Oh, now this is a fun idea for a story: an American wine critic — one of those make-it-or-break-it critics in the mold of Robert Parker — winds up murdered, pickled in a vat of wine, and then hung out like a scarecrow over a vineyard in France. Years later, Enzo MacLeod, a (mostly) retired Scottish forensics expert, pries open the case and starts digging around. What do you know — our man discovers that there were plenty of people with reasons for wanting supercritic Gil Petty dead. Some of those reasons are obvious: in the words of one winemaker, “There are those of us who produce the wine, and there are others who leech off of it. Those who produce nothing but fancy words, impose their tastes, and fill their pockets.” To such a man, Petty represented “a system that serves only one man’s taste. That wants to deliver something as unvaryingly predictable as cola.” But MacLeod finds other reasons as well, some of them only tangentially related to wine.
In the novel — titled simply The Critic by author Peter May — Petty had gone to Gaillac to give a comprehensive assessment of that region’s wines. Half a moment — Gaillac? Even a semi-serious Francophile might raise a quizzical eyebrow at that one.
May is sympathetic. As he told the dozen or so fans who gathered to hear him speak at Clairemont’s Mysterious Galaxy bookstore recently, “They’ve been making wine there since before the Romans arrived. They have wonderful wines — at exceptionally good prices — that people outside the area just don’t know about. They haven’t made it out of their own ghetto yet, which is a great shame.” All the more so because it wasn’t always this way. “In the Middle Ages, the wines of Gaillac were drunk by the royal households. The problem was that the vineyards were situated on the River Tarn — that’s how they transported the produce out, because the roads weren’t reliable. The problem was that the Tarn runs into the River Garonne — the Gaillac wines had to go through Bordeaux. The Bordelaise didn’t like the competition, so they put barriers across the river and charged fees to go through the locks. Basically, they strangled the competition. Phylloxera really put the tin lid on it. It’s really only in the last 30 years that there’s been a renaissance — a new generation of young winemakers,” trying to convince the world to try wines made from Braucol and Duras.
May discovered the region because it’s about two hours south of where he’s living these days, and in 2005 he and his wife paid a visit to their annual festival. It was after a day of touring that culminated in following a tiny sign to Domaine Sarrabelle — a winery that wasn’t on any of their maps — that May decided he needed to write about the place. He came back for the crush, picked grapes, and generally poked around. For his efforts, he was made a chevalier of the Ordre de la Dive Bouteille, “a brotherhood,” says May, “of Rabelaisian wine lovers which dates back into history.” (And if The Da Vinci Code taught us anything it was that, when it comes to murder mysteries, the inclusion of an exotic fraternity never hurts.)
“It was a joy to research and write,” May told his bookstore audience. “There are over 120 producers in the Gaillac region, and they produce over 1000 wines. I’m not sure if I tasted them all, but I had a damn good go at it. I love the character of Enzo, because he gives me a chance to do stuff like this. A critic recently described him as being one of the most unusual investigators in the mystery genre today — something like a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau. That made me laugh — he’s just kind of human, you know?” (“Human” here meaning that he has a chronically roving eye and a tendency to put away one too many glasses of good red wine. It does lend a certain comic drama to the proceedings. Someone really does make an attempt on his life in a vineyard, but his drunken attempt later in the book to avoid a repeat attack seems to have been nothing more than a panicked stumble away from a stray cat.)
Dedicated imbibing aside, it’s clear that May has done his homework. As MacLeod investigates Petty’s murder, he also uncovers a pretty good portrait of the current state of the wine world. Sometimes this or that aspect is revealed through this or that character’s pontification, but in other places, the detail is woven neatly into the story. Decoding Petty’s tasting notes becomes important to the case, and that leads to a focused investigation into sensory analysis. But perhaps my favorite trick is the way May manages to make terroir — that elusive yet persistent notion regarding a wine’s “sense of place” — an element in the proceedings. Petty (and a subsequent victim) are pickled in wine — wine that ends up, undigested, in their stomachs. Identify the wine, realizes MacLeod, and you’ve got a lead on where the bodies were stored prior to display. So, he sets out to profile the wine’s “multi-elemental composition”:
“Each grape,” MacLeod explains, “contains a unique and distinctive pattern of trace elements. These are absorbed by the grape through the movement of elements from rock, to soil, to grape, influenced of course by the solubility of inorganic compounds in the soil. But the point is, the multi-elemental pattern of a wine will reflect the geochemistry of its provenance soil — that is, the soil that it’s grown in. It will match it as accurately as a fingerprint.” The sense of place finds a place in forensics.
MacLeod brings the wine, along with a variety of vineyard soil samples, to the labs of California. There, his old friend Al MacConchie tells him that “Wine is science. What we consider good, we can quantify scientifically.” As MacConchie sets about analyzing the soil samples and the wine, MacLeod muses, “MacConchie was exploding it all. The myths, the mysticism, and two thousand years of tradition. His secret for success was a marriage of Silicon and Napa Valleys; his wines constructed from the building blocks of molecules. And Enzo couldn’t help but wonder if in all this science, the fundamental human component might be missing. The instinct, flair, and sophistry of which Bonneval had spoken. That element impossible to define by maths or science — the personality of the winemaker.”
May doesn’t dispute the accuracy of the scientific analysis — MacConchie’s results turn out to be right on the money. But there is surely a quiet defense of “the fundamental human component” in the fact that the accurate analysis leads to a mistaken conclusion.
(Note: Gaillac’s obscurity proved useful for May’s literary purposes, but like a good chevalier, he has done the wines of his region a service. Thanks to his efforts, shipments from Domaine Sarrabelle [and others] will be arriving in the States sometime this year.)