Vintner’s Daughter

Written by Kristen Harnisch
Review by Sarah Johnson

Harnisch’s satisfying first novel draws readers into two glorious locations, France’s Loire Valley and California’s Napa Valley, with an intermediary stop in New York’s Lower East Side. The timeframe is the late 19th century, and as might be guessed, the characters are involved in wine production. This industry is shown literally from the ground up: from the land best suited to different grapes and vine inspections through the harvest, pressing, storage (barrels vs. the more newfangled bottles), and sales and distribution. Her thorough presentation also delves into the winemaker’s natural enemies: not only phylloxera infestations and competitors’ cheaply priced vintages but also the temperance movement sweeping across 1890s America.

These instructive details don’t overwhelm the story, fortunately, resulting in a fast-moving romantic saga about two independent, ambitious people hoping to succeed in winemaking. In the French village of Vouvray, Sara Thibault is a vintner’s daughter who wants to be a vigneronne in her own right. After her father is killed while out seeking a buyer to give him a fair price for his wine, the Thibaults find it hard to make ends meet.

Their vineyard falls into rival hands after Sara’s older sister, Lydia, marries Bastien Lemieux, a cruel man who’s easily recognizable as the novel’s villain. After Sara takes a drastic step to save herself and her sister, they escape to America. Sara’s search for a winemaking career eventually sets her on the path to Napa – where she crosses paths with Bastien’s reputed ne’er-do-well brother, Philippe, who owns a sizeable vineyard. Although sparks fly between them, he doesn’t recognize her from Vouvray or know her role in his brother’s death.

There is some stiffness in the dialogue early on, but the pair’s complicated love story plays out realistically, and the regional landscape is beautifully described. This relaxing summer read offers an enjoyable armchair voyage to wine country.