This book is light fictional holiday reading for those with a bent for wine or a mild interest in a detective ramble around some stolen Bordeaux.
American Mayle lives in Provence, and has done so for well over two decades. He manages to put some good regional food, colour and spirit into the French sector of the book centred around Marseille. That gives the book a great backdrop for the curious traveller who has not been to this part of the Mediterranean coast. Mayle’s subtle, soft sell writing style blends quite successfully with the single storyline.
The plot is thus: a wealthy Hollywood actors’ agent (Danny Roth) has been assisted to establish a wine cellar centred around back vintages of Bordeaux, but also some good Californians of course.
In typical fashion this fellow is languishing in the public profile area so he seeks some media coverage for his cellar: and manages to trumpet to the world that he has USD 3 million invested in this First Growth Bordeaux collection.
According to the book this is: 76 bottles-1953 Lafite Rothschild (AUD 2130), 98 bottles-1961 Latour (AUD 4788), 140 bottles-1983 Margaux (AUD 728), 110 bottles-1982 Figeac (AUD 347), 48 bottles ans 5 magnums 1970 Petrus (AUD 2690 and 6619) and 1975 D’Yquem ( AUD 984)-some of the grand regions of Pauillac, Margaux, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol and Sauternes.
That causes the Bordeaux specifically to be stolen and when the LAPD declines an official investigation from lack of evidence (and some thoughts of an inside job), any resolution of who might be the thief is left with Roth’s insurance company.
The insurer seeks a private investigator, a typical shady American fellow who has acted on both sides of the law, and a lawyer by trade, Sam Levitt. Sam is wine literate, well connected in Europe and is charged with locating and by implication, possibly retrieving the stolen goods.
The trail goes via Paris where Sam enjoys some largesse in the magic city, which all good visitors ought to do, before making contact with a Bordeaux-based wine loss adjuster, a well-cast professional Sophie Costes.
She sounds like a honey, chic, not haughty and thoroughly well connected so that Sam can easily visit the six Chateaux owners whose wines appear of the stolen goods list.
There is often the connotation that Bordeaux chateaux are difficult to visit, that the owners or chefs des caves are not easy to meet, and that the protocol is quite pompous in order to secure a meeting or visit. There is further commercial aloofness there with Roth’s wines being from back vintages not purchasable from Chateaux but only by private sale or on the secondary market which is usually public auction.
In fact a visit is made to each Chateau twice,, first out of general awe about these places and the second time to ask specifically about the vintages stolen. Levitt is successful in picking up the scent which is laid after it becomes known that another party, Marseille-based had been chasing supply of the same wines.
I commend Mayle’s writing as beautiful example of a lifestyle in southern France where he makes sure you experience the regional gastronomy and signature dishes as you read along.
However I have a slight difficulty with the book naming which is a trifle dismissive if it were to underwrite the serious business of wine-which is Bordeaux in a very big way. A caper however is an enterprise involving theft, or likely to be a frivolous escapade-all of which this book is!
Mayle draws on the advice of the Bordealis proprietor Anthony Barton, owner of Chateau Leoville Barton in Margaux. The wine vintages selected for Sam Roth just happen to be the most celebrated for sales by the Bordeaux trade but they were chosen from 53, 59, 61,62, 66, 70, 75, 76, 79 or 82 during that time span.
I have priced Roth’s cellar in today’s values; www.winesearcher.com ; all are available for purchase either in the UK, France or USA, and ex-retail would cost AUD 934, 473 while Roth asks his insurance company for 3 million (accounting for the value rise!)
The Vintage Caper; 2009, Quercus Books London, www.petermayle.com can be found for USD 16 online.
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