The heirs to one of the oldest Cognac estates in France face a hostile takeover by foreign investors. Renowned wine expert Benjamin Cooker is called in to audit the books. In what he thought was a sleepy provincial town, he is stonewalled, crosses paths with his first love, and stands up to high-level state officials keen on controlling the buyout. Meanwhile, irresistible Virgile mingles with the local population until a drowning changes the stakes.
About the Author
Jean-Pierre Alaux is a magazine, radio and tele- vision journalist when he is not writing novels in southwestern France. He is a genuine wine and food lover, and won the Antonin Carême prize for his cookbook La Truffe sur le Soufflé, which he wrote with the chef Alexis Pélissou.
Noël Balen lives in Paris, where he shares his time between writing, making re- cords, and lecturing on music. He plays bass, is a music critic and has authored a number of books about musicians in addition to his novel and short-story writing.
Sally Pane studied French at State University of New York Oswego and the Sorbonne before receiving her Masters Degree in French Literature from the University of Colorado where she wrote Camus and the Americas: A Thematic Analysis of Three Works Based on His Journaux de Voyage. Her career includes more than twenty years of translating and teach- ing French and Italian at Berlitz and at Colorado University Boulder. She lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
A Winemaker Detective Mystery
By Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane
Le French BookCopyright © 2004 Librairie Arthème Fayard
All rights reserved.
With almost childlike excitement, Marie-France awaited the luminous nights when the moon carved out eerie shapes and spilled its warm light on the lush Charente landscape.
Following a cherished ritual, she would open the bedroom window wide and dreamily let her white muslin robe slip off her body and drift to the parquet floor. Then she would recline on the old sofa, which was loosely draped with Indian fabric, and for hours, sometimes the entire night, she would offer her nude body to the moonlight.
Regardless of the season, Marie-France Lavoisier was faithful to this sensuous moon-bath rite.
"It's an extraordinary way to renew yourself," she would explain to the incredulous lovers she abandoned in her bed on those nights.
She had taken up this practice years earlier, during a trip to Africa—Togo, to be precise—where a tribal chief had enchanted her with his lectures on the enormous and unknown powers of the Earth's satellite. Since then, this tenacious daughter of wine merchants from the Charente region had sworn by the sacred cycles of the moon. She was quiet and reflective during one phase, dynamic, potent, and even opportunistic the next.
Triumphantly entering her fifties, "the Lavoisier woman"—many in Cognac called her that-was still single, but so constantly pursued, she never doubted her beauty or her powers of seduction. The moon's influence, to be sure. Or at least that's what she told herself when she stood before the mirror.
She had pale blue eyes, porcelain-white teeth, delicate lips, and an alluring gaze, along with thick golden hair. When enticing a lover, she would run her long bejeweled fingers through her locks to play up this feature. Marie-France Lavoisier was convinced that she was a femme fatale and hated anyone who resisted her charms. She had one liaison after another, both one-night stands and longer affairs, with men from various social milieus. She was especially attracted to those who could benefit her cognac business, which had fallen on hard times in the vagaries of an unstable economy. Some even maintained that Marie-France Lavoisier, head of the eponymous company, had been the mistress of an important dignitary before the man became intimately familiar with the luxury of the presidential palace. At any rate, such was the gossip, undoubtedly fanned by jealous minds who resented beauty that was a touch too insolent and manipulative.
Certainly, Marie-France still had a glowing complexion, but the future of cognac in general and the family business in particular was less promising these days. The firm's problems had intensified after her father's death, when the estate was distributed, and Claude-Henri, Marie-France's older brother, had sold his shares to a group of Chinese investors. Neither Marie-France nor her younger brother—who was called "Little Pierre" even though he was in his forties—had the means to buy them back.
Claude-Henri, a good-for-nothing who was consumed by visions of grandeur, thirsty for money, and pathologically proud, had gotten it into his head to expand his wealth in Canada. Stubborn like the rest of the Lavoisier family and armed with his inheritance, he had abandoned his sister and brother one damp winter morning. Decked out like a groom, he had come downstairs as the coffee was brewing to say his parsimonious farewell. He barely uttered a word, scrutinized Marie-France in her dressing gown, and smiled before awkwardly kissing his sister and brother and promising to send news very soon.
"It's the kiss of Judas," Little Pierre had said, his eyes brimming with tears. Then he took refuge in the yard that ran all the way to the Charente River and cried his heart out for the rest of the morning.
