Deep within the labyrinth of caves that lies below the lush, rolling vineyards of the Champagne region, an underground city of women and children hums with life. Forced to take shelter from the unrelenting onslaught of German shellfire above, the bravest and most defiant women venture out to pluck sweet grapes for the harvest. But wine is not the only secret preserved in the cool, dark cellars...
In present day, Rosalyn Acosta travels to Champagne to select vintages for her Napa-based employer. Rosalyn doesn't much care for champagneor France, for that matter. Since the untimely death of her young husband, Rosalyn finds it a challenge to enjoy anything at all. But as she reads through a precious cache of WWI letters and retraces the lives lived in the limestone tunnels, Rosalyn will unravel a mystery hidden for decades...and find a way to savor her own life again.
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.83(d)|
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There's one major problem with your little plan," said Rosalyn, patting the dossier Hugh had dropped on the desk in front of her. According to the itinerary, she was booked on an AirFrance flight to Paris departing from San Francisco the day after Christmas. She was to stay a couple of nights in Paris, then pick up a rental car that had been reserved in her name and head for Champagne, less than a two-hour drive northeast.
"What problem? I booked it myself." Hugh nodded and gave her an exaggerated wink. "First class-that's the ticket. Get it? The ticket?"
"But I don't like France. Or the French. Or champagne, for that matter."
"Are you saying you dislike la Champagne, as in the region of France," asked Hugh, "or le champagne, the bubbly nectar that is celebrated the world over?"
"Both, as you very well know. Not a fan."
Hugh's only reaction to her ill humor was a broad smile. Rosalyn's boss was a bear of a man who dwarfed the cramped winery/import office located in the lovingly renovated garage of his sprawling Napa Valley vineyard home. Standing several inches taller than six feet, the ironically named Hugh Small had the well-padded physique of a man who entertained frequently and enjoyed his own excellent cooking - and wine - a tad too much. His graying brown hair was wild and scruffy, and his clothes so sloppy that, if he hadn't been so well-known in the valley, the locals might have assumed he was one of the wanderers who camped among the vines, cruising the highways of Napa and Sonoma for dregs in bottles left on picnic tables by well-to-do tourists on wine-tasting jaunts.
Ten years earlier, Hugh had fulfilled a lifelong fantasy by purchasing a vineyard in Napa. He quickly realized just how hard it was to get established in the wine-producing business, and branched out into importing and selling select vintages from France and Spain through his company, Small Fortune Wines.
Hugh's favorite joke: "How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start out with a large fortune."
Today Hugh's light blue pullover sweater sported a moth-eaten hole over his heart. Rosalyn stared at it, pondering its significance. Hugh had more than enough heart for the both of them.
"Honestly, Hugh," Rosalyn persisted, trying to keep a lid on the vague panic simmering somewhere deep within her, "I know most people would jump at the chance to go to Champagne, all expenses paid, but I really don't enjoy traveling. You're sure you need me to do this?"
He nodded. "Andy's still at the hospital with his wife and their preemie; he couldn't possibly leave now."
"Couldn't you go? I could stay here and run the office."
"I need a wine rep in France," he said. "And you're a wine rep."
"And you speak French."
"And you've got a palate. Better than mine. Besides," said Hugh as he sorted through a stack of mail, tossing several envelopes into the recycling bin, "it's downright embarrassing that you've never been to France. What self-respecting wine rep has never been to France?"
"I have been to France."
"Once. And if I'm not mistaken you went to Paris, which is no more representative of France than New York City is of the United States. And admit it: You enjoyed your time there."
Snowflakes glittering on their scarves as they stood under the lamppost at the corner of Rue des Abbesses and Rue Lepic. Tipsy on wine and after-dinner cognac. Giggling as they watched a man slip silently down the snow-covered cobblestone streets of Montmartre, their breath coming out in wispy clouds, mingling in the frigid air.
"It's our laughter," says Rosalyn, lifting her mittened hand as if to capture the mist. "Come back!"
Dash grabs her hand, warming it with both of his, kissing it. "Plenty more where that came from, Rosie. A lifetime of laughter for my beautiful bride. I promise."
Dash had lied.
"Of course I enjoyed it," Rosalyn said when she realized Hugh was still watching her, awaiting an answer. "It was my honeymoon. That was different."
