Drinking wine is one of life’s slow pleasures. The very process of opening a bottle—peeling back the foil, twisting the corkscrew, pouring the wine into a stemmed glass—takes time. Wine isn’t gulped; it’s sipped slowly to allow for comprehension of a complex taste.
Some books are the same. They’re best enjoyed slowly—and preferably with a glass of wine in hand. Ellen Crosby’s mystery Chardonnay Charades is such a book.
It’s the second novel in a series that follows Lucie Montgomery, the headstrong twentysomething heiress of a family winery. Located in Atoka, Virginia, a picturesque hamlet outside Middleburg, Montgomery Estate Vineyard becomes the site of a murder. Georgia Greenwood, a local political firecracker, is found dead on the side of the vineyard’s Chardonnay block.
Lucie takes it upon herself to get involved in the investigation—all the while working alongside her winemaker, running the winery’s many events, worrying about harvest, and dealing with a slew of personal problems, including a soon-to-be alcoholic sister and a new British boyfriend.
Crosby’s twisting plot is engaging, but even more so are her characters. Lucie’s best friend, Kit Eastman, has a loud personality that’s expressed in bright makeup, too-tight clothes, overindulgent eating, and insistent nosiness. You can see Kit’s lipsticked lips chomping into a piece of cheesecake as she proclaims: “The diet starts tomorrow.”
Lucie’s macho Italian winemaker, Quinn Santori, is also easy to imagine. In one scene he conjectures about the murder victim’s extracurricular activities: “ ‘You think they’re screwing?’ Quinn perked up. Sex interested him. ‘Georgia’s a knockout even if she is a bitch, but I don’t think Hugo’d bang a married woman. The guy’s a boy scout.’ ”
Lucie takes some time to get to know. Injured in a car accident, her permanently mangled foot requires her to walk with a cane—and some extra baggage: Anyone who dares refer to her disability better beware. The same goes for supposed murderers.
But beyond her hardened exterior lies a more vulnerable side that draws readers in: “On the few occasions since my accident when I have walked through the entrance to a hospital—especially Catoctin General—I get a lump in my throat as though I’m trying not to cry. When the door hisses shut behind me, my heart starts to hammer in my rib cage and my breath comes short. It is in these moments of panic laced with dread that I understand I am not done grieving for what might have been.”
A book’s setting, Crosby says, is an important character itself. On a tour of Virginia wine country, Crosby says, she was “taken” by its beauty—a fact evident in the novel’s descriptions. “The air smells clean and fresh and full of the promise of indolent summer days to come.” Bonuses are the Civil War facts and winemaking tidbits peppered through the story—perfect conversation starters should you find yourself in Virginia wine country.
In the first novel of the series, The Merlot Murders, Lucie tries to explain her love of wine to Kit: “I like the fact that wine is somehow connected to so many pleasurable things in life. It’s got romance, history, mystery . . . what more could you ask?”
A wine lover who delighted in history class and kicks back with mysteries couldn’t ask for much more.