About the Author
Noël Balen lives in Paris, where he shares his time between writing, making records, 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 teaching 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, Amy Richard
Le French BookCopyright © 2016 Sally Pane
All rights reserved.
"Florence, I'd envy your life in this immense château if it weren't for the ghosts. I'm sure you have one or two lurking in there," Benjamin Cooker said as he dropped a packet of artificial sweetener in his coffee.
"Benjamin, you always surprise me. I would have never guessed that France's most celebrated authority in matters of winemaking would besuperstitious."
Benjamin sipped his coffee and tried not to grimace at the bitter taste of the sweetener. Elisabeth was nagging him to lose weight again, and he had reluctantly given up sugar in his coffee to please his wife.
"Do you, of all people, really believe in ghosts?" Florence Blanchard continued.
"That would depend on what kind of ghost you're talking about. If you mean a disembodied soul, well, I do believe in the soul. It's the seat of life and intelligence itself."
Florence nodded. "That's one way of looking at it, I suppose. If I recall correctly, the Marquise de Deffand, the famous seventeenth-century hostess, was asked once of she believed in ghosts. She answered, 'No, but I'm afraid of them.'"
"I have to say that I'm more afraid of the living and our small-mindedness, which leads to so much deception and duplicity. To respond to your quote, I'll cite Pierre Corneille, who said, 'Deceit is a game of petty spirits'— those are the ghosts I fear."
Sitting in the garden with his host, Benjamin looked up and studied the small cupola atop the château's slate roof. The morning sun was blazing down on the mansion, bleaching its Charente-stone exterior.
Dating to the 1870s, Château Blanchard reminded Benjamin of the expression "castle in the sky." It was the kind of estate that landowners with aspirations once dreamed of building. Only a few, however, could afford such opulence. The exterior was ornate and fascinating, with its intricate pinnacles above the top-floor windows. But as far as Benjamin was concerned, the place was entirely too impractical to live in.
"I'm thinking we should restore the pond. You saw how overrun it is with algae and weeds," Florence said, setting her cup down and casting her eyes over the landscape.
At times Florence seemed overwhelmed by the family legacy. Château Blanchard was too large and its amenities were too few, especially in the winter, when it was impossible to heat. But she loved it in the summer, when children overtook the grounds and dinners under an old magnolia tree at the edge of the pond extended well into the evening.
"One day I'll have the grounds looking like Versailles," Florence said, turning back to Benjamin. "I remember how well my grandfather maintained it."
As the estate's winemaking consultant, Benjamin knew all about the family's history. Florence Blanchard had been born into a family of farmers who had left Algeria during the war of independence in the early 1960s and had ended up in this corner of the Gironde, not far from Château Margaux. This pied-noir family had poured all of their resources into their land in the Médoc, and the wines they produced were their pride and joy.
Florence and her brother, Jules, had lost their parents when they were young and had inherited the Blanchard estate from their grandfather. Of the two of them, Florence was the more attached to the fairy-tale château. In her youth, she had spent hours with her grandfather, whose passion for the vine was tireless and unconditional. His cru bourgeois, generated on thirty hectares in the heart of the Listrac appellation, was an elegant and velvety wine approaching the nobility of a Margauxor a Pauillac.
Under her grandfather's tutelage, Florence had developed a love for wine and the land. And as an adult, she had nurtured the vineyards, lush with merlot and cabernet sauvignon rootstock.
"Enough about my plans for the future," Florence said, leaning toward the winemaker. "I have something more pressing on my mind at the moment. Didier seems on edge these days. Should I be worried?"
Didier Morel was the cellar master for Château Blanchard. After finishing his oenological studies, Didier had interned at Château Pichon Longueville Baron and then at Lynch-Bages. Benjamin had met Didier at Lynch-Bages and was so impressed, he advised the Blanchard family to take him on. They hired him on the spot.
The young man had much in common with Benjamin's assistant, Virgile Lanssien. They both had a deeply ingrained passion for rugby, as well as the crafty intelligence of people of the earth. Each had the same diploma signed by the same director of the Institut d'oenologie, the winemaking institute of Bordeaux. These commonalities, however, did not make them allies. Benjamin knew that Virgile was a tad jealous and even reluctant to give his opinion when Florence, Didier, and he presided over the Blanchard blendings. He had concluded that the two were cut from the same cloth, consumed by the same ambitions, and blessed with the same instincts and charm that young women just couldn't resist.
Benjamin smiled. "I wouldn't be concerned. A winemaker's nerves are always on edge during malolactic fermentation. Didier's as vigilant as a lighthouse keeper in a hurricane. His watchfulness is a sign of his commitment."
