From Vines to Wine—a research journey to Tuscany, Italy, Switzerland, and California: Guest blog by Christa Polkinhorn

I love a glass of good wine with my meals and I love Tuscany, which is one of the reasons I situated my novel, The Italian Sister, in one of my favorite areas of Italy. Since I knew almost nothing about grape growing and winemaking, I had to do quite a bit of research. I read books, navigated the internet, but the best parts of the research were my trips to Tuscany, to Switzerland, and also to one of the wine regions in California, Paso Robles. I walked through vineyards, took photos, and most of all, I talked to many people involved in growing grapes and making wine. It was an eye-opening adventure. I was amazed to find out just how much work, science, and art goes into the process of transforming vines into wine! All the people I met were extremely helpful and generous with their time and made this part of my research a truly memorable experience. My friends and family patiently followed me around vineyards, introduced me to vintners, and shared their knowledge with me. And, of course, I got to taste some excellent wine.

One of the first exposures to winemaking during a vacation in Tuscany together with friends and family was in Querceto, a Tuscan hill town about half an hour inland from the Mediterranean coast. Querceto is a small hidden pearl of a place. The only tourists here seem to be those who have heard about the excellent wine that’s being produced in the local wine press house.

Figure 1

We found a castle, a church, one restaurant with lodgings, the winery, and plenty of friendly, helpful people.

Here is where it all happens, the magical transformation of grapes into wine. In these huge fermentation steel tanks, the grapes simmer and sizzle until just the right time. After pressing and fermenting the grapes, the juice is transferred into barrels where it ages and is eventually put into bottles for us to enjoy.

Figure 2Figure 3Sounds magical? In reality, it is hard, backbreaking, and often dirty, sticky work. And the risk of a bad harvest when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate has ruined many small vineyards and winemaking outfits. You really have to love this process to continue. I haven’t met a vintner or winemaker who wasn’t passionate about his work.

And here are some of my loyal friends who patiently took me around to vineyards and wineries. Cheers! By the way, that young boy on the right is NOT drinking wine, just smelling it!

Figure 4If you want to know more about this charming hill town and its vineyards, here is a link:

Marchesi Ginori Lisci

The Tuscan villa near Cecina we stayed in as well as the many Tuscan houses made its appearance in my novel as well.

Figure 5Figure 6On one of the days, my nephew and I took a trip to Volterra, the hill town that served as inspiration to my imaginary town of Vignaverde in the novel. The drive through the gorgeous Tuscan landscape made me aware again, why I chose this to be the locale for my work. No matter what time of the year or day, Tuscany always shows its mysterious and charming face.

Figure 7Figure8Figure 9And here we are in Volterra. The walls surrounding the town are a mixture of Etruscan (about 700 BC) and medieval architecture. Situated on top of a hill and protected by thick walls, the towns were in a perfect position to fight off roving aggressors during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Inside the city, the narrow cobblestone streets are lined with a multitude of shops, coffee shops, small restaurants, and art and crafts galleries. Volterra has fewer tourists than the more famous hill towns such as Siena. The majority of the people are locals and the town has a vibrant life of its own.

Figure 10Figure 11Figure 12

In Switzerland, I visited a vineyard as well. My friend Silvia De Lorenzi did an apprenticeship as a young girl on a vineyard and introduced the family of vintners to me. Now in their third generation, members of the Obrist family were generous enough to take time out of their busy day during the grape harvest to show me around the vineyards and the wine press house. Another good friend accompanied me on this outing to a beautiful part of Switzerland, called Bündner Herrschaft.

Figure 13Figure 14

As you can see, winemaking is heavy-duty physical work as well as an art and science.

Back in California, I didn’t have to look very far to find excellent wine areas. One of my favorite places is Paso Robles in the Central Coast area of Southern Calfornia. Here I discovered the vineyards and winery of the Caporone family, one old Italian immigrant family of vintners and winemakers. It is a small outfit, run solely by a father-son team. Marc, the son, spent hours showing me around and answering my many questions. And he introduced me to my favorite Italian wines: Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Aglianico among others.

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If you want to know more about The Italian Sister, here is the blurb and links to the book and my website.


Standing at her father’s grave in California, Sofia Laverne mourns his untimely death. Henry had not only been a loving parent but Sofia’s best friend and mentor. Imagine her shock and grief when she finds out her father had lived a double-life, that she has a ten-year younger sister and inherited a vineyard in Tuscany. Torn between anger about his betrayal, grief for her loss, and hopeful anticipation, Sofia packs her bags and takes off for Italy to meet fourteen-year old Julietta. Arriving in the small hill town of Vignaverde, she is greeted by olive groves, neat rows of grape vines, and picturesque houses. Some of the inhabitants of this beautiful estate are, unfortunately, less welcoming and resent her intrusion into the family business. Soon, strange occurrences begin to frighten Sofia. When a suspicious accident lands her in the hospital, Sofia fears for her life.

Cheers! You can find me on the following websites. I love to keep in touch with my readers!

Amazon Author Page



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Christa Polkinhorn is a writer and translator who lives and works in California and part of the year in her native Switzerland. When she doesn’t write, she reads, travels, gets together with friends, enjoys a glass of wine or a piece of dark chocolate. 

Time to chat with Christa!

What is your latest book?

Emilia, a novel dealing with a family of artists and their struggles with love and creativity. It takes place in the south of Switzerland, in Paris, and Peru.

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Is your recent book part of a series?

Yes, it is part of a trilogy, at least so far. The former two novels are An Uncommon Family and Love of A Stonemason.

