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Originally published August 8, 2010 at 7:01 PM | Page modified August 10, 2010 at 10:30 AM

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Lit Life

Seattle's Peter Lewis: From Campagne to crime fiction

Peter Lewis is a well-known, and well-read, Seattle restaurateur. He's now also a crime-fiction writer; his book "Dead in the Dregs" was recently published by Counterpoint. Peter Lewis appears at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Elliott Bay Book Co. and Third Place Books in September.

Seattle Times book editor


More about the book:

Author appearances

Peter Lewis

The author of "Dead in the Dregs" will appear at these area locations in September:

• At noon Sept. 8 (book signing only) at Seattle Mystery Bookshop (206-587-5737 or

• At 7 p.m. Sept. 9 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or

• At 7 p.m. Sept. 15 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or

Lit Life |

Peter Lewis is a boldface name on Seattle's restaurant scene: the co-founder and owner of the Pike Place Market restaurant Campagne and its bistro sister, Café Campagne. Though Lewis sold the highly rated restaurants in 2000, he still keeps his hand in the business through restaurant consulting.

Others know Lewis as a passionate supporter of the literary arts. He's friends with a host of A-list authors and writers (Jim Harrison, Mario Batali, Charles Bowden); he's presided over many sumptuous meals for touring authors; he was president of the board of Port Townsend's Copper Canyon Press and, for a brief time, its acting publisher.

What few in these intersecting worlds have known (but are about to find out) is that Lewis has been working for seven years on a murder mystery. Just published, "Dead in the Dregs: A Babe Stern Mystery" (Counterpoint), is set in even more rarefied territory than that of gastronomes and A-list authors. That would be the cosseted world of French wine growers, and the wine writers who can destroy their multigenerational businesses with a few choice words and a subpar rating.

The protagonist of "Dead in the Dregs" is Babe Stern, an ex-Seattle sommelier who runs a bar in California's Sonoma County.

The brother of Babe's ex-wife is Richard Wilson, who writes an influential wine newsletter and grades wine on the unforgiving 100-point scale. When Wilson is found murdered at a California winery, floating in a vat of wine with one hand cut off, Stern suspects an expatriate from the French wine world. At his ex-wife's behest, he travels to Burgundy to investigate.

While this premise is catnip for anyone intrigued with the outsized influence of wine writers (think Robert Parker), Lewis says it took years of refining and distillation to make it work.

Lewis got a Lannan Foundation residency in 2004. After several weeks of intensive work, he had a 110,000-word manuscript. "I got a draft done," says Lewis. "Being the naïf I was, I said; 'I've written a book.' "

He had the material. He'd traveled to France every year for 20 years to buy wine for his restaurants, an entree into the closeted world of Burgundy wine growers. "The families are very guarded, very close, very decorous ... I had the opportunity to watch the wine writers, and watch the wine makers around them."

But maybe he knew too much. After several rejections by agents and publishers, agent Al Zuckerman read the manuscript and "came back with pages of notes and a brutal line edit." Then he found a publisher — Counterpoint — who introduced him to Michele Slung, a veteran editor of manuscripts for Mysterious Press. "Encouraging but unforgiving," he recalls. Her advice: Strip away everything that doesn't contribute to the narrative arc of the story, including a lot of that fascinating wine stuff.

Slung also advised that with mysteries, any unlikely plot twist (such as an American ex-sommelier pairing with a French colonel of the gendarmerie to solve a crime), has to be credible. So through an intermediary, Lewis managed to meet with a French cop who helped him inform the character of Colonel Sackheim, the French policeman who teams up with Babe to solve a series of increasingly gruesome murders.

Discerning mystery readers will have to decide for themselves the "credibility" issue, but the book is an evocative insiders' tour of French wine country that a tourist will never see. And what of the judgment of the wine world? More than one wine writer gets bumped off, and the deaths aren't pretty. Lewis awaits feedback while he works on his second Babe Stern book, set in the world of Seattle restaurants. He can count on an avid readership in at least one circle — our city's food lovers, restaurant workers and gourmands.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at

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