Quick quiz: Which group is larger—Americans who have Nobel Prizes or Americans who have passed the Masters of Wine test? Is that your final answer? At press time, the U.S. sported a mere 47 of the latter, fewer than the number of Americans who have won the Nobel in the last decade. The Masters of Wine roster is the very definition of “elite.”
At the beginning of Ann Mah’s second novel, The Lost Vintage, protagonist Kate Elliott has committed to an extended visit with extended family in Meursault, France, in the hopes of shoring up her knowledge of French wines in advance of her third—and final—sitting for the test. To earn her keep during her excursion, Kate helps her cousin reclaim a cellar storage space that contains several surprises, not the least of which is a World War II-era diary from a great half-aunt named Hélène who has been more or less expunged from the family history. As Kate digs deeper, it appears that her relative may have been a collaborator during WWII, which is a bitter pill to swallow, but she’s determined to uncover the truth nonetheless.
Meanwhile, her erstwhile French paramour Jean-Luc has drops back into her life, and it’s unclear whether his presence will turn out to be boon or bane.
Any of these circumstances could break the concentration—even the will—of a lesser human, but Kate proves to be made of stern stuff, and she delves into the formal, informal and secret history of her family to try to make sense out of Hélène’s narrative, and perhaps to find the key to recovering her family’s pride and fortunes.
Mah’s scholarship and knowledge of French history and viticulture figure significantly in the novel’s storyline, but The Lost Vintage never feels forced or heavy-handed, and her vivid prose unlocks the musty aromatics of a long-abandoned cellar full of secrets for even the least sophisticated of palates. Drink deep.
Thane Tierney lives in Inglewood, California, and writes about food and wine (and occasionally France) in his blog, templeofthetongue.wordpress.com.