Champagne, 1940: Inès has just married Michel, the owner of storied champagne house Maison Chauveau, when the Germans invade. As the danger mounts, Michel turns his back on his marriage to begin hiding munitions for the Résistance. Inès fears they’ll be exposed, but for Céline, half-Jewish wife of Chauveau’s chef de cave, the risk is even greater—rumors abound of Jews being shipped east to an unspeakable fate.
When Céline recklessly follows her heart in one desperate bid for happiness, and Inès makes a dangerous mistake with a Nazi collaborator, they risk the lives of those they love—and the champagne house that ties them together.
New York, 2019: Liv Kent has just lost everything when her eccentric French grandmother shows up unannounced, insisting on a trip to France. But the older woman has an ulterior motive—and a tragic, decades-old story to share. When past and present finally collide, Liv finds herself on a road to salvation that leads right to the caves of the Maison Chauveau.
The Winemaker’s Wife is set in the Champagne region of France and pays homage to the role the champagne makers played during the Second World War, however the love story at the heart of it lets it down badly.
In present day New York, Liv Kent, still hurting from her recent divorce, is astounded when her grandmother appears in her doorstep with the intent on taking Liv back to France so she can reveal the truth about her family. Intrigued, Liv goes along with Grandma Edith’s plan but is confused by her reluctance to actually tell her anything and it is obvious the past has painful memories. Before long, Liv is whisked to Reims, the traditional site of the coronation of the kings of France, where she meets Julien Kohn, her grandmother’s lawyer who appears to know at least some of the story. Liv and Julien, a widower, are thrown together by Grandma Edith and an attraction develops but it seems too forced.
While Grandma Edith dithers about telling her granddaughter the truth, the novel takes us back to the Second World War and the German occupation of Champagne where we meet Michel and Ines Chaveau who are newlyweds. The Maison Chaveau has been in Michel’s family for generations but the arrival of the Germans puts its future at risk and Michel is forced to hide as much of his stock as possible in the chalky caves below the vineyards. The caves below Reims were originally dug by the Romans to mine chalk but hundreds of years later, the winemakers in the region discovered the chilly caves were the perfect temperature for storing wine during the maturation process and begun to dig their own. The labyrinth of caves beneath the Maison Chaveau make it the perfect hiding place for weapons and the occasional refugee.
Harmel then goes on to explain how the champagne producers managed to deceive the Germans by giving them inferior products which had been mislabelled to appear as more expensive vintages. Harmel also works in the tales of real life champagne producers, such as Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé, who was the head of Moët & Chandon. Crippled by the increasing demand for wine from the Germans, de Vogüé formed a union called the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne, to represent the region’s interests. De Vogüé was also the head of the local resistance and he used his position to pass information to the allies until he was arrested in 1943.
The real life stories from the Champagne houses are fascinating so it’s disappointing we end up with an insipid love triangle instead. It’s hard to understand why Michel ever married Ines as the bloom has already faded from their recent marriage and Michel seems to find his new wife irritating. Soon Michel’s attentions turn towards Celine, the Jewish wife of his vin de chef, who is also supposed to be his best friend. None of the characters are engaging so it is hard to feel any sympathy as their story unfolds. Michel’s indifference to his wife soon leads her to seek solace in the arms of a collaborator which sparks a disastrous chain of events.
The past and present are linked with a twist that is easy to work out if you pay attention to the habits of the characters but I don’t feel Grandma Edith really got the redemption she was seeking as she took the easy way out.