Book Review: Killer Chardonnay by Kate Lansing

In Killer Chardonnay, the first installment of an exciting cozy mystery series from Kate Lansing, young winery owner Parker Valentine won't let one sour grape ruin the bunch...

Let’s raise a glass of vino to Coloradan Kate Lansing’s Killer Chardonnay and Parker Valentine, an ambitious and talented vintner. Valentine’s first name is unisex but her career choice is not: in California, America’s premier wine region, only around 10 percent of winemakers are female. Parker has been obsessed with wine making since her year abroad in Florence, where she first encountered Chianti.

It was love at first sip. The complexity of the flavors and how a winemaker can manipulate them enthralled me.

My ever-observant aunt got me a winemaking kit for my twenty-first birthday and even offered up her garage as a space for me to prep it in. By the time my first batch of wine—a merlot I was probably a little too proud of—was complete, I was hooked.

Fast forward six years to the opening of Vino Valentine, Parker’s “own winery in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado.” Parker cherishes Boulder’s juxtaposition of urbanity and mountain majesty. Her decision to lease space in a modern shopping center in the “industrial part of North Boulder” makes perfect sense. Next door is a “trendy café” that pulls in the coffee-lovers and across the way is “a nursery with rows of shrubs laid out like a welcome mat to the rolling foothills.” Customers with a lot in common, she hopes.

The stage is set—unscented candles lit, “oak-barrel tables” scattered about, vineyard photos on the wall—but what if no one comes? Anita, Parker’s assistant, reassures her: “This is Colorado, the land of handcrafted concoctions, they’ll show.” First Parker’s BBF Sage arrives, and then her brother Liam with a friend, and suddenly Vino Valentine is filled with people enjoying her wares. Unfortunately, Parker can’t pat herself on the back because the proverbial merde hits the fan. A quarreling couple christens their argument with a tossed glass of red and then a “popular food and wine” blogger shows up, uninvited.

Gaskel Brown, the most reputable critic in the front range, is in my winery, at the exact moment chaos descends.

Why isn’t Parker thrilled? A rave review would launch her winery. Gaskel “is notoriously hard to please:” restaurants have gone out of business after a bad review from him. Parker settles down the quarreling couple, seats Gaskel at the bar (where he “pulls out the stool and wipes a fleck of nonexistent dust from the seat”) and pours him a glass of chardonnay.

My success or failure hinges on a glass of chardonnay. I’ve poured everything into opening my own winery—my savings account, the better part of my twenties, my social life. If this doesn’t pan out, I’m not sure who I am anymore. Just a wannabe entrepreneur with an overfondness for wine on the fast track to spinsterhood. I can’t blow this.

Gaskel “breathes in the aroma, a tiny crease forming between two rather bushy eyebrows,” and they discuss the fruity notes in the wine, but he doesn’t seem to like it. He tosses the rest of his glass into a vase of daisies and starts taking notes on his tablet. Parker offers him “the Mount Sanitas White or the Pearl Street Pinot,” but to no avail. Gaskel doesn’t notice that the names of Parker’s wine pay “homage to the locale.” He stands up, coughing and sweating, and heads to the bathroom. Parker initially resists snooping, but curiosity wins out: “The words sour, bitter, and amateur leap off the screen.” Parker ricochets between shame and the mantra, “taste is subjective,” but she’s worried when Gaskel doesn’t come back. She finds him on the floor of the bathroom, “vomit all over his face and starched shirt.” Dead.

The police arrive. She recognizes the detective, Eli Fuller, from high school. “The renowned stoner of the Boulder Cineplex” is now in law enforcement? Eli asks what wine Gaskel was drinking—Chautauqua Chardonnay—but when social media finds out what Gaskel was drinking, it’s dubbed #killerchardonnay. Parker learns the hard way that the adage, “all publicity is good publicity,” is not always true. In the aftermath of Gaskel’s death, few oenophiles stop by for a tasting.

Parker is a determined woman who refuses to walk away from her lifelong dream. She decides to host a VIP event, pairing her wines with the exquisite farm-to-table creations of Liam’s friend chef Reid Wallace. And track down the killer because the police say Gaskel was poisoned by aconitine, a plant-based poison, not her chardonnay. How hard can it be to suss out a murderer?

Kate Lansing will turn readers into Boulderites: obsessed with organic food, the perfect caffeinated drink, local brews and wines, and, of course, the views from every corner. Might they be tempted to try bouldering, Parker’s favorite recreation? After Parker’s dramatic and depressing opening day, she goes home to cuddle her rescue kitty, Zin (think Zinfandel), and seek refuge on her balcony.

Resting my forearms on the railing, I appreciate an unobstructed view of the Flatirons, the slanted rock formations that overlook Boulder. Under the pale moonlight, they look like giant slabs of stone being tugged in opposite directions, much like my life.

The first book in a new mystery series should set the stage for future stories and with Killer Chardonnay, Lansing succeeds admirably. Parker has a tight circle of friends, all with intriguing backstories and careers. Cat lovers, take note of Zin. Many twenty-somethings have lingering tensions with their parents and/or siblings—as does Parker. There’s a romantic interest, or in Parker’s case, two (the chef and the detective.). Readers will wonder what’s next for vintner Valentine. While they wait for the second Colorado Wine Mystery, they can try out tempting recipes and wine pairings like Mango Chutney and Shrimp paired with “a citrusy sauvignon blanc with herbal notes in the nose and tropical fruit on the palate.” Santé!

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