Title: The Winemaker Detective: An Omnibus
Author: Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noel Balen
Publisher: LeFrench Book
Genre: Mystery/French Cozy/Culinary Mystery
Author: Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noel Balen
Publisher: LeFrench Book
Genre: Mystery/French Cozy/Culinary Mystery
An immersion in French countryside, gourmet attitude, and light-hearted mystery.
Two amateur sleuths gumshoe around French wine country, where money, deceit, jealousy, inheritance and greed are all the ingredients needed for crime. Master winemaker Benjamin Cooker and his sidekick Virgile Lanssien solve mysteries in vineyards with a dose of Epicurean enjoyment of fine food and beverage. Each story is a homage to wine and winemakers, as well as a mystery.
In Treachery in Bordeaux, barrels at the prestigious grand cru Moniales Haut-Brion wine estate in Bordeaux have been contaminated. Is it negligence or sabotage?
In Grand Cru Heist, Benjamin Cooker’s world gets turned upside down one night in Paris. He retreats to the region around Tours to recover. He and his assistant Virgile turn PI to solve two murders and very particular heist.
In Nightmare in Burgundy, a dream wine tasting trip to Burgundy that turns into a troubling nightmare when Cooker and his assistant stumble upon a mystery revolving around messages from another era.
This made-for-TV series is "difficult to forget and oddly addictive" (ForeWord Reviews).
For More Information
- The Winemaker Detective: An Omnibus is available at Amazon.
- Pick up your copy at Barnes & Noble.
- Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.
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. He had that impertinent look Irish setters get when you remind them that they are dogs. Benjamin liked this clever and deceptively disciplined attitude. He would never roam his childhood landscapes with an animal that was too docile. 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. It was nearly eleven and time to go home.
The Grangebelle’s graceful shape rose among the poplar trees. The building would have seemed bulky, were it not for the elegant roof, the lightly draped pergola, the delicate sparkling of the greenhouse, and the old varnished vases set out in the vegetation with studied negligence. Elisabeth moved silently among the copper pots in the kitchen. She shivered slightly when he kissed her neck. He poured himself a cup of Grand Yunnan tea with slow and precise movements. She knew he was tired. She was perfectly aware of his nights of poor sleep, the deleted pages, the files he relentlessly ordered and reordered, the doubts he had when he completed a tasting note, his concern for the smallest detail, and the chronic worry that he would deliver his manuscript late and disappoint his publisher. Benjamin had worked in his office until five in the morning, taking refuge in the green opaline halo of his old Empire-style lamp. Then he had slipped under the covers to join her, his body ice-cold and his breathing short.
Who could have imagined that France’s most famous winemaker, the established authority who caused both grand cru estate owners and unknown young vintners to tremble, was, in fact, a man tormented by the meaning of his words, the accuracy of his judgments, and an objectivity that he brandished like a religious credo? When it came time to hand over a manuscript, his self-doubts assailed him—the man whom the entire profession thought of as entrenched in certainty and science and masterfully accomplished in the fine art of critiquing wines. Benjamin Cooker knew that everyone, without exception, would be waiting for his book to arrive in the stores. They would be weighing his qualifiers and judging his worst and best choices. It was essential that the publication of his guide never blemish his reputation as a winemaker and a sought-after, even secret, advisor in the art of elaborating wines. He made it a point of honor and proved it with his sometimes scathing criticism of wines he himself had crafted. To him, moral integrity stemmed more often than not from this astonishing faculty of uncompromising self-judgment, even when it was forced and terribly unfair. He sometimes thought it belonged to another century, a faraway time, when self-esteem and a certain sense of honor prevailed over the desire for recognition.
He closed his eyes as he drank his tea. He knew that this moment of rest would not last long and that he should make the most of it, appreciating these slow, spread-out seconds. Elisabeth remained quiet.
“Send him to me as soon as he gets here. I need to have a few words with him before lunch,” he said, calmly setting down his cup.
Benjamin Cooker dragged himself back to the half-light of his office. He spent more than an hour examining his tasting notes for a Premières Côtes de Blaye and finished by persuading himself that there was nothing left to add. However, his preamble about the specific characteristics of the soil and the vineyard’s history was a little short on information, despite his in-depth knowledge of every acre. There was nothing wrong with what he had written, but nothing really specific either. He would have to draw a more detailed picture, refine the contours, and play with an anecdote or two to clarify the text. He did not even lift his eyes from his notes when the doorbell rang out in the hallway. He was nervously scribbling some poetic lines about the Blaye citadel when Elisabeth knocked at the door. She knocked three more times before he told her to come in.
“Our guest has arrived, Benjamin.”
“Welcome, young man!” the winemaker said, pushing his glasses to his forehead.
An athletic and honest-looking young man with short hair honored him with a strong handshake that left Benjamin wondering if his fingers would still work.
