A Bottle of White, a Bottle of Red, Perhaps a Bottle of Rosé Instead*

For many people, wine is as much a part of a meal as any food is. For those who enjoy wine, a good glass of the right wine is one of life’s true pleasures. I’m not referring here to people who drink an awful lot; that’s an entirely different thing. Rather, I’m referring to wine – separate from other alcohol. Wine has been a symbol of joy, a token of thanks, a romantic gesture, a bond between friends, a “guest gift” and more for millennia. It’s an important part of the culture for lots of people. So it makes sense that we see it in crime fiction too.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, enjoys fine wine as much as he enjoys good food. To Poirot, the right wine complements a meal and is worth taking the time to choose carefully. In several of the novels that feature Poirot there are scenes where’s he’s enjoying a meal with the right wine and it matters to him. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot is on board an airplane en route from Paris to London when one of his fellow passengers suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. DCI James “Jimmy” Japp is assigned to the case, and Poirot works with him to find the killer. The victim is Marie Morisot, also known as Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. Because of her business, there are several suspects in the murder, but since she was killed on board the aircraft, the only people who could have committed the crime are her fellow passengers. Part of the investigation is carried out in Paris, and Poirot works with M. Fournier of the Sûreté on this angle. At one point, Fournier is interrogating Madame Giselle’s household staff – unsuccessfully. He’s frustrated and so are the staff members. Here is how Poirot salvages the situation:

 

“‘Come mon vieux,’ he said. ‘The stomach calls. A simple but satisfying meal, that is what I prescribe. Let us say omelette aux champignons, sole à la Normande – a cheese of Port Salut, and with it red wine. What wine exactly?

 

That’s enough to diffuse the situation just a bit, and Poirot even manages to get some valuable information from Madame Giselle’s house staff.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is very knowledgeable about wine, although he isn’t arrogant about it. Still, he enjoys a good bottle of wine and his knowledge is woven into the series in several places. In The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club for instance, Wimsey investigates two deaths. Old General Fentiman, a member of Wimsey’s club, has died while sitting in his customary chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, also dies. In this case, the time of each one’s death is critical; if Lady Dormer dies first, the money would pass to Fentiman’s grandson. If the general dies first, the fortune passes to Ann Dorland, Lady Dormer’s distant cousin. Then it’s discovered that Fentiman was poisoned. So now, Wimsey and his friend Inspector Parker have to find out not only which victim died first but also who poisoned Fentiman. At one point, Wimsey has dinner with Ann Dorland. Here’s a bit of their conversation about the dinner:

 

“‘What do you think of the Romanée Conti?’ he asked, suddenly.
‘I don’t know much about wine. It’s good. Not sweet, like Sauterne. It’s a little – well – harsh. But it’s harsh without being thin – quite different from that horrid Chianti people always seem to drink at Chelsea parties.’
‘You’re right; it’s rather unfinished, but it has plenty of body – it’ll be a grand wine in ten years’ time. It’s 1915. Waiter, take this away and bring me a bottle of the 1908.’” 

 

Wimsey gives Ann Dorland an important piece of advice during the dinner, and Sayers also uses that meal to provide a clue to the murder.

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is the former postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia. When changes in the postal system mean the loss of the little post office she’s loved, Harry leaves the postal service and focuses on her farm. But she needs extra income.  So during the course of Cat’s Eyewitness, she takes the decision to grow grapes and see if she can make wine. Then, in Sour Puss, Crozet gets a visit from world-renowned grape and wine expert Professor Vincent Forland. He’s travelling to all of the local wineries and Harry is hoping he can give her some feedback on how to make the most of her wine-making experiences. Forland arrives and begins his tour, but he disappears and is later found murdered. Now Harry has to look among the other winemakers in the area to find out who would have wanted to kill Forland and why.

Domingo Villar’s Inspector Leo Caldas is also familiar with winemaking. As we learn in Water Blue Eyes, Caldas’ father is a Galician vintner whose vineyard is in the countryside not very far from Vigo. The two aren’t particularly close but in Death on a Galician Shore, Caldas pays a few visits to the vineyard and we can see the two men working towards some sort of relationship. In that novel, Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez investigate the supposed suicide of Justo Castelo, a local fisherman. At first people accept the explanation of suicide because there are some signs that point to it. But there are just as many signs that suggest that Castelo did not commit suicide. So Caldas and Estevez look into Castelo’s life. That’s when they discover that he has a haunting past that plays an important role in this mystery. There are a few instances in the novel where Caldas visits his father’s vineyard and in fact, he gets an important clue from one of those visits.  Although he isn’t what you would call a “wine snob,” Caldas enjoys white wine and that’s frequently his drink of choice.