"Dash went to France many times," Hugh pointed out. "He loved it there."
Rosalyn felt the usual sharp stab in her gut at the sound of her husband's name. Still, she appreciated that Hugh never hesitated to speak it aloud. It muted the pain, ever so slightly, each time someone talked about Dash as though things were normal; as if invoking his spirit, inviting his presence into this world. Most people tried to avoid any reference to him, or acted chagrined, as though they'd done something awkward and embarrassing by bringing him up.
"I like it right here," insisted Rosalyn, gazing out the window at the twisty grapevines that marched along the rolling hills, their undulating lines interrupted only by an occasional oak tree. The sight of the parallel rows was soothing, as if a Zen master had pulled a giant rake through sand. "I defy anyone to come up with a more beautiful place than Napa."
"There's nothing wrong with seeking a refuge for a while, Rosalyn," said Hugh, his voice dropping, its gentle sincerity grating on her nerves. "But it isn't a life plan. If you decide to settle in Napa, it should be just that: a decision. Not an attempt to hide from life."
Rosalyn's eyes stung; nausea surged at the base of her throat. One hand fiddled with the silver locket that hung around her neck while the other reached for the travel dossier as she pretended to study the itinerary, hoping to distract herself, to stem the tears, to quell the incipient panic.
Breathe, she reminded herself. Ten slow, deep breaths . . .
"As you can see," said Hugh, his voice regaining its cheery tone as he pointed to a few items highlighted in bold script on the agenda, "you'll be representing Small Fortune Wines in Champagne for the festival of Saint Vincent, patron saint of vintners, which is held on the twenty-second of January. Until then, you'll meet with vintners, make nice, tour the caves-"
"Like I need to see any more wine caves in my life."
"You do need to see more wine caves in your life, Rosalyn," Hugh insisted. "The champagne caves are unlike any you've seen before; there are two hundred kilometers worth of crayères under Reims alone. An entire city, underground. Do you know the French moved whole schools and businesses down into the caves during the First World War?"
"Fascinating," Rosalyn said. "But is that why you want me to go? To attend a wine festival and tour some caves? That doesn't sound terribly cost-effective to me."
"No, no, no, you're also going to sign some new, smaller producers. It's the foundation of my vision."
"Your . . . what, now?"
Hugh returned her smile. "My vision to get people to stop thinking of champagne as a luxury, get them to drink a glass with appetizers as they do in France. Americans equate champagne with the big, expensive houses, Mumm and Taittinger. I want you to find and sign a few of the small champagne houses, the ones that don't charge a fortune for their wine. Step one is reconfirming our commitment with Gaspard Blé - you'll be staying at his vineyard. I've known Blé for years, but I heard through the grapevine - get it? - that Bottle Rocket's sending someone to the festival. I wouldn't want to lose Blé to the competition."
Bottle Rocket was the Big Bad Wolf, Hugh's biggest competitor for the products of family-run French wineries.
Rosalyn nodded. Of course she would go to represent Small Fortune Wines in Champagne. She couldn't refuse Hugh anything; she owed him too much. Besides . . . maybe he was onto something. Maybe a change of pace was what she needed to pull out of the tailspin. Nothing else seemed to be working.
"So, how's Andy doing? And his wife?" Rosalyn belatedly thought to ask. "Is the baby out of the NICU yet?"
"Baby and mamma are doing just fine," said Hugh. "I brought them a gift basket yesterday, signed the card from all of us."
"That was nice of you." Rosalyn cringed inwardly. She used to be the one who bought the gifts, sent the cards, visited friends in the hospital. The Rosalyn-That-Was thought of other people, organized impromptu parties, never forgot a friend's birthday. Another unexpected indignity of grief: It had rendered her self-absorbed.
"It was no problem - any excuse to buy baby things," said Hugh. "Those little outfits are so tiny; hard to believe a human can come in a package that small, isn't it? Did you know they arrive in this world complete with teensy fingernails?"
Rosalyn smiled at the note of wonder in his voice. "I've heard that."
"Anyway, Andy's not happy that he's missing out on this trip - that's for sure."
"I'll bet. I'll give him a call and check in before I leave."
Hugh tilted his head and fixed Rosalyn with a look. "Make the most of this, Rosie. Seriously. Sometimes a trip can shake off the cobwebs, open your eyes to new possibilities."