Marie-France, on the other hand, had gone straight to her father's office, where all decisions pertaining to Lavoisier Cognacs were made. An insipid watercolor of the patriarch overlooked a morass of paperwork piled around an opaline lamp and over an old Creys inkwell. The heiress slipped her hand under the papers and searched for the letter opener. Finding the ridiculous dagger, she fondled it for a few minutes before deciding to open the day's mail: an order from an important London restaurant that had been a faithful client of Lavoisier Cognacs for two generations, a check for a paltry amount, a customs circular, two or three advertisements, a utility bill, the latest issue of Connaissance des arts—that would be for Pierre-and two letters from Hong Kong. Marie-France could guess the contents and already dreaded them. She quickly and angrily slid the blade under the fold of the envelope and pulled out the correspondence.
The letter was from a Shiyi Cheng. It politely but firmly informed her that he was now a Lavoisier Cognacs board member. He was requesting a shareholders meeting within the month to provide the "Lavoisier company with the tools necessary to place it quickly among the most distinguished in the Asian market." The final paragraph stated that the Chinese investment group had hired the firm Cooker & Co. of Bordeaux to audit the business in order to "maximize the potential of Lavoisier Cognacs in a fiercely competitive environment." Cheng ended with best wishes and a pledge of his "full attention."
The second letter was from the same barrel. It was addressed to Pierre Lavoisier, Château de Floyras, Rue des Chabannes, 16200 Jarnac.
Marie-France looked at it for some time, then grabbed the vintage lighter that her revered father had used for his big Cuban cigars. It looked like a flintlock pistol. She pulled the lighter's trigger a few times before picking up the envelope and allowing the blue flame to reduce the superficially courteous wishes of the invading party to ashes.
What a mess Claude-Henri had gotten them into! Why hadn't she slapped him when he murmured, all gussied up in his three-piece suit, "At any rate, I'm a third wheel here." Then he had left through the servants' door that opened onto a mossy stairway to the yard. His footsteps had dissolved under the crunch of gravel. The gate had groaned, and a car had taken off at full speed. Had a taxi been awaiting him? Claude-Henri had left his '57 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham in the old stables. If he returned one day, she would make him pay dearly for this betrayal. How could they be related?
Marie-France collected herself after this surge of anger. She would fight tooth and nail. In any event, she and Pierre held the majority of the shares. The vultures didn't intimidate her. A Lavoisier did not give in to epistolary demands. She had connections, after all, and knew how to use them when push came to shove.
The heiress wiped away the tears in the corners of her eyes and straightened the lapis lazuli necklace nestled against the peach-colored flesh of her throat. She ran her fingers through her hair and rushed into the rain-soaked garden.
"Pierre? Pierre? Where are you?"
Marie-France headed to the banks of the Charente. The cherry trees were in bloom, their sweet breath announcing a spring that was late in coming. But scheming gusts of wind were scattering thousands of white petals on the lawn. Her younger brother took great pride in keeping the grass more beautiful than a golf course. As Marie-France ran, the rain began to freeze. It became sleet, making the Charente waters shiver. Marie-France hadn't bothered to put on a sweater.
"Pierre? Answer me!"
There was no one on the dock. For years, this was where they had come to drown their sorrows, disappointments, and broken hearts. The pier had been used solely for that purpose ever since their grandfather and his boat had been carried off in the floods of 1966. Marie-France's father had told them that their grandpapa's decayed body was still underwater a hundred yards downstream, and a chest filled with gold coins was below deck. But the body and the boat were never found, not even during summer scorchers, when the river could be forded and children from the surrounding area would come to swim naked under the alders. Marie-France and Pierre had dreamed of recovering the treasure buried at the bottom of the river. Claude-Henri, however, never believed the story. As far as he was concerned, it was poppycock.
"Pierre? I know you're here."
Marie-France approached the boathouse. That was what they called this rotting shed used to store the fish traps, oars, reels, and rods of the last three generations. The Lavoisier family had not fished in ages, but the poles and nets were still there, tangled together and waiting for another flood to carry them off. She found her weeping brother on an old wicker bench. "Things will never be the same again," Little Pierre said. She took him by the hand the way she had on stormy nights when they were children. She nestled her head in the hollow of his shoulder. His shirt emanated the fragrance of Roger & Gallet cologne. Little Pierre was a man who wore only one scent: vetiver. She promised that she would always be by his side and that no harm could come to them, because they loved each other. She kissed him on his left cheek and sensed his pleasure. For a long while, they silently studied the needles of sleet piercing the river.
