The Vintner’s Daughter by Kristen Harnisch

Chapter 1: Confession

June 30, 1896, New York City, America

The air was thick with the putrid smell of man and horse. Sara Thibault walked swiftly up Mott Street, taking care to lift the hem of her dress and sidestep the heaps of muck without breaking her stride. Like the squabbling of chickens, the street noises swirled all around her. Above her, women beat rugs and draped bedding from the wrought-iron fire escapes, shouting to the children who ran wild in the street below. The clanging bell of an omnibus and the braying of donkeys unnerved her.

This was not the America that Sara had envisioned. Pushcarts lined the muddy road, their proprietors selling everything from potatoes to laudanum and speaking in languages Sara could not understand. Bicycles squeaked by, rag pickers hollered from their doorway perches, and street urchins cried out and tugged at her skirt with their grimy hands as she passed. Sara knew she should not be walking alone, yet to bring a companion would have invited judgment that was reserved for God alone. She wondered if God walked with her now, guiding her down the street toward salvation, away from her sin.

God was a tricky business. Sara believed in the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost, and had even successfully enlisted Saint Anthony on occasion to help her find a misplaced trinket. Yet did she truly believe that God would condemn her to burn in hell for what she had done? If God was everywhere, surely he’d been present that night. He’d seen what had happened.

She could not turn back now. Sara focused her eyes straight ahead. It would be a relief to reach the quiet peace of the church and inhale its fragrant, burning incense.

Sara had arrived in New York four weeks ago, but she had yet to make her confession. She was dressed in her best: a simple dress of pale blue cotton and a claret-colored shawl. A straw bonnet with a wide cream ribbon concealed her reddish-brown hair, which many of the villagers in Vouvray had considered her finest feature. Not anymore, she thought, as her fingertips attempted to smooth the jagged edge of chopped hair at the nape of her slender neck. Sara was unusually tall for a woman and did not possess the plumpness that seemed to be considered so pleasing in females. Her limbs were long, lean and agile. She kept her elbows tucked in at her sides as she approached the corner of Mott and Prince.

The stone facade of the church towered before her, the height of eight men. On its front steps, a squat, balding man in a priest’s habit shouted, “Out! Out!” as he wildly waved a broom to chase a group of lively urchins down the steps. On another day, Sara would have laughed, but today her spirits were subdued and her heart heavy.

Inside, the marble altar with its carved reredos, leafed in gold, loomed before her. She pulled three silver dollars from her pocket—which she’d earned for this purpose by selling her hair—and dropped them one by one into the collection box. The sound echoed throughout the massive church. Once the silence returned, Sara could only hear the pounding of her heart.

She made her way to the confessional. Once inside, she sat down, removed her shawl and draped it over her lap. While she waited, she bunched its soft yarn between her fingers anxiously. Sara heard the creaking of wood, and then the carved screen before her was abruptly thrown open. She knelt down, straightened her back and inhaled sharply. She felt her throat tighten. To calm herself, she fixed her eyes on the holes in the screen before her, and then swallowed hard, preparing to speak.

“In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen,” she said quietly as she made the sign of the cross. “Forgive me, mon père . . . for I have sinned. It has been six weeks since my last confession.”

The shadow on the other side of the partition cleared his throat and stifled what Sara thought sounded like a yawn. “Very well, you may confess your sins.”

She was trapped within the walls of the confessional, and she could not leave until she declared her guilt aloud.

“Father, I killed a man.”

 ***

Chapter 2: Clos de Saint Martin

November 1, 1895, All Saints’ Day, Vouvray, France

Sara’s eyes swept over the land that surrounded her. Clos de Saint Martin was the Thibault family’s vineyard and its great pride. Four thousand vines flourished on each of the ten hectares owned by Sara’s family. The pineau de la Loire grapes dangled in large clusters on vines that fanned out diagonally on the slopes before her. To the distant south, she could see the Loire River, wide, cool and deep, winding its way through the valley.

