Lucie Montgomery. Lucie is a sympathetic hero, but people around her always seem to die in mysterious circumstances. The third installment, "The Bordeaux Betrayal" (Scribner, 2008), revolves around a bottle of wine supposedly given to George Washington by Thomas Jefferson. Crosby thereby alludes to the most sensational wine scandal of a generation, the faked "Jefferson bottles" that fooled some of the world's greatest wine experts and collectors.
A valuable bottle smuggled out of France during World War II also figures prominently in "Vintage" (Touchstone, 2015) by David Baker. The antihero here is Bruno Tannenbaum, a food and wine writer who eats and drinks himself out of a marriage and a job at a Chicago newspaper while struggling with writer's block. When he gets wind of this mysterious bottle, he becomes obsessed with the thought of tracking it down, writing its story and resurrecting his career. His quest takes him to the shadowy underworld of Moscow and vodka-infused encounters with Russian and Kazakh mobsters.
"Vintage" echoes the Flashman historical novels by George MacDonald Fraser, in which the hero always manages to save the world despite himself, and hilariously. Bruno is clearly inept and out of his element, but he cluelessly blusters and blunders his way through every predicament Baker throws at him. And despite being cash-strapped, he always manages to eat well. Some of the best parts of the book are descriptions of food, including quotations ostensibly from Bruno's published works. A running joke in the novel has Bruno chafing that his fame came mostly from a book about aphrodisiac cuisine rather than his more serious writing.
And, in case you get tired of reading, Baker is also the director of "American Wine Story," a movie now available on Amazon Prime.
But if, like me, you enjoy turning pages as much as clicking a remote, I've got exciting news: The L'Academie du Vin Library recently reissued Hugh Johnson's masterful history, "The Story of Wine." I just need to rustle up a suitably historic bottle to go with it.