“So you’re Virgile Lanssien,” Benjamin said, lowering his reading glasses to the tip of his nose.
He invited the young man to sit down and observed him over the top of his lenses for a minute. His dark, pensive good looks would have been almost overwhelming, were it not for the spark of mischief in his eyes. He was dressed simply in a pair of slightly washed-out jeans, a navy blue polo shirt, and white sneakers. He was smart enough not to feign a laid-back attitude when everything about him was on edge. Benjamin appreciated people who did not posture.
“I have heard a lot about the time you spent at the wine school. Professor Dedieu was unending in his praise for your work, and I have to admit that I was rather impressed by your thesis. I have a copy of it here. The title is a little complicated, Maceration Enzyme Preparation: Mechanism of Action and Reasonable Use, but your reasoning was straightforward and clear, particularly the section about blind tasting an enzymatic treatment of cabernet sauvignon must. Well done, very well done! Please do excuse me for not having been part of the jury when you defended your dissertation.”
“I won’t hide my disappointment, sir.”
“In any case, my presence would not have changed the result: You greatly deserved the honors you received. I had an emergency call that day to care for some grapevines in Fronsac, and it couldn’t wait. The flowering was tricky and required quite a bit of attention.”
“I understand, sir. Did you save them at least?”
“More or less. There were enough grapes for me to offer you a bottle,” Benjamin said, smiling.
The young man settled into the armchair and relaxed a little. He knew that these formalities foreshadowed a flow of questions that he would have to answer with candor and precision. Benjamin Cooker was a master no cheating could fool. Virgile had read everything written by this man, whose reputation stretched as far as North America and South Africa. He had also heard everything there was to know about the “flying winemaker”—all the scandal mongering and bitter words, along with the passionate commentaries and praise. Everything and its opposite were the usual lot of exceptional people, the ransom paid by those who had succeeded in imposing their singularity.
Virgile Lanssien tried to hide his apprehension and answered the sudden volley of questions that descended on him as distinctly as possible. They covered so many topics—layering, copper sulfate spraying, sulfur dioxide additions, microclimates, grand cru longevity, aging on lees, filtering and fining, gravel or limestone soils, fermentation temperatures, primary aromas, and degrees of alcohol—in such disorder, yet Virgile managed to avoid the traps with a skilled farmer’s cunning.
“Well, Virgile—I can call you Virgile, can’t I? I think that after these appetizers, we have earned the right to a meal.”
Elisabeth, wearing a checkered apron tied at her waist, welcomed them into the kitchen.
“We will eat in the kitchen, if that does not bother you, Mr. Lanssien.”
“To the contrary, ma’am. May I help with anything?”
“Why don’t you set the table. The plates are in that cupboard. The cutlery is here.”
Benjamin was surprised to see his wife accept the young man as if he were already part of the family. But Elisabeth knew her man well enough to guess that the job interview was going well.
The winemaker grabbed three stem glasses and poured the wine he had decanted that morning, before the walk with Bacchus.
“Taste this, Virgile.”
Benjamin observed his future assistant while he cut the bread and placed the even slices in a basket. The boy knew how to taste. He used his eyes, his nose, and his palate in a natural way, with the attitude of someone who knew more than he showed.
“Wine can be so good when it’s good!”
An amused smile crossed Benjamin’s lips. The young man had a talent for finding the truth beneath the surface but also a certain guilelessness. Virgile was a cultivated ingénue with enough freshness and spontaneity to compensate for the long years he had focused entirely on his studies.
“I will not be so cruel as to subject you to a blind tasting,” Benjamin said, turning the empty bottle to display the label.
“Haut-Brion 1982!” the young man said with a note of rapture. “To tell you the truth, I’ve never tasted one of these before.”
“Enjoy it then. It’s harder and harder to grab this vintage away from the small-time speculators who are complicating our lives.”
“I made something simple,” Elisabeth interrupted, putting an old cast-iron casserole on the table.
Virgile paused, unfolded his napkin, and gave the pot an apprehensive look. Large chunks of eel floated in a thick greenish sauce filled with so many herbs, it looked like a patch of weeds.
“I know, at first glance it does not look very appetizing, but it is a recipe that deserves overcoming your first impression.”
“I think I know what it is.”
“Lamprey à la Bordelaise. It’s a classic,” said Elisabeth.
“With this dish, you should always drink the wine that was used in the cooking,” Benjamin said, dishing out generous portions. “And nothing is better with lamprey than a red Graves.”
Virgile stuck his fork into a piece of eel, dipped it in the sauce, and nibbled at it.
“It is first rate, Mrs. Cooker! Excellent.”
“And now, let’s try a little of this Haut-Brion with that,” Benjamin suggested. “Just a swallow, and then tell me what you think.”
Virgile did as he was told, with a pleasure he had some trouble hiding.
