SNEAK PEEK: The Lost Vintage

Are you ready for the PERFECT summer read, Savvy Readers? We’ve got it with Ann Mah’s The Lost Vintage. Think secrets, The Nightingale, and WINE.

This page-turning novel follows a woman who returns to her family’s ancestral vineyard in Burgundry and unexpectedly uncovers a lost diary, an unknown relative, and a secret her family has been keeping since World War II.

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To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine examination. As a means of studying, she travels to Burgundy to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations.

At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousin clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, she discovers a hidden room. She begins to dig into her family’s history—a search that takes her back to the dark days of World War II and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed.

Kate must find out who, exactly, her family helped during the difficult years of the war. And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the hidden cellar’s collection?

Now that you know what the story is about, aren’t you dying to read it?! Well, good news! You can read the first chapter of The Lost Vintage right here, right now.

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THE LOST VINTAGE BY ANN MAH

Chapter One

MEURSAULT, BURGUNDY September 2015

I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, but the truth was this: I had vowed never to return to this place. Oh yes, I had dreamed of it a thousand times, the sweep of vines marching across rolling slopes, the sun a slash of white heat against the sky, the shimmering light and dappled shadows. But always my dreams twisted dark, the skies dimming with heavy clouds, rough winds stirring the leaves into a hiss of whispered secrets. Always, I woke with a start, my heart thundering a strange beat, and a lump in my throat that sips of cool water could not dissolve.

And yet, here I was, my first morning in Burgundy. From the windows of my room, the vineyards appeared exactly as I had imagined them, lush and verdant with late summer abundance. In two weeks, or maybe three, we would begin les vendanges, the annual wine harvest, and I would join the teams of pickers, gathering the crop by hand in time-honored Burgundian tradition. Until then, we watched as the fruit grew ever sweeter, the chardonnay grapes warming to chartreuse, the pinot noir deepening to dusky black—and we waited.

A knock at the door made me jump. “Kate?” called Heather. “You awake?”

“Morning!” I said, and she stepped into the room. Her smile was exactly as I remembered it from college, a merry flash of crinkled eyes and small, even teeth.

“I brought you some coffee.” She handed me a mug, and pushed back her dark curls. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Like the dead.” After traveling for almost twenty-four hours from San Francisco, I had fallen asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

“You sure you’re okay up here? I’m afraid it’s a little Spartan.” She glanced around the room, empty except for the narrow bed made up in crisp sheets, a bentwood coatrack filling in for a closet, and a battered desk by the window.

“I’m fine,” I assured her, even though she was right: Despite the bouquet of flame-colored dahlias on the mantel, the polished floorboards gleaming like honey, these empty attic rooms couldn’t shake their forlorn air, the walls peeling faded paper, the windows gaping naked. “I don’t think these rooms have changed since I was a kid.”

“Oh yeah, you came here with your mom, right? I forgot this was where you used to stay. It’s been empty for about twenty years. Ever since your grandfather died. But don’t worry—like I always tell the kids, there’s no such thing as ghosts.” She winked and I laughed. “Anyway, I’m sure we’ll find some more furniture in the cellar. I saw a bedside table down there the other day.”

“You guys have been so kind,” I said impulsively. “I can’t thank you enough for inviting me to stay.” Heather and I hadn’t seen each other for years, but when I emailed her three weeks ago to ask if I could volunteer at their wine harvest, her response had been swift: “Come as soon as you like,” she had written. “Les vendanges will be sometime in mid-September—but in the meantime, you could help us with another project.”

Now she brushed away my thanks. “Don’t be silly—you’re family! You know you’re always welcome here. And like I said, we’ve been wanting to clear out the cellar for ages. The”—she hesitated, throwing a sudden glance toward the window—“the timing is perfect.”

“This is my first vacation in years,” I admitted. Back in San Francisco, my job as a sommelier meant long hours on the restaurant floor. Any free time was devoted to studying wine, and any travel reserved for wine research. I always scheduled red-eye flights so I could race from the airport to the lunch service.

“I dreamed of eating at Courgette,” Heather said wistfully. “I still can’t believe it closed.”

