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.



Wine Country — Conveying a Sense of Place

Not Champagne, not Bordeaux, but Burgundy.

This summer I'm working on two new translations: Champagne Widows from the Winemaker Detective series by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, and Minced, Marinated and Murdered from a new Gourmet Crimes series, by Noël Balen and Vanessa Barrot. Both of these mystery series are all about setting—the region, the food, the wine, the traditions. In the former, the setting is Champagne, and in the latter it is France's gourmet capital of Lyon.

I was reminded of some notes I made a while back about the Winemaker Detective series, and how the authors conveyed a sense of place so effectively in the first Winemaker Detective mystery, Treachery in Bordeaux. I'm sharing those ideas below. You can pick up a copy of Treachery in Bordeaux by clicking on the button—it's free.




1) Opening with setting. The authors chose to give an immediate sense of place in the opening paragraph. Note the hint of timelessness:

The morning was cool and radiant. A west wind had swept the clouds far inland to the gentle hills beyond the city of Bordeaux. Benjamin Cooker gave two whistles, one short, the other drawn out, and Bacchus appeared from the high grass on the riverbank… The Médoc was still wild, despite its well-ordered garden veneer, and it would always be that way. In the distance, a few low wisps of fog were finishing their lazy dance along the Gironde Estuary.

2) Focusing on details. Notice the use of something everyone can relate to, which immediately puts the readers right there in Bordeaux itself:

As they approached the limits of Médoc, traffic slowed little by little until it stopped entirely on the boulevards. Construction bogged the city down, disfiguring it everywhere with orange-yellow signs that looked like they belonged in a cheap carnival. Cranes stood with empty hooks, and aggressive bulldozers lumbered like large lazy insects. The tramway—silent, shiny and bright—would soon rise from this tangled mess that had mired the city for several months. Some irritated Bordeaux residents honked without any illusions of being able to move along, while others just put up with it silently.

3) Using the senses. The five of them have this way of grabbing the imagination:

The Rue des Faures smelled of lamb. A heavy aroma of spices and grilled meat rose up in thick swirls from the hodgepodge of Arab shops, suitcase salesmen and faded bistros.

4) Juxtaposing disparate elements. After a scene that advances the story, we return to the same street. Notice the modern and historic all mixed together, and the refined Cooker with his greasy sandwich:

When he stepped out of the workshop, he crossed the Place Saint-Michel and bought a lamb kebab from a tiny take-out. Then he went to sit at the base of the bell tower facing the church. Around him, a group of acne-faced teenagers were playing with a soft-drink can. Young Kabyles from northern Algeria formed another group under a basketball hoop near the Gothic bell tower. On the steps in front of the church, a couple of lovers whispered to each other. Nobody paid any attention to Benjamin Cooker. The sun was warm, and no heads turned to see him savor his too-fatty, too-spicy overcooked sandwich that should have ended up in the first garbage can he found.

5) Using dialogue. Not to be neglected to introduce elements of place:

“This is the first time I’ve been here. I had no idea that the development was so spread out,” Cooker noted, thinking it best to change the subject.
“It’s a ghost town, a concrete cemetery, that’s what it has become! And the middle classes get off on moving into a historical area. It’s all being bought up by architects, doctors, lawyers—people who think they know something. They invest in cultural heritage. Some heritage. Just junk!”

The authors use other techniques as well, such as character descriptions that compare and contrast with preconceived ideas readers may have about a place and the use of a painting compared to an actual place. They are particularly skilled at getting across a sense of actually being there, in the city of Bordeaux in transition, but also in the vineyards. I’d feel I were cheating you if I didn’t give you one more quote from among the actual grapevines:

The winemaker took advantage of the moment to get a closer look at the new cabernet franc stock that had just been planted on a small parcel. Tender sprouts were starting to bud; they would not give clusters for another two or three years. He glanced over the meticulous rows of vines, quickly judging the state of the soil composed of thick Gunz gravel, sand and clay and noted with pleasure that the vineyards had just been plowed. His eyes stopped for a moment on the Haut-Brion estate hilltop that dominated the neighborhood.

I’ll leave you to read it for the descriptions of the wines!

The Winemaker Detective Guide to France on Shelf Pleasure

Gourmet sleuth in wine country.

If you want to follow the Winemaker Detective's footsteps in French wine country, check out this blog post at Shelf Pleasure. This is a great book lover's online destination. And the blog covers some highlights not to miss in France: Anne Trager, translator and founder of the publishing house Le French Book, pulled together a guide to some top spots to visit and tipple in France from the gourmet sleuth Winemaker Detective series­. As authors Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen say, “each book is a homage to a wine and a wine region,” and the rich details take readers there with or without a plane ticket.

Sirens of Suspense Interviews J.-P. Alaux and N. Balen

Chantelle over at Sirens of Suspense just interviewed Jean-Pierre and Noël, the authors of Cognac Conspiracies, which comes out this week, which is part of the ongoing Winemaker Detective mystery series. She begins with this question.

There are twenty-two books in the series so far (though only four published to date in the U.S.), as the series grows and evolves, do you find it easier or more difficult to fall into the story and discover new and exciting plots?

She goes on to ask them about their writing partnership, their other interests, having their books adapted for television, and what's in the works.

Click here to read the interview.

Winemaker Detective #Giveaways on BookTrib

We're very excited to announce five whole weeks of giveaways on BookTrib focussed on the Winemaker Detective series. This site calls itself "The lifestyle destination for book lovers," so if you don't already know about it, you're going to want to check it out. Scroll through the whole Click to Win list while you are there.

January 16 – 23: Treachery in Bordeaux 

January 23 – 30: Grand Cru Heist

January 30 – February 6: Nightmare in Burgundy

February 6 – 13: Deadly Tasting

February 13 – 20: Cognac Conspiracies