Book Review: The Lost Vintage by Ann Mah

The Lost Vintage

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To become one of only a few hundred certified wine experts in the world, Kate must pass the notoriously difficult Master of Wine Examination. She’s failed twice before; her third attempt will be her last. Suddenly finding herself without a job and with the test a few months away, she travels to Burgundy, to spend the fall at the vineyard estate that has belonged to her family for generations. There she can bolster her shaky knowledge of Burgundian vintages and reconnect with her cousin Nico and his wife Heather, who now oversee the grapes’ day-to-day management. The one person Kate hopes to avoid is Jean-Luc, a neighbor vintner and her first love.
At the vineyard house, Kate is eager to help her cousins clean out the enormous basement that is filled with generations of discarded and forgotten belongings. Deep inside the cellar, behind a large armoire, she discovers a hidden room containing a cot, some Resistance pamphlets, and an enormous cache of valuable wine. Piqued by the secret space, Kate begins to dig into her family’s history—a search that takes her back to the dark days of the Second World War and introduces her to a relative she never knew existed, a great half-aunt who was teenager during the Nazi occupation.
As she learns more about her family, the line between Resistance and Collaboration blurs, driving Kate to find the answers to two crucial questions: Who, exactly, did her family aid during the difficult years of the war? And what happened to six valuable bottles of wine that seem to be missing from the cellar’s collection?

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I discovered this book while reading an article about wines and found it really intriguing. It felt even more exciting when I got the library copy immediately but after finishing this in almost a single sitting, I am not exactly sure what I feel about it.

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Our main protagonist Kate comes to Burgundy, her mother’s birthplace with an excuse that she needs to prepare for the Master of Wine test, but she mostly just wants to find a path forward in her life. I liked how she and Heather immersed themselves in finding the truth about her long lost family member Helène. While I understood that this unraveling of family history made Kate understand the importance of family legacy and protecting it for future generations, I frankly don’t understand what purpose it served for the novel as a whole. There is a second chance romance in the novel but we don’t get much of a glimpse into their love story either in the past nor is anything explored in the present, so I was completely disinterested in the whole thing. None of the other characters really made much of an impression on me, except Helène from the past and I was mostly looking forward to reading her letters rather than the remaining part of the book.

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While the author sets the plotting of the story a bit like some other awesome books I’ve read, I didn’t feel very invested here. The story is pretty fast paced and I was able to read very quickly, but there wasn’t much happening for almost the first half. The author also tries to set up the WWII storyline as a mystery, but it was almost too easy to guess what might have happened, and then it was just an excruciating wait for the characters to realize the same. I do have to commend the author for the amount of research that must have been done to understand the process of making wines, and various other aspects of the industry which I can’t still fathom. The descriptions of the vineyards, how work is done on the land during the seasons and the way these lands are an important cultural heritage of the families is told in a beautiful manner and I was definitely mesmerized by it all. The desperation faced by people during the war and the reasons for their decisions are also explained in a very neutral manner, which leaves the reader a choice to feel however we want to about both the people of the resistance and the collaborators. Despite some of these well written elements, it’s the execution of everything else that I felt faltered a bit.

There are so many plot points that just didn’t make sense or weren’t handled well. Kate (and Heather) are so scared to bring up the history of the family with her uncle but within just one scene, he is totally okay with digging into the painful past, which he has strongly opposed for years. While Heather’s initial reaction to discovering Helène’s past was visceral and very much understandable, I was very disappointed that the much more gruesome truths which were discovered later on were not given the same weight. The conclusion to Helène’s storyline also felt very unsatisfactory – it’s probably very realistic to what must have happened to similar survivors of the war, but I guess I just wanted something more for this amazing and resilient woman, who was my favorite character in this book. There are also some plot points with Louise and Walker that looked like having some mystery associated with them but were completely abandoned.

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Finally, I can say that I’m not actually disappointed with this book, mostly just indifferent. The setting of the book is gorgeous and everything written about the wines and vineyards is fascinating, but the same can’t be said about the plot, the characters or the romance. The gloom and doom of the war is also captured very realistically but it’s only a very small part of the story. This book has lots of great reviews and it might work for you if you’re looking for a lighter and atmospheric read, but if you’re interested in more emotional and heart wrenching books with similar themes, I would highly recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs.

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