On the surface, The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah has many of the elements I enjoy: a dual storyline, ancient French wine caves, family secrets, sommeliers, and Nazis. I went in expecting to love the story, but in the end, I only liked it.
In the modern-day story, Kate is studying for stage two of the prestigious Master of Wine designation. She has failed this portion twice before. Upon the advice of her mentor, Kate goes to live at her family’s Burgundy vineyard operated by her first cousin, Nico, and his wife, Heather. Heather was Kate’s best friend in college. Kate has not been back to France for ten years after she broke off her engagement with Nico’s best friend, Jean-Luc. Kate and Jean-Luc keep an uncomfortable distance between themselves after Kate returns.
While cleaning out the house’s wine cave, Kate and Heather find pictures of and a suitcase belonging to a woman they had never heard of. It turns out that Kate and Nico’s grandfather had an older half-sister named Helene. Nico’s old-fashioned father refuses to talk about why the family never mentioned Helene. By doing a little digging, Kate and Heather find out that Helene was punished as a collaborator immediately after France was liberated by the allies. Apparently, the family was very embarrassed by Helene and refused to ever talk about what they wanted to be kept a family secret. Since Heather is Jewish, this part of Nico and Kate’s family history makes her especially uncomfortable.
The good news is Helene left an accounting of the very valuable wine that was hidden in the cave. One part of the story I felt was unnecessary and even nonsensical involved Jean-Luc’s girlfriend trying to get to the hidden wine located on Nico’s property so she could somehow profit from its sale.
The second timeline of the story follows a diary written by Helene about her life during the war. She lived at the vineyard with her father, stepmother, and two young half-brothers. Her story tells of the people who were collaborators and those in the resistance. Not knowing who to trust made life even more dangerous for those in occupied France.
The descriptions of Burgundy made me long to go back. I have had the privilege of visiting wine caves in Chablis and St. Bris le Vineux. It is truly fascinating to be in a room built by the Romans around 80 AD.