In 1988, Berkeley, California-based wine importer Kermit Lynch penned a memoir of a working life spent on the backroads of Europe sniffing out wines for his retail shop and encountering some pretty quirky characters along the way. His book, Adventures on the Wine Route, endowed what had been a solitary and poorly-understood profession with a halo of romance and established the wine memoir as a travel literature subgenre.
Lynch had decades of material to work with and his sparkling anecdotes make the book a minor classic. It didn’t hurt that a number of the winemakers he “discovered” eventually became celebrities familiar to all who have thumbed Wine Spectator magazine.
In offering his own remembrance of the wine route, Washington DC-based importer Roy Cloud is operating under several disadvantages. Unlike Lynch, he isn’t a household name among aficionados, hasn’t been at it nearly as long, and none of the personalities he mentions in the book have become stars or seem destined to.
TO BURGUNDY AND BACK AGAIN
A Tale of Wine, France, and Brotherhood.
By Roy Cloud.
Lyons Press, 217 pp., $16.95
Moreover, there’s a notable lack of what might be called anecdotal inventory here. Making up for this, to a degree, is some amusing dialogue (more on that later) and a couple of novelistic flourishes. A slender plot knits the necessarily episodic bits into a more satisfying wholeness than might otherwise be the case.
In 1997, Roy Cloud is working in a large, retail wine shop in the District, when his father, vacationing in France, suffers catastrophic brain injury in a bicycle accident. Cloud travels to Dijon to suppport his mother as she arranges a medivac to a U.S. hospital. Once home, Cloud is asked to help an import company build up a proprietary portfolio of French winemakers – something he has no experience in. He enlists his older, French-speaking brother Joe to help and the two set off for France, where, aside from having rented a car, they seem to have little notion of how to go about their task.
Cloud has a handful of meaningful themes to work with: (a) brothers with plenty of time to chew over subjects that have clearly been on backorder for a couple of decades; (b) Cloud’s dream of uncovering a clutch of gem-quality properties that will make his wine-trade bones; (c) a backdrop of tragedy and unfinished family business provided by their now comatose father – a complicated guy each knows differently. It’s all set in train with a good deal of elan, though one wonders whether the expectations it creates are in the power of the first time author to satisfy.
As the siblings motor uncertainly from one wine village to another in their tiny Renault, a varied cast of characters emerge (some friendly, some coolly suspicious) in whose cellars the brothers taste some strikingly good and some depressingly ordinary wine. One vigeneron makes his wine in repurposed concrete burial vaults; others work with expensive stainless steel tanks. The pair make rapid tours of the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Alsace (correctly pronounced Al’s Ass, we learn), and dip into Provence via Besancon where Joe spent his junior year abroad and picked up his serviceable French. Memorable meals go down. Hemingway makes his inevitable appearance, as does deGaulle, and even our old friend, Kermit Lynch. Painfully, they view the spot where Dad took his tumble.
The dialogue is often amusing and occasionally poignant, but there’s quite a lot of it and every bit is recounted as if it had been captured on a pocket Dictaphone and transcribed verbatim. Clearly, it’s all been constructed for the purpose. No crime, but worth a note in a prologue it seems to us.
We won’t reveal what happens to Dad, except to say that the transition from a final French cellar scene into a wrap-up chapter feels abrupt and the denouement turns out to be disappointingly sketchy. Cloud assured us in chapter one “Those twelve days turned into a journey that changed my life.”
Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to tell us how?
Originally posted on Boston.com