“Colin, this is my son, Danny.”
Norton shook his hand and said, “What do you think?”
“Awesome,” Danny said.
“You wanna see something cool, follow me.” Norton led us from the winery through an arched doorway into the barrel cellar, a warren of tunnels that receded into darkness, their walls flocked with a stuccolike material.
“It’s like the Bat Cave,” Danny said.
“Go explore,” I said. “I need to talk to Colin. But don’t get lost.”
“What’s up?” Norton said as my son disappeared into a tunnel.
“What time did Richard leave last night?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. I had to take off. He said he wanted to make a few more notes, and I told him to make sure the front door was locked behind him.”
“Was anybody else here?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. Just me. Why?”
“His sister—my ex—has been trying to find him. They were supposed to have dinner the other night, but he never showed. He hasn’t returned her messages.”
Colin’s expression said,
I said, “The young woman who was here yesterday—Carla Fehr? They’re having an affair. She waited several hours for him last night. He never arrived.”
Norton shrugged. “I don’t know what to say, except that I’m not very happy to hear about it. I should probably say something to her.”
Danny emerged from the cellar and came up to us.
“What do you think?” I said.
“I’m sorry, but I need to get back to work,” Norton said. “I’ve got to check temperatures.”
He escorted us back the way we had come, stepping over hoses that lay tangled across the floor. Two of them rose to the rim of the giant oak casks from a small pump that suddenly kicked in. They must have stood twelve feet tall.
“We’re pumping over,” Norton said. “It’s impossible to punch these babies down.”
My nose picked up a whiff of something off: a barely discernible hint of mouse shit and dirty copper that was all but lost in the reductive stink of fermentation.
“How old are they?” I asked, indicating the
“Ancient,” Norton said.
“When was the last time you scrubbed ’em out?” I suspected the wood had been infected with brettanomyces, a yeast that embeds itself in cooperage and spoils the wine.
He looked at me questioningly.
“I think you’ve got some brett going on,” I said. It was hard to detect, but I was sure I was right. Norton seemed to resent the unsolicited advice and wanted to get back to his wine. “Well, listen, thanks,” I said.
We shook hands. Norton walked over to one of the tanks and studied the thermometer on its gleaming flank.
“Cool this sucker down!” he cried to no one in particular.
We drove the
length of the Silverado Trail north and took Deer Park Road toward home. The road wound back through the blasted rock and red earth, the cliffs streaked by the westering sun. It finally started to cool off, and the earth regained some of its fragrance. Stands of Douglas fir and alder, Scotch pine and banks of manzanita, and the trellised roses that branched like the deltas of hidden springs along the roadside all seemed at last to exhale.
On the back of Howell Mountain, the black tendrils of irrigation tubing looped like a tenuous wavelength across the tops of milk cartons that dotted the terraced slopes, little gravestones commemorating the slow death of ten thousand vines.
“What are those for?” Danny asked.
“They’re there to protect the young vines.”
“The glassy-winged sharpshooter—
—a half-inch vector, as the bug scientists say, that consumes ten times its body weight in liquids per hour.”
Danny scrunched his face. “What?” he exclaimed.
“Imagine drinking six hundred pounds of water every hour. That’s like, I don’t know, sixty gallons or something.”
“Are you teasing me?”
“No, it’s true. They basically suck the vines dry. Even worse, they
transmit a bacterium called Pierce’s disease that blocks the tiny tubes in a plant that carry water and nutrients. The vines die within a year or two. So they had to replant everything. They put those milk cartons there to protect the new rootstocks.”
“Do vines drink milk?”
“No, silly. Kids drink milk. The cartons are empty.”
Danny sat quietly, trying to imagine, no doubt, what it would be like to chug sixty gallons of milk an hour.
Our silence was pierced by the sharp cry of blackbirds. Flocks of finches flitted through the bushes, and high above, buzzards soared the thermals. We passed a vineyard of old-vine Zin, now no more than gnarled stumps.
“See those?” I said. “They’re eighty, maybe ninety years old. Since before Prohibition.”
“That’s when the federal government banned alcohol. Drinking liquor was against the law. And you couldn’t make wine, either, but they made an exception for the old Italian and Spanish families living in the valley. Wine was just too important a part of their lives.”
Ramshackle ranch houses littered the pockets of cleared land on the flats as we neared the turnoff to the trailer. When we arrived, Danny dropped his backpack on his bed—there were two in the back of the Airstream—and curled up with his DS.
My periodic attempts to quit smoking—a habit I’d acquired during the divorce—had become the butt of Mulligan’s merciless sarcasm, but I never touched a cigarette around my son. I confined myself to cigars, as if that were somehow better. I grabbed a Juan Clemente Club Selection No. 2 and went outside. I needed to call Biddy Teukes, and I needed to call Gio, my on-again-off-again girlfriend.
It was late enough in the day that I felt I could call Biddy without pissing him off. Still, my fingers moved reluctantly as I punched in the number for Tanner Cellars. I waited a good five minutes before I heard my friend snap testily, “Teukes. Who’s got the balls to call me in the middle of harvest?”
“Sorry, Biddy, it’s Babe.”
“Babe, what’s cookin’, brother?” he said, his tone softening. “No sweat, man. We’re done for the day. I just say that shit for effect.”
