"A Good Year"
But Peter Mayle, the British author who's probably best known for his light, readable non-fiction books about living, eating and drinking in Provence, gets it right, mostly, in "A Good Year," his recent comic novel in which French wine, French food and the French wine business play almost as central a role as his wacky cast of characters.
No one ever accused Mayle, a former advertising executive who gave up the buttoned-down environment for the more casual life of a "foodie" expatriate in Provence, of being a literary light or prose stylist. Reading a Mayle book is sort of like ripping open a bag of potato chips and diving in ... and what, exactly, is the problem with that?
In other words, "A Good Year" is not deep literature; it's what critics genteely call "a quick read," a good book to take along on an airline flight or read on the treadmill at the health club. For all its contrived twists and turns, the plot is simple enough that an attentive reader can often guess what's going to happen next.
Max Skinner, a cynical if naive young man, loses his job in a London financial firm in an outburst of office politics, but recovers nicely when a fancy envelope from France reveals that he has inherited his late uncle's decaying chateau and its seemingly lackluster vineyards in Provence. Urged on by his wine-loving friend Charlie, he heads for France, where he eats and drinks well, meets several very pretty young women (including a blonde cousin from California who turns out to be quite a wine expert herself), and manages to foil a complicated plot by a sleazy group that has been using the vineyard's best grapes to make a counterfeit "garage wine" that's being falsely labeled as a cultish Bordeaux and sold to wine snobs at breathtaking prices.
Got all that? It's pretty much the gist of the story. But food and wine lovers won't enjoy it so much for this made-for-the-movies plot or simple characters as for its loving descriptions of life in Provence and its food, cafe and restaurant scenes; and, of course, the wine trivia.
Consider this simple treatise on the art of wine tasting, delivered by Max's friend Charlie over a glass of 1982 Leoville Barton shortly after he completed a wine-tasting course. Shorn of Charlie's comedic pretentiousness, it's not a bad tutorial:
"Now it was time for Charlie's performance. 'There are five steps,' he said, reaching for the glass, 'that make all the difference between the art of drinking and the act of swallowing. ... First ... mental preparation.' He worshipped his glass for a few moments before raising it to the light. 'Next, the pleasure of the eyes.' He tilted the glass so that the differences in color could be seen - deep red at the bottom, fading into a lighter maroon at the top, with a rim that was faintly tinged with brown. 'Now for the nose.' He swirled the wine gently, opening it up to the air, before dipping his nose into the glass and inhaling. 'Ah,' he said with a slow smile, his eyes closed. 'Ah.'
"Max felt like a voyeur spying on a profoundly personal moment. Over the years of their friendship, he had always been amused by the passion with which Charlie attacked his hobbies, from skateboarding when they were at school to last year's preoccupation with karate. Now it seemed that wine had taken over. Max smiled at the expression of purest pleasure that had spread across Charlie's face. 'So far so good?' asked Max.
"Charlie ignored him. 'Now for the pleasures of mouth, tongue and palate.' He took a sip of wine, holding it in his mouth while he sucked in a little air, making a discreet lapping sound. For a few seconds his jaw went up and down as if he were chewing, and then he swallowed. 'Mmm,' he said. 'The final step is appreciation. Messages from the palate to the brain. Thoughts of the wine still to come.' He nodded to the sommelier. 'That'll do nicely. You can let it breathe for a while. No, we can do better than that - you can let it regain its compusure.'
"'Very impressive,' said Max. 'You had me on the edge of my seat. Is that what you learned in the wine-tasting course?'
"Charlie nodded. 'Elementary stuff, but it's surprising what a difference it makes - just taking the time to concentrate on what you're drinking.'"
And that, my friends, is the truth.
To read more about Peter Mayle's "A Good Year" on Amazon.com, click
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Join me in the Rhône next June
Speaking of Provence, I'm pleased to announce plans for our annual tour with French Wine Explorers, which will feature a seven-day, six-night in-depth exploration of the Rhône Valley from June 6-12, 2005.
The Rhône offers wine lovers a rare combination of beautiful scenery, delicious Provençal cuisine, and rich, expressive wines. We'll take in both the Northern and Southern Rhône, with extensive tastings at top estates in Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Tavel and more. Visits to Roman ruins, gourmet meals on outdoor patios, and a gala dinner dance with the winemakers of Chateauneuf-du-Pape will make this a vacation you'll always remember!
I'll be co-leading this tour with my friends Lauriann Greene-Sollin and Jean-Pierre Sollin, certified Sommeliers-Conseil and the proprietors of French Wine Explorers. Many 30 Second Wine Advisor readers have joined us on our past tours of the Rhône and Provence, Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne, and I look forward to meeting more of you in France next June. (To maintain an intimate scale - we see these tours as a cordial small group of wine-loving friends, not a mass tour-bus experience - participation will be limited to the first 14 who register.)
For more information, visit French Wine Exporers' Northern and Southern Rhône tour page,
And of course, if you would like to discuss this tour with me personally or to ask questions about any of our tours or wine travel in general, you're always welcome to write me at email@example.com
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All the wine-tasting reports posted here are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores and accept no samples, gifts or other gratuities from the wine industry.
Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2004