- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 12, 2004

A GOOD YEAR

By Peter Mayle

Knopf, $24, 287 pages

REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS

Before he wrote “A Year in Provence” and its sequels, Peter Mayle once penned advertising copy for a firm of London wine merchants. In his latest novel, “A Good Year,” he puts this experience to good use, poking fun at pretentious wine connoisseurs and the bizarre vocabulary they have devised to enhance the cachet of fermented grape juice.

Here we are in Bordeaux (why Bordeaux instead of Provence? — because the change of scene is an essential part of the plot) at an invitation-only wine tasting for Asian businessmen.

As they sip wines going for $3,000 a bottle wholesale, the tasters fling themselves into “evocations of leather and chocolate, pencil shavings and raspberries, of complexity and depth, of backbone and muscularity and hawthorn blossom — almost anything, in fact, except grapes …”

This is the world of “boutique” or “haute couture” or “garage” wines, the high end of the wine business, producing what budding connoisseur Charlie Willis describes as “the emperor’s new clothes in a bottle.”

A London tasting for Charlie and his pals encourages even more outlandish comparisons as they drain the bottles: “truffles, hyacinths, hay, wet leather, damp tweed, weasel, hare’s belly, old carpet …”

But let’s begin at the beginning. Charlie’s best friend Max Skinner is altogether too nice a chap to succeed in the cutthroat London financial world. When his nasty supervisor steals his most promising client, Max quits his job in protest, even though he’s broke.

Since Max exists only in a Peter Mayle novel, we know this triste state of affairs won’t last long: The Mayle magic carpet will transport him from London’s chill drizzle to sunny Provence. Sure enough, the same day’s post brings a letter from France with news that Max’s recently deceased Uncle Henry has left him an 18th-century chateau near Avignon, along with 20 hectares of vines.

Charlie, an unbelievably generous soul, fairly reeking with bonhomie, lends Max 10,000 pounds to keep him going for a month or two until he sorts out his new career as a vineyard owner.

On arrival in France, Max finds problems in his Provencal paradise. The chateau turns out to be a bastide (a sort of up-market farmhouse) in a sad state of repair. There are six bedrooms but only one bathroom, with a handheld shower that barely functions.

Worst of all, the wine from Uncle Henry’s vineyard has hit an undrinkable low. “Pipi de chat,” sniffs a waiter at a nearby restaurant, when Max asks him if it is any good.

Even the winemaker (who blames the bad wine on Uncle Henry for not putting enough money into the winery) admits that the most recent vintage tastes like old socks. So why does he later offer to buy the vineyard for himself?

The plot thickens with the arrival of blond and beautiful Christie, a self-described “wine brat” from California, who knows a lot more about grape-growing than Max does and who, as Uncle Henry’s illegitimate daughter, just might have a stronger claim on the estate. French inheritance laws that go back to Napoleon tend to favor children over husbands, wives and any other relatives in property disputes, and Max fears the worst.

Together he and Christie consult a lawyer who advises them both to “maintain a presence” in the house because, as the notaire explains, absence could be interpreted as giving up legal rights. Reluctantly they agree to live in separate but equal quarters under the same roof.

All the ingredients for a lively, suspenseful and witty tale of skullduggery amid the vines and a legacy gone wrong are set in place. But something seems to be missing from the recipe, for the final result is a light-as-air souffle rather than a satisfying daube provencale.

Although he perfectly captures the verbal posturing of wine enthusiasts and the persuasive patter of dubious salespeople promoting wines for investment rather than enjoyment, Mr. Mayle does not fully exploit the dark side of the wine business, which is quite as cutthroat as that of high finance.

(Consider the case of California’s Robert Mondavi, who played for high stakes in attempting to establish a boutique winery in the neighboring Languedoc region of France — and lost.)

Despite the millions of dollars involved in Mr. Mayle’s fictional wine scam, no one gets hurt. Of the villains, one recants early on and turns into a pussycat. Two others make off with vast sums of money rather than getting their just desserts.

Instead of suspense and a corpse or two, we get romance: Max finds his true love, as does Charlie, and readers may infer that these nice people all live happily ever after.

We also get a laughably stereotypical view of French attitudes towards sex, a view that says more about the British nudge-and-wink perspective on the subject than about reality.

American readers will have little difficulty translating the few French phrases Mr. Mayle tosses in, but they may have a problem with exotic Anglicanisms like moggy (cat), knees-up (party or, in France, fete), git (a foolish or worthless person), and crumpet (somewhat more crude than “a pretty girl”).

This is Mr. Mayle’s fifth novel, and the first of his that I’ve read. Earlier I enjoyed his nonfiction memoirs/travelogues “A Year in Provence” and “Encore Provence” (or was it “Toujours Provence”?), while allowing for a certain exaggeration of the charms of a region which to me seems overpriced, overhyped — and now, thanks to Mr. Mayle, overrun with tourists hoping to bump into him and be invited back to his place for a drink.

Still, for armchair travelers who can’t get enough of all things Provencal, this is the perfect summer read. Glass of chilled wine in hand, they may quite possibly enjoy Mr. Mayle’s rose-colored version of Provence more than the real thing.

After eight books set in the region, the fantasy may be wearing a little thin, but at $24, “A Good Year” costs a lot less than a trip to the South of France.

Writer Lorna Williams lives in Washington and the South of France.

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