Florence picked up the silver coffeepot, which was gleaming in the bright sunlight. "Another cup, Benjamin?"
"Gladly," he answered, his gaze once again drawn to the cupola on the slate roof. It seemed pretentious.
Florence followed his gaze. "What do you think of the cupola? I find it rather elegant. It was actually an observation post at one time."
"Is that so?"
"Landowners used cupolas to watch over the vines during harvest. From up there, my grandfather could see as far away as the Garonne and spot any evildoers intent on stealing his grapes. It seems that grape theft was once fairly common."
"Unlike the vines, trust has never thrived in the Médoc," said Benjamin. "The people here are capable of fighting over a single vine stalk for generations. They'd even kill over one."
Florence sipped her coffee. "Something seems to be on your mind, Benjamin."
The winemaker did not respond, mostly because he didn't think he was being overly pensive. Actually, he had arrived early so that he and Florence could have a conversation before her brother and Didier joined them for their tasting. He liked her quick wit, her candor, and her graciousness.
Finally, Benjamin decided to weigh in on the cupolas. "Florence, I don't believe this story about lookouts for the vineyards. In Bordeaux, above the Palais de la Bourse, you see the same cupolas, and as far as I know, there aren't any vineyards around there in danger of being pillaged."
"Benjamin, in the city those cupolas served another purpose altogether. They were for spotting the arrival of merchant ships, which were so vital to the city's economy. Did you know that in the port's heyday there were as many as two thousand ships trading in front of the rostral columns at the Place des Quinconces?"
"Your knowledge impresses me, Florence."
"I do enjoy putting the famous Cooker Guide author in his place when I have the chance. After all, your expertise is said to be beyond compare."
"I've never claimed to be infallible," Benjamin answered.
"I should hope not. However, I worry about anyone who believes in ghosts, has no faith in humankind's integrity, and uses artificial sweetener in his coffee."
The Blanchard heiress capped this string of reproaches with a warm smile that spoke volumes about their friendship.
Before the winemaker could respond, he spotted Jules and Didier heading their way.CHAPTER 2
Virgile Lanssien's bachelor pad on the Rue Saint Rémi was one of those small apartments without much character behind old Bordeaux's beautiful eighteenth-century facades. It had a tiny living room with a modest amount of molding, a fireplace with a cracked marble surround, a wood floor, a hallway leading to a cramped bedroom with a window, a bathroom, and a kitchen barely larger than a telephone booth.
The best feature of this home was its balcony. The landlord had described it as a "gorgeous little balcony with a view of the Place de la Bourse and the Fountain of the Three Graces." Actually, it was a merely an opening with a metal barrier in front. From it, Virgile could see a muddy strip of the Garonne River and the plump hips of the muses sculpted long ago.
No matter. Virgile was fine with it. The apartment was neither spacious nor comfortable, but it was two steps from the Allées de Tourny and a stone's throw from the laboratory on the Cours du Chapeau Rouge. Good thing, too, because he was late. He was supposed to meet Alexandrine de La Palussière — Cooker and Co.'s lab director. She wanted his help because of his ability to discern TCA, or 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, in wine at about two parts per trillion. Not all tasters could pick up cork taint in such small quantities.
Thank God — anything to get out of going to Château Blanchard. He couldn't stand Didier Morel. His boss loved to compare them, but all Virgile could see was that Didier's shoulders were just that much wider than his, his features a tad more chiseled, his legs stronger, and, worse, everything Virgile did, Didier tried to do better. It had started at wine school. Virgile would propose a project about organic farming and the effect on wine production in Bordeaux, and two weeks later Didier would hand in something on biodynamic grape husbandry in Burgundy. Even at the bar, Didier would hit on the same women. It was annoying — like being trailed by a gnat. And now that bloodsucker was hanging around the lab — where Virgile was supposed to have been fifteen minutes ago.
Virgile rummaged through the jeans and underwear strewn all over the floor for something clean to wear. Housekeeping wasn't in his wheelhouse. Sometimes he paid his next-door neighbor to tidy the apartment, but she hadn't been there in a while. She was out of town, visiting her sister in Mimizan. The place was even grubbier and more cluttered than usual, a dump where a mother cat wouldn't be able to find her kittens.
He tripped on an empty wine bottle, catching himself on the coffee table, where he knocked over a box from the Indian takeout place.
After brushing his teeth and splashing on some Gentleman by Givenchy, he headed to the kitchen to brew some coffee. Three days of dirty dishes were piled in the sink. He opened the refrigerator, and a rancid odor hit him in the face. His phone buzzed.
It was Alexandrine.
