Pandora's Bottle

By Joanne Lessner

Sy Hampton’s bid of half a million dollars at a wine auction wins him a bottle of wine. Yes, one bottle, but what a bottle it is. This is a Bordeaux, a Chateau Lafite 1787 once owned by Thomas Jefferson, and possibly still drinkable after more than 200 years. The winemaker at that time had experimented with the best barrel of the exceptional 1787 vintage, using extended maceration for 40 days and adding a secret ingredient. “La chose secrète” was still a mystery. No one knew what he had added, but it was supposed to preserve the wine and keep it drinkable for far longer than usual. Only the owner of the wine will be able to find out if it actually worked.

Once Sy acquires the wine he'd been coveting, he has to decide what to do with it. Drink it now, keep it, drink it by himself, open it up with other wine-lovers, or share it with a special someone? Sy opts for the latter, and invites a beautiful young woman to share the excitement of opening the bottle, with expectations of a wonderful evening together, enjoying something truly special. Hopes are high. And when he finally opens the bottle, he does not seem disappointed:

Sy lifted the bottle to his nose and breathed. The luscious aroma of earth, chocolate, fruit, and smoke was dizzying. Sheer, unadulterated desire overtook him, and his entire body grew weak.

The inspiration for Lessner’s tale came from an event that took place at The Four Seasons restaurant in 1989. New York wine merchant William Sokolin had been commissioned by a British wine firm to sell a Chateau Margaux 1787, etched with Thomas Jefferson’s initials, who was well known for his love of Bordeaux. Sokolin was hoping for $500,000 for the bottle but had had no cash offers to date. In showing it off to the other wine-lovers that evening, somehow the bottle was broken. Although the bottle did not shatter, it was punctured in two places. Wine flowed out and Sokolin fled, mortified.

Lessner takes this incident and runs with it, embellishing and exaggerating, then adding a diverse cast of characters, to produce a delightful romp. Take a few middle-aged oenophiles, a young woman with the seductive name of Valentina D’Ambrosio, a waiter/dancer named Tripp, an ambitious French-Canadian restaurateur, a young boy named Eric and mix well. Add some mistaken identity, a couple strong Brooklyn accents, and dashes of naivete, romance and suspense to spice things up. Finish with a large helping of humour and enjoy.

This is an entertaining read, but with some serious elements as well. We care about the men and women in this book as they make choices involving love, family, money and ambition. Sy is struggling with a mid-life crisis. The bottle is a kind of metaphor for his life; what will he do now that he has reached this point and realized some of his dreams? Will he remain alone or will he share his life with someone else? The event at the restaurant serves as a catalyst for several other characters to examine their lives and make some changes. These are significant decisions, but it never feels too serious. Everything is handled with a light touch.

Lessner leads us through the novel with ease and verve. She is a talented playwright, actor and singer and has written the lyrics to several musicals with her husband, composer/conductor Josh Rosenblum, including Fermat’s Last Tango and Einstein’s Dreams. Pandora’s Bottle is her first venture in writing a novel. Given how much fun she seemed to have with it, I’m pretty sure she will go for an encore.

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