Today I’m delighted to have wine professional and writer Anne Burchett on the blog. She’s the author of a tale of skulduggery in the wine business, Tasting Notes.
There seems to be something in the air when it comes to wine and literature. I spoke with Peter Stafford-Bow last year about his series of wine farces, in 2019 top wine writer Jamie Goode released a novel, Richard Hemming MW has a novel in the pipeline, and rumour has it that Tim Atkin is working on a play loosely based the life of Andrew Adonis. Now into this semi-crowded arena marches Anne Burchett with Tasting Notes. She sent me over a massive biog but suffice to say that she’s done pretty much everything in the wine trade with stints in particular at Castel and Sopexa.
Her novel, which has just been published, features a heroine not unlike Burchett herself, born in France but has spent so long in Britain that she’s gone native. Chris, a lady, works for a French wine giant called Villa which has recently acquired a once vibrant but now ailing chain of British called The Wine Shop. Chris Losh, Mr Fake Booze himself, described it like this: “Sex and drugs and rocks and Rolle. It’s like Jilly meets Jancis with one-liners and a half-case of Chablis.” It’s that rare thing, a novel about office life with its tyrants, indignities, heroes and traitors. So even if you know nothing about wine or the wine trade, then you’ll find much to enjoy. There’s one character in particular, Arnaud, who reminded me of a publisher I once worked with who didn’t understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. Having said that, if you used to work for an ailing chain of British wine merchants (hint, hint), much of the book, especially the carnage at the wine fair in Edinburgh, will be especially funny. She’s also particularly good at the mutual incomprehension between the British and the French, with Chris in the middle, neither one thing nor the other.
Here’s Anne to tell us more about the book and her career:
Was there a one bottle that first got you into wine?
Sadly no. Like most French children of my generation, I was exposed to wine early on but none of it was memorable: I drank champagne at family occasions from birth, and Sauternes, which I liked because it was sweet. My grandfather made his own wine, in Corrèze, which was almost undrinkable. I used to spend some of my holidays with him and my grandmother and they would add red table wine to my drinking water and to my soup to ‘faire chabrol’, a custom from the South of France whereas you drink the broth mixed with red wine straight from the bowl after you’ve eaten the chunks of vegetable with a spoon.
Why did you go into the wine trade?
My first job was with Procter & Gamble, selling nappies. I wasn’t overly fond of my clients but I liked the job. After about a year, I went on a Club Med holiday on my own and the heartthrob of the week – there’s always one on package holidays – told me in front of a large audience that, as I talked about my job all the time, I should consider something less boring than nappies [ouch! Ed.]. It stung and I resigned on my first day back. Wine seemed a suitable alternative to nappies. Also I liked the idea of my job making a difference, of doing my bit to preserve vineyards, landscapes and a way of life. I’m still friend with the heartthrob and never miss an opportunity to remind him he changed my life for the better.
Have you always wanted to write?
Yes. I’ve always been a voracious reader, although less so nowadays, and writing my own book, even though it felt like an impossible dream for many years, was always at the back of my mind.
Which novelists or other writers inspire you?
Far too many to give them all credit but I love three things in a novel: a good story, learning something new and those deceptively simple observations about places, characters and situations that stay in your mind for a long time after you’ve finished the book. Jane Austen was a master of the latter, as were Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: I can’t look at rhododendrons without thinking of Manderley. I love Fred Vargas’ detective stories because of the added historical titbits and because they’re so intelligently written. When I first moved over here and my English wasn’t great, I devoured a mountain of easy-reading historical fiction, starting with Forever Amber and taking in long forgotten books such as Lady of Hay or Sarum, to ‘learn about British history’. When it comes to storytelling, Alexandre Dumas – the Count of Monte Cristo is one of the best tales ever – and Tolkien – which I was lucky to read for the first time when I was old enough to appreciate it – are masters. And then there are geniuses such as Toni Morrison, super talented wordsmiths such as Stephen Faulks, Douglas Kennedy, David Mitchell and books that made strong impressions: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker, Under the Skin by Michael Faber, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There are so many, as many and as diverse as wines.
Where did the idea for Tasting Notes come from?
Crisis at work are standard and there are processes to solve them. I’ve unfortunately found myself several times in situations where colleagues resorted instead to blame shifting and gaslighting, which wasn’t even a word then. Desperately trying to make sense of something nonsensical, to the point when you end up questioning your own sanity, is not an experience I would wish on my worst enemy but one I felt was worth sharing.
What has the reaction been from the trade?
99% supportive, and some people have been absolutely amazing.
What did you learn from doing a creative writing degree? Would you recommend it to budding novelists?
The MA was expensive and time consuming, but it was a glorious year when I did tons of reading and learned a craft. Remember that English isn’t my mother tongue. It was also brilliant to be surrounded by like-minded people from different walks of life. It made writing real, a bit like antenatal classes made motherhood real.
Would you rather be writer or a wine merchant?
A writer, but I still need to earn a living.
What’s your dream wine / best bottle you’ve ever had?
Possibly a Petrus 1995 at a party at Vinexpo. My one regret is that the best wines I’ve ever had were too often either at tastings, or business dinners or lunches when I couldn’t savour them properly.
And your everyday favourite wine at the moment?
It’s a bit like books, there are many. From the top of my head, current sub £10 – on special offer – favourites include Muga rose, Vidal Fleury Côtes du Rhône, Minervois Château Maris, Vasse Felix Chardonnay. I buy a lot of wine from Waitrose when they have 25% off, and Yapp too and The Wine Society through my ex-husband. I am a big fan of the Loire and the Languedoc, and in the summer I have Gruner Veltliner and Albariño on tap.
Find out more at Anne Burchett’s website.