A Conversation with Ann Mah, author of The Lost Vintage
You were inspired to write The Lost Vintage after volunteering for the wine harvest in France, which you documented in a travel piece for the New York Times. When did you know you wanted to write this novel?
I first visited Burgundy in 2010 to research an article on Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vineyards in France. The minute I set foot in the region, I was captivated by the vine-covered slopes and charming villages. And if I sensed ghosts there, hovering amid the beauty, they only added to my fascination. I think the seed for this novel was planted then. A few years later, I volunteered to pick grapes at the harvest in Champagne. Harvest volunteers are often given free room and board, and I was put up in an empty attic apartment at the vineyard house. The rooms hadn’t been touched since the 1960s: they were sparsely decorated with mid-century hospital furniture; the floors creaked; the wallpaper was peeling; and at night the rural silence was deafening – and bone-chilling. Even though I was exhausted from long days of physical labor, whenever I lay down to sleep, my imagination would cartwheel. And so, I slept with the lights on, and when I woke, I wrote in my journal. This story was born from those wild scribblings.
Kate, the protagonist in The Lost Vintage, is a wine expert and is studying for the prestigious Master of Wine exam. What is your own history with wine? Do you consider yourself an expert?
It was important to me to be able to write accurately about the wine world, so as part of the research for this book, I took classes through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust, which is the same organization that administers the Master of Wine program. I learned just enough to know I’m definitely not an expert! As part of the class we did blind tastings, in which we smelled and tasted different wines and identified flavors from the wine aroma wheel. People would call out things like “dill,” “petrol,” or “green peppers,” and everyone would argue until the teacher came down with the final verdict. My fellow classmates were really competitive. I used to joke that it was like a blood sport.
As a food and travel writer, of course, you’re always weaving narrative into evocative sensory descriptions of what you’re tasting or seeing, and that skill is apparent in The Lost Vintage, as well. How did you find writing about food and wine different in fiction, if at all?
When I’m writing an article, I’m trying to accurately relate an experience. But for fiction, I can’t imagine two better metaphors than food and wine – they speak to our deepest desires (or disgusts), our most visceral memories. You can communicate so much through a character’s favorite foods. As well, the dinner table remains my absolute favorite setting to write a scene of family conflict – everyone is tidily in one place, but each person has their own motivations and distractions.
Much of your book deals with history, in particular that of World War II in Europe, and how people reconcile their family legacy with their own values. What prompted you to challenge your characters in this way?
As I mentioned, I was captivated by the beauty of Burgundy – but I felt something ominous there, too. I didn’t really understand it until I started researching World War II and learned more about the “épuration sauvage,” the spontaneous “wild purge” that punished thousands of women throughout France in the days and weeks following the Liberation. Accused of “horizontal collaboration,” or sleeping with the enemy, these women were targeted by vigilante justice and publicly humiliated. Their heads were shaved, they were stripped, paraded through town, smeared with tar, stoned, kicked, beaten, and sometimes killed. Yes, some of them had slept with Germans. Some of them were prostitutes. But some had been raped. Some were women who merely worked for German soldiers, as was the case with one cleaning lady. Some were framed and falsely accused out of jealousy. Many were mothers desperate to feed their starving children. In almost every case, their punishment was far worse than their male counterparts. These women – over 20,000 of them! – were the most vulnerable members of society, and they became scapegoats for a humiliated nation. I felt it was important for their story to finally be told.
The Lost Vintage shows that though there were many French résistants acting during the war, there were also many French people who essentially supported the Nazis through complicity, often for survival’s sake. As Rose says at one point, “It’s much safer to do nothing.” Do you think these actions are wartime phenomena, or are there ways in which we can show courage or remain complicit in a similar way in day to day life?
I think World War II is ultimately a morality tale and so many years after it, we’d all like to believe we’d have fought for the right side. Of course, the reality is always more complicated – and wartime complicates things even further. I think a lot of regret and shame about the war still lingers in France. If I learned anything while researching this book, it’s that small actions can have unforeseen and lingering consequences.
About THE LOST VINTAGE
Kate has spent years building her career as a sommelier in San Francisco, despite a weakness for identifying Burgundian vintages. While she’s carefully managed to avoid them thus far, she can no longer do so as she faces her final attempt at passing the notoriously difficult Master of Wine Examination. With the test only a few months away, she travels to her family’s vineyard in Burgundy—a place she has purposefully avoided for nearly a decade—to help with les vendanges, the annual grape harvest. While there, she does everything she can to bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian wine, while also ignoring both the bittersweet memories of her childhood and Jean-Luc, her first love.
While Kate helps her cousin, Nico, and his wife clear the enormous basement of the vineyard house, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, dozens of Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. As Kate digs into her family’s history, her search takes her back to the dark days of WWII and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed: a great–half aunt who was a teenager during the Nazi occupation. As she learns more about her family, the line between resistance and collaboration blurs, driving Kate to question who, exactly, her family aided during the difficult years of the war and the fate of six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection.
Ann Mah is a food and travel writer based in Paris and Washington, DC. She is the author of the food memoir Mastering the Art of French Eating and Kitchen Chinese, a novel. She regularly contributes to the New York Times’ Travel section, and has written for Condé Nast Traveler, Vogue.com, BonAppetit.com, Food52, and others.
You can learn more at www.annmah.net.