Revealed: The Winemaker Detective and Winemaking

When you sip a glass of wine, how often do you think about the lives, tradition, craftsmanship,  and dumb luck involved in getting that beverage into your glass? Every year Mother Nature holds a new adventure for winemakers who, like goldsmiths, craft each harvest into a moment of pleasure captured in a glass.

The tough life of a writer of wine mysteries: Induction ceremony to become members of the Gaillac Wine Brotherhood of the Dive Bouteille.

The tough life of a writer of wine mysteries: Induction ceremony to become members of the Gaillac Wine Brotherhood of the Dive Bouteille.

Readers of the Winemaker Detective series discover much about winemaking as an art. Each book in the series is, in fact, a wine tasting. As you read, you take a sip, and then a second one, until you climb into the glass and become completely immersed in the drink, surrounded by the land where it was made, and the people who made it. 

Each book is written to honor winemakers and set in a place that is constantly changing. The world of Bordeaux is light years away from that of Burgundy. Who could possible put Alsatian wines in the same category as Loire Valley wines? This mystery series is an initiation, with stories we hope will stay with readers for a long time. 

Noël Balen, Jean-Pierre Alaux, and Anne Trager at the Lisle Noir crime fiction festival.

Noël Balen, Jean-Pierre Alaux, and Anne Trager at the Lisle Noir crime fiction festival.

Clearly, the authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen love wine. They love the France that is far from the beaten path, where people are struggling to make exceptional vintages, despite the blows dealt by fate, hail, or drought. We asked Jean-Pierre and Noël a couple of questions.

Where do you find your inspiration for the series as a whole?

Exploring the universe of wine is a little like taking a long journey. The more you taste, the more you go out and discover wine regions, the more there is to marvel at. Exploring the diversity of wines found in France is a humbling experience. We draw our inspiration from immersing ourselves in this world. With each novel, we visit a climate, a type of winemaker, and new natural environment. It’s an adventure, and we discovered that the world of wine has ways of doing things that are not always very orthodox. When we began the Winemaker Detective series, we had no idea how complex this world would be nor the failings we would find behind the scenes of the fine châteaux, which hide very human weaknesses.

Tell us something about the two characters central to this mystery series?

Before we even outlined Treachery in Bordeaux, the first whodunit in the series, we sketched the characters who would drive the plot. We began with Benjamin Cooker, a winemaker by profession, of British descent who had been living in the Médoc region in France for many years. He has an international reputation and his skills are recognized the world over. His sidekick Virgile went to winemaking school in Bordeaux. He has youth and a Cartesian mind, with a strong connection to his country roots. They are a tandem that combines two generations and two ways of approaching wine, working in a world where Mother Nature dictates fate and where traditions and myths still have a strong hold.



10 Things I Never Thought I'd Know About the French Foreign Legion

Finalizing Sally Pane’s translation of the new Winemaker Detective mystery, Montmartre Mysteries by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, I encounter a character who fled some dark secret and joined the Foreign Legion, then left the Legion to open a wine shop in Paris. My perfect excuse to find out more. I came up with 10 things I never thought I’d know about the French Foreign Legion, which I shared with Shelf Pleasure. Check it out.

Translator's Search for Mysterious Vineyard

Sally Pane, who has translated several Winemaker Detective mysteries, recounts her Paris hunt for destinations mentioned in Montmartre Mysteries, which came out this month.

Translator Sally Pane visits little-known Montmartre vineyard.

I recently made a “reunion trip” to Paris with my former college roommate, Carol, to reminisce about our college year abroad years ago. Having just translated Montmartre Mysteries by jean-Pierre Alaux and No¨el Balen, I was eager to visit some of the many sites mentioned in the book, particularly Rue Lepic, where the story’s wine merchant has his shop; the Bretonneau Hospital, where Benjamin Cooker is called in to revive the smallest vineyard in Paris; the famous Clos Montmartre vineyard behind Sacré Coeur; and the Lapin Agile, which held memories for the winemaker detective.

The scene where the wine merchant is asked by his tourist customers to point out the former addresses of famous people inspired me to look for some of them myself, homes of such luminaries as Picasso, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Degas, Dalì, Monet, Zola… I found myself walking up Rue Lepic in the footsteps of Benjamin Cooker and his assistant, Virgile, past the home of Van Gogh and the Café des 2 Moulins, where some scenes from the movie Amélie were shot. The street used to be home to numerous windmills, and there are still two remaining. You also pass the studio of Modigliani [#7] and a square named after Jean-Baptiste Clément who composed the song Cooker refers to, Le Temps des Cérises. Although in order to see cherry trees, you’re better off visiting in April! Nevertheless, I was happy to find this street again and make the tortuous, not exactly torturous, ascent through this historic neighborhood.

Paris wine

Rue des Saules is another great climb up the butte to Sacré Coeur. Just like Cooker, we walked past the Lapin Agile. I had spent an entertaining evening in that famous cabaret in the past. I knew it had been a favorite haunt of struggling artists such as Utrillo, Apollinaire and Picasso, to name a few. Before translating Montmartre Mysteries, I didn’t know much about its prior history, like how it was formerly called the Cabaret des Assassins, and how it got its present name.

This is also the road that leads you past the Clos Montmartre, the small vineyard described by Cooker. As he explains, however, unless you make special arrangements, the only time you can visit is during the Vendanges de Montmartre which is the second weekend in October. For four days all of Montmartre puts on a celebration of the vineyard with food and wine tasting, music, dancing and more.

I was more fortunate with the Clos Bretonneau, which, although it has its own vendanges (harvest) festival in October as well, is accessible any time by simply walking through the front door of the Bretonneau Hospital at 23 Rue Joseph de Maistre. Charming and tiny, the hospital vineyard does not draw a tourist crowd—the receptionist did not even know it existed, but fortunately the janitor did. For a moment, I thought I had fallen for an imaginary destination on this scavenger hunt “Cooked up” [sorry!] by authors Alaux and Balen, but I was happy to discover the real thing. Once I stepped into it, I understood why they chose the unusual little gem as the backdrop to the mystery.