Seattle restaurateur Peter Lewis sold his Campagne and Café Campagne to pursue his passion for writing. Now he's finished a murder mystery in which all the victims are wine writers. In a recent conversation he talked about why he chose Napa and Burgundy as the settings for his story, and also about his favorite Champagne...
photographed by Erika Schultz
AFTER THREE decades in the restaurant business, Peter Lewis was ready for murder, not literally, but literarily.
Best known as the founder of Campagne and Café Campagne, Lewis started waiting tables to support his writing. “When I opened Campagne in 1985, I couldn’t possibly have imagined what it would become,” he says. “It exceeded my wildest dreams, but I had no aspirations for a franchise of Café Campagnes, or a line of mustards or vinaigrettes or cassoulet-in-a-can.” Selling the restaurants brought him full circle, allowing him to pursue his first passion, writing.
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Writers, of course, write what they know. Lewis estimates he’s opened tens of thousands of bottles of wine in his restaurant career. He’s prowled vineyards from France to California to the Cape of Good Hope, tasting extensively. “The transformation of grapes into wine,” he says, “parallels, in my mind, the transformation of words into prose.”
A plot fermented; characters developed. The resulting book, “Dead in the Dregs” (Counterpoint), was released in August. The whodunit stars Babe Stern, a hapless but dogged ex-sommelier who follows a trail of macabre murders from Napa Valley to Burgundy. The corpses are all wine writers.
Q: The first victim in your novel is a critic who writes an influential newsletter using the 100-point scale to rate wines. How do you personally feel about the wine press in general and the point system in particular?
A: Wine writers are decent, hardworking people who take their jobs very seriously. I’ve written about wine myself. I understand how grueling the life is. I find the point system of very little utility. In my mind it’s neither my interest nor my business to tell you what you should drink. What I enjoyed doing at the restaurant was having a conversation with a guest, finding out what they like to drink stylistically, how much they want to spend and finding something I think will make them happy. People’s response to wine is profoundly subjective. A bottle I find perfectly lovely and delicious, someone else might take issue with. I would never be so arrogant to presume my judgment is definitive. I think most wine writers do believe their judgment to be definitive.
Q: What inspired you to choose Napa and Burgundy as settings for your book?
A: It was the intensity of the wine culture and the high stakes involved. The story came to me when I happened to be traveling with a couple of wine writers on a trip to Burgundy. These are not the grand châteaux of Bordeaux but very humble properties mostly. The winemakers are incredibly serious, intense, lovely people who are rooted in the soil, attached to their families. Most are the second or third generation. Children work alongside parents.
It’s a very concentrated life. The families are very closely knit. Often they live together. The ties and ruptures seem almost inescapable. The fortunes of the family are tied up with their wines and winemaking every year. The life is bottled under pressure. They hold in an enormous amount. It’s like Champagne, fermenting, bubbling under this cap they keep punching down. It keeps bubbling back up.
Q: Speaking of Champagne, do you have a favorite?
A: Johnna and I drank Domaine Jacques Selosse at our wedding. It’s a great wine. When we visited there, the winemaker, Anselme Selosse, took us out into the vineyard. He had us get down on our hands and knees so we could appreciate his communication with insects. In the book, there’s a reference to biodynamic French wackos who speak to insects in bug language. I was speaking specifically of Anselme Selosse.
Q: If you could invite anyone living or dead to dinner at your house, who would it be and what would be on the menu?
A: Thomas Jefferson, one of the original farm-to-table guys; Lulu Peyraud, the 93-year-old grand-dame of Domaine Tempier and one of the legendary home cooks of France; writer Jim Harrison, an old friend; journalist A.J. Leibling; food writer M.F.K. Fisher; and French food writer Maurice Edmond Sailland, who wrote under the pen-name, Curnonsky.
The wine, people and food need to seamlessly interconnect. The meal would have to begin with many dozens of oysters and a platter of Lulu’s splendid oursins (sea urchin). I would want to include Lulu’s seafood bisque as well, then a game course consisting of small birds (preferably grilled doves), and progress to something more substantial like a côte de boeuf or roast leg of lamb, complemented by wild mushrooms. A lovely and very simple salad would be de rigueur; a marvelous selection of cheeses, and a perfect fruit tarte to finish.
We’d begin with fine Champagne, Jacques Selosse would do nicely, followed by Domaine Tempier’s rosé to pair with the sea urchin. The birds beg for Burgundy. One could do much worse than the Romanée-St.-Vivant from Domaine Jean-Jacques Confuron that Harrison, (hunter and wild-game gourmet) Guy de la Valdène and I had at the domaine over an astounding blanquette de veau. We’d return to Tempier for a red to match with the beef or lamb, probably an older vintage of the Cabassaou, a single-vineyard Bandol made from 100 percent mourvedre.
We’d end with Vin de Constance from Klein-Constantia in South Africa. It’s a dessert wine Jefferson adored. I first tasted it in 2003 at a mythic 37-course lunch in Burgundy that Jim Harrison wrote about in The New Yorker. It was one of the last wines poured after being at table for 11 hours, and it was an absolute revelation.
I can’t see this meal lasting any less than five hours, and, as we were warned at the outset of the 37-course lunch, “Do not try to finish everything! You’ll never make it!”
Providence Cicero is a restaurant critic who frequently writes for The Seattle Times. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.