The water calmed, the wind turned east, and the storm veered toward Angeac. On the opposite bank, the acacias stopped shivering. Marie-France was snuggled beside her brother. She was united with Pierre and dreaming about the lost fortune in Grandpapa's old sunken boat.
Finally, she got up and took her disheveled brother by the hand. She led him into the wine warehouse, which smelled deliciously of eau-de-vie. This place was paradise, not unlike a holy chapel, where the family's oldest cognacs were piously stored like sacred relics. Between fits of laughter, they took in the sweet scent of prunes. It made their heads spin. Never before had the brother and sister been so united, so tenderly complicit.
In the weeks that followed, Claude-Henri was forgotten. Had he ever existed?
* * *
A mere two hours earlier, internationally respected wine expert Benjamin Cooker had kissed his wife good-bye, swung by his offices on the Allées de Tourny in Bordeaux to pick up his assistant, Virgile Lanssien, and steered his Mercedes 280 SL toward the N10 highway. His destination was Jarnac, haut lieu of cognac production since the eighteen hundreds and birthplace of former French President François Mitterand.
When they arrived at the Château Floyras gate, however, no one came out to greet them. A woman's voice on the intercom informed them that they could park in the lot behind the wine warehouse. "The château is private property, and Miss Lavoisier is not seeing anyone at this time." Benjamin had not expected an overly warm reception, but to be so summarily dismissed surprised him.
Virgile was clearly annoyed. "Boss, who do they think we are: bulls in a china shop?"
"Thank goodness they didn't set the dogs on us," Benjamin grumbled as he parked his convertible in the shade of an ash tree with large drooping limbs.
"I have the feeling, sir, that the only bows we'll be getting here will be from the trees!"
"That sums it up pretty well, my boy. I am expecting the worst. That way, I won't be disappointed."
Virgile jumped out of the car, his shirt wrinkled and his hair disheveled. The trip had been rather long, and his boss's driving was far from smooth.
"Don't forget your jacket. And fix your getup. Straighten the collar and button the shirt. A little decorum, please! You'll need to use your charm to reassure the mistress of the house."
Virgile smoothed his hair and straightened his shirt. His slipped on his jacket, even though he was already feeling too warm. The early May weather tempted him to take off a layer or two, whereas Benjamin was ever faithful to his Loden, his oxford shirts, and, on this morning, his fedora, which gave him the air of an aging dandy.
"Always very fashionable, boss," his assistant said, looking him over.
"'The boor covers himself, the rich man or the fool adorns himself, and the gentleman gets dressed.' Consider yourself counseled!"
"Those are not your words, Mr. Cooker."
"That's right. Honoré de Balzac."
"Ah, yes, the guy who became disillusioned."
"You never cease to surprise me, Virgile."
They found their way to the office, which was dominated by a tall wooden staircase that smelled of polish and ambrosia. On the walls, old advertisements extolled the merits of Lavoisier Cognacs with slogans reminiscent of Radio Paris during the Vichy regime. The yellowed posters read "Lavoisier Cognac? Like velvet on the throat!" and "There is nothing more distinguished than Lavoisier Cognac!"
"Cheesy," Virgile whispered, and Benjamin put a finger to his lips. They heard footsteps coming down the stairs. An elegant-looking man appeared in a tweed vest, bottle-green corduroy slacks, and a cashmere sweater. He was holding a golden-colored flask.
"Pierre Lavoisier. Mr. Cooker, I presume?"
Benjamin shook his hand and said, "This is my associate, Virgile Lanssien."
The man, who appeared to be in his forties, adjusted his gold-rimmed glasses and gave the winemaker's assistant a thorough look-over before moving his lips almost imperceptibly. It was difficult to tell whether he was smiling or brooding.
"Beauty is the promise of happiness, is it not?"
"That's exactly what Stendhal said," replied Benjamin, always confident of his literary knowledge.
Pierre Lavoisier began to tremble ever so slightly, and sweat beads formed on his forehead. So, Benjamin thought, he didn't know how to play this game. Arrogance was not his métier, much less pedantry.
