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Book Tue Dec 08 2015
As of these past few weeks, window panes across the city of Chicago have begun to fog up and armchairs, left largely unoccupied during our lengthy summer, have begun to beckon once more. To me, winter months mean catching up on reading: more time spent on buses and trains (I'm quite the fair-weather bike commuter), less time going out as a form of entertainment.
Luckily, I can turn to David Baker's debut novel,
Vintage, to satisfy my taste for adventure without the need to put on five additional layers of clothing. Sweepingly cinematic in scope, the story begins at a tucked-away restaurant in modern-day Chicago and whisks readers through French winemaking county, a rambling train through Alsace, musty German war archives and a Moscow prison. The objective: track down a long-lost war vintage, a wine lost to the Nazis during World War II that many had believed to be lost to history (or simply a myth).
Our hero is Bruno Tannenbaum, a washed-up but well-intentioned food critic with an appreciation for the finer things in life: music, travel, the female gender, and the art of drinking. At the story's opening, Bruno is on somewhat of a downhill spiral. After a brief flirtation with success as an author, he is now tenuously employed at the Chicago Sun-Times and sleeping on his mother's couch, estranged from his wife and fighting for his daughters' affection. Bruno is flawed but lovable, never quite reprehensible enough to make the reader turn against him.
A series of half-baked schemes to restore his reputation as a credible author lead Bruno to stumble upon a centuries-old mystery: in a wine locker in the heart of Chicago, he discovers the cork to a bottle of WWII-era wine that many had presumed to be lost, destroyed, or simply nonexistent. Unable to resist the lure of a good story, Bruno embarks on a mission to locate the winemaker and any remaining bottles. Hilarity ensues -- along with a good dash of danger, dark alleyways, romance, and (of course) gluttony.
Baker excels through his mouth watering depictions of food ("clear juice welled under the steaks, the seared surface adorned with cracked pepper and rosemary sprigs, the traces of fat clinging to the side translucent gold and buttery") and place ("he wandered to the city center and absorbed the burble of restaurant conversation, the popping of corks and clink of glasses, the sound of tires on the cobbles"), as well as crafting a host of secondary characters that bring color and depth to the story. Vintage is a quick and rewarding read, satisfying the longing for far-flung corners of European villages and noir film intrigue -- or simply your next good meal.