A wine expert in training visits her family’s vineyard in Burgundy only to discover a cellar full of secrets.
Kate Elliott, a San Francisco sommelier and daughter of a French expatriate, is preparing for a notoriously difficult wine-tasting exam. If she passes (most don’t), she will be one of a tiny cadre of certified Masters of Wine worldwide. She has repeatedly flunked the test; her weakness is French whites, so some serious cramming at Domaine Charpin, her ancestral vineyard, is in order. There, Kate rejoins Heather, her best friend from college, who married her cousin Nico, the Domaine’s current vintner. Kate herself almost wed a vigneron, Nico’s neighbor Jean-Luc, but feared being trapped in domesticity. Decluttering the family caves, Kate and Heather discover the World War II–era effects of one Hélène Charpin—her great half-aunt, Kate learns. Why, then, do the Charpins, particularly dour Uncle Philippe, seem determined to excise Hélène from family memory? Interspersed with Kate’s first-person narration are excerpts from Hélène’s wartime diary, which her descendants have yet to find. A budding chemist whose university plans were dashed by the German invasion of France, Hélène and her best friend, Rose, who is Jewish, are recruited by the Resistance. Hélène’s father, Edouard, is also a Résistant, unbeknownst to her stepmother, who embraces the new status quo. In the present, the little Kate is able to glean from the historical archives reveals that Hélène was punished as a collaborator, one of the women whose heads were shaved, post-Occupation, as a badge of shame. An extensive subplot, concerning a hidden wine cache and another sommelier’s duplicity, adds little, whereas the central question—what is up with the Charpins?—is sadly underdeveloped. The apparent estrangement not only between the Charpins and Philippe’s sister Céline, Kate’s mother, but between mother and daughter remains unexplored. Wine buffs will enjoy the detailed descriptions of viticulture and the sommelier’s art. Mah deserves credit at least for raising a still-taboo subject—the barbaric and unjust treatment of accused female collaborators after the Allied liberation of France.
An unusual but imperfectly realized blend of trivia and tragedy.