Book Review: Root Cause, a Wine Thriller

Root Cause by Steven Laine book shotI love wine, and I love a good mystery novel. Put the two of these together and I’m ready to curl up with my cat and dog on my couch for a good long read.

I recently came upon a copy of Steven Laine’s Root Cause, a “wine-soaked” mystery, according to Kirkus Reviews. This lengthy — 359 pages — mystery/thriller is suited to the wine geek as well as the average mystery lover, but it’s the former who will get the most out of it.

Laine knows his wine, and tends to show it in his writing. I found myself nodding in agreement with him as he described the various wine regions, grapes, and vinification practices that supported his fun-packed and informative wine mystery. My years and years of wine studies came into play as I hungrily read page after page of this engrossing mystery.

The book’s main protagonist is Corvina Guerra, an Italian “flying winemaker” who grew up in the vineyards of her parent’s home in Italy. Of note, she’s named after the core Italian grape variety used to produce Amarone, the full-bodied wines of the Valpolicella region of Italy. Like the grape, she is both down to earth and richly endowed with vitality along with keen street and book smarts. Her professional and personal lives, however, are at a crossroads, as her marriage is on the rocks and her job with Universal Wines is not on solid terroir. She begins to suspect that someone is intentionally infecting the world’s top vineyards with the phylloxera (playfully called Philomena in the story) aphid, a treacherous louse that nearly destroyed the vineyards of Europe in the 1850s when it was imported on American rootstock. American vines were and are immune to the disease, but European vines were eaten alive by the pests, and it was only the grafting of European wines to American rootstock that saved the wine industry from near extinction in France and other regions. Corvina’s boss at Universal Wines is not easily convinced that she should travel the world tracking the ‘root cause’ of this nemesis of the vineyard, but of course she does.

Corvina eventually teams up with the dashing, debonnaire Bryan Lawless, a flawed but lovable wine writer and “Master of wine, but not quite” (he was somehow kicked out of the program but we don’t get full details on that), who immediately displays the sharp wit and skill that have served him in the sometimes cut-throat world of  luxury wine, as well as the shoot-from-the-hip impulsiveness that has led him to be blacklisted from it. It’s the classic bad boy-good girl team-up that may or may not be romantic, but definitely makes for a crack detective duo.

The journey to find the culprit or culprits who are spreading the destructive pest in the world’s vineyards is thrilling, with Interpol eventually getting involved as the protagonists make swings through Singapore and the vineyards and wineries of France, South America, South Africa, Napa, Italy, and Portugal. At times the book is written like a travelogue, and considering Laine’s background as an International traveler working in the high-end hotel business, it works really well.  I was on the edge of my seat … mostly because my wine geek side was fascinated with Laine’s real-life experiences of these vineyards and wineries which shined through on the pages.

The final solution is satisfying, though a bit bizarre, and the chemistry, or should I say ‘blend,’ of Corvina and Bryan, left me thirsty for more wine capers featuring these two intrepid oenophiles.

Root Cause is available at

Until next time,