Between the vines: Kristen Harnisch on ‘The California Wife’ (Q&A)

Today, I’m celebrating #FridayReads with Kristen Harnisch.

Kristen is the award-winning, internationally published author of The California Wife (She Writes Press)—the follow-up to her popular fiction debut, The Vintner’s Daughter. These books—the first two in a series—are united in their depiction of the changing world of vineyard life at the turn of the twentieth century. Kristen maintains her own blog, and is also a monthly contributor to the Writer’s Digest Blog, The Writer’s Dig. Prior to her career as a writer, she worked as a Relationship Manager at JPMorgan Chase in New York and San Francisco and as the Director of Retail Sales for RBS Citizens in Boston. Kristen now makes her home in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

Kristen Harnisch
Author Kristen Harnisch (Credit: Alix Martinez)

Praise for The California Wife:

“Harnisch’s lyrical descriptions underscore the beauty of winemaking, political activism, and even surgery. Combined with her first novel, The California Wife feels like the second season of a period miniseries, best enjoyed with a glass of zinfandel.”—Booklist

“A passionate novel set in the beautiful Napa Valley in the early 1900s. You’ll cheer for Sarah Lemieux as she tries to balance, love, family, and independence in a time when women were expected to obey. Rich in history, passion, and community, The California Wife is a novel that continues to surprise until the very end.”—Marci Nault, author of The Lake House

“This vital, sweeping story is delivered in Harnisch’s silky, upscale prose. Much like a fine glass of wine, The California Wife is a highbrow indulgence that is tasteful, captivating, and heady.”—The Globe and Mail

From the publisher:       

In the sweeping, poignant sequel to The Vintner’s Daughter, the Lemieux family’s ambition to establish an American winemaking dynasty takes Sara and Philippe from pastoral Napa to the Paris World’s Fair and into the colorful heart of early 20th-century San Francisco.

It is 1897, and Sara and Philippe Lemieux, newly married and full of hope for the future, are determined to make Eagle’s Run, their Napa vineyard, into a world-renowned winemaking operation. But the swift arrival of the 20th century brings a host of obstacles they never dreamed of: price wars and the twin threats of phylloxera and Prohibition endanger the success of their business, and the fiercely independent Sara is reluctant to leave the fields behind for the new and strange role of wife and mother.

An invitation to the World’s Fair in 1900 comes just in time to revive the vineyard’s prospects, and amid the jewel-colored wonders of Belle Époque Paris, Sara and Philippe’s passion is rekindled as well. But then family tragedy strikes, and, upon their return to California, a secret from Philippe’s past threatens to derail their hard-won happiness in one stroke.

Sara gains an ally when Marie Chevreau, her dear friend, arrives in San Francisco as the first female surgery student to be admitted to prestigious Cooper Medical College. Through Marie, Sara gets a glimpse of the glittering world of San Francisco’s high society, and she also forges friendships with local women’s rights advocates, inciting new tensions in her marriage. Philippe issues Sara an ultimatum: will she abandon the struggle for freedom to protect her family’s winemaking business, or will she ignore Philippe and campaign for a woman’s right to vote and earn a fair wage?

Fate has other plans in store in the spring of 1906, which brings with it a challenge unlike any other that the Lemieux family or their fellow Northern Californians have ever faced. Will the shadow of history overwhelm Sara and Philippe’s future, despite their love for each other? In The California Wife, Kristen Harnisch delivers a rich, romantic tale of wine, love, new beginnings, and a family’s determination to fight for what really matters―sure to captivate fans of The Vintner’s Daughter and new readers alike.

The California Wife

Now, Kristen takes us between the vines of The California Wife

John Valeri: What inspired you to write The California Wife – and how do you see this story as being both a follow-up to The Vintner’s Daughter and a standalone novel?

Kristen Harnisch: In October 2000, while visiting a vineyard in Vouvray in the Loire Valley of France, I was struck by the beauty of the pristine rows of chenin blanc grapevines, the crumbling guardhouse by the dirt road, and the ledge of tufa rock that ran along the property’s western border, out of which the winemakers had, centuries ago, carved the cellars where they stored their wines. I thought to my then-banker self, “This would be the perfect setting for the novel I’ve always secretly wanted to write.”