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If you were to advertise your book on a bumper sticker, what would it say?

Wine, Love, and Espresso!

What do you think some of the greatest misconceptions about indie authors are?

That independent authors are lazy and want to take the easy way out. If you take your writing seriously, it is a lot of very hard work. Writing a novel is only the first step. Then comes the editing and proofreading. You have to find a professional editor—the author is too close to the work to see it clearly and to catch all those bugs. You have to do the formatting for print and ebooks and the cover design, unless you can afford to hire someone or have some loyal friends with designing and Photoshop skills. And then comes the uploading and tweaking and back and forth. But, of course, it is also a lot of fun and very satisfying to be in control of the whole process.

What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?

I love writing the first draft when I have a pretty good feeling for the overall structure and content of the book. Sometimes, it is frustrating but there are these “aha”-moments when a chapter is done and I feel: YES! The least enjoyable part is the very last few edit passes I do myself before publishing the book. I have some wonderful editors, proofreaders, and beta readers, but in spite of their excellent work, I still end up finding a few typos that everybody, including myself, overlooked and I keep tweaking the style and in the very end, I am so exhausted, I can’t stand to look at my work anymore.

Some writers edit excessively as they write; others wait until a novel is finished to do the bulk of the editing. How about you?

I edit as I write, sometimes after I finish a few paragraph and always after I finish a chapter. The extensive and major editing, however, comes after I finish my first draft.

What do you like best about the books you read? What do you like least?

I am an avid reader and enjoy a wide variety of books, from the more academic or experimental to a good old-fashioned love story or mystery.  I always look forward to reading that first page and I hate reading the last one of a good book, because, now it’s finished and I don’t want it to end.

How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

Since all my books take place in several countries, I sometimes need to go back to familiarize myself again with the different locals. These are places I have either lived in or visited but in order to write about them, I have to pay close attention to the many details. I want to give my reader a vivid impression of the environment so they can experience the story through the senses of the characters.  Since I love to travel, that part of the research is very enjoyable. In Emilia, there is a chapter about Paris. I was in Paris many years ago, but I can’t remember a lot of things. Since it wasn’t possible for me to travel to Paris before finishing the novel, I had to use pictures, videos, and travel books. Fortunately, a close friend of mine lived many years in Paris, so I was able to have her read the chapter and make corrections.

Have you received reactions/feedback to your work that has surprised you? In what way?

I have received both positive and negative reviews of my books; fortunately, the positive ones far outweigh the critical ones. I am always surprised and deeply grateful when someone posts a glowing review or even sends me a personal email, telling me how much he or she enjoyed the book and that it touched him or her on a deeper level. That is the most wonderful experience.  I also read the negative ones and I can always learn from them, as long as the criticism is constructive. If someone merely says they hated the book and couldn’t understand how anybody else could like it, without even giving a valid reason, then I just ignore that review. You have to grow a thick skin in this business.

Do you write anything besides novels? Care to share?

I began my writing career as a poet. I wrote poetry and some were published in literary magazines. I also had a small volume of poems, Path of Fire, published by a poetry press, called Finishing Line Press.  I feel writing poems can teach you how to express feelings and thoughts in a very compressed, succinct way, with images rather than with descriptions. I haven’t written any poems for quite a while, since I have been focusing all my energy on my novels.

Do you miss spending time with your characters when you finish writing them?

Oh, yes. The reason my first novel turned into a series was because I couldn’t let go of my characters. Now, I decided to write something completely different. So I sent my characters on an extended vacation, and I already miss them.

Would you like to write a short poem for us?

Why not? Here is a short one from my collection Path of Fire:


Sometimes I too

want my name

on the title page of someone’s life,

want to bask in the

warmth of a smile,

burst like a dew-soaked

seed in the sun.


It is true that happiness

hangs by the thread of a dream?

Only in dreams

do I fall into the

dark well of your eyes.


When the alarm shrieks

I wake, holding

a naked heart

in my fist.

Where do you live now? If you had to move to another city/state/country, where might that be?

I live in Southern California and normally a few months out of the year in a small town near Zurich, Switzerland. As much as I like California, I also love the East Coast of the United States. When I first came to this country, I lived in New York City as well as in Vermont. Last year, a friend of mine and I took a trip through Maine and I fell in love with that state. If it only weren’t so darn cold in winter there. In Europe, I would love to live in the Ticino, the southern canton of Switzerland, or somewhere in Tuscany, in Florence or Siena for instance.

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?

Life! And we often take it for granted until we lose someone close to us or experience the closeness of death ourselves. I try to be grateful for something in my life every day.

What are the most important traits you look for in a friend?

Tolerance and a sense of humor.

Care to brag about your family?

I was lucky to grow up in a wonderful family. Like Emilia in my novel, I was born late into my parents’ life. I had a sister who was eighteen years older than me. My parents and my sister unfortunately passed away. My mother, however, lived to the ripe old age of 102 and she was able to live at home until the few last months of her life.

What was your favorite year of school? Why?

I loved first grade. Everything was new and exciting. I was a nerd in school. I always did my homework first thing after I got home. It wasn’t work for me; it was fun.

What might we be surprised to know about you?

I come across as confident to most people. In reality, however, I am very shy.

What makes you angry?

Politicians or people in general, who are mean-spirited, cold, greedy, selfish, and look down on the poor and less fortunate members of society.

What music soothes your soul?

I love classical music and the Oldies but Goodies of the sixties and seventies.



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