Twenty-four, twenty-five… authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen are working on the twenty-fifth book in the Winemaker Detective series in French. In English, we’re just about halfway there, with the twelfth scheduled for release in November: Red-handed in Romanée-Conti.
Not so long ago, I was driving through the Lot, a region right in the middle of southwestern France. We were on the highway, so didn’t stop, but we could have gone to the birthplace of the Winemaker Detective series. It all began in Jean-Pierre Alaux’s home in the Lot, where he and Noël Balen shared two bottles of wine and a bit of Armagnac, giving rise to the central character, Benjamin Cooker. This gentleman detective, half French and half English, is a fine representative for French wine, which has always been appreciated in both cultures. He is older, wise, very knowledgeable about wine, staid at times, although occasionally he lets his guard down. The authors added an assistant, Virgile, to have youth counterbalance the main protagonist, and who has grown into an equal over time. As the series evolves, we see their strengths and their weaknesses. They are driven by curiosity and a way of enjoying life every instant. For every note of nostalgia from Benjamin, Virgile brings a modern view and mischief. In the English versions, Benjamin’s wife Elisabeth is also taking on a strong role. So what awaits them in the upcoming mystery?
A taste of Romanée-Conti
Here is an excerpt from the Winemaker Detective mystery Red-handed in Romanée-Conti. You can order it now.
Looking forward to showing Virgile the lay of the land, Benjamin got up at sunrise, showered and shaved, and ordered breakfast in his room. He sipped his tea and unfolded the local newspaper, Le Bien Public. After scanning the headlines, he skipped to the articles about the harvest. One extolled the tradition of hiring and housing seasonal workers; another questioned the impact of changes in grape-picker contracts.
Benjamin stopped reading to slice through his fresh baguette. He savored the crackle of the golden crust as it gave way to the knife. Then he lathered the soft airy interior with Isigny butter.
After a moment of pure indulgence, he opened the paper again. A headline on page three caught his attention: “Vosne-Romanee winegrower: ‘Neighbor, those vines are mine!’” A winegrower had shown up with his pickers to harvest one of his vineyards, only to discover that it had been picked clean. Shortly after the discovery, a neighbor fessed up. His crews had harvested the plot by mistake. Once the mystery was solved, the winegrowers shook hands and agreed to taste each other’s wines.
Benjamin smiled at this good-natured solution, which reflected the overall feeling during the grape harvest: the entire industry coming together for a week to ten days and sharing the simple pleasures of hard work, conviviality, and pride in producing a fine product.
A knock on the door interrupted his reverie.
“Come in, Virgile. Can I order you anything?”
“Thanks, boss, but I’ve already eaten. I’m eager to get going.”
“Well then, let’s do just that.” Benjamin took one more sip of tea, and the two headed out the door to survey the land.
The winemaker knew his assistant was fascinated with geography and geology, and his upbringing in his family’s vineyards had given him a deep understanding of the earth.
With his reading glasses perched on his nose, Benjamin pointed out the brownish-red color of the soil and its gravelly texture.
“Look, Virgile. You can see some fragments of oyster fossils. That’s typical of the Côte d’Or.”
Virgile picked up a clump of earth and crumbled it with tactile, almost sensual, attention, to the delight of his employer.
“‘The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.’”
“Who said that, boss?”
The sounds of voices and laughter were coming from the village of Vosne-Romanée. A ballet of tractors was already underway. The grape harvest had begun, and Burgundy’s vineyards were trembling with excitement.
On the slopes—as well as in the fermenting rooms—entire armies of students, as well as townspeople, distant relatives, strong-armed friends, and even workers from far-off lands had been mobilized.
From their vantage point, Benjamin and Virgile watched the pickers. They reminded Benjamin of swimmers at a meet. The men would dive into the vines, come up at regular intervals—sometimes to peek at the generous necklines of the women in nearby rows—and then dive back in for more handfuls of the sugary clusters. They’d laugh and tease each other, and when a basket got too heavy, they’d pass it to the man on the tractor, who would then empty the contents into the bin on his trailer.
