From her food blog to travel writing, cookbooks and a best-selling novel, Ann Mah is easily recognized as one of the most popular writers on French cuisine and culture today. Her French love story continues wherever she is based and her curiosity knows no boundaries.
Mah seized the opportunity to discover France when her husband accepted a diplomatic post in Paris in 2008. Shortly after their arrival, he was immediately transferred to Bagdad on a mission. Left behind in new and unfamiliar surroundings, she rented a car and drove by herself through France to learn about the country’s regional cuisine. Based on her adventures and local kitchen encounters, she wrote her first book, a food memoir on Mastering the Art of French Eating.
She created a food blog filled with French recipes, restaurant reviews and travel tips. Her travel writing for the New York Times, Condé Naste Traveler and Vogue (to name a few) transport readers with her to faraway places on her culinary journeys.
Ann Mah’s latest novel, Lost Vintage, takes readers on a vivid adventure to Burgundy where her main character, Kate, a Franco-American wine expert, returns to her family estate to help with the harvest in preparation for her Master Wine examinations. In search of knowledge, Kate, her cousin Nico and his wife, Heather, unravel the secrets of a lost family vintage. They delve into the dark past of a family member swept up in the turmoil of resistance and collaboration during the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
To research her book, Mah volunteered for a wine harvest in Champagne and immersed herself in the world of grape pickers and winemakers. INSPIRELLE met Ann Mah during her recent appearance at the American Library in Paris’ Evenings with an Author series. She agreed to tell us more about what inspires her to write on the delicious aspects of French lifestyle, and how change is impacting tradition.
Ann, to pen the vivid passages and descriptions of wine in your novel, Lost Vintage, how did you research the art and intricacies of winemaking? And how did you learn about the culture of wine families, which bring your characters and situations so alive in this intriguing family saga?
I first visited Burgundy in 2010 to research an article on Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vineyards in France. The minute I set foot in the region, I was captivated by the vine-covered slopes and charming villages. And if I sensed ghosts there, hovering amid the beauty, they only added to my fascination. I think the seed for this novel was planted then. A few years later, I volunteered to pick grapes at the harvest in Champagne.
Harvest volunteers are often given free room and board, and I was put up in an empty attic apartment at the vineyard house. The rooms hadn’t been touched since the 1960s: they were sparsely decorated with mid-century hospital furniture, the floors creaked, the wallpaper was peeling, and at night the rural silence was deafening – and bone-chilling. Even though I was exhausted from long days of physical labor, whenever I lay down to sleep, my imagination would cartwheel. And so, I slept with the lights on, and when I woke, I wrote in my journal. This story was born from those wild scribblings.
Do you approach writing about wine and food in the same way?
I feel more knowledgeable about food than wine, so perhaps I’m more playful writing about food and more cautious writing about wine. But they are both rich, sensory experiences – and both are a wonderful metaphor when writing fiction!
Your novel also treats the dark period of Nazi occupation in France during World War II and the taboo subject of French collaborators, particularly those who were women involved with German officers. How difficult was it to learn about this shameful past in French history?
As I mentioned, I was captivated by the beauty of Burgundy – but I felt something ominous there, too. I didn’t really understand it until I started researching World War II and learned more about the “épuration sauvage,” the spontaneous “wild purge” that punished thousands of women throughout France in the days and weeks following the Liberation. Accused of “horizontal collaboration,” or sleeping with the enemy, these women were targeted by vigilante justice and publicly humiliated. Their heads were shaved, they were stripped, paraded through town, smeared with tar, stoned, kicked, beaten, and sometimes killed. Yes, some of them had slept with Germans. Some of them were prostitutes. But some had been raped. Some were women who merely worked for German soldiers, as was the case with one cleaning lady. Some were framed and falsely accused out of jealousy. Many were mothers desperate to feed their starving children. In almost every case, their punishment was far worse than their male counterparts.
These women – over 20,000 of them! – were the most vulnerable members of society, and they became scapegoats for a humiliated nation. It’s an overlooked part of history because there’s still so much lingering shame. Even now, I don’t think anyone would admit to having been a shorn woman or having one in their family. Thankfully, there are excellent eyewitness accounts that were collected and published after the war.
The vineyards of Champagne have survived war and a highly competitive marketplace. What are the major challenges facing wine and champagne makers today?
Climate change is a definite challenge – it can affect the vines in many ways, from early frost, which can kill the budding fruit, to rising summer temperatures in traditionally cooler climates, which affect a wine’s acidity and freshness. These days, we are even seeing wine being produced in cold climates – like sparkling wine from England – and perhaps that’s a trend to follow in the next 50 years!
Do you see women in France taking on a more decisive role in the world of winemaking that has been traditionally dominated by men?
Women winemakers are still a very small part of the industry, but it’s definitely changing – especially in Champagne, where you have leaders like Anne Malassagne of AR Lenoble, and Maggie Henriquez, who is the CEO of Krug. I think they regard their leadership as a responsibility to shape the future, so hopefully, we will start to see the industry become more diverse.
It’s important for a winery to be independent, without shareholders or outside investors involved in the decisions that affect business. This means a winery’s long-term vision for its land and the types of wine it produces can remain unified and stable.
Joining a grape harvest in France seems both enticing and daunting! From your first-hand experience, would you recommend volunteering for the long days of backbreaking work? What do you remember best about working in the vineyards?
If you love wine, I can’t imagine a better experience than picking grapes for the harvest. It offers an overview of the entire winemaking process, from the fields to the cuverie. I loved just being among the vines, and soaking up their beauty – I found it engaged all my senses, from the smell of the earth to the seductive rustle when the wind blew through the grape leaves to, yes, the physical discomfort. If you’d like to read more about my own experience volunteering at AR Lenoble, I wrote about it for the Travel section of the New York Times.
Do you have a favorite wine you turn to for that moment you make for yourself?
Like the characters in my book, I don’t have a favorite wine, but I do drink wine based on the season and occasion. For example, on a hot sunny day, I’m happiest with rosé and ice cubes. Of course, after spending so much time writing about Burgundy, I will always have a soft spot for the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay!
You’ve written two books on French cuisine and a novel set in France. Each time you return to France, is there a sense of familiarity or a rush of inspiration?
Of course! Because we move so much as a diplomatic family, we have a home in Paris – it’s the only permanent address we keep in our lives; everything else is temporary. So, yes, each return to France is filled with not only appreciation for Paris’s beauty, but also relief and gratitude at being home once more.