Wrathful Grapes

Corked by Kathryn Borel (Grand Central, $23.79. 272pp)

The grape never falls far from the vine. To her surprise, the memoirist Kathryn Borel learns that she has more in common with her exasperating father Phillipe than she thought. The 26 year old Quebec journalist accepts her dad’s invitation to go on a wine-tasting safari from Alsace to Languedoc. The two travel in an increasingly bad temper. After one unbearable evening, Kathryn seriously considers running the old man down with their rent a car…despite still being in substantial shock from an incident back in Canada, where she accidentally killed a similarly aged jaywalker.
The book is about jammy subjects: drunkenness, bad behavior, food poisoning, and a lady with fidelity issues who can’t stop herself from torturing her ex-boyfriend via cell phone. Overshadowing it all: the trouble (or necessity) of phrasing the experience of tasting a glass of wine. The title recalls a memorable, if minor, trauma in Borel’s life. It was the time in her youth she tried to make points with her father by rhapsodizing over a bottle of wine that had reacted with its cork.
One sympathizes; it’s hard to find the right way to describe an intricate Pinot Noir, trying to look wise by hedging the words (and thinking “$25 a bottle? Eh, I don’t know.”)

Exceptionally witty and good with words as Borel is, she tends to get tongue-tied in the presence of her father. He was a hotelier for decades, and a Frenchman all his life.
Redemption does occur, sort of, Kathryn learns to admire the winegrowers act of faith, they way they trust in the rain and the sun; she imagines what it’s like “to dedicate your whole life to loving something you have no control over.” Kathryn’s also manages to express what a really good glass of wine means to her. Most importantly, she gets to understand the roots of her father’s raspiness, when he finally reveals his own personal horror story.
This story is balanced with heaven: a flavorful passage, in Phillipe’s words about the arrival of the first Air France 707 to Montreal in 1960. The banquet in the skies these favored passengers had: 150 passengers had food for 210.
“We called them les goinfres, `the eaters’…his was a time when plane food really meant something….the meal ended with a tray of thirty cheese from Androuet, the greatest fromager in Paris. And then a selection of little tarts and cakes. Each dish was accompanied with wine. To drink, they began with champagne, either Krug Grande Cuvee or Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. Then some white Grand Crus from Burgundy, sometimes Batard-Montrachet, sometimes Bienvenues-Batard-Montrachet or even, from time to time, the Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche…then there were reds from Bordeaux, all Grand Crus, mostly from the 1953 and 1955 vintages. With the cheese, some champagne—a nice Moet—to clean the palate, then harder stuff, generally Armagnac, and cigars to finish….when the flight landed, Air France personnel were on the ground, ready with a half-dozen stretchers to unload the passengers. Most were drunk as stones.”
The book has a snarling bit of pepper in the first taste, giving way to a wincing tartness and a bittersweet finish.

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