“It was a huge shock to everyone. Especially after we got that third Michelin star—”

But before I could continue, the roar of an engine thundered outside and, glancing through the window, I saw an orange tractor rumble into the courtyard. My cousin, Nico, was behind the wheel. Beside him sat another figure, tall and lean, his face hidden by shadows.

Heather moved beside me. “There’re Nico and Jean-Luc. They took the tractor to the shop this morning.”

I set my mug on the windowsill so that the coffee wouldn’t spill. “You guys see Jean-Luc a lot?” “Oh yeah. He and Nico are still supertight—and supercompetitive, of course.” She laughed. “Although Jean-Luc has the edge, much to Nico’s chagrin. No wife, no kids—he’s got complete liberty to be a total workaholic.”

I crossed my arms and forced a smile. Though I couldn’t hear the men’s conversation, the timbre of Jean-Luc’s voice reached me through the glass. I hadn’t heard it in over ten years, but I knew it. As if he sensed me, Jean-Luc turned and glanced up. I froze, hoping that the shutters shielded me from his gaze. And then Nico moved toward the house and Jean-Luc turned away, bending his head to examine a clipboard. Slowly, I let out my breath.

“Bruyère!” Nico’s voice floated up the stairs. “Have you seen my rubber boots?”

“Be there in a second!” Heather called. “He still calls you Bruyère?”

“Yeah, after all these years, your dear, darling cousin still insists the name ‘Heather’ is impossible for French people to pronounce.” She rolled her eyes but still I caught a hint of indulgence.

I remembered that from college, too. “Eh-zaire? Eh-zaire?” Nico used to say, growing increasingly frustrated until, one day, he finally abandoned her real name altogether in favor of “bruyère,” the French word for the flowering shrub heather. “It’s kind of cute that he has a special nickname for you.”

“Kate, please.” She paused with one hand on the doorframe. “The entire village calls me Bruyère.” A rueful expression crossed her face, and then she slid from the room, calling over one shoulder, “I’ll be downstairs if you need anything, okay?”

I listened to her feet flying down the steps, followed by the sound of Nico speaking rapid French, the clamor of small voices, and the clatter of a million plastic toys scattering on hardwood floors. “Oh, Thibault!” Heather scolded her son, but there was laughter softening her exasperation.

I stole another glance out the window. Jean-Luc was leaning against the tractor, one arm raised to his eyes to block the sun. From the back, he looked remarkably unchanged, his frame still tall and narrow, his brown hair glinting gold in the morning light.

I hoped he hadn’t seen me.

The house had quieted by the time I had unpacked and braved a lukewarm shower in the salmon-pink bathroom. I carried my mug downstairs to the kitchen in search of more coffee. On the counter, I found a note from Heather: Dropping kids at day camp. Help yourself to coffee and toast. Scribbled arrows pointed at the French press and a loaf of bread.

I fitted a slice of bread into the toaster and leaned against the counter, waiting for it to pop up. Sunshine was flooding the rooms, filtering through crisp linen curtains onto bookshelves and wide floorboards. Still, the morning light revealed signs of age I hadn’t noticed the night before: faded wallpaper and cracked ceilings, paint flaking from some ancient water damage. I glanced at the mantel of the kitchen fireplace, where Heather had displayed a few family photographs in silver frames. She and Nico looked so young in their wedding portrait, their cheeks smooth and baby round. The stiff bodice of her strapless gown kept her secret: the bean of their daughter, Anna, nestled deep within. I’d helped her pick out that dress at a bridal shop in San Francisco, though I hadn’t seen it again until today. Could it really have been a decade? I still felt guilty about missing the wedding.

Heather and I had met at UC Berkeley—we were friends and fellow French majors who decided to sign up for the same study abroad program. When we first arrived in Paris, she could scarcely order a croissant at the boulangerie, and was so homesick she talked about leaving early. But then I introduced her to my French cousin, Nico, and— seven months and one surprise pregnancy later—their whirlwind romance had turned into something permanent. I would have been skeptical, except I’d seen the way they looked at each other when they thought no one was watching. Now they had two kids and lived at the family winery where Nico worked with his father, my uncle, Philippe.