“It is beautifully complex, particularly with the tannins that are very present. Rather surprising but not aggressive.”
Benjamin remained silent and savored his lamprey.
“It leaves a very smooth sensation in the mouth,” Virgile continued. “And yet it has a kind of grainy texture.”
“Very perceptive. That is typical of Haut-Brion. It is both strong and silky. And what else?”
“It’s fruity, wild fruits, with hints of berries, blackberries, and black currant fruit.”
“True enough,” Benjamin said. “You can taste cherry pits later on, don’t you think?”
“I didn’t notice, but now that you mention it.”
“Beware of what people say. Some may not find that hint of cherry pits, and they wouldn’t be wrong.”
The guest took the blow without flinching. Benjamin had no trouble pushing his interrogation further. The Pessac-Léognan grand cru loosened Virgile’s tongue, and secrets slipped out in every sentence. He recounted his childhood in Montravel, near Bergerac, where his father was a wine grower who shipped his harvest to the wine cooperative and had no ambitions for his estate.
“You’ll take over the business one day, won’t you?” Elisabeth asked.
“I don’t think so. At least not as long as my father is in charge of the property. My older brother is all they need for now to take care of the vineyards.”
“That’s too bad. Bergerac wines have come a long way and could certainly benefit from your talent,” Benjamin said.
“Perhaps one day. I rarely go back, truth be told. Mostly to see my mother, who accuses me of deserting the nest, and my younger sister, who is the only one I can confide in.”
He talked a lot, not so much because he wanted to monopolize the conversation, but rather to satisfy his hosts’ unfeigned curiosity. To earn his future boss’s trust, he felt it was appropriate to answer the Cooker couple’s unspoken questions. The winemaker needed to know what was hidden in this excellent and dedicated student. Never had he experienced a job interview that was so informal and piecemeal. He disclosed himself without ostentation, without mystery, and without immodesty. He talked about swimming in the Dordogne River and playing for the Bergerac rugby club, but only for one season, because he preferred canoeing and kayaking. He mentioned his first medals when he joined the swim team, his years studying winemaking at La Tour Blanche, near Château d’Yquem, before he did his military service, and his studio apartment on Rue Saint-Rémi, from which you could see a little bit of the Garonne.
Between two anecdotes, Benjamin went to get a second carafe of Haut-Brion and allowed himself to share some of his own personal memories. It pleased Elisabeth to see her husband finally relaxed and able to forget the tribulations of his writing for a while. Benjamin recounted the crazy, hare-brained ideas his father, Paul William—an antique dealer in London—had and his mother Eleonore’s patience. Her maiden name was Fontenac, and she had spent her entire youth here in Grangebelle, on the banks of the Gironde, before she fell in love with that extravagant Englishman who collected old books in a shop at Notting Hill.
Virgile listened. His handsome brown eyes were wide open, and he looked like a slightly frightened child as he began to fully comprehend that this was the famous Cooker, the Cooker, whose books he had devoured and who was now sharing confidences. The oenologist enjoyed telling the young graduate about his chaotic career. He had studied law for a year in England, spent a year at the Paris Fine Arts Academy, worked for a year at the Wagons-Lits in train catering and sleeping-car services, and then bartended for a year at the Caveau de la Huchette in the capital before being hired at a wine shop in the fifth arrondissement in Paris, where he worked for three years while taking wine classes.
“The year I turned thirty, I started my wine consulting business,” Benjamin said. “Elisabeth and I ended up moving here after my maternal grandfather, Eugène Fontenac, passed away. Since that day, I haven’t been able to imagine living anywhere other than Bordeaux.”
“That’s an unusual career path,” Virgile said.
“Yes, it is atypical. I had been around wine since I was a kid, when I visited my grandfather in Grangebelle during summer vacations, but I needed a little time for all that to distill. I had a lot of doubts during my Paris years, and I spent a lot of time searching. I have followed a rather roundabout path, but I do not regret any of the detours.”
“It’s intriguing, like the path a drop of Armagnac takes before it comes out of the alembic.”
“That’s a fine image,” Elisabeth said. “But sometimes it is better not to know all of the mysteries lying in the dark.”
“This is one area in which my wife and I differ. I believe you should always seek to uncover secrets.”
“I don’t really have an opinion on the subject,” Virgile said, studying the bottom of his empty glass.
Benjamin Cooker stood up and folded his napkin.
“My dear Virgile, from now on, consider yourself my assistant. We’ll discuss the conditions later. I hope that this wine cleared your mind, because I believe you will need all of your faculties. We have a particularly delicate mission awaiting us.”
“And when will I be starting?”
The winemaker took a last sip of Haut-Brion and set his glass down slowly. He slipped a hand into his jacket pocket, looked Virgile in the eye, and handed him a set of keys.