The tractor would invariably begin to sag under the load. Only then would the driver haul the cargo to the weigh station. After this, the load would be taken to the winery to be carefully poured onto a large conveyor belt. Men and women—no more than a dozen—would bend over the harvested fruit and begin the final sorting, almost grape by grape, to eliminate the gray mold, the grapes irreparably damaged, and the few yellow leaves sheared by a vintner rushing to beat the insidious autumn winds.
Healthy, juicy, fragrant, and sweet, the harvest would flow into a grape crusher before reaching the tanks. Then the smell of must would fill the cellars and outer yards.
This year, the pickers were working quickly. A rain system was moving from the west, and so the vineyard managers were spurring on their harvesters.
After a few moments of silent contemplation, Benjamin tapped Virgile’s elbow. “Let’s go down there, son. I see a vineyard manager I know.”
Benjamin and Virgile made their way down the escarpment, arriving at a plot where workers were busily plucking grapes from the vines. The manager waved to Benjamin and headed his way.
“Good to see you, Mr. Cooker. What brings you here?” He extended his hand. There was dirt under his fingernails, and his arms were brown and muscular from summers spent working under the sun.
“We’ve come to look at a piece of equipment the Lemoines just bought,” Benjamin answered. “I can see you’ve got your hands full. Can we just take a quick look around?”
The man grinned. “Certainly, Mr. Cooker. You’re welcome here anytime.” He nodded and walked away.
Benjamin started inspecting the vines, grabbing grapes and noting their perfect ripeness. He turned around and saw that his assistant was happily doing the same while mingling with the cutters.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Burgundy had more success with their whites than their reds this year,” Benjamin said. “Still, I think it will be a great vintage.”
“That’s for sure,” Virgile replied, gazing at a swarm of graceful girls in tight T-shirts stained with juice.
“Oh, no.” Benjamin turned his attention from the vines to his watch. “We’ve got to get going, Virgile. Marcel and Rafael Lemoine are expecting us in Nuits-Saint-Georges. I bet their resident wine expert has already clocked in. Our Bordeaux reputation will suffer if we don’t get there fast.”
“Take it easy, boss!”
“After a quarter of a century of loyal service in both the Bordeaux and the Burgundy wine business, I can say with certainty that attitudes haven’t changed one iota. Bordeaux wine growers are still considered suspect here in Burgundy. You’ll see that for yourself.”
The winemaker and his assistant hurried back to their rental car, a gray Alfa Romeo. Benjamin handed Virgile the keys. “You drive.”
Virgile slipped behind the steering wheel and stepped on the gas. But even though they were running late, the winemaker had his assistant turn off the main road. “There’s just one more thing that you need to see before we meet with the Lemoines.”
A short time later they reached a tall stone cross. “And here, son, you have the prince of Conti’s vines: the Romanée-Conti.”
“Come on, boss. Even I know they haven’t belonged to a prince of Conti since the French Revolution, when the state seized the land.”
“Okay, okay. I gave in to a little royalist nostalgia. Forgive me. But they were princes du sang, princes of the blood, as close as you could get to the king’s immediate family.”
“Grapes were grown here long before then, boss—as far back as Roman times. Today, this vineyard is part of the DRC, the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, an estate owned by two families for nearly seventy years.”
Virgile had done his homework, as usual.
“I also know it’s the best of the best,” Virgile continued, doing a U-turn to return to the road leading to town. “But I haven’t had the pleasure of tasting the so-called nectar.”
“You’re very young to qualify for the privilege—only six thousand bottles are produced every year. This is a wine to be appreciated—”
“Yes, I know—when you’re older and wiser. Thanks for the advice.”v
“I didn’t say that. It’s a wine with astonishing complexity. Even I have only a few bottles in my cellar: a couple from 1982 and 1985. I used to have one from 1958, but we had to drink it because it wasn’t the best year for Romanée-Conti. And Elisabeth scrounged up a 1963 for my last birthday. She bought it on the Internet.”
