Book Talk: Joanne Lessner inspired by famous wine incident

SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Singer Joanne Lessner was always fascinated by the story of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine that was never sold when it suddenly struck her that it was a great starting point for a novel.

Her debut novel, “Pandora’s Bottle,” released this month, is the story of what can happen when you pin your hopes on a single event and it all goes terribly wrong.

The plot for the book is based on a true event from 1989 when New York wine merchant William Sokolin had been consigned a bottle of 1787 Chateau Margaux believed to have once been owned by Thomas Jefferson and was seeking to sell it for $500,000.

But with no buyers he took it to a dinner at the Four Seasons where somehow it broke, with differing accounts exactly how that happened, but Sokolin claimed the insurance money.

In Lessner’s novel a financier decides to uncork a bottle of 1787 Chateau Lafite once owned by Thomas Jefferson in private for a lady friend leading to repercussions that prove emotional, financial, theatrical and, in every way, unexpected.

Lessner, an actor/singer/writer who has been a soloist with the New York City Opera and whose play “Critical Mass” receives its New York premiere in October, spoke to Reuters about writing:

Q: What sparked the idea for the novel?

A: “I’d been kicking the idea around for 8 or 9 years. First it was going to be a musical. My husband and I write musicals together and we were looking for a new project when he one day reminded me about the story of a waiter who dropped a bottle of wine from the French Revolution and all the wine aficionados dropped to the floor to sup up the spilled wine. This appealed to my warped sense of humor.”

Q: What happened to the musical?

A: “When I start to write the libretto the story did not really sing and we shelved it. A few years ago I was looking for something to write and I had a V8 moment in the middle of the night and realize this story would make a great book.”

Q: But was it true?

A: “When I researched the actual event I learnt that the things that had drawn me to the story were embellished but the kernel of the story was true. A collector had a bottle on consignment that he was trying to sell for $500,000. There are many versions of what really happened but most eye witnesses say the collector knocked the bottle against a table and it broke but there was no one leaping onto the carpet to slurp it. But by then my imagination had taken hold.”

Q: Did you know much about wine?

A: “Wine in general is a fascinating topic. There are people who know and love it and people who don’t know it but are fascinated by it. There is a fascination with what kind of person would make an investment of that kind in a bottle of wine and then see it crash to the floor. All that money and you never get the chance to enjoy it! But this feeling is universal because at one time as we have all pinned our hopes on one event or person.”

Q: Did you have much research to do for the book?

A: “I did. I have always enjoyed wine but I had to learn more about it. I went to several wine auctions and visited several wineries. I spent a day in the kitchen of a restaurant. One story line I didn’t have to research was the waiter who is a struggling actor. I have lived that, being a working singer/actor in New York for 20 years.”

Q: Did it take long to write the book?

A: “I wrote it very quickly. I had been percolating the idea for such a long time. Three months from start to finish. But it is hard to get traditional publishers to take a risk on a first time novelist. My rejection letters were quite lovely and extremely supportive of the writing and the characters. One of the comments I got was the oenophiles prefer non-fiction.”

Q: What did you learn in the process?

A: “Stick with it. It you believe in your product take any encouragement you get along the way as a good sign. Remain open to the unconventional as things can happen in the most surprising places.”

Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, editing by Paul Casciato