With the pop of a spring, my toast leapt into the air. I found a knife and sat at the table, spreading butter and jam that sparkled like stained glass. Confiture de cerises was my mother’s favorite, made from a cherry tree in the domaine’s garden. Its bittersweet tang reminded me of my visits here as a child, when she would stir a spoonful into my yogurt and watch until I had finished every bite, anxious that I’d waste food and raise her father’s ire. I think we were both a little relieved when Grandpère Benoît died and those visits ended; shortly after that, she and my father divorced, and her job transferred her to Singapore. “I’ve lost patience with Europe—it’s so provincial. Asia is the future,” she always said. I couldn’t remember the last time my mother had set foot in France. As for me, aside from the year I’d studied here in college, I hadn’t been back, either.

I crunched through the toast, and then carried the crumb-strewn plate to the sink. A glance through the window showed Nico and JeanLuc walking up into the vineyards, about to disappear over the crest of a slope. With a sigh of relief, I began moving around the kitchen, wiping counters, rinsing dishes. As I scrubbed at a particularly sticky patch of jam, my thoughts drifted to the real reason I had come here. The Test.

It had been eighteen months since I’d last sat for The Test—I couldn’t help but think of it capitalized—but I still remembered the four-day exam in vivid detail. The shape of the plain glass carafes that held the wines for the blind tastings. The sound my pen made as it scratched across the paper, composing short descriptions of each wine, where it came from, and how it was produced. The taste of toasted almonds, elderflower, and flint that made up the white Burgundy that stumped me. The squirmy feeling of humiliation that engulfed me when I realized I’d misidentified one of the world’s most revered wines—the same wine my French family had been making for generations. The wine they believed ran through our blood.

Of course, I knew that passing The Test didn’t guarantee success. I personally knew scores of respected wine professionals who scoffed at the title of Master of Wine, viewing it as a silly and expensive affectation. But another part of me—the part that scoured Wine Spectator with a steel brush of envy, the part that stayed up until dawn making flash cards—that part felt like a failure without it. The qualification “MW” was like a Ph.D., or M.D.—but even more prestigious, considering there were fewer than three hundred Masters of Wine in the world. I’d spent five years preparing for The Test,, investing hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars swirling, sipping, spitting.

I’d taken it three times. The first had been a disaster, an embarrassing blur of questions that only made me realize how much I still had to learn. A year later, I passed the theoretical portion—a series of essay questions on viticulture and winemaking, on selling wine and storing it, and the best ways to drink it. But I still needed to pass the other half, the practical, a nightmarish examination of blind tasting, a forest of stemware filled with dozens of different wines that I needed to identify from only a couple of sips. The Master of Wine program proudly proclaimed itself “the hardest test of knowledge and ability in the wine world”—and it also proudly failed the majority of candidates every year. I only had one more chance to pass The Test before the starchy British Institute of Masters of Wine cut me off from ever taking it again.

“Your Achilles’ heel is always France. And not even all French wine. Just the white,” Jennifer observed a few months ago, as we went over one of my practice exams. “It’s funny because The Test covers so much more than when I took it. Not just South Africa, but Lebanon, Australia, Oregon, California . . .”

“New World wine did exist all the way back in the olden days,” I teased her. “Even in other places besides South Africa.” Jennifer was born in Cape Town and was a tireless champion of pinotage.

“But you’re brilliant on the New World. You always have been. Even when you were just starting out. No, it’s the Old World whites you need to study. You’re my exact opposite.” Jennifer looked at me over the top of her glasses. “Have you considered going to France?”

“France?”

“Don’t look so dismayed. Yes, France. You know, that country that produces, oh, just a little bit of wine? Look, Kate, as your professional mentor, it’s my job to offer unsolicited advice, so here it is: If you want to pass the bloody exam, you need to know French wine. And the bottom line is, you don’t. It’s strange. It’s almost like you have something against it.” She drilled me with a look that combined maternal concern with professional authority. Jennifer and I had met at a Spanish restaurant in Berkeley when she was the restaurant’s head sommelier and I was a college student waitressing for extra cash. She had taken me under her wing, encouraged me to further my wine education, mentored me through the Master of Wine program. Without her support, I would never have made it this far.

I flushed under her gaze. “I think I’ve made a lot of progress with the Bordeaux labels.”