Oh, and I should tell you if you don’t already know: Galician wine is world-class. It is on my list of Best. Wine. Evah.

Also on that list is good New Zealand wine. We learn a little about that wine in Paddy Richardsons’ Hunting Blind.  Fledgling psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson confronts her own haunted past when one of her patients Elizabeth Clark tells her a terrible story. Clark’s younger sister Gracie was abducted one night and never found. Not even a body was discovered. The family was never the same afterwards, and that’s part of the cause of Clark’s psychological problems. This story eerily mirrors Anderson’s own family history. Seventeen years earlier, her own sister Gemma was abducted; she was never found either. When she realises that both young girls could have been abducted by the same person, Anderson decides to try to find some peace for her family. She decides to find out what really happened to Gemma. So she travels from Dunedin, where she is living and practicing, to her home in Wanaka. Along the way, she meets a hunting guide named Dan, who has a sad history of his own. Dan persuades her to go on a hunting trip although she’s never done that before and although she has her own preconceptions about him. One night he invites her for dinner:

 

“‘Wine, please. White wine?’ [Anderson]
‘I can manage both colours. Types as well. So. What type of white?’
He’s grinning again. She sees he’s teasing her.
‘Pinot gris?’ Huh, I guarantee he hasn’t got that.
‘Central Otago?’
‘Uh, yes. Thanks.’
He opens a bottle, fills a glass and hands it to her. ‘I believe I’m making progress.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I hope that I’m adequately demonstrating to you that all hunters aren’t blokey yobbos.’
‘I didn’t say they were.’
‘You didn’t actually say it, no.’”

 

In several places in this novel there are some other warm scenes made all the more charming with delicious wine. Oh, trust me. It’s delicious.

Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace introduces us to Stockholm psychologist Dr. Siri Bergman, who shares part of her practice with her best friend Aina Davidson. Davidson’s friendship becomes especially important when Bergman receives a frightening “stalking” letter. Then one of Bergman’s patients dies of what looks like suicide. It’s proven to be murder though and when she becomes a suspect, Bergman is sure that someone is trying to ruin her practice and probably her life. Through it all she depends on Davisdon and it’s obvious that the two have a strong bond although they’re quite different. Bergman, who is also grieving the loss of her husband Stefan, drinks a lot more wine than she should. But in this novel, wine isn’t just a way of killing Bergman’s emotional pain. It’s also a bond between her and Davidson:

 

“Sometimes Aina stays with me instead of spending the weekend in the noisy bars of Södermalm in the company of men whose names she quickly forgets. We eat mussles cooked in wine, drink lots of cheap white wine, and talk about our patients or Aina’s guys – or about nothing in particular.”

 

In this scene, wine adds to a warm picture of a strong friendship.

Whether it’s a fine vintage or plonk, wine is an important part of life for a lot of people. Little wonder it’s so common in crime fiction. Now if you’ll excuse me, as you can see, there’s a nicely chilled bottle of Chardonnay waiting for me. Cheers! :-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.

20 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Domingo Villar, Dorothy Sayers, Paddy Richardson, Rita Mae Brown

20 responses to “A Bottle of White, a Bottle of Red, Perhaps a Bottle of Rosé Instead*

  1. I’m a big fan of Gewurztraminer and Riesling for whites and Pinot Noir for red, but I’m totally on both the wine and chocolate wagons these days while I’m dieting. It was painful at first, but I’m happily guzzling sun tea these days (a mixture of decaf regular tea, decaf green tea, and Celestial Seasoning Peppermint or Bengal Spice). So far I haven’t read any mysteries featuring sun tea as the sleuth’s drink of choice. :D

    • Pat – Pinot Noir can be a delicious red, can’t it? I’m glad you’ve found a drink to enjoy that lets you feel satisfied. That hint of peppermint sounds appealing! And you’re right; sun tea isn’t a common drink of choice for sleuths. That would be an innovative, unique touch.

  2. PeterReynard

    Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Rioja, Syrah. Mmmmm wine. And it’s healthy for the heart. ;)

  3. I feel quite blessed to live somewhere with such wonderful wine-growing regions, Adelaide is literally surrounded by vines and I like to support the local businesses as much as I can :)

    I read a book where several people were murdered at a Nappa Valley winery but can’t remember the name of it…other than that I can’t think of any examples other than the ones you mentioned.

    • Bernadette – You are fortunate indeed! I’ve had some fabulous Australian wine from your area, and I’m sure that living locally, you get some of the really good stuff, lucky you. :-)
       
      The Napa Vally is a good place for a murder mystery. There are some very fine vineyards there and lots of competition. If you think of the author or anything else about it let me know; I’d love to look it up.

