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Sweeter Than Wine
by Michaela August
(Neighborhood Press, $6.99, PG-13) ISBN 1-893108-03-1
Sweeter Than Wine is what small presses can offer at their best. This is a wonderful story that no mainstream publisher would probably touch, because it's set in the "wrong" time period. Kudos to Neighborhood Press for bringing it into print. And the fact that it's offered in mass-market paperback, as well as trade paperback and even as an electronic download, gives readers an opportunity to savor it at a reasonable price.

The year is 1919. The Great War has ended, Germany has surrendered, and Siegfried Rodernwiller returns to the wine country of Alsace to find it is now in French hands. A reluctant soldier, Siegfried feels nothing but relief as he makes his hungry way to the family home. His mother and brother are dead, but perhaps he and his father can make their peace and work together to grow their beloved wine grapes.

Siegfried is in for a shock. He arrives home to find the house stripped of most furnishings and his father dead, a suicide. The estate has been foreclosed. Siegfried has nothing except a letter from his American grandmother, urging him to join her in San Francisco. She has a job for him as a vintner in California's growing wine industry.

Shift to the wine country north of San Francisco, where Alice Roye is struggling to keep Montclair vineyard going after her husband's death in the war. When Alice receives a summons from Tati, her late husband's grandmother, to join her in San Francisco and meet the new vintner Tati has arranged, Alice is skeptical. She is taken aback when the vintner turns out to be her husband's cousin, Siegfried, who looks enough like her late husband Bill to be a twin.

Tati has more up her sleeve. She wants Alice and Siegfried to marry, to keep Montclair from falling into the hands of Bill's brother, Hugh. And Tati knows something about Alice that Alice would rather keep hidden: her mother ran a "parlor house" in San Francisco, and Alice grew up among whores. Siegfried, alone and nearly destitute, agrees to his part in the plan. They will marry, and it will be in name only, and they will keep Montclair going.

But lonely hearts have a way of opening up to one another. Siegfried is a master vintner, and his love for the land and the grapes is tangible. He has his work cut out for him, though; through Alice's naivete, the equipment has been allowed to rot and the last harvest has spoiled in the casks. Alice joins forces with him, wondering if she's only being used so Siegfried can get at the land. And what will happen if the truth of her background comes to light? Siegfried wonders how he can ever tell Alice that he fought on the side of the Germans, however unwillingly. Meanwhile, to save the harvest, he's forced to lie to Alice.

Prohibition looms on the horizon will all their work be for naught? And someone is trying to sabotage the crops and the vineyard. But who?

This is a solid and stylish first effort by the writing team of Karin Welss and Marian Gibbons, writing as Michaela August. The characterizations are finely-drawn and sympathetic, especially Siegfried, left utterly alone at the end of a war he never believed in and didn't wish to fight. His longing for Alice is palpable; and readers are in for a lovely surprise when they finally come together. Not every European male is a playboy.

Alice is likeable and intelligent; she's struggled hard to hang on, and she is smart enough to know when she needs help. Her panic at the thought of her past being exposed is understandable given the time frame, as is her reluctance to trust Siegfried with the only thing she values her land.

The only fly in the ointment is the climax, where both Siegfried and Alice learn the "truth" and instantly assume the worst of each other without making any effort to communicate. It felt a bit contrived and took on overtones of a Big Misunderstanding plot device.

It's quickly apparent that the authors were meticulous in their research. I enjoyed the details of the winemaking process that were incorporated into the story, and seen through Siegfried's knowing eyes, it was an effortless presentation.

Sweeter Than Wine is a champagne-sweet debut, and will enchant fans of historical romance who like something a bit unusual. Let's toast small presses for bringing books like these to light.

--Cathy Sova

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