"My sister will see you, if you will kindly wait here," was all that he said before leaving. "Have a seat, please."
"We're not really tired," Benjamin responded as he inspected a large lithograph of Jarnac in 1830.
The winemaker, a connoisseur of antiques and an occasional historian, reached for his glasses. With great interest, he examined this panoramic view of a former chateau, which had been sacrificed for a suspension bridge spanning the Charente River. On the embankments, imposing homes reflected the good fortune of their owners. Along the river's edge, only a few trees dared to tip their boughs, lest they hinder the passage of the barges. Benjamin took a few steps back to better appreciate it and then turned his attention to a family photo. He recognized Pierre, standing proudly next to a beautiful woman with blonde hair. Seated in front of them was an elderly man—presumably the patriarch. Off to one side was another man, whom Benjamin presumed was the infamous Claude-Henri.
"Strange, very strange," Benjamin mumbled.
Virgile wasn't paying much attention. He was busy staring out the window at this Pierre, who had undressed him with his eyes, like a slave trader.
"There's something suspicious about him."
"What's that, my boy?"
"I'm saying that he's strange, too."
The door opened, and Marie-France entered the room. She was wearing a pink silk suit that complemented her astonishingly radiant complexion. Her wrists and neck were unadorned, but she had several extravagant diamond, sapphire, and ruby rings on her fingers. Her handshake was firm and formal. Ms. Lavoisier knew how to hold her own.
"So, gentlemen, what can I do for you?"
Benjamin shot a glance at his assistant before tactfully and a bit solemnly explaining the assignment he had been given. He confessed that he had not met his client, Shiyi Cheng, in person.
"We have only exchanged correspondence," the winemaker said, hoping to gain a semblance of consideration from Lavoisier. Her pale eyes were making him uneasy. "I believe your shareholder simply wishes to know the status of the accounts."
"I don't have to tell you that there are certified public accountants for that, Mr. Cooker."
She lashed out his name, and Benjamin could almost hear a whip cracking. Then her eyes fell on Virgile. She stared not at his face, but at his body, from sternum to crotch. Benjamin could feel his assistant's embarrassment. Virgile crossed his legs and pulled himself straighter in his chair as she continued her indecent and perverse inspection.
Excerpted from Cognac Conspiracies by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane. Copyright © 2004 Librairie Arthème Fayard. Excerpted by permission of Le French Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What are you trying to share with your readers?
Clearly, it is our love for wine. Our love for this 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. 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, and we hope the stories will stay with readers for a long time.
How did this made-for-TV mystery series change your life?
The series’ success and its adaptation to French TV has, of course, changed our lives. Our love for wine remains intact, and our curiosity still insatiable. We now want to explore wines the world over, from Tuscany to Napa Valley to Argentina. A lifetime will not be enough to get through this entire journey.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Benjamin and Virgile are back when a Chinese company hires Benjamin to do an audit to see if the cognac business is worth it to take over. Benjamin meets a former lover and really does not like the family that owns the vineyard so Virgile takes over while Benjamin visits his former lover. This is another well written storyline and of course wonderful characters and a great translation. Bring on the next one!!!! I received this book in exchange for an honest review!!!
The wine detective is in rare form as he travels to cognac country. The story is all too short for the depth of action it provides. The main characters were unusual and very interesting. The murder is unexpected, and the villain was hard to unmask until the very end. The authors show excellent understanding of human nature and human nature is at the base of the story. The descriptions of the French Cognac area are vibrant, and the drink and its manufacturing is a vital part of the story. It has a little sex, a little intrigue, a difficult mystery, and a lot of entertaining interactions between the characters. The book is entertaining, educational, and a fun read.
This book was translated great and I really liked the French flair to the characters. The setting was great, who doesn't love a mystery in an old estate? I was waiting for the characters to be locked in the wine cellar! With a huge buyout looming over head the stakes are bigger than ever. Who will succeed? This book also has money disappearing and first loves reacquainted. Will their love survive? Will they? I really liked this book. It was short, but definitely kept me hooked! I am giving this book a 4/5. I was given a copy to review, however all opinions are my own.