“And it wasn’t a scam auction?”
“Not at all. Admittedly, our Romanée was a bit, how should I say—etiolated. But still, I remember its flamboyant bouquet with aromas of coffee and mocha. A nice concentration and a powerful mouthfeel not yet altered. Okay, I grant you, once it’s opened and left sitting in the bottom of the glass, Romanée loses some of its blue blood.”
Benjamin opened the window and watched the vines go by.
“What about official tastings? Have you done any of those?”
“Of course, and I’ve tasted it from the barrel too.”
“I want details!”
Benjamin glanced at his eager driver. “The children’s author Roald Dahl said of Romanée-Conti: ‘Sense for me this perfume! Breathe this bouquet! Taste it! Drink it! But never try to describe it. It’s impossible to give an account of such delicacy with words!’”
Benjamin reached into his pocket to pull out a cigar but changed his mind. He continued. “Albert de Villaine has worked the domaine for decades, and you can see his deep respect for the land in the way he tends to it. He gives back what he takes out and avoids chemical fertilizers. Believe it or not, he’s replaced some of his heavy equipment with horses. He says the machinery compacts the earth too much.”
Virgile glanced at him. “I’ve read about some of his methods in the magazines, but I’m sure you know more.”
Before the winemaker could respond, he caught sight of the pickers. Unlike the workers he had seen elsewhere, these men and women were harvesting with no humor or enthusiasm.
“Have you noticed how down in the dumps they look?” Virgile asked.
“You’re right, son. I don’t know why. But don’t be fooled. The spirit’s there. Everyone loves and admires Aubert de Villaine. It’s really under him that the wines have reached their full potential. If we have some time, we’ll visit Villaine and DRC’s other owner, Henry-Frédéric Roch. They’re both proud and happy Burgundians.”
“Maybe the Burgundians we’re seeing have spirit deep down, but they look like they’re about to get hailed on.”
“Bite your tongue, Virgile. Never, ever mention hail. Not even in jest. It’s a real threat to the vines around here, even more than in Bordeaux. It’s the Grim Reaper knocking at the door. Some vintners never recover from a hail storm. Some even commit suicide.”
“Hail is always a tragedy, but to kill yourself because of it?”
“I don’t know a single winemaker who complains about paying taxes on his fortune, but hail is tax on misfortune! The most unfair and painful toll there is.”
“That, I can agree with.” No sooner had Virgile said this than he yanked the steering wheel to the right. Benjamin grabbed his seat as the car veered to the shoulder and Virgile slammed on the brakes.
“What, in God’s name, are you doing?”
Virgile didn’t have to answer. A blue van from the local gendarmerie came roaring around a curve and flew past them in a cloud of dust.
“Follow the van, Virgile!”
“Really, boss? I thought we had to get to our appointment.”
“Virgile, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. The Côte d’Or is a small strip of land, but it’s rich in mysteries. Let’s see where this leads us. Maybe we’ll learn something useful.”
Virgile floored the accelerator and caught up with the vehicle, following it to the Saint-Vivant Abbey, which didn’t look like much more than a pile of rubble. When they arrived, they discovered more official vans and officers swarming the place.
As they got out of the car, Benjamin, the history and architecture buff, couldn’t resist annotating their visit. “This used to be a Benedictine abbey. It was built in the eleventh century. Now, as you can see, it’s just deep cellars and ivy-covered walls.”
He approached a young officer who was roping off the area.
“We can’t let you in, sir. This is a crime scene,” he told Benjamin. “We’re waiting for the medical examiner’s people to come and take the body.”
“That’s all I can tell you, sir.”
Benjamin shook his head and motioned to Virgile to return to the car. He was uneasy until they pulled onto Highway 74. A road sign read, “Nuits-Saint-Georges 6.” They had six kilometers to go.