"Don't get your panties in a bunch, Alex. I'm on my way."
There was silence on the line.
"Is this Mr. Virgile Lanssien?"
"Who's this? What are you doing with Alexandrine's telephone?"
"This is the emergency room at Saint André Hospital. Ms. de La Palussière is here with us. She asked that we call you."CHAPTER 3
"Benjamin! It's good to see you. How's that beautiful wife of yours?" Jules asked.
"Elisabeth's positively giddy. My publisher is whisking us away to Hungary via Vienna."
"Lucky dog. Good thing you could come to see us before you go tasting the king of wines and thewine of kings."
"Yes, that is the reputation of the Tokay wines — ever since the Prince of Transylvania gave a bottle to King Louis XIV, and the king called it vinum regum, rex vinorum. I admit I'm looking forward to it."
"Tokay or Tokaji, Mr. Cooker?" Didier asked.
"Good point, young man. Tokay refers to wines from the Tokaj region in Hungary, although for centuries that name had been used for other wines: neighboring Slovakian wines, a pinot gris in Alsace, an Italian grape variety, and even an Australian sweet. Then in 2007, the Eastern European wine region won the right to be the only ones to use that name, no matter how you spell it. The 'i' at the end of Tokaji means "from" Tokaj, where they make more wines than just the sweet nectar we commonly refer to as Tokay. So, you are right. Tokaji it is."
Didier flashed a grin and ran his hand over a head of curls. Then he added, "How's Margaux?"
"My daughter isn't budging from New York," Benjamin said. It came out sharper than he had intended.
"So you're still keeping her away from the locals like Didier here?" Jules said with a wink.
"Going by the scratches on his forearm, I'd say that's a good thing," Benjamin said, pursing his lips. As much as he liked the boy, neither he nor Virgile were suitable matches for his beloved daughter. They were still busy playing the field.
Didier looked down, then shrugged. "Rough match last night."
Florence cleared her throat. "Why don't we start? Where's Virgile?"
"He won't be joining us," Benjamin said. "A cork-taint problem."
"Too bad," Didier said. Benjamin couldn't tell by his tone if he was disappointed or relieved.
The three men and Florence walked over the grounds to the wine cellar. Benjamin welcomed its coolness. He put on his glasses and took out his notepad.
On a pedestal table covered with an oilcloth, several bottles awaited the verdict of this jury of tasters, just as several other bottles had awaited them the previous year, when, after a gloomy spring and a hot, dry summer, the grapes had been harvested under a copper sun, yielding a perfectly balanced wine blessed by the gods.
What would this tasting bring? Benjamin was eager to find out. His conclusions would make their way into his updated Cooker Guide. The guide, five hundred pages long, had become the definitive wine bible, as well as a bestseller, to the great satisfaction of Claude Nithard, his publisher.
Florence filled the wineglasses without spilling a drop. Benjamin plunged his nose into his glass, sniffed, and scribbled in his notebook. He sipped. Silence. Just as he was about to say something, his cell phone vibrated. He frowned and pulled the phone out of his pocket. It was Virgile. "Bad news," the screen read. "Serious! Call me, ASAP."
"Please excuse me," he muttered as he put his glass down and took leave of the Blanchards. He tapped callback and put the phone to his ear.
"Yes, Virgile. More troubles at the lab?"
"No, boss, worse. You've got to come. Someone attacked Alexandrine. She's in bad shape. Her face is a mess. I'm with her in the emergency room atSaint André's."
"I'll be there as soon as I can. Who would do such a thing? To Alexandrine, of all people."
"I don't know, boss. She hasn't told me anything, and I haven't pressed her."
Benjamin ended the call. Hurrying back to the Blanchards, he asked that sample bottles be prepared for him right away.
"There's something I must tend to, and I need to leave. It's an emergency. I'm terribly sorry. I'll share my tasting notes with you later. I promise."
"Nothing serious, I hope," Florence said.
The winemaker mopped his forehead with his linen handkerchief and collected himself. He didn't want to look as frazzled as he felt.
"I'll know better when I get back to Bordeaux. Thank you. I'll be in touch."
Benjamin hurried to his Mercedes convertible and sped away. Fortunately, traffic was light. Saint André Hospital, founded in the fourteenth century, was in the center of town. The buildings, situated around a garden, had managed to retain a certain historical cachet.
Benjamin rushed into the emergency room, and a nurse pointed him to the cubby where Alexandrine was being treated. When he got there, another nurse was helping her into a wheelchair.
"Mr. Cooker," Alexandrine said. Her words were muffled, as she could barely move her swollen lips. Her face was puffy and bruised, her eyes fleeting.
"Don't speak, child. The doctors will take good care of you." The nurse wheeled her away, down the brightly lit hallway.
"Did you see that? Her nose is probably broken, and the bone above her eye looks smashed. Whoever did this had it in for her," Virgile said.
"Has she told you anything yet?"
"No. She just wanted me to tell you not to worry and to go ahead and take that trip to Budapest, as you and Mrs. Cooker had planned."
"I can't do that."
"Listen, boss, it's not every day that your publisher pays for a cruise on the Danube. 'The Blue Danube' and all."
"That, son, would be 'On the Beautiful Blue Danube' or, in the original German, 'An der schönenblauen Donau.'"
"Whatever. I know for a fact that Mrs. Cooker is packed and waiting. Go. Live it up. I'll make sure Alexandrine is okay, and I'll cover the work at the lab."
Excerpted from Tainted Tokay by Jean-Pierre Alaux, Noël Balen, Sally Pane, Amy Richard. Copyright © 2016 Sally Pane. 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a book about getting to know the “Cooker’s Guide” clan a little better. We get to know Alexandrine, of whom we’ve heard so much, but met very little. Benjamin has voiced very high opinions of her throughout the series, so putting a character to the name, so to speak, was a nice rounding out of this story world. Along the same veins, we get a deep dive into the character of Virgile. Previous works have allowed us the perspective of the bright, hard-working assistant, but now the reader learns his passions, and his habits. I came away liking him even more than I already had, and once again wishing I could step into these books and hang out with the characters. I love Elizabeth, and whenever she enters the scene, you know the story is going to amp up a notch. With her wit, her banter with Benjamin, and her zest for life, she compliments Benjamin as a team, yet also holds her own. You don’t want to cross her, but I feel that once a friend, you would have a friend for life! Finally, we get to see the sarcastic side of Benjamin! In previous works, he’s always been so careful to maintain the reputation and poise that comes with being such a renowned and requested individual throughout the region. But when faced with a stressful situation, in which he has very little control, he lets loose to do battle with his razor-sharp wit, and it never fails to entertain. I look forward to the next! I received a review copy of this work from the publisher through NetGalley
I received this copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review I love crime novels and books about food and drink. Hungary is one of my favourite European countries. I’ve been in the wine caves of Tokaj and adore Hungarian cuisine and wine. So I was really looking forward to reading this book. Perhaps I was just expecting too much. There is nothing particularly wrong with the book. It is very well translated into English idiom, and the story line is quite good, with lots of allusions to food, wine and tourist locations. But sometimes it feels like the authors are trying to cram in too many references, just to show they have done their homework. The result was a long list, lots of information, and no real feel for the environment in which the story was taking place. The whole book seemed a bit too much like Agatha Christie meets Wikipedia. The twists were not necessarily expected, but neither were they particularly plausible. The characters did not always act rationally. To misuse Oscar Wilde’s quote: “To lose one (spoiler alert) may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”. And I would hope that if you were going to a place to research a book on a very specific type of wine, then you would make prior arrangements to view the cellars and have tastings with a recognised local vintner – especially if you were a world renown wine critic. The mystery back in France with Alexandrine was much better dealt with. The characters there were much more believable and empathetic. All in all a bit of a disappointment, which was a real shame.
I really enjoyed it! The depictions of scenery in Hungary and along the Danube as well as the restaurants and vineyards is exquisite. I appreciated learning the history of the wines and the areas involved, as well. This is my first exposure to the series, and I assure you that it is far from the last! The publisher's blurb will give you hints without spoilers. As mystery novels go, I found it to be quite intriguing and the twists and interweaving are very well done. Thanks to the translator and publishers for making it possible for me to be able to read a good story written in a language not my own.
Unique mystery in the series, with three plots and a delicious pairing between French and Hungarian wines. Nice way of discovering a country with a great history and great landscapes. Tainted Tokay is unique in the series so far, as it contains three plots: two taking place in France and one in Hungary at the same time. Some readers complain about this fact. I don’t see why: the series is still with the same main characters, Benjamin and his assistant Virgile; about wine (French and Hungarian), and good food. There are also spectacular descriptions of Austria and Hungary. This triple plot made actually the book even richer and more exciting for me. And serve me Tokay anytime, I won’t complain! Plot 1: So the book opens with Benjamin coming for wine tasting to château Blanchard (in Gironde, not far from château Margaux), dating to the 1870s. He is the estate wine-making consultant. We meet Florence, her brother Jules, and the cellar master Didier. Didier has much in common with Virgile, but he sounds pushy and showoff, and Virgile can’t stand him. We quickly discover there’s some shady business going on in that château. Plot 2: At the same time, when Virgile is supposed to meet with Alexandrine, their own lab director, he receives a phone call that she was attacked and is in the hospital. Who on earth could have attacked her? Could it be connected with plot 1? With Didier, who seemed to be lurking around weeks before the attack? Plot 3: Benjamin and his wife Elisabeth have been invited on a Danube cruise (Austria-Hungary) with his publisher Claude, to celebrate the successful business around Benjamin’s wine guides. Encouraged to go despite Alexandrine’s bad shape and a major mildew crisis in French vineyards (during a heavy rain season), he decides to go. Claude is accompanied by his intriguing girlfriend Consuela. Our tourists soon hire a local guide to discover the local treasures, and soon trouble piles up… Just simple tourists trap, or more important network of international thieves? Benjamin and Elisabeth realize that tourism can be full of happy and less happy discoveries… Apart from the three plots, cleverly intertwined, there are great descriptions of fauna and flora, food, wine, palaces, hotels, cafes, even a luxury train. You also learn a lot about the history and architecture of Hungary (including baths). The Cookers going there as tourists, they are not too much in touch with the locals, so this aspect alas does not really appear in the book. But of course the passages on the famous Hungarian wines are just fabulous (there is more than just Tokay). I learned fascinating facts on the “noble rot” and the sweetness it gives to wines. Virgile has matured a lot since the first book in the series, and now his boss trusts him enough to leave him in the middle of a few crisis and let him remedy problems by himself.
Title: Tainted Tokay - Winemaker Detective Mystery 11 Author: Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noel Balen Published: 4-16-16 Publisher: Le French Book Pages: 181 Genre: Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense Sub Genre: Amateur Sleuths; International Crime & Mystery ISBN: 9781843998005 ASIN: B01CEYVM1U Reviewer: DelAnne Reviewed For: NetGalley My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars . Tainted in Tokay is fraught with misadventures and pitfalls. Even before leaving on his vacation with his wife Elisabeth, Benjamin receives a call from his assistant Virgile to inform him that Alexandrine, Benjamin's lab assistant has been attacked and is in the hospital badly injured. At her insistence he and Elisabeth head to Vienna to start their holiday. Joining them is Claude Nethard, Benjamin's publisher who has invited them on the cruise from Vienna, Austria to Budapest, Hungary where Benjamin is looking forward to tasting the renowned Tokay Wines (Tokay, also spelled Tokaji, famous, usually sweet white wine of Hungary, made from the Hungarian Furmint grape). Claude has also brought his newest love interest, Consuela who would rather shop than talk about wine. Unfortunately it does not turn out to be the romantic trip Benjamin imagines for himself and Elisabeth. Things only continue to go downhill once they arrive in Budapest when they hire a guide that seems to have questionable motives when passports and wallets begin to disappear, and of course a murder is thrown in for good measure. Back home Virgile must deal with Alexandrine and getting to the truth of her attack and having to put up with Dedlier Morel, cellar master of Chateau Blanchard and long time rival as he tries to solve a mildew crisis. A bit longer and it does take a steady pace on the first third of the book, but once it starts to pick up seam it does not stop until the very end. The first part is well worth the steady pace as you learn so much about the wine and history of the areas mentioned. I also enjoyed learning more about Virgile, Alexandrine and even Elisabeth. Elisabeth especially steps out of her wife and homemaker role. The characters are so well developed and continue to evolve with each book. The scenes as described so well you feel as if you are with the characters as the travel down the Danube and the sights and treasures of Hungary. If you have not read any of this series yet do not worry this is a stand-alone book. I do recommend reading all the previous titles as they are so great. If you are an armchair traveler as I have become in my last years. This is a series that will take you away from the here and now to the beautiful wine regions of France and many neighboring regions. My rating is 4 1/2 stars.
Although # 11 in this series, this one does well as a stand-alone. I've read a few in this particular series so I was looking forward to a fast, entertaining read ... and I wasn't disappointed. France's top wine expert Benjamin Cooker and his wife, Elizabeth have been invited to join his publisher, Claude and Claude's girlfriend on a trip to Hungary. But things start to go terrible wrong. Benjamin's assistant is attacked and badly hurt. Throw in stolen wallets, passports that keep disappearing, and murder. All this just so he can taste the Tokay wines. I love the descriptions that abound .. it's like traveling without leaving home. The foods, the wines, the beauty of the country is intoxicating. This is two steps above a cozy, but not near a hard boiled mystery. It's a fast, entertaining read. My thanks to the authors / Le French Book / NetGalley who provided a digital copy in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.