Shady characters and great wine join for a new adventure in company of wine expert detective Benjamin. Reconnecting with your past may lead you to unexpected mysteries and dramas. I am back with “The Winemaker Detective series of cozy mysteries”, for its 5th book: after Bordeaux and Burgundy, we are now with another great French wine: Cognac Conspiracies. The eau-de-vie business was already existing and doing well in Jarnac at the time of Napoleon, with the family Lavoisier. But now with bad economy and fierce Chinese competition ready to buy the shares, things are not going well for Marie-France, at the head of the company, and her two brothers. The Chinese investment group has hired the Cooker firm to audit the business and see what it’s really worth. Benjamin Cooker is an internationally respected wine expert, and when he approaches the Lavoisiers with his assistant Virgile, he finds rather shady people. Things don’t seem right in the family relationships. Benjamin has enough of all this and is ready to leave the case, especially when he discovers Sheila, a former lives nearby. But Virgile is persistant and wants to clarify what’s really going on, as one more tragedy touches that family. I enjoyed the plot, or rater the plots, and how they end up interconnecting. Characters are also evolving along the series: Benjamin still loves quoting the classics, but he is maybe closer to burn out and lets his guard down, which he would not have done earlier on. Whereas Virgile is maturing in his job and attention to details. And of course, like in the other books of the series, what’s really neat is the description of the region and information on the wine. The passages about the cognac, its making and its multiple aromas and scents was really fabulous! Too bad the ebook does not come with a sample! The financial background is also key and so relevant, as many French wines, especially in the Bordeaux region, are indeed bought up by Chinese companies.
Returning again to yet another story with famous wine expert Benjamin Cooker, this time to aid in battling a hostile takeover of a famed French Cognac estate by foreign investors. I’ve read several of these mysteries and am always impressed by both the wine-related information and the solidly described French countryside, history and traditions that surround the wine business. Most of the charm in this series, for me, is in the food, wine and descriptions of place and traditions: the mysteries aren’t all that complex, but do move the story forward and give readers something to solve. Perfectly well-suited for a quiet retreat into France and its environs, and who wouldn’t love to escape to France for a few hours? In this book, the winemakers of France are experiencing effects from the worldwide economic slowdown; and the region of Armagnac which hosts several Cognac producers is hard hit. The Lavoisier Vineyard is a family established producer, the three siblings who inherited the vineyard each received an equal share, and are at odds about the vineyards future. With one sibling selling his share to a consortium, the two remaining siblings Marie-France and Pierre are struggling to maintain control. Cooker is hired to look at the books by the Chinese, and while he’s investigating, Pierre turns up dead. From here, the tension for Marie-France increases as her brother’s death will leave her as the minority partner in the Vineyard, and possibly in danger as well. Neatly inserting past connections and new flirtations, subtle nods to family drama, and all wrapped up neatly with a solution that is logical and feels possible. The food and wine descriptions, and Cooker’s knowledge of both are beautifully integrated within the story. These are lovely little afternoon treks through France, giving readers plenty of information, imagery and entertainment. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
This is the first book in this series that I have read and I did enjoy it. I was able to read this without reading the previous books but now I want to go back and read the rest of them. One of the things I enjoyed reading in this book is the history of Cognac and the making of it. I thought the characters were interesting and like getting to know them. The story kept me going and I was not able to solve the mystery until the end which for me makes a good mystery. The author also did a good job of describing the setting so you felt as if you are a part of the story. I wish I could see the tv series that the book is from as I think it would be a nice show to watch. If you are a fan of mysteries or books set in France then I recommend this book to you.
The descriptions of Cognac, the making of this fine liquor piqued my interest. The lush environs of Samson’s Mill even the details of the Lavoisier property captured my attention. I found the ending well done, wasn’t sure of the culprit given the scandalous references and harbored secrets of the various characters. I am a fan of this series, although I did find this particular installment veering off the road. I understand the authors need to not adhere to a formulaic style, however this narrative might have taken edgy too far. I wasn’t a fan of the implied incestuous relationship between brothers and sister. The sexuality throughout the narrative dominated the mystery aspect serving as a distraction becoming tiresome. Cooker’s behavior was shocking. His conduct when reunited with his former love seemed so unlike his usual refined persona. He becomes hyper focused on sex and bawdy thoughts commandeer his mind. His mercurial and impatient behavior is brazen sans a diet as the excuse. Cooker just isn’t his usual gentlemanly, well mannered behaved self. Looking forward to the next in this series with more mystery and less or no sexuality in the narrative with the charming Cooker acting more like the beloved Cooker I adore.