Wine, emotions flow in ‘The Garden of the World’


Lawrence Coates

BOWLING GREEN, O.—A seed planted in Bowling Green State University author Dr. Lawrence Coates’s mind while he was researching his first book has grown into his latest, and third, work of historical fiction. Published Feb. 28 by University of Nevada Press, “The Garden of the World” follows the fortunes of the Tourneau family of vintners in California’s Santa Clara Valley in the early part of the century.

Despite its pastoral, Eden-like setting, “The Garden of the World,” as its title implies, is rooted in earthly passions and trials. The novel opens in 1907, when a phylloxera root louse outbreak has withered all the grapevines growing in the region’s steep, rocky soil, and vintners are tearing out their vines. Defeated, many chose not to replant, but — obsessed with growing and making wine — Tourneau family patriarch Paul perseveres.

“He is ruthless in his pursuit of something great. He is a true American type, and that’s the story I wanted to tell,” said Coates, director of the BGSU Creative Writing Program. Coates was inspired by an incident concerning a real-life, equally driven immigrant wine maker in California, Paul Masson. While studying historical records for his earlier “The Blossom Festival,” Coates came across reports of a spectacular but questionable robbery of wines from the Masson vineyard during Prohibition, when Masson was the state’s leading vintner and a pioneer in making sparkling wines there.

In “The Garden of the World,” Paul Tourneau’s ambition extends to his two sons by two wives, but the elder, Gilles, rejects his father’s dream. The strife sown between father and son has harsh repercussions for all. “The past catches up with you,” Coates noted.

Other problems beset the vintners, from natural disasters to manmade events such as war and politics. “Everything ended with Prohibition,” Coates said. “Almost everybody had to start from scratch again in 1934.”

As in his previous novels, Coates reveals the social strata of the time and place, including the Mexican families who fled revolutionary upheaval and now follow the harvest in California for a living.

His research led to many hours in the Napa and Sonoma Valley archives learning about the vintner’s process. “I think somebody could read my book and get a pretty good idea of how wine is made,” he said. He added colorful tidbits such as the “racking” technique of adding bull’s blood or other pure proteins to achieve clarity in the finished product, and the loophole that allowed doctors to prescribe champagne for medicinal purposes during Prohibition.

Coates’s ties to California run deep. He grew up in El Cerrito, and much of his work is set around Saratoga, where his grandfather was the last village blacksmith. Both the prize-winning “The Blossom Festival” and his second novel, “The Master of Monterey,” were set in historical California. Now settled in Bowling Green, Coates has traveled the world as a merchant seaman and has lived and taught abroad. He brings the breadth of his experience to bear on the large emotions driving his characters.

He will be reading from and signing copies of “The Garden of the World” at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Chicago March 1. Other engagements are in Napa Valley and, on March 30, as part of the Primavera Gala sponsored by the Medici Circle at BGSU. He will also give a reading in BGSU’s Prout Chapel next fall.

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(Posted February 28, 2012 )