I have read Peter Mayle’s travel writing, but I haven’t read one of his novels till now. This was fun in ways that I should have expected.
The Vintage Caper
Peter Mayle’s The Vintage Caper (240 pages, Vintage, $14.95) is a celebration of Southern France. Mayle is a well-known and well-respected travel writer, and he uses his considerable expertise on all things Provençal to give character to his otherwise overly simple mystery.
Mayle tells the story of an odious Hollywood entertainment lawyer—he gets off a few zingers about Hollywood and entertainment law in the process—who has a multi-million dollar wine collection, the most valuable bottles of which come, of course, from Bordeaux. When his self-importance leads him to publicize his own collection in an LA Times interview, he finds himself a bit over-exposed; and it is not too long after this that the three million-dollar-centerpiece of his collection—his impressive list of French wines—is stolen and taken out of the country while he is on a skiing holiday.
When he asked for reimbursement from his insurance company, the wily Sam Levitt, himself a former habitué of the shadows of illegality, is called on board to help them recover the wine. This is far preferable to them than paying out $3,000,000 in insurance money.
After Sam’s attempts to trace the theft in the States leads nowhere, Sam persuades the insurance company to send him to France. He posits that the best place to start looking is in Bordeaux itself. This is where the novel really begins. Sam is put in touch with Sophie Costes, a native of the region, who is happy to chat with him over rich dinners and expensive wines. Their search for the missing bottles leads them to Marseilles, and it is there that Mayle pulls out all the stops of his rich descriptive powers.
Not only do we get all the beauties of Marseilles and the surrounding countryside, but Mayle treats us to details of exquisite dinners, and he describes every wine they drink and some they only talk about. At one point, Mayle actually gives us a recipe for cooking sea bass with fennel and armignac.
With almost embarrassing ease, Sam finds the bottles; and with equal ease, he spirits them away again. The plot hardly seems the point, though; for every time Sam handles the bottles, he describes the wine. Mayle seems to be setting himself up as a narrative Robert Parker, the wine writer who has done a lot to offer us a vocabulary of wine description.
Mayle writes with a light touch. There is a simmering relationship between Sam and his LA girfreiend, a fiery Latina, and there are little charges of frisson with his French accomplice; but for the most part, this book is about the landscape of Provence and the food that is eaten and the wine that is drunk there. So who’s complaining?
Get a copy of Mayle's The Vintage Caper at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.