Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Nose for Murder

When two renowned food and wine authorities (Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain) join a pair of prominent writers (Jim Harrison and Jonathan Raban) in praising a debut mystery novel, it must be something especially delicious. Indeed, Dead in the Dregs (Counterpoint), by Seattle-based restaurateur Peter Lewis of Campagne restaurant fame, lives up to its jacket blurbs in spades.

Lewis’ hero, Babe Stern, was once a rising young star of the wine industry in and around California’s Napa Valley. Now he’s retired from grape-growing, and runs a bar and grill called Pancho’s. “If I’d thought of the wine scene as silly before,” he says to himself, while reading an industry journal, “by now it was ridiculous ... [L]ifestyle was the new thing: wine country decor, wine country entertaining, wine country markets, wine country bistros. I was reminded why I’d quit the game and congratulated myself, even if it had been a downwardly mobile slide.”

But when an acerbic and powerful wine critic named Richard Wilson disappears after a tasting at Napa Valley’s Norton Winery, his sister Janie looks to her ex-husband, Babe, for assistance. She is worried because so many people hated her brother. “They don’t hate him. They’re afraid of him,” Stern tells her. He knows, however, that “Wilson could make or break a wine, make or break a fortune, there had to be at least a dozen people who would happily stuff his face in a barrel, and that was just between Napa and Sonoma ...”

Then Wilson’s body is found floating in a vat at Norton, and Babe’s search turns into a hunt for the killer. Warned off by the police but desperate to please his ex-wife, Stern digs further and finds himself following his only lead--to France’s Burgundy region. In cellars and tasting rooms from Beaune to Nuits-Saint-Georges, Babe tracks the troubled son of a family of vignerons, one of the few people in the winery on the night that Wilson died. But the wine families of the Côte d’Or are secretive and entangled, and the further Stern goes to discover the truth, the more he becomes their ultimate target.

Lewis’ love of the California wine country comes across strongly throughout this gripping book, which I hope is just the start of a series. Babe tells us at one point:
I decided to take the long route home. I wanted to soak in the air, the light. With harvest nearing completion, the vineyards looked skeletal, their leaves golden and browned. I took the Rutherford Cross past the Silverado Trail and followed Sage Canyon Road around Lake Hennessey. ... The sun played on the hills as I cut through to Pope Valley. The farms were peaceful here, and its tranquility seemed a world away from the monstrous egos and petty vendettas that gripped Napa.
Dead in the Dregs also contains an occasional and welcome zing of humor, which any wine-loving mystery reader should appreciate. “Delicious,” says Babe, tasting a famous but overpriced vintage (paid for by his dinner host). “It had been a while since I had tasted this caliber of French juice. The scent of violets rose to my nostrils ... the flavors unfurled on my tongue. All the pretentious vocabulary came flooding back and suddenly seemed perfectly appropriate: sweetly roasted game laced with black cherries and chocolate.”

This is a novel to sip and savor.


RJR said...

I never understand books about men who still love their ex-wives. I don't understand the line, "...desperate to please his exiwife."


Rural View said...

I agree - don't get women who want to please or hang on to ex-husbands.

Anonymous said...

mario batali is a chef and restaurant owner; tony bourdain is a former chef, author and television personality. neither are food and/or wine critics.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Point taken, Anonymous. The joint description of Batali and Bourdain has been changed to "renowned food and wine authorities."