A celebrated writer learns to love wine's deeper mysteries
Julianne Balmain is known in literary circles as Napa Valley's chief mystery writer. Her four mystery novels (written under the pen name Nadia Gordon) explore a side of Napa Valley life rarely seen by visitors ― the exhaustion of early mornings in restaurant kitchens, private parties at wineries, inter-family battles, and various dangerous liaisons inevitably leading to a murder investigation.
Her latest novel, Lethal Vintage, was nominated for a prestigious Mary Higgins Clark Mystery Award. We caught up with this literate Shafer collector at her Bay Area home.
When did wine first enter your life?
It sort of snuck in. My dad would have a glass of Old Crow in the evenings with much ceremony ―awed silence, special chair ― and then in the '80s my mother started to drink Chardonnay ― a glass in the evening or on weekends. Sort of a microcosm of America's shift toward wine.
It started getting interesting when I was 19 and had a chance to work as a model in Paris. Every night was a party, where I always seemed to end up at a restaurant with a bunch of people being poured everything from basic French table wines to great old Bordeaux.
Models aren't supposed to eat, are they?
Well, no, but I love eating, which is what ended my modeling career. After that I went to [U.C.] Berkeley, where my friends and I all discovered [wine importer] Kermit Lynch. It was the height of craziness and in some ways it became the genesis for Sunny [the mercurial chef who is the central character in her Napa Valley mysteries]. I didn't have enough money for a can of beans and yet I managed to spend $400 a month at Kermit Lynch.
Where did your interest in Napa Valley begin?
It really started when my friend Skyla, whose family owns Sky Vineyards, gave me a bottle of their 1985 Cabernet. I held on to it for a decade. And then one night it was the right group of friends, the right food, the right moment and I pulled it out. By this time it was at least 25 years old and I figured it was too old, but we decanted it and it was lovely. It tasted exactly like what it was ― the wild spirit of the place, the wildly creative guy [Lore Olds] who made it. I think wine reflects the person who made it. Shafer, for example, is poised, elegant, carefully made and makes me think of the people who produce it.
What kind of wine collector are you?
Not terribly disciplined; I'm more about whim and the pleasure du jour. I store my wine in two places in my house: the deep-dark closet and the semi-dark closet. The deep-dark closet has about 60 bottles and the semi-dark closet holds about 30. Mostly I drink what I buy. But something special will wait from two to 15 years for the right moment. They're like the books stacked on my shelves. I'll buy a book and keep it until the moment is right to read it, when I can really appreciate what it has to say. Wines are the same. A certain bottle decides when it's time.
For more about Julianne Balmain and her Napa Valley mysteries written under the name Nadia Gordon, visit: http://www.juliannebalmain.com/