As a banker, I had no formal training as a novelist. So, from 2000 to 2013, in between having three children and working as a stay-at-home mom, I took online writing courses, and researched the history of winemaking in France and California. I slowly crafted The Vintner’s Daughter, the first novel in this series about a Franco-American winemaking family at the turn of the twentieth century.

The California Wife continues the story of the Lemieux family and the characters’ ambition to create an American winemaking dynasty. Reading The Vintner’s Daughter first may offer readers a richer experience, but it’s not absolutely necessary. I incorporate enough details in the first chapters of The California Wife to bring new readers up to speed quickly.

JV: The book’s backdrop ranges from Napa to Paris to San Francisco. In what ways does setting enhance narrative – and how important is it to you to have visited the places that you write about?

KH: I use setting to reflect the emotional journey of my characters or to force their growth. For example, in The Vintner’s Daughter, Sara is deeply attached to Saint Martin, her family’s estate in Vouvray. In the vineyard, she played with her sister and worked alongside her father. She felt useful and cherished. When Sara’s forced to seek refuge at a cloistered convent in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, its dark stone hallways, austere lifestyle and strict schedules of this temporary home magnify Sara’s inner turmoil. She yearns to break free—and she eventually does.

In The California Wife, Sara and Philippe travel to the Paris World’s Fair to showcase their Napa wines. Philippe is keeping a secret that will threaten his marriage. The American vintners are accused of misrepresenting the origin of their wines and face expulsion from the competition. By changing the setting, authors can create more tension in the story and then watch the characters evolve as a result.

It’s so important for me to visit the places I write about—Napa, San Francisco and Paris to name a few—because I’m a stickler for accuracy. When I toured the vineyards of Carneros, in the southernmost region of Napa, I even brought home a pocketful of soil so I could describe its unique taste, smell and feel to the reader!

JV: If asked to consider wine as being an extended simile for this work, what parallels would you draw between the two?

KH: Every bottle of wine contains nearly three pounds of grapes and the vulnerability of this fruit is striking: over the last century and a half, grapes have fallen victim to pests, rodents, frost, mildew and Prohibition in the United States. Cultivating grapes and making wine is a blend of science and art—and requires immeasurable passion, persistence and patience. One strives to improve with every new endeavor. In these ways, novel writing is the same!

JV: Tell us about your research process. When do you stop gathering information and start writing – and what are the tricks to bringing history alive on the page?

KH: While conducting my research, I delved into French and California wine history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers such as The Pacific Wine and Spirit Review, and consulted winemakers, historians, and wine experts. Reviewing old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society and touring several family-owned Napa vineyards on foot and on bike helped me understand the area and its vineyards at the turn of the twentieth century.

My research—about San Francisco’s Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906 or the wine price wars of 1897, for example—often informs the plot of my novels. In order to bring history alive on the page, the best authors take care not to overwhelm the reader with historical background, but to gently weave details into the fabric of the story. By creating high tension, intriguing characters and by crafting accurate descriptions so readers see, feel, taste, hear and smell everything as the characters do, authors can create an unforgettable experience for the reader.

JV: Speaking of history … how do you see the past as being relevant to the present, and what particular themes of resonance did you enjoy exploring in The California Wife?

KH: There are several themes in The California Wife that are universal. Since the beginning of time, men have tried to gain power over others, to fulfill what they believe to be their destiny, to survive in the face of numerous natural and man-made disasters. At its heart, this story is about one family’s grit and resolve to fight for what matters most in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

JV: In your opinion, what is the role of the bookstore within its community – and how can signing events enhance the reader/writer/bookseller relationship?

KH: Well-stocked and well-staffed bookstores are a destination for families, where parents and children can share a love of reading and learning. Your local bookstore has its finger on the pulse of the community, knows the tastes of individuals and book clubs and makes recommendations accordingly. Most importantly, local booksellers bring readers and authors together through book talks and signing events. From these events come more opportunities to share books—through book club appearances, speaking engagements and interviews. My relationships with booksellers across the country, and many in our great state of Connecticut, are the key to connecting with readers and other authors!


With thanks to Kristen Harnisch for indulging my curiosities and to Caitlin Hamilton Summie, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, LLC, for putting is in touch.

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