Behind the Book: Researching BLOOD FOR WINE

Ordinarily, research is the bane of my writing life. Doing the grunt work, then deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, is simply not as satisfying as writing the prose that will eventually be my next book. Good research takes time, too, and time is always in short supply. I’d rather be crafting dialogue or honing a descriptive passage than chasing down whether a Glock 17 has a safety or if DNA can be extracted from a human hair.

However, the research I did for BLOOD FOR WINE—the latest Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery—was a labor of love rather than a necessary evil. The story centers on Cal’s good friend and neighbor, Jim Kavanaugh, who’s charged with murdering his wife. Jim’s a gifted vintner and owner of some of the most coveted acreage for growing pinot noir grapes in the world. It doesn’t take Cal long to discover that Jim’s the victim of a frame driven by the value of his winery and the burgeoning Oregon wine business.

Wine’s central to the story so, inevitably, I was faced with immersing myself in the business of wine making and how it’s practiced in Oregon. Another daunting research task? Not this time! It turns out I’m an enthusiastic oenophile, which began when I was living and working in Geneva, Switzerland. My wife and I discovered French wines, particularly those made in the Burgundy region, a mere two and a half hour drive up the road. It was love at first taste.
Oh, the drudgery. How to proceed?

First, I read Rex Pickett’s SIDEWAYS. I’d seen and loved the movie and figured the book would get me in the mood to write about wine. I was right. The book was hilarious, moving, and sprinkled with insider terms that gave it an authentic feel. I wanted BLOOD FOR WINE to have that same feeling. To get closer to home, I read Brian Doyle’s THE GRAIL next, which chronicles a year of making world class pinot noir at the venerable Lange vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, right where Cal lives in his old farmhouse. That gave me a good feel for the rhythm and cycles of the winemaking process and, more importantly, a sense of Oregon’s close-knit wine culture. I boned up on geology, too, reading Wilson’s TERROIR, and for a critic’s perspective, HOW TO LOVE WINE by Eric Asimov.

All well and good for background, but the real payoff was spending a day at the Carabella Winery, owned and operated by good friend and master vintner Mike Hallock and his wife Cara. We walked the vineyards, tasted grapes, kicked tractor tires, and discussed the process from harvest to crush, fermentation and barreling, and finally bottling. I learned firsthand about clones, whole cluster fermentation, malolactic bacteria, Remond French oak barrels, and all the other esoteric elements required to make a great pinot. I loved hearing all about all the tricks of the trade, but the best part of the day? You guessed it—when we stopped in the warehouse and sampled his pinot from the barrel. Magnificent!

The most important thing I learned that day with Mike and Cara was that, while the right equipment and techniques are necessary, the real key to making a great wine is hard work, commitment, love of task, and the courage to stare down Mother Nature every season. These were qualities I wanted Cal’s friend, Jim Kavanaugh, to have.

Of course, the final form of research required to write a book with a wine theme is to do a large amount of tasting. How else would one be able to comment intelligently on the differences between, say, a cabernet sauvignon and a pinot noir or a chardonnay and a pinot gris? Rest assured that I pursued this research with great diligence.

Warren C. Easley
The Cal Claxton Oregon Mysteries.

Now available, BLOOD FOR WINE, the fifth book in the series.