  4. kathy d.

    In Italy, I’m sure wine must be a food group. It is such a staple of daily life. Does anyone dine without it? Inspector Montalbano couldn’t live without his wine and Commissario Brunetti enjoys wine daily, even during the daytime when out investigating.
    I often wish myself in Vigata, sitting on the beach with chilled white wine, especially on hot summer days.
    I, however, am in the 96-degree city heat here, downing sun tea by the quart. I love it — 1/2 regular English breakfast tea and 1/2 decaf of the same.
    Iced tea has been the best thirst quencher and heat-beater known to me since I grew up in 100-plus degree days in Chicago. No one could move from their spots in front of the fan except to get more iced tea, this in pre-a/c days.
    Since finding out about sun tea, I drink it like water. It’s great
    However, I’d gladly sip dry white win on an Italian beach any time … of course, with a Camilleri or Leon book in my hands.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t imagine either Donna Leon’s Brunetti or Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano without a glass of wine either. They do enjoy their wine.
       
      I’m sorry it’s so hot where you are right now, and I can see how you’d be reaching for the sun tea instead of wine in that heat. I hope it breaks soon. Your mention of Chicago reminds me of the days when I lived in Illinois; there were some scorching summer days there…
       
      And hey, if you do go to Italy, I’m coming with you! ;-)

  5. kathy d.

    Well, I did the next best thing: Defied my vow of not using the credit card for books and purchased The Age of Doubt, Camilleri’s latest in English translation. I couldn’t wait for the library to get it in, and I must say with Camilleri and Indridason, I have NO will power.
    I can’t drink wine, but not out of choice.
    Decided to deal with the heat wave by sitting in a/c and reading — mysteries, of course, drinking sun tea and eating low-fat frozen yogurt, which helps to beat the heat.
    I love these reading weekends and holidays.

    • Kathy – It sounds as though you’ve got the perfect solution for dealing with the heat. And I don’t blame you for breaking your “no-credit-card” rule. There are certain authors for whom that rule just doesn’t apply…

  6. Wine is the only alcohol I like so it is always nice to read about it in a book. There’s a lovely scene in one of the early Anne Zouroudi books where a villager tries to pass off a foreign wine as a local vintage, because the crop had failed. Hermes Diaktoros spots it straight away.

    • Sarah – I love it! Thanks for that example! I haven’t read enough of the Zouroudi series, so I’m glad you reminded me of it. And yes, trust Hermes Diaktoros to spot that kind of deception. :-)

  7. My husband is always encouraging me to drink red wine for my health but I just can’t stomach it. It tires me out in minutes and that doesn’t make for a fun occasion. Mostly, I just don’t drink.

    However, I am reading Retribution by Val McDermid and Tony Hill is always offering Carol Jordon red wine but she ends up going for the stronger stuff–vodka.

    • Clarissa – Interesting how you and Carol Jordan have in common that you don’t drink red wine. It’s not everyone’s choice. I hope you’re enjoying Retribution but knowing what a fan you are of McDermid’s work, I’ll bet you are. :-)

  8. Interesting examples, Ms. Kinberg. Wine is a given in several mysteries and thrillers and sometimes they go right past without the reader taking notice. I’m sure murders have been committed over a glass of (poisoned) wine. It’s also an occasion for celebration after a case is solved.

    • Prashant – Oh, you’re quite right about poisoned wine – there are plenty of examples of that. And yes, there are lots of times I’m sure when glasses are filled after a case is solved. I’m glad you mentioned that because wine as celebration is an important part of many people’s culture, too.

  9. Some excellent examples here. English wine can be very good, but not often sold at commercial/international levels. My sister is involved in a vineyard/winery operation (one of her 15 “spare time” activities!) and the result is absolutely delicious, though they only make enough to fill their garage once a year. I love a good glass or two of wine, often French.

    A recent example of poisoned wine was in Mari Jungstedt’s latest novel, Dark Angel. But as you say, wine loving and wine killing both feature a lot in crime fiction.

    • Maxine – I’ve heard actually that English wine can be quite good but as you say, it’s not easy to get. If I get the chance to go to the U.K. again, I’ll have to make a real effort in that department. I’ll bet your sister’s wine is wonderful. :-)
       
      And thanks for the suggestion of both Dark Angel (which I confess is still lingering for far too long on my TBR list) and The Dark Vineyard (which has just been added to my list). Both promise body, finish and pleasant length. ;-)

  10. PS Martin Walker/The Dark Vineyard is another example of a wine-set (soaked?) mystery.

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