“Oh, you know enough to get by.” She flapped a hand. “But I mean really know it. Not just the differences between regions, but the difference in appellations. You need to understand the terroir, to be able to taste the distinction that three miles can make. Visit vineyards. Meet producers. Drink wine. Most people would kill for your problems.” She shifted in her chair. “You still speak French, don’t you?”

I stared at the row of half-filled glasses. “I could get it back if I tried.”

“Think about it. A long vacation. Three or four months at least. You’ll need to travel and you should be there for the harvest. Witness the process firsthand.”

“Three or four months?” I only had ten vacation days a year. “I can’t get that kind of time off.”

“Why not? You did that stint in Australia.”

“That was right after college,” I protested. “I have responsibilities now. Car payments. Rent.” It’s France, I screamed silently in my head. I can’t go back. Instead, I said: “It’s too complicated.”

“Just give it some thought.”

“I will,” I said, prepared to forget all about it.

But then a few things happened.

First, I got a phone call from a headhunter. I loved my job as wine director at Courgette and usually cut headhunters off before they could begin their spiels. But this time before I could interrupt she uttered a word that made my heart leap: “Sotheby’s.”

They were putting together a list of candidates to open a wine department in the Napa Valley, she said. Master of Wine qualification was highly desired. A long process, but interviews of the short list would take place after The Test. I came highly recommended by Jennifer Russell. Was I interested?

At first I equivocated. Courgette was critically acclaimed, triple-starred, and wildly popular. On the other hand, I knew I couldn’t remain on the floor forever. I wanted to sleep when the sun went down, not the opposite. I wanted a relationship with someone who went out for dinner on Saturday night, not worked it. And lifting heavy boxes and standing on my feet for fourteen hours a day wouldn’t see me into old age. I used to joke that I was one hernia away from unemployment—until I actually got promoted when Courgette’s former wine director had to quit because of a hernia. The allure of a career change beckoned, especially one at a prestigious auction house like Sotheby’s: working with vintage wine collectors, organizing sales, a steady, well-paid, coveted job with full benefits. Yes, I told her, I am interested. No, I assured her, The Test won’t be a problem, and I crossed my fingers.

The second thing that happened shocked us all. One grizzly July afternoon, the type of chilly, grey day you find in high-summer San Francisco, Bernard “Stokie” Greystokes—bon vivant, oenophile, owner of Courgette—was arrested on charges of embezzlement. The feds took him away in handcuffs between the lunch and dinner services. A few days later, we came to work and learned the grim truth. Stokie was broke, the restaurant was bankrupt, and we were all out of jobs. After fifteen years, Courgette was shutting its blue-and-whitestriped doors, forever.

We convened at the dive bar three blocks away. Margaritas gave way to shots of tequila, and then even more tequila, drunk straight from the bottle. We clung to each other, shocked about Stokie, grieving for Courgette, panicked about our bank accounts. But later, when my throbbing head woke me in the small hours of the night, I forced myself to be practical. I had some savings, enough to cover a few months. But The Test was still almost a year away. I needed to find a new job.

“Why not take this time to completely immerse yourself in exam preparations?” Jennifer said, when she called me the next morning. “From where I’m sitting, this looks like a perfect opportunity to do some extended wine travel.”

“Except for the pesky problem of money.”

“Airbnb your apartment. Use your savings to buy a plane ticket to France. Don’t you have family with a vineyard in Meursault?” “Ye-es,” I admitted. “Ask them if you can stay for a couple of months. Tell them you want to help out in the vineyard in exchange for room and board. Trust me, I’ve never known a vigneron to turn down free labor. And,” she said, warming to the idea, “if you start planning soon enough, you could even be there for les vendanges!”

Jennifer could be opinionated and meddlesome, but in all the years that I’d known her, she’d never given me bad advice. I swallowed my pride, wrote to Heather and Nico, and, a couple of weeks later, found myself in the last place I ever thought I’d be: on a direct flight bound for Paris.


 

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What do you think Savvy Readers?! Are you ready for the full story? Let us know what you think on Twitter @SavvyReader! You can purchase the book here or pick it up at your local library!

Ashley

Follow me on Twitter @SavvyReader & @ashleyposluns

Excerpt from The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah ©2018. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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