Desert Isle Keeper Review

Sweeter Than Wine

Michaela August
2004 reissue of 1999 release, American Historical Romance (1910s Post World War I California)
Awe-Struck, $15.95, 350 pages, Amazon ASIN 1587494620

Grade: A-
Sensuality: Warm

Originally published by Neighborhood Press

"Oh, no," I thought, when I got a copy of the uncorrected proofs for Sweeter than Wine. "Here's a book that wasn't good enough to be accepted by one of the mainstream publishers, and I have to slog through it." I have rarely been more delighted to revise my initial impression. This is a marvelous story of life and love in the wine country of California.

Siegfreid Rodernwiller comes home at the conclusion of World War I to find everything irrevocably changed: his family dead, the vineyard and house they owned forfeited to the bank, even his town, formerly part of Germany, ceded to France in the war's aftermath. The only place he can go is to California, where his American grandmother, Tati, promises him a job as winemaker at the estate currently run by his cousin Bill's widow Alice.

Alice readily admits she knows very little about making wines; her brother-in-law is pressuring her to sell Montclair, but she considers it Bill's legacy to her. She'll also do anything to avoid having to return to San Francisco, where the only thing waiting for her is a past she'd rather forget. She'll do anything to hang on to the vineyard, even if it means agreeing to go along with her grandmother-in-law's outrageous suggestion that she and Siegfried marry - for the sake of Montclair, of course.

The problems that confront this couple are enormous: Prohibition is just around the corner, the estate has practically been run into the ground through Alice's misguided and ill-informed management, and Siegfried is confronted by anti-German prejudice. The fact that he's a dead ringer for Alice's husband makes her reaction to him no easier; but as they come to know each other, she learns that Siegfried is nothing like Bill, and she gives up fighting against her growing attraction to him.

There's so much more, but I really don't want to give any more of the plot away. Everything I look for in a keeper is here: well-drawn characters who act in a believable fashion, a beautifully evoked sense of time and place, smooth writing, humor that adds to the story but never overwhelms it, terrific dialogue, and a plot that allows the characters to reveal themselves bit by bit.

One of the more interesting aspects of Sweeter than Wine is that the characters exhibit a trait often overlooked in romantic fiction - nobody, but nobody, is absolutely good or absolutely evil. Alice and Siegfried have flaws of which they are all too painfully aware. Characters you think at first are completely good turn out not to be, and the fellow you think has to be the villain ends up being not so villainous after all. You understand everybody's motives, even if you can't accept their actions. In this regard, the book echoes the reality of life very well.

Minor quibbles? Well, I did have one, although I tended to look on it as a necessary evil. There's a glossary of winemaking terms and German phrases in the back. I can see that some people might find this a handy reference tool, but I can also see that some potential readers, on noticing this feature, would drop the book like a hot brick and so miss out on a wonderful read. And I do wish the author (actually, it's two authors sharing one pseudonym) had used an older version of the Roman Missal - Catholics in 1919 would have heard "Holy Ghost," not "Holy Spirit," and more of "Thee" and "Thou." But that's just my Catholic self talking here, and it's a very minor flaw.

I always have to giggle a bit when I read flowery descriptions of wines; I mean, how can a wine be "amusing"? But I'd like to steal some of those adjectives to describe this book: It's complex, full-bodied, and memorable. The slightly acrid taste one experiences at first is soon forgotten in the glow of the lovely mingling of sensations that linger on the palate and warm the heart long after the glass is empty.

You may have to make an effort to find this book, available in three different formats, but I urge you to do so. If everything coming out of the Neighborhood Press is this good, they and their writers deserve our support.

-- Nora Armstrong

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