When you’re having a nice dinner or perhaps sitting in a wine bar, you may not think a lot about the work that goes into making that delicious glass of wine you’re enjoying. But it doesn’t get there by magic. Vintners take their work very seriously, and the best ones take great pride in producing memorable wines. It’s a tricky business too. An oenologist can tell you that producing great wine requires exactly the right mix of weather, grapes, fermenting, bottling and so on. It takes real dedication to make a success of a vineyard. And any number of things can happen in the process. What’s more, one bottle or batch of less-than-good wine can ruin a vineyard’s reputation. So a lot’s at stake too. But as those who enjoy wine know, a good glass of the right wine is a real treasure.
Vineyards feature quite a lot in crime fiction and that makes sense when you consider how important wine is in many cultures. I only have the space here for a few examples; I’m quite sure you can think of lots more.
Domingo Villar’s Inspector Leo Caldas lives and works in Vigo, in the Spanish region of Galicia. Galician wine has a world-class reputation for good reason. Trust me. And Caldas’ father is a part of that region’s vineyard culture. Since the death of his wife, Caldas’ father has built up the family vineyard little by little, and has gotten to the point where he’s producing some decent wine for which he has very high hopes. For him, growing grapes and making wine is not only a tribute to his late wife, but also a way to connect with the land and with growing things. To him, that’s real, if I may put it that way. And although his son is a cop and always will be, he does respect the process of wine making and when he visits the vineyard, he feels a sense of connection to his parents.
In Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie, Sydney DI Alistair Fitzjohn and his assistant DS Martin Betts are seconded from their own Day Street station to the shortstaffed Kings Cross Police Station when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is discovered at a marina at Rushcutter’s Bay. There are several suspects in this murder, since a variety of people stand to benefit from Rossi’s death. One angle that the detectives pursue is Rossi’s interest in Five Oaks Winery, which has been in the family for a long time. The victim’s niece Charlotte is set to benefit from that connection and what’s more, Rossi had had real disagreements with some of the Five Oaks staff about running the vineyard. So on more than one level, the vineyard is a place of interest. The truth about the murder isn’t as simple as the tragic result of an argument, but the police do get some interesting background on the family, and readers get a look at New South Wales’ winemaking culture. When it comes to Australia’s superb wines, I can also personally vouch for South Australia’s McLaren Vale wines. Trust me.
California also produces some very well-known and highly-regarded wines. Northern California’s Napa and Sonoma Valleys in particular are known for their vineyards and wine-making. And there are plenty of mystery novels and series that take a look at the Northern California wine industry. For example, there’s Michele Scott’s cosy Wine Lovers series. This series features Nikki Sands, who began to be interested in wine when she was waiting tables between acting roles. When she’s hired on at a major Napa vineyard, she has no idea how dangerous it will be.
Wine expert Edward Finstein’s Pinot Envy features Woody Robins, a ‘wine guru’ whose specialty is rare wine artifacts. Powerful grape grower Walter Pendry has heard of Robins’ reputation, and Robins is the man he wants for a case of theft. Pendry’s the owner of a very rare double magnum of wine that was once owned by Napoleon. When his prize property is stolen, he hires Robins to get the bottle back. What starts as a case of theft turns into blackmail, Mob activity and murder. This novel is about the case of course, but it also shows readers the Napa food and wine culture.
At the beginning of Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen series, her sleuth is the postmistress of the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. She also manages her own small farm. As the series goes on, changes in the postal system mean that Harry leaves her job at the post office. But she still needs an income. So in Cat’s Eyewitnesses she decides to try her hand at winemaking. In Sour Puss, Crozet gets a visit from world-renowned oenologist Professor Vincent Forland. Harry is hoping he’ll be able to give her feedback on her grape growing and advice for making good wine. But before she can ask him, Forland disappears and is later found dead. So Harry has to look among the other winemakers in the area to find out who would have wanted to kill Forland and why.
And of course, I couldn’t discuss vineyards without mentioning Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen. Their Winemaker Detective series is only now being translated into English although it’s not a new series. Thus far two novels, Treachery in Bordeaux and Grand Cru Heist have been translated. The series features well-known and respected oenologist Benjamin Cooker and his assistant Virgile Lanssien. Between them, the two have an awful lot of expertise, which they bring to bear in Treachery in Bordeaux when a local vintner finds that some of his wine has been contaminated. In Grand Cru Heist, Cooker and Lanssien investigate when there are two murders and a theft of two priceless bottles of Grand Cru. All of these are connected with the hotel where Cooker is staying during a trip to the Loire Valley; they are also connected with his own Bordeaux region. This series gives readers an ‘inside’ look at what goes into the entire winemaking process, from growing the grapes to bottling and later selling the wine.
The process is a lot more complicated than you may think when you’re choosing whether to go with a Shiraz or a Cabernet Sauvignon with your meal. It involves a real commitment of time and effort, some ‘weather luck’ and a store of knowledge about how wine is made. And that vineyard context makes for some delicious crime fiction too. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the examples there are, but there are plenty of them. They range from cosy to darker, from sweet to dry, from hearty to light…. Well, you get the idea. Which vineyard-based crime fiction have you tasted?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, made popular by UB40.