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The Winemaker by Noah Gordon

Published in Spanish in 2007; digitally published in translation by Barcelona eBooks on June 5, 2012 (distributed by Open Road Media); print edition scheduled for publication in September 2012

The intersection of wine and literature is a fine place to rest. The Winemaker will appeal to those who like a good story and to those who appreciate a good glass of wine. Those who love both wine and literature might place The Winemaker on their annual list of favorite reads. It will certainly be on mine.

After four years working in the vineyard and barrel room of a vintner in Languedoc, Josep Alvarez has developed an appreciation of fine wine that he could never have imagined growing up on his father's farm in Catalonia, where grapes are grown to produce vinegar and wine that tastes like horse piss. When he learns that his father has died, Josep decides to return home, hoping that he is not being pursued by the Spanish authorities. Initially, we know only that Josep joined the Carlist militia in 1870 and that he later left Spain, but we don't know why. Returning to his village, he discovers that his brother, Donat, is living in Barcelona and wants to sell the farm. Josep buys it and settles in, content to own "a slice of Spain," to use the knowledge he acquired in France to revitalize the neglected vineyard. Climbing a hill on the property and discovering hundred year old Garnacha vines, he begins to wonder whether it might be possible to produce grapes suitable for something more palatable than vinegar.

Part two tells how Josep became a soldier for lack of other options. In part three, having discovered that his duties as a soldier were other than what he expected, Josep struggles to make his way into the world. Part four returns to the present (1874) as Josep pursues his new life as a winemaker. Part five (beginning in 1876) completes a journey of self-discovery as Josep learns to embrace the pleasures of a simple life while resisting his neighbors' urges to be satisfied with its limitations.

While there is satisfying drama in the growing of grapes, Noah Gordon finds things for Josep to do that heighten the story's tension, from chasing a wild boar to the odd but dangerous sport of castell-building. Josep owes a debt to his brother that creates family discord. Even the mysterious relationship between Josep's neighboring farmer and the village priest adds dramatic interest to the story. When Josep's brief militia experience comes back to threaten him toward the novel's end, the story gains a layer of political intrigue without devolving into a cheap thriller. It also becomes a tale of turmoil as Josep realizes that he was manipulated by a friend.

The Winemaker is a novel of relationships and personal growth rather than action and suspense. Gordon also wedges in a love story, as Josep pursues romance (and/or sex) in a village where options are severely limited. As the story unfolds, the reader wonders about Josep's feelings for Teresa Gallego, the girl he left behind when he entered the militia, whose life he fears was ruined by his failure to return to her.

Gordon captures the place and time in his vibrant descriptions of mills and barrel makers and horse-drawn carts. He convincingly recreates sleepy, gossipy village life. The Winemaker treats readers to a brief history of Spanish land reform and civil strife during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Of greater significance to wine lovers, the novel provides a unique glimpse of winemaking on a small nineteenth century Spanish farm. Gordon writes lovingly of the hardships of winemakers who are at the mercy of weather, pests, rotting vats and fickle soils. The description of the final stages of wine production -- the experimentation required to produce the perfect blend of varietals -- is fascinating. Wine lovers will certainly admire this novel, but I think most fans of character-driven fiction will enjoy it as well.


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