Q&A with Kristen Harnisch, author of The Vintner’s Daughter

In Kristen Harnisch‘s debut novel, seventeen-year-old Sara Thibault’s mother sells their family vineyard after her father is killed in a mudslide. But a violent tragedy compels Sara and her sister to flee to New York, forcing Sara to put aside her dream to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker.

The Vintner’s Daughter is a riveting, romantic tale of betrayal, retribution, love and redemption. Below, we asked Kristen about wine (of course), but about the inspiration behind her novel and its spirited young heroine.

1. What inspired you to write your first novel about vineyard life?

A visit to the Loire Valley in October 2000. The inspiration for The Vintner’s Daughter came to me in a flash. I was standing on the edge of a vineyard in Vouvray, France, marveling at the pristine rows of chenin blanc grapevines, the limestone caves, a whitewashed winery, and an abandoned watchman’s house. I knew it would be the perfect setting for the novel I’d always hoped to write.

2. The way you write about the vineyards is so descriptive it feels like you’re there; are they places you have visited or visit often?

That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you! Reading and writing are forms of escapism for me. When I craft a description, my intent is to lead the reader right into the scene with the characters, so they experience everything just as the characters do. Researching vineyard life in the late 1800s was a delight. I visited a Loire Valley vineyard, and toured historic Napa vineyards by bike and on foot. I snapped photos of ripening grape clusters, scribbled down notes about historic gravity-flow wineries, sifted the rough, porous clay loam through my fingers, and, of course, enjoyed the wines! I also delved into French and California wine history books, read years of nineteenth-century trade papers, consulted a master winemaker, and reviewed old maps and photographs at The Napa County Historical Society. I can’t wait to return to the Bay Area this October!

Kristen biking through a Carneros vineyard in Napa

3. The main character Sara was constantly persevering through tough circumstances in the book. What qualities did you most want to convey about her throughout the novel?

As a young woman, Sara possesses a strong, innate understanding of who she is and what she wants. She is driven not only by her desire to follow in her father’s footsteps as a master winemaker, but also by a fierce loyalty to those she loves. Sara is bright, passionate, and principled. Although she perseveres through many hardships on her journey to reclaim her family’s vineyard, Sara truly shines when she is able to admit to her own failings and set aside her desires for the love of another.

4. There are some gritty and emotional scenes in the book. Was there one in particular that was difficult to write?

Absolutely—especially the scene in which Sara is attacked. When I’m writing these emotionally- and physically-charged scenes, I allow the characters to dictate the direction. When Sara fights off her assailant, she is understandably terrified. Yet, in the midst of her fear, she finds her fury—that deep-seeded sense of self that lashes out in defiance. This scene was distressing to write because I kept thinking of the many girls and women who are beaten, raped, or sold into slavery every day. For their sakes, and mine, Sara had to fight back with all her strength—and win.

The veraison (or ripening) of the grapes which occurs in June

5. Philippe Lemieux, Sara’s eventual love interest in the book, is so different from the rest of his family in the novel.What do you think that difference in character stemmed from?

Philippe’s mother, Adèle Lemieux, was a kind, morally strict influence, but also a victim of her husband’s violent episodes. After her death, Philippe watched helplessly as his brother Bastien fell under their father’s control and, as a result of his unhappy life, succumbed to the temptations of gambling and carousing. Philippe knew that if he stayed in France, he would sacrifice every ambition he imagined for his own future. At age twenty-two, he left for America and finally secured the freedom to live as he pleased. This bold decision, I believe, made all the difference in Philippe’s character.

6. I read that you spent a long time working on and researching this novel. Was there anything that surprised you about the process?

The intricacies of writing historical fiction surprised me. I strive for authenticity in every scene. Not only did I learn how vineyards operated at the turn of the twentieth century, but I also unearthed photos and accounts of period clothing, manners, literature, education, food, rents, and the architecture of historic buildings like the Union Square Theatre in Manhattan. I researched French civil and criminal codes, the geography and smells of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, even the San Francisco Bay Ferry and the Southern Pacific Railway routes. The librarians who guided me are my heroes!

The historic Hess Winery in Napa, built in the late 1800s
The historic Hess Winery in Napa, built in the late 1800s

7. This novel is going to be a part of a series about vineyard life. Will you be using any of the same characters, or creating new ones?

Both! I’m excited to say that the sequel, The California Wife, begins right where The Vintner’s Daughter leaves off, chronicling the lives of Sara and Philippe in their quest to gain international recognition for their French and California wines. Some characters from the past, such as midwife and aspiring physician Marie Chevreau, as well as several new characters, will entertain readers. A voyage to the Paris World’s Fair captures the imagination, a new romance blossoms, and catastrophic events shake the very foundation upon which the characters have built their lives. 

Find out more about The Vintner’s Daughter here, or add it to your 50 Book Pledge ‘To Be Read’ shelf.

Happy reading!


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