Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
Robin Burcell shares her love of Lodi wine in an international best seller
Robin Burcell is a novelist who lives in Lodi, California. She has published her own series of police procedurals, but since 2015 she has been busily co-writing international best sellers for Clive Cussler, the New York Times Best Selling author of more than 80 books of fiction — including the 1976 classic, Raise the Titanic!, plus two books turned into blockbuster movies (one of them, 2005's Sahara, starred Matthew McConaughey, Steve Zahn, William Macy and Penélope Cruz, and was produced and distributed at a staggering cost of $241 million).
Ms. Burcell's own life has been one huge adventure. Before embracing her current career as a high-profile novelist, she spent 28 years working in law enforcement. She was, in fact, the Lodi Police Department's first female officer, starting in 1983. Because of that, for years she had to make do with a converted storeroom as a locker room. She also served as a hostage negotiator and a FBI Academy-trained forensic artist, then moved to Sacramento County where she worked for 10 years as a Criminal Investigator, before retiring to write full-time in 2010.
But now she lives a life of high risk, adventure, riches, and even a little romance through her fictional characters. Here is our own summary of the characters and story created by Ms. Burcell and Mr. Cussler as written in their latest book, Wrath of Poseidon (released May 2020), which is significant to us because it happens to have a Lodi flair:
His name was Sam Fargo. He was a Caltech engineering graduate who'd done some work for the Defense industry, but at the time he was employed as a grocery store shelf stocker and drove a used, beat-up Jeep Wrangler. When he wasn't pulling night shifts, he was surfing.
The challenge was that he'd just caught a second glimpse of a tall, slim, wavy red-haired lady with green eyes and a smile that, simply, dazzled. She was standing at the doorway of a landmark Hermosa Beach jazz café, wearing a tailored linen shirt and navy capris. She looked around and then waved at a table of three other women of apparently even bluer blood, probably East Coasters. He, being a Californian with a very limited line of credit, was clearly way out of her league. In theory.
Before joining her friends she walked up to the bar, a few feet from where Mr. Fargo was sitting. He watched her pick up a wine list and overhead her asking the bartender if they had any Spanish wine. The bartender said, "Sorry, it's California or bust." Her girlfriends called her over saying, "Remi... we have wine!" A bottle of Chardonnay.
And here's where the story starts to cook, as Burcell and Cussler have Mr. Fargo picking up the wine list left at the bar. Quoting directly from the book, Fargo begins...
Scanning the list of California reds, seeing the host of usuals from Napa, all with price tags to match and out of his new lifestyle. He skipped past them and saw a reasonably priced California Spanish wine from the northern San Joaquin Valley. He got the bartender's attention. "I'll take a bottle of the Bokisch Tempranillo and four glasses. Can you send it to the table where the redheaded woman is sitting?
Sam watched as the waitress brought over the wine and glasses, setting them on the table.
"I think there's some mistake," the blond woman said, "We didn't order any wine." She pointed to the bottle of Chardonnay.
"From the gentleman at the bar."
All four women looked in Sam's direction. One gave a cool smile, then shook her head. "Thank him for us, but we can't accept."
Sam, seeing the waitress reach for the bottle, walked over, saying, "I'm actually on my way out, but I hear you were celebrating. Four of you, four glasses, and a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo. Enjoy."
He started to turn away when the redhead caught his gaze, her green eyes alight with a mixture of curiosity and wariness. "You were at the beach today."
The other woman looked at him with renewed interest, the blond saying, "You're the one who saved that surfer. The hero."
"Hero, no. Right place, right time? Yes."
It was, as it turned out, the perfectly right place and timing for the two of them. Just then, the other women got up to leave for another restaurant where they had dinner reservations; but the red-headed lady, whose name was Remi Longstreet, decided to linger behind to savor her glass of Lodi-grown Tempranillo. Turning to Mr. Fargo, she says...
"You're welcome to join me."
"I don't want to keep you from your friends."
"I can miss the appetizers." She lifted the bottle. "I've never heard of this winery."
"The bartender assures me it's very good."
"And how do I know it's not spiked and you're some stalker?"
"I'll take the first sip." He poured a small amount into two glasses, sliding one across to her, then held his aloft. "To whatever it is you're celebrating."
They touched rims. She waited for him to drink first, then followed suit. "That is good... Black cherry, dark chocolate... and a hint of cranberry." She picked up the bottle. "Tempranillo is grown in California. I see a wine-tasting trip in my future."
Remi Longstreet's future, as it would turn out in this fictional world, would be ten years of roaming around the world solving ancient mysteries, finding long-lost treasures, and fighting off bad guys with Sam Fargo, who became her husband. Mr. Cussler has published no less than 12 novels featuring this married team, called the Sam and Remi Fargo® Adventures.
Mr. Cussler passed away earlier this year at his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona at the age of 88. But his book characters are in good hands. Since 2015 Ms. Burcell has co-written five of the Sam and Remi Fargo® Adventures. Their latest book, Wrath of Poseidon, circles back ten years to when Sam and Remi first met, at that cool café in Hermosa Beach where Sam was brazen enough to buy a bottle of Bokisch's Lodi Tempranillo for that table of four ladies clearly out of his league.
I sat down with Ms. Burcell last week at Wine & Roses Hotel, where she feels perfectly at home as not just a longtime Lodi resident, but also because one of her daughters used to work at Wine & Roses' wine-country-chic Towne House Restaurant. Another daughter has been helping Bokisch Vineyards with their special events, so the real and imaginary worlds of Sam, Remi, and the Burcells are somewhat connected. Here's how Burcell relates her own story as a writer, which is also lived out, to a certain extent, by the characters in her books:
"During our five years of working together, I would fly out to meet with Clive Cussler at his home in Arizona, at least twice a year. He always had a vivid idea of exactly how he wanted his books to play out — the specific treasures he wanted Sam and Remi to find, the exciting places around the world they'd be going.
Lodi's Robin Burcell, award-winning author, during her police days
"The first time that his agent contacted me about collaborating on books, I had just finished The Last Good Place (November 2015), the fourth book in the series of novels that were originally written by Carolyn Weston, which served as the original base for the old television show The Streets of San Francisco. I started to panic a little because I knew all about Clive's books. The characters in my own books knew about police work because that was my life. But I didn't know anything about underwater diving, classic cars, historic ships, or the techno-thriller stuff they do in all the Cussler series. But Clive always worked very closely with his co-writers, and I had a lot of fun learning everything I needed to know about the things Sam and Remi did, even if they are such badasses — world-class mountain climbers, crack shooters, experts in hand to hand combat...
"One thing about Clive, he was also famous for his wine cellar. Like his characters, he is definitely a connoisseur of the highest order. It was funny, at least to me, the first time he took me out to a restaurant in Arizona, and I heard him say 'I'll take a bottle of Opus One the same way we order bacon and eggs. The wine was wonderful, of course, and I almost wanted to hand our waiter a cell phone to take a photo so everyone would believe that I was having dinner with Clive Cussler with a bottle of Opus One.
"If we went to an Italian restaurant, of course, he'd order a Brunello di Montalcino, and so now I have a taste for red wines made from the Brunello grape. I remember the first time he ordered a bottle of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, and I completely flipped because I happen to adore grapefruit, and that wine is all about grapefruit, unlike any California Sauvignon blanc I'd ever had. I don't know much about wine, but I do know that a great way to learn about wine is by writing books with Clive Cussler!
"For our latest book Wrath of Poseidon, it was my idea to have a little flashback to 2010, at that little jazz bistro in Hermosa Beach where Sam and Remi first met over a bottle of Bokisch Tempranillo, which was something Sam could afford at the time. The night she met Sam, Remi was celebrating the finding of a sunken Spanish galleon off the coast of California, and I thought Bokisch's Spanish varietals fit right in. There's a nice bit of serendipity to that, plus the fact that I'd had the wine a few times myself — it's like, Lodi is in the story, and so am I.
"Living in Lodi all these years, my husband and I could never really afford the really good stuff as you find in Clive's cellar. Like everyone else, we have been slowly discovering how good the Lodi wines can be, especially in the last 20 years. Today Lodi wines are much better known, and we show them off to friends, the same way Sam does in the book. Later in the story Sam and Remi enjoy a bottle of 2000 Château Mouton-Rothschild, which is more like what Clive might order in a restaurant. In one of my last dinners out with Clive, we saw a Lodi wine listed on a wine menu. We had a good laugh about that — just the thought of going all the way to Arizona to taste a Lodi wine!
"I admit, that little dig in the book about the price of Napa Valley wines was no accident. We used to go to Napa Valley all the time to taste wine. But it's reached the point where we have to say that Napa Valley wines may be more expensive, but that doesn't mean they're that much better than Lodi's. It just means they're more expensive to make, mostly because of higher land values. So consider the mention of Bokisch Tempranillo to be a score for the home team. And besides, as Remi says, there's a little taste of cranberry in the wine, along with dark chocolate and black cherry. I'm not a connoisseur, but as far as I'm concerned any wine with cranberry, chocolate, and cherry in it is a no-brainer to me!
"For Wrath of Poseidon, I also thought the treasure should be gold stolen from the Persian King Croesus in 546 B.C. One of our Sam and Remi fans happened to have contacted me through Facebook, saying we should consider setting a novel in Greece where she lived — on the little, tiny islands of Fourni, an archipelago way out in the middle of nowhere where about 50 ancient shipwrecks have been found. I talked to Clive and he thought it was a great idea, so off to Greece, I went, with one of my daughters.
"In any book I write I find that it's important to have been to the places where the stories are set to be more authentic. I remember in one of my previous books I had a character being chased by bad guys in the streets of Naples while riding a limousine. But when I actually got to Naples and saw that there was no way that a car the size of a limousine could even fit on the streets of Naples, I had to change that storyline drastically. That's why it was important to explore the islands of Greece to write Wrath of Poseidon.
"I also think it's important that in every book there's a little piece of me. I find a way to fit myself in the stories, especially where it means something to the characters. I write because long before I joined the Lodi Police Department I dreamed of being a writer. I think Clive was attracted to me as a co-writer because half of the Sam and Remi team is a woman, and he wanted to get that perspective.
"It didn't hurt that I had 28 years of law enforcement experience to back up my writing. But I only became a police officer because I was the type of girl that if someone told me I can't do something, I'm going to do it. I signed up to join the Lodi Police Department at a time when I was living in Stockton, working as a bookkeeper at a hardware store and a cashier at an ice skating rink. I was also pretty serious about ice skating — as a child I dreamed about being in the Olympics — and being a skater was what helped me pass the physical requirements for making the police department, which were pretty rigorous.
"As a matter of fact, the Lodi Police Department lost the postcard notifying me of the acceptance of my application. I got a call from the secretary to the Lodi Chief of Police who told me they had just found the card stuck behind some shelves. The bad news, though, was that the oral examinations were finishing up in 15 minutes, and if I wanted to join the department I had to get there fast. I was at work in Stockton at the time, but I told her, 'I'm just 15 minutes away.' I got there on time, but you have to imagine a 21-year-old girl showing up, among all the male applicants who were dressed up in suits and ties, and I was in my warehouse work clothes — bright red jeans, tennis shoes, and blue and white striped shirt.
"I got through the oral examinations just fine, and then 16 weeks of Police Academy training in Modesto. Then it was getting through my first month's probation as a police officer, then my first 2 years, then my first 5 years, all the time saying to myself that I'm going to fight and get through this one step at a time, even though along the way there were always lots of people saying that a woman has no business doing this job.
"28 years later, upon my retirement, some of those people who expressed serious doubts about me came up to congratulate me for a job well done. But I was still always that girl daydreaming about doing something else, off in a world of my own. I always wanted to write. Even as a kid I often started novels, which never got past a few scribbled pages. But I kept at it and finally started finishing them. Like a lot of aspiring writers, the first books I wrote were all rejected. One agent even accidentally left one of my query letters in between the pages of the manuscript I had sent in, and on it, she had written a big 'YUCK,' in capital letters. But I finally sold my first book in 1994 and got it published in 1995. Wrath of Poseidon is my 15th book.
"I think it helps to be a daydreamer and to never give up on your dreams!"