Winter is in the air in Alsace and local customs are sowing trouble, piquing the curiosity of the famous winemaker from Bordeaux, Benjamin Cooker. While the wine expert and his assistant Virgile settle into their hotel in the old city of Colmar, distinguished vineyards are attacked. Is it revenge? The plot thickens when estates with no apparent connection to one another suffer the same sabotage just days prior to the late harvest. All of Alsace is in turmoil, plunged in the grip of suspicion that traces its roots back to the darkest hours of the German occupation. As he crosses back and forth into Germany from the Alsace he thought he knew so well, Cooker discovers a land of superstition, rivalry, and jealousy. Between tastings of the celebrated wines, he is drawn into the lives and intrigues of the inhabitants.
From the publishers Le French Book, via Netgalley in exchange for a review. Number 10 in the Winemaker Detective series – I have read and reviewed the previous books in this series and links to the reviews can be found at the bottom of this post.
This time Benjamin Cooker and Virgile Lanssien are in the Alsace region of France during the wintertime. Due to its location, ie. in France but bordering Germany and Switzerland, the Alsace region has alternated between German and French control over the centuries and reflects a mix of the 2 cultures.
The story starts with Benjamin looking around Strasbourg Cathedral, where he gets to flirt and show off to a local (female) tour guide – only to witness her death from a heart attack minutes after the tour finishes. Her death generally puts him out of sorts for the rest of the book.
Benjamin and Virgile are in the area to check on and review the output from the Deutzler family estate, only to find a crippled head of the family and a deadly undercurrent of tension going on between his offspring and their spouses (and his nurse).
Someone is vandalising local vineyards just as the late harvest is about to start. There seems no pattern to the attacks, nothing to connect the damage at one estate to that of another attack miles away (sometimes on the same night). As Benjamin and Virgile dig deeper there’s the suspicion that the attacks are in retaliation to what happened during WWII and it soon transpires that whoever is involved knows more about viniture than meets the eye – the tools involved and the damage done takes some expertise in the wine world.
Meanwhile, someone seems to know that Cooker is in town – and considers him to be a threat – by slashing the tires on his car, making the pair resort to borrowing cars from various people
Now they are in a different region of France – and one so close to the border with Germany – it almost goes without saying that Benjamin and Virgile do not sting on sampling the local delicacies:
The small fried perch was always crusty, the baked fois gras was wonderfully creamy, and the squab was so tender, Benjamin would almost forget to put his fork to the delicate mushroom tart accompanying the dish.
in particular the cheese (Cooker seems to believe in “the smellier the better”):
He loved it particularly ripened, when the golden crust was nice and firm, and the rind had gone from soft to cream. As with wine, Benjamine Cooker assessed Munsters with his nose. He’d plunge his knife to reveal the center of this cheese from the Vosges Plateau. The more tenacious and rustic the aroma – even a tad repugnant – the more the cheese lover’s nose quivered.
As per usual, these are not long books, and don’t go into too much heavy detail as to motive etc. You are there to enjoy the scenery, the food, the smell of good cigars, and hopefully enjoy the challenge of who does what to whom, especially when people and places have long memories.
My reviews of the other books are as follows (in no specific order):
Grand Cru Heist
Nightmare in Burgundy
Flambe in Armagnac
Backstabbing in Beaujolais
Mayhem in Margaux