“I get it. Listen, I wonder if you can help me out. My ex, Janie Wilson, has asked me to track down her brother.” I paused, knowing that the next thing I said was going to blow his mind. “Richard,” I said. “He’s MIA.”
“Richard . . .
’s your fucking brother-in-law?”
“And you never thought to tell me? I thought you loved me. What are you, some kind of asshole?” I could picture his face, ticked and incredulous.
“Hey, cut me some slack,” I said. “Have you seen him?”
“Why would I see him? You ever read a review of Tanner in the
“Look, you know everybody in the valley. I just thought . . .”
“You just thought what?” I didn’t respond. “No,” he finally said, “you obviously don’t think, but word’s out he’s in the valley. Sharpening his hatchet for the next issue.”
“Could you make some inquiries? Find out if he’s been spotted?” I asked, knowing I was pushing it.
“Your timing sucks.”
“I realize that.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said and hung up.
I knew that a lot of winemakers resented Richard, but I was unprepared for Biddy’s petty ire. Tanner Cellars was just the sort of place that never found its way into the pages of
The Wine Maven.
Teukes probably felt neglected and unfairly maligned, but if anything, Wilson’s was a sin of omission, not of commission. Better no review at all than a shitty score.
Next up was Gio.
Giovanna Belli was a black-haired beauty who’d first appeared at Pancho’s the previous winter. After some casual conversation, engaging in the banter that always wings its way across a bar, one thing led to another. A couple of movies, a series of dinner dates, and finally, a night at the trailer. Other nights had followed. She hadn’t mentioned her last name when we first started going out, and when she told me, I thought about cutting off the relationship. Her father, Anthony Belli,
was the owner of one of the largest Napa wineries. The estate, preposterously luxurious, was modeled after an Italian palazzo and stuffed with his collection of modern art. But his daughter, in addition to being rich, was intelligent and beautiful and improbably sweet, and I found myself unable to end it. She was the first and only woman I’d been with after my breakup with Janie. I’d told her about Danny on our first date and wanted her to meet him, but the bar was too busy over the summer and I’d been forced to put off my visits with my son. We’d promised to make it happen when he next came, but now it was the middle of harvest. Worse still, Richard was missing, and I felt distracted. I hadn’t prepared for dinner, and there was no way she would spend the night with Danny sleeping in the next bed.
“Hi,” I said. “It’s me.”
“I know it’s you. My phone tells me who’s calling. How are you?” Her voice was quiet and lovely, and all I wanted was to look up and see her sitting across the picnic table from me.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Is Danny there?”
“Yeah. Sitting inside, playing with his little gizmo.”
“That’s what boys do,” she said. “They play with their little gizmos.”
I laughed. “Not that kind of gizmo. At least, not yet. Look, I don’t think it’s going to work tonight.”
“Of course not. I knew that.”
“Yes, I did. Anyway, I’m exhausted.” She stifled a yawn.
“How’s it going?”
“Fine. The fruit is superripe. Twenty-nine degrees. A bumper crop.”
“Bravo,” I said, trilling my
“It’s not just Danny’s being here.”
She waited for an explanation, then said, “What’s wrong?”
“Janie’s brother is missing.”
“What do you mean, ‘missing’?”
“Missing. Disappeared. No one’s seen him. He was supposed to have dinner with her in the city, then didn’t show. And last night he was supposed to see a woman who works at Norton, but he never arrived.”
“What do you care?” she said. I didn’t blame her for not wanting to hear about my ex-wife, even less that I seemed apprehensive about it.
“Richard and I . . .” I began.
“Richard,” she said.
“Wilson,” I supplied.
“Richard Wilson,” she said.
“I should have told you. I wanted to. It’s just that . . .”
“I’m trying to put the past behind me,” I said limply.
“You can never put your past behind you. It follows you, like a shadow.” She stopped, then said, “I’ll call you later.”
The cigar was out.
I left it sitting on the table and walked back inside.
“Come on,” I called to Danny, “let’s eat.”
I pulled a pizza from the freezer and turned the oven on. While it was cooking, I walked back to the beds.
“Wanna see a secret?” I said.
He put down the DS his mother had bought him—the Game Boy I’d given him wasn’t cool enough—and sat up.
“Did you know the berths of Airstreams hide storage lockers?” I asked. It was a stupid question. There was a latch beneath each of our mattresses in plain view. I pushed one and let the door of the cabinet down. Three boxes. “My hidden library,” I said mysteriously. I pulled them out one by one and opened the flaps. “Books,” I said, peering into the first, “magazines and newsletters,” I said, opening the second, “and maps,” I said, tapping the third.
“Hunh” was all my son had to say. He flopped back on his pillow, turned his back to me, and resumed playing.
I hauled the boxes one at a time and put them under the kitchen table at the front of the trailer.
“Pizza!” I cried.
After dinner, Danny
got into his pajamas and snuggled in his sleeping bag. We read a couple chapters of
The Sword in the Stone.
“Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” I said.
“Don’t let the glassy-winged sharpshooters in,” he said, “or they’ll suck my blood.”
We opened our eyes wide in mock horror and laughed. I bent down and kissed him and said goodnight.
Darkness had gathered. The fog was just starting to drift through the breaks and had already blanketed the valley floor. Though the days remained hot, the nights had turned chill. I could see nothing to the east but a sