Every traveler has a trip in his or her life that has somehow changed them for the better or at least made their life more colorful or exciting.
In The Vineyards of Champagne, author, Juliet Blackwell, paints a picture of a region through the lens of the past and present, taking her characters away from their lives currently and into a world underground during the First World War.
For those who may not be familiar with the history of Champagne, France, it was a region caught up in the middle of many wars throughout the history of the country, but in particular, World War I had a devastating effect on the people and vineyards of the area. So much so, that the city of Reims was all but destroyed during the War, forcing its people underground into the Champagne caves for safety from the bombings. In these underground caves, entire communities were formed where people lived, worked, and survived during a time when it was almost a guaranteed death if they stayed above ground. It was here where the Rémois lived for years while the Great War raged above.
In this novel set in the present day, protagonist and wine sales rep, Rosalyn, is forced by her well-meaning boss, Hugh, to leave her comfortable home of Napa Valley for a trip to the vineyards of Champagne in order to scout out some new producers for Hugh’s small boutique portfolio. Though this may seem like a dream opportunity for many, Rosalyn is reluctant and anxious about traveling to France, the country where she spent her honeymoon, following the sudden death of her husband to disease just a couple years before the story begins. Besides, she doesn’t like drinking bubbly and much prefers her California reds.
While on the plane to Paris, Rosalyn meets a busy-body wealthy Australian woman who is also traveling to Champagne and who takes a liking to Rosalyn and requests her assistance in finding lost letters from the woman’s relative in Australia to a young French man fighting in World War I. Rosalyn is uninterested in the mission at first, but after reading some of the letters, she begins to develop an attachment to the story that is unraveling on paper in the caves of Champagne nearly a hundred years before.
While in the tiny village of Cochet, Rosalyn meets several other influential characters, including an elusive winemaker, who help her open up and release her grief, allowing her to begin to live, and potentially love, again.
Blackwell’s novel is well-written and does an excellent job of weaving together both the story from the War and the present-day conflict involving Rosalyn and her reluctance at visiting Champagne and enjoying her time there. The book is full of love, loss, and finding yourself, which is something I think we all could do if we had a few weeks to spend in Champagne. Overall, it’s an uncomplicated look at how travel, new experiences, and the friendship of strangers can sometimes be the best medicine for a grief-fueled stalled life.
For more about the region of Champagne, please read my article about traveling to the area on Winetraveler.
For more about World War I and visiting the battlefields of Verdun outside of the city of Reims, you can find that in another article I wrote for Winetraveler.com.