"I just got back from Paso Robles, remember?"
"Paso has its charm, but it's not exactly the French countryside."
"And yet Paso Robles has 7-Elevens, which, contrary to their name, are open twenty-four hours. That's a true gift to humankind, if you ask me."
"Champagne's the ticket, Rosie. Dash loved it there; I have a feeling you will, too."
Reading Group Guide
THE VINEYARDS OF CHAMPAGNE by Juliet Blackwell
Questions for Discussion
1. If you could have coffee with one character from the novel, who would it be and why? What would you like to discuss with this character?
2. Would you say the dominant theme of The Vineyards of Champagne is about love or about loss?
3. In the first part of the novel, Rosalyn is searching for a “hermitage.” What does she mean by that? What are the benefits of her retreat and what are the drawbacks? Have you ever felt or experienced a similar inclination?
4. How would you characterize Rosalyn’s relationship with Dash? Why was she angry with him? Was that anger justified?
5. In what ways were the challenges Rosalyn faced unique to her personality and circumstances? In what ways were they similar to what many women face as adults?
6. Did you find Rosalyn’s story depressing, uplifting, or some combination of the two?
7. Wartime is horrific in so many ways, but—like grief—it sometimes reveals new depths of character and strips away falseness. Without romanticizing the past, can you think of any positives to living through a war?
8. Which character did you relate to the most? Why?
9. Were there any characters you didn’t like? If so, what was it that you found unappealing?
10. The working title for this novel was “The Widows of Champagne.” How has widowhood affected characters other than Rosalyn, such as Doris and Lucie and other war widows, or the “Champagne widows” Louise Pommery and Barbe-Nicole Clicquot?
11. Grief is an intensely personal experience. Does Rosalyn’s journey ring true given your own experience of loss and mourning? If not, how does it differ?
12. Why do you think Lucie and her family decided to remain in Reims after the war began? What do you think you would do if faced with a similar scenario?
13. What did you think of Blackwell’s use of language? Did the characters “sound” different from one another in your mind?
14. Since The Vineyards of Champagne is set in France, did you like that the author included French words and phrases?
15. Imagine you were in Lucie’s situation. How do you think you would have coped with the confinement and the lack of natural light and fresh air while living in the caves under the House of Pommery? How would caring for your family and handling daily needs pose new challenges? What would have sustained you?
16. What did you know about the First World War before reading this novel? About the city of Reims or the process of champagne making? What was the most interesting or surprising thing you learned from reading the book?
17. The Vineyards of Champagne deals with female friendship, specifically that of the somewhat offbeat trio of Rosalyn, Emma, and Blondine. How is each character influenced by her friendship with the other two?
18. If you were making a movie of The Vineyards of Champagne, who would you cast for each role?
19. Have you ever run into a problem in a foreign country and ended up “stranded”—for instance, in need of gas without a functioning credit card? How did you feel in that moment, and how did you find a solution? In what ways does it feel different to be stranded abroad compared with encountering difficulties in one’s own country?
20. Lucie says that her mother sees beauty in necessity, whereas Lucie sees a necessity of beauty. What do you think she means by that? Which perspective better reflects your own?
21. Have you ever visited the Champagne region and/or traveled to another part of France? Did the cultural aspects of the book feel true to life for you? Did anything feel different compared with your own travel experience? For instance, did you notice an obsession with preparing and eating dinner?
22. Emma’s great-great-aunt Doris was embittered and disappointed by life but found new purpose as a marraine de guerre. How did Doris’s connection to Emile, and then to Lucie, offer her a kind of redemption?
23. The Champagne region of France has been a theater of war for many centuries. What impact do you think such a history has on the people who live there, and on the regional psyche? How might such a legacy resonate through generations?
24. The women living under Reims brought in the harvest every fall despite the dangers, hoping their champagne would be a “Victory Vintage” that would be ready to drink after the war had ended. Why do you think they took such big risks?
25. What do you think Rosalyn decides to do at the end of the book, after finishing the harvest? Does she remain in France, return to Napa, or make a different decision entirely? What do you wish for her—and for Jérôme?
26. Have you read another book by Juliet Blackwell? If so, how did it compare to The Vineyards of Champagne? Do you see any similar themes among the books?