This reading group guide for Vintage includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author David Baker. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
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Bruno Tannenbaum desperately needs to save his marriage and career, but is it too late?
Ten years ago, Bruno Tannenbaum was a passionate food journalist with a respected newspaper column, a popular TV show, and a bestselling guide to relationships through food. These days, Bruno is living on his mother’s couch, separated from his wife and their two daughters, eating his way through an ever-dwindling bank account, faced with the gnawing doubt that he’ll never be the writer he once was.
Then Bruno stumbles onto the secret to a “lost” vintage of wine, stolen by Nazi soldiers during the Second World War, presumed lost to the world for good. Locating this bottle could be the key to restoring his decrepit career—maybe even writing his comeback novel—but when word of Bruno’s finding gets out and Russian mobsters in search of the bottle start turning up in places too close for comfort, Bruno scrapes together his final resources, calls in favors he may ultimately regret, and sets off on a grand adventure.
Sweeping from the rolling hills of Burgundy to a raucous wedding in Moldova, from a Beaune bacchanal to the graying walls of a Russian prison, Vintage
is a food-filled and wine-soaked debut that reads like a delectable food memoir combined with a comic travelogue, as Bruno attempts to find this extremely valuable wine and prove himself as the writer, father, and husband he knows he can be. Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Each chapter in Vintage
is introduced with an excerpt from one of Bruno’s publications. How do these passages offer clarity to the events that occur within the given chapter? What do they reveal about Bruno as a writer?
2. Bruno enjoys the finer things in life, including expensive groceries, lavish wine, elegant dinners, and European getaways. He embodies this lifestyle even while sleeping on his mother’s couch without a full-time job. Given this paradox, is Bruno a reliable protagonist? What does his lifestyle reveal about him?
3. Bruno attributes the cork he discovered in the wine locker to be “the key to everything” (99). What does the cork symbolize for him? How does it offer him a fresh start?
4. Bruno proclaims that wine “isn’t some refined substance to be analyzed or studied and ranked on a scale of seventy to one hundred. It’s a story. A form of communication, meant for facilitating a conversation across a table and through the ages” (119). Do you agree with his analysis? Explore the integral role that fine food and wine play in the novel. How can these culinary pleasures bring people together and be a form of communication?
5. Despite Bruno’s frequent assurances that his European trip is a way to prove his commitment to Anna and his family, he often reverts to his partying ways, even sleeping with Sylvie Trevallier. Do you think that by doing this, Bruno has ruined his chance to repair his relationship with Anna? Should they attempt to repair their relationship or just remain as friends?
6. Sylvie is an unexpected source of comfort and guidance for Bruno. Describe their relationship. How does Bruno break down the barrier she instinctively puts up toward wine critics? Was their union a fleeting moment of lust, or do you think they have deeper feelings for each other?
7. Not only must Bruno struggle to persevere through the current pitfalls of his career, more importantly he must foster his relationship with his daughters amidst the breakdown of his marriage. What complications arise while trying to strengthen his relationship with them? Is Bruno taking advantage of Claire’s blind faith in him by continuing his trip, despite learning that she’s funding it? What does the trip signify for Claire?
8. Recount Bruno’s journey to find the lost Trevallier wine. What made him excel in espionage? What were the biggest obstacles he had to overcome along his journey? What do you think he learned about himself?
9. Describe the irony of vin ordinaire
. How does Bruno discover the true story of the lost Trevallier? How does this realization signal a definitive shift in his role as both a writer and a father?
10. When speaking of her grandfather, Sylvie says, “Great men learn from their mistakes” (286). How does this statement apply to Bruno? Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bruno believes that “every meal tells a story” and that “when you cook for someone, you are communicating more directly than you can through any other means” (217). Take a cooking class and learn what your
story is. You can even start a blog or food journal to track your success along the way. And who knows—you may just be the next Julia Child, or Bruno Tannenbaum!
2. Expand your culinary knowledge and watch a food-inspired movie for your next meeting or for a fun movie night! Try The Hundred-Foot Journey, Ratatouille, Big Night, Chef
, or Julie & Julia
. David Baker’s Tips on Finding, Ordering, and Enjoying Great Wine
1. Ask. If you’re at a wine shop or restaurant, your sommelier or server is likely to be a wine nerd. So ask him or her for recommendations based on how much you’d like to spend and your preferences: dry, acidic, lush, subtle. Or just say what you’re having and ask to be surprised. Just like the “Staff Picks” shelf at a bookstore, your server or sommelier can narrow the selection for you based on your tastes and his or her own passions. There are also great books that can give you ideas; my favorites are Katherine Cole’s Complete Wine Selector
or The Oxford Companion to Wine
by Jancis Robinson.
2. If you don’t like talking to people, then it’s always a safe bet going for something you’ve never heard of before . . . either by geography or by grape variety. I’ve been curious about wine for a long time, and I still run into plenty of regions and varietals I’ve never even heard of. If you have a sense of adventure, you may get into trouble, but you’ll never get stuck in a rut.
3. Harmony and contrast are concepts that I like to play with. For example, you could pair smoked salmon or oysters with a bracing, acidic Alsatian Riesling, or a dark and smoky California or Oregon Pinot Noir. Just go with your gut, try it, and see if it works. And if it doesn’t, it’s an excuse to open another bottle! A Conversation with David Baker Bruno is a complex character who is flawed, yet lovable. What is it about Bruno that makes him so endearing, even during his failed attempts at redemption? What aspects of Bruno can you relate to?
Bruno has a big heart, and he wears it on his sleeve. So even though he’s such a screw-up and does a lot of things that are unforgivable, or at least very close to it, he’s also willing to forgive others and give them the benefit of the doubt.
For example, in one scene he leaves France on a train and finds a grouchy woman with her bag in the empty seat next to her. He has to ask her to move her bag to free up a seat, which she does reluctantly. Most of us would probably sit there in silence and fume. But Bruno makes it his mission to win her over, and by the end of the trip they embrace and bid a tearful farewell. I often wish I had more of that sort of determined kindness to reach out to others who are clearly having a bad day, rather than just assume the worst about people. Bruno can be an impulsive jerk. But he’s sometimes my hero. You’ve spent time working in commercial vineyards and even made Pinot Noir in your garage. What sparked your interest in wine culture?
It was during a train stop in Beaune on vacation. My family’s German, and my wife and I had started in Paris and were working our way east to visit them. Beaune looked like a nice, quaint stop in the guidebook, and it was the right distance from Paris for a break. We stayed there for two days and it turned my world upside down.
We took a vineyard tour, and I remember stepping out of the van and looking at these gnarly old vines. It had just rained, and it was muddy. The soil was an intense gold color and the air smelled chalky. The vines were bright green. The whole place felt alive with a sort of ancient electricity.
We went on to the town of Pommard, where we tasted wine from that vineyard directly from a tank in a musty basement, served by a weathered farmer with a sort of regal, upright bearing with white hair wearing boots and a mud-spattered T-shirt, and he was so friendly. The wine was also like nothing I’d ever tasted . . . it was like the basement and the earth and the fruit all rolled into one.
We immersed ourselves in wine for two days, and when we came home I ordered vines to plant on a quarter acre of our property in Missouri, where I was living at the time. I took viticulture classes at a community college and interned in vineyards to learn the ropes. When I later took a job in Oregon, it was largely to be closer to wine country where I could buy good fruit to bring home and crush in my garage. I was just fascinated by everything, especially the growing side of wine production.
I’ve been writing and making films about wine and wine people ever since. When describing the first time he tasted a Trevallier, Bruno notes that it was a “spiritual experience” (70). Have you ever tasted a wine that made you feel the same way?
That wine I tasted in the cellar I described above is maybe as close as I’ll ever get. I’ve interviewed dozens of winemakers and wine people over the years, and all of them describe wine experiences in spiritual terms. Most of them can remember a single “epiphany bottle” that rocked their world, transformed their understanding of wine and food and set them on course for what they’d do with their lives. Vintage offers plenty of delightful scenes, particularly those in which Bruno takes advantage of the alcohol around him. What scene was the most fun to write?
One of my favorite scenes is the wedding in Moldova. I’ve been to a lot of the places in the novel, but that’s not one of them. So I wrote a draft of that chapter, and it was so much fun. And then I dug into research of the food and wedding traditions to start adding details. I watched lots of Moldovan wedding dance videos on YouTube. By the end of the third or fourth draft I really felt like I’d been there. It’s a sort of aggregation of different parties and weddings I’ve been to over the years, combined with research on this place very foreign to my experience, and now it almost feels like it actually happened the way that it’s written. I think that’s some of the magic of fiction. Did you anticipate early on how you were going to develop Bruno’s journey, or did his story evolve as you wrote the book?
Bruno’s voice came to me first: those little vignettes at the beginning of the chapter. Early drafts of the novel were in the first person, and he was so overbearing and pompous that it was hard to keep the story moving. But I liked the idea of a guy who’s known for fixing relationships through food, even though his own personal life is a complete train wreck.
Later I was working on a screenplay and reading a lot about the lost vintages and the German occupation of France. There are some fantastic articles and books like Wine and War
by Don and Petie Kladstrup that follow the history. I was also reading about wine auctions and exotic bottles sold for small fortunes. Bruno seemed like the perfect character for a wine-related quest. Once I made the connection, it all came together rather quickly. I actually wrote the screenplay, but it felt like it was missing something, so I used it as an outline and went back to the novel, but with the distance of the third person and this is the result.
Bruno’s a very literary person, so I think he belongs in a novel. It just makes sense. The food and wine descriptions in the novel are so vivid and mouthwatering. What was your inspiration for them?
I tried to make almost every meal in the novel at home either before or after I wrote about it. I won’t say I’m a good cook, but I love to do it. I trashed the kitchen on many nights and subjected my family to the experiments. Some were successful, and others were completely off the mark. Most of the recipes I used I found on the web or in my cookbook collection. It was a great way to research the novel.
I also found food bloggers from many countries and regions who shared traditional recipes in great detail, so I picked up some cultural observations that way. Bruno claims that the only rule to follow when pairing food and wine is “harmony, patience and a little love” (234). Do you agree with his proclamation? Do you have favorite food and wine pairings that you can share with us?
Bruno’s full of hot air. But I think this concept is largely true. Let’s start backwards with the “love” part of the equation. If you match a recipe and wine with the intention of delighting your spouse, lover, family, friend . . . then it’ll be great. It’s the intention that matters, and that will show. Next for “patience.” Wines change by the hour, minute, second. As soon as you uncork a bottle and introduce air to the chemical equation, the wine starts to change. Every sip can be different. So if you pair a wine with something and don’t like how it’s matching up, just wait ten minutes before your next sip. It’ll be a completely different experience. And finally, as for “harmony,” that’s always a good rule. If you’re eating Tuscan, have a Chianti. That’s geographic harmony. If you’re preparing a meal with bold flavors, a big California Cabernet can work well. That’s flavor harmony. Subtler flavors and textures can be well served by a delicate wine. So while I’d take anything that Bruno says with a grain of salt, there’s definitely some truth behind this proclamation. As a wine expert, can you offer any tips about proper wine etiquette? What’s the appropriate way to drink a glass of wine?
I’ve traveled a little and I’ve been behind the scenes of a lot of wineries and restaurants, but I still feel that I know very little about wine and the right way to consume it in every situation, especially compared to some of the bloggers, writers, and wine industry people I know.
I think there are two basic things you should get right when it comes to wine. You can’t always control having the best glass or the perfect temperature, but you can always take the time to sniff. Smell the wine. Swirl it and mix in some of that air I was telling you about. That activates the flavors and aromas. More than half the magic in wine is in the scent.
And then give it time. Wine changes as it warms and mixes with air, so experience that change. Let a glass linger. Not only will you remain more sober, but you’ll also get to experience the parade of flavors and aromas. Every sip can be different, especially if it’s a well-made wine and you give it enough time. It can be like drinking ten wines for the price of one.
It all comes down to not chugging, basically. Vintage emphasizes that happiness comes from sharing a meal with friends and family. Are family dinners important in your household? Do you live by the philosophy that “the way to a person’s heart is through his/her stomach”?
Absolutely. In our little family, we eat dinner together at the table every night. I’m not fond of TV trays or microwave dinners. Communing around a table and a meal, even a very simple one . . . it’s an important part of every culture, no matter how large or small. My daughter and I like to bake things together. She’s a fan of dessert: the sweeter, the better.
All of my fondest memories as a kid were at family meals, whether it was an epic four-hour meal on the balcony of my uncle’s apartment in Berlin on one side of the family, or around the big farmhouse table at my grandparents’ farm in rural Illinois on the other side. They were two completely different cultures, but the same magical things happened around the table. Stories. Arguments. Laughter. And then more stories . . . always more stories.
My grandmothers were both amazing cooks, but in very different ways. Preparing food for us was a very obvious act of love. That’s why I dedicated the book to them. Can you tell us about any upcoming writing projects? What will you serve up next?
I’m working on a novel that’s rooted in a beautiful, overlooked corner of Missouri where we lived for a few years, and it’s great to travel back there in memory. I’m hoping it’ll be a little sad and a little funny and have a number of great meals in it.
On the film side, I’m in production on a documentary about the decline of coral reefs. It’s a very different and sobering, even frightening, subject. But it’s something that needs to be told.
I’m also just beginning to develop a documentary about the legendary Burgundian wine festival that served as a model for the bacchanal scene in Vintage
. If it comes together as we hope, it will be a great opportunity to return to Burgundy to explore some of the real-world counterparts to the people and events that appear in the book.
There is so much story potential when it comes to food and wine, and I expect I’ll always be working on something connected to that world.