Just to Sara’s left lay the sunflower field. In July, she loved to watch the blooms sway gently in the breeze, like royal heads adorned with crowns of gold. A cherry orchard, along with oat and cornfields, stood at the edges of the farm. The main house, off to Sara’s right, had been built by her grandparents some sixty years ago. They had named the property after Saint Martin, the fourth-century monk who had first planted grapes on the slopes of Vouvray.

The house itself was made of stucco and clay, and had recently been repaired and scrubbed. Half-moon dormer windows rose up from the slate roof and were flanked by two tall chimneys, one at each end of the house. The austerity of the home’s facade was softened by the red-tinged ivy, which twined up the walls and around one of the chimneys.

Behind the house to the northeast ran a ledge of pale yellow tufa rock. This was where, centuries ago, the Vouvray monks had carved a honeycomb of cave dwellings. In one of these caves was the family wine cellar, in which the Thibaults pressed, fermented and stored their barrels of chenin blanc. Each barrel was toasted before it was filled and stored at a constant temperature, a process that had established the Thibault wines as the best whites of Vouvray. Sara’s eyes narrowed as they followed the cave line around to the right.

The upper openings of the caves brimmed with activity: the annual harvest had begun. Ribbons of smoke curled upwards from chimneys poking out of the caves’ grass-covered roofs. The Roux and Marlette families returned every year to Saint Martin, knowing that the work was plentiful and the master generous, and two new families had joined them this year. The old Gypsy women had once again arranged their food, tools and candles in the small niches of the cave walls and set about their bread-baking and laundry chores in preparation for the long weeks of picking ahead. Earlier this morning, the hardier men and women had headed into the fields to pick grapes from sunrise to sunset. They would pause only for a luncheon of potato cakes, wine and, thought Sara with a smile, a fair share of coarse jokes.

Sara loved this time of year. Solitude, infinite in wintertime, was scarce now. The night before, when the house was hushed and she knew Lydia was asleep, she had lifted the sash of her window and listened to the sounds of the creaking fiddles and moaning bagpipes drifting in on the cool night air. The caves had been lit up with fires, and from her window, Sara could see shadows jumping in a joyful clog dance. How she had wished she could sneak out and join the celebration! But she knew she needed her rest. A fortnight of back-aching work lay ahead for everyone.

Sara walked along the outer rows of the vineyard, running her fingertips under the broad grape leaves to feel the fruit. She selected a few grapes to taste from the waist-high vines. Their bodies were swollen and their skins thinned from a week of unexpected rains. As she bit into the fruit, she tasted a burst of sweetness. The grapes were ripe. Her father could not have waited any longer to begin the harvest. A week later and the damp weather would have brought the scourge of rot upon the fruit. Sara noted the grapes’ sugary flavor and the soil conditions in her field diary.

She resumed her progress toward the end of the rows, where a pair of ox-drawn wagons swarmed with activity. The first day of the harvest was always the most chaotic. Papa had gone with Jacques Chevreau, the estate’s longtime foreman, to the cellar to finish preparing the equipment for the first press. This morning it fell to Sara to keep watch over the workers until Jacques returned. She would encourage them to work hardest now, while they were fresh and cool.

As Sara approached, the pickers’ eyes darted in her direction and then back to their work. To Sara’s satisfaction, they quickened their pace. They worked in pairs, one on either side of a vine, each employing secateurs. First they thinned the leaves, then their sharp blades severed the golden fruit clusters, dropping the fruit into the buckets a foot below. Most of the pickers worked on bended knee in the rocky soil, and everyone would welcome the pots of mustard oil Sara’s maman would offer at dinnertime to soothe their aching joints.

A few rows along, Sara eyed a boy with a sunburned neck, no more than twelve years old, struggling in his attempts to cut the vine. She knelt down beside him and corrected him gently: “No, like this.” Sara wielded the secateurs expertly. She sliced the vine almost through, then brought the shears in again to catch the tip of the stem in their grasp, free the fruit from the leaves and toss it into the basket, all in one motion.

“Ah, yes, yes, Maitresse Thibault.” His voice was deferential.

Sara grinned at his use of the title that her maman so relished. “Call me Sara.” She patted him on the shoulder and moved on to the oxen.

Noticing the baskets were nearly full and the wagons empty, Sara clapped her hands and shouted, “Baskets, baskets, if you please!” The workers closest to the wagon scrambled to gather the containers and bring them to the wagon in exchange for empty ones. The pickers at the far end of each row strapped the heavy baskets to their backs, each containing a hundred pounds of grapes, and hauled them toward Sara. As the fruit tumbled from the heaping vessels, Sara used a long pole to guide the grapes from the corners of the wagon’s bed to its center.

Upon Jacques’s return, Sara wished him adieu and lifted her skirts to trudge through the mud between the vines toward the other end of the field. There she hunched over to examine one of the vines more closely. She ran her fingers over the leaves’ withering edges, fearing the worst. She took her knife from her belt and split the vine’s bark. With the tip of her blade, she scraped out hundreds of tiny translucent eggs that lined the interior of the vine. Some had already hatched, producing the dreaded pale yellow insects that were now sucking the vine dry.

Sara looked around cautiously to make sure none of the pickers were watching her. She saw her father approaching, his brow creased. He stood dark and tall behind Sara, studying the evidence.

“Phylloxera.” His voice was low. “How far have they spread?”

“I’m not certain, Papa.” Maybe this was the first hatching cycle, Sara thought hopefully. Maybe they still had time to correct the problem before it reached the vines’ roots. There was only one way to find out.

Papa was a step ahead of her. He signaled to Jacques, who stood by the wagons. In moments, Jacques was bounding up to join their clandestine party.

“Mademoiselle Sara, will you allow me?”

“Yes, Jacques, thank you.” She backed away from the vine to stand next to her father.

Jacques wiped his thick neck and brow with his kerchief, stuffed it in his pocket and then lifted his spade. Pressing all his considerable weight down on the shovel, he began to dig, creating a circle of one-boot’s radius around the base of the vine. When Jacques lifted the plant up, they could all see its shriveled roots. The insects had not only drained the vine of its sap and nutrients, but poisoned it with their venom.

“My God,” Papa whispered. Sara’s eyes flashed to her father’s. They were tired and ringed with disappointment.

After the last plague of phylloxera, fifteen years earlier, Papa and Jacques had replanted half of the vineyard, over five hectares, with resistant rootstock, which had successfully brought the infestation to an end. The infected vines that Sara had discovered today were part of the non-resistant half. Over the last fifteen years, the Thibaults had employed many methods to prevent phylloxera from blighting this half of the vineyard. They had buried a toad at the foot of each vine and injected sulfide into the soil surrounding the most vulnerable plants. They had allowed the chickens to roam freely, in hopes that they would eat the aphids before they reached the vines. These measures had kept the phylloxera at bay, until now.

“The sulfide isn’t working,” she muttered. How had they not caught this sooner? “We will have to replant this half of the vineyard with resistant rootstock,” she continued. Sara knew this would be costly, and they had not yet determined how much wine would be lost as a result of the infestation.

Papa had other ideas. “We can gather the grapes quickly, from both the infested vines and the healthy ones. We’ll press them separately, and perhaps we can add some sugar to the drier grapes and still make something out of them.” Papa sounded tired. “If our broker discovers the infestation, he may reduce his offering price.”

Sara nodded. Right now, they had to make the most of what they had. She turned to Jacques and spoke urgently. “You mustn’t say a word, Jacques, not to anyone. We’ll examine the other vines for infestation. We’ll work double-time to finish the harvest and negotiate the barrel price as soon as possible—without anyone knowing, right, Papa?”

Papa continued to stare at the withered vines. “That is exactly what we’ll do.”

***

Luc Thibault took his seat at the dinner table across from his wife. Sara’s sister, Lydia, sat to his right, still talking about Wednesday’s trip to nearby Amboise. Sara and Papa had decided not to divulge the news of the bug until they knew the extent of the infestation, and its financial implications. Sara doubted that her sister’s chattering would have been quelled by knowledge of their precarious situation. Although Lydia was older by two years, Sara was the quieter, more contemplative one.

“Sara, you must come to Amboise with Maman and me next time we go. We dined on truffles and pain au chocolat and bought the most beautiful lace for my wedding gown. It was heavenly, wasn’t it, Maman?”

Lydia was engaged to Bastien Lemieux, the elder son of the Thibaults’ wine negotiant, Jean Lemieux. Had it not been for a scandalous affair involving Lemieux’s younger son and a girl from Tours five years ago, Sara believed Bastien never would have consented to marry a farmer’s daughter. Yet somehow her mother had persuaded Jean Lemieux to agree to their engagement last year, and now Bastien and Lydia were preparing to wed.

“Yes, my dear, it was a welcome diversion.” Marguerite Thibault reached out to pat Lydia’s hand. Her attention then turned to her youngest.

“Sara, you will come with us next time. It is not proper for a girl of seventeen years to be working the land like a common day laborer. Goodness, look at your hands! They are shameful, really. And those dreadful muddied clogs—you look like a peasant.”

“Marguerite, that is enough!” Papa’s voice boomed across the table. “I have no sons, and Sara is an immense help to me in the vineyard. We’re in the middle of the harvest! I need her and that is the end of it.”

Sara was quietly pleased. Papa was the one person who always defended her.

“It’s not proper, Luc,” Maman grumbled.

Silence fell over the table as the family began to eat their meal of chicken and onions. Sara’s watered wine tasted bitter. “Pipi du chat!” her father might normally have complained. In his frugality, he saved the best wines for sale, rather than for his own enjoyment.

Lydia attempted to change the subject. “I had the good fortune to meet Bastien in town, Papa. He promised to call in a fortnight when he returns to Vouvray.”

“Perhaps he would join us for our little fête when we are finished with the harvest, my dear.” Papa’s spirits seemed to be genuinely buoyed by Lydia’s obvious joy.

“See, Luc, you only have to wait a few months and you’ll have a son to help you run Saint Martin.” Maman would not relent.

“What does Bastien know about growing grapes and making wine?” Sara’s voice tightened with frustration. “His family buys wine and sells it for profit. He’s an opportunist, not a vigneron.”

“Sara is right, Marguerite. Although I’m sure Bastien shows great promise in the wine trade, I think his father’s negotiant business and our farm should remain separate for the time being.”

Lydia’s mouth puckered. “Very well, Papa, but you will see in time that Bastien is more than capable of operating the farm. I’ve heard that Philippe has established a vineyard in America and fares quite well.”

“I’m sure that’s the case, my dear.” Maman was dismissive. She did not like to hear about Bastien’s younger brother, the dark horse of the Lemieux family.

The conversation between Lydia and Sara’s parents drifted into more congenial territory. They spoke of the sturdiness of the twice-used barrels Papa was cleaning for this year’s vintage, the poor timing of Madame Roux’s sixth child, born the day before the harvest, and the pantry items Maman would require for the end-of-harvest celebration.

Sara, however, was lost in her own thoughts, marveling at the audacity of her mother’s and sister’s presumptions. Didn’t they know that she was the one who would someday run the vineyard? She would be the vigneron of Saint Martin. She would grow the grapes and make the wine and ship it in shiny corked bottles to America. Papa had said so.

Recent Posts

  1. The California Wife is featured in October’s Woman’s World! Leave a reply
  2. Writing the Past: The Devil’s in the Details 4 Replies
  3. Goodreads Giveaway! Leave a reply
  4. Historical Novelist Peter Golden on Transforming Real People into Fictional Characters and much more! Leave a reply
  5. My Interview with NYT Bestselling Authors Karen White, Beatriz Williams & Lauren Willig Leave a reply
  6. Thanks for the Shout-Out, HarperCollins Canada!! Leave a reply
  7. The Globe and Mail Reviews The California Wife! Leave a reply
  8. The California Wife is Available Today in Canada! 1 Reply
  9. The California Wife: Available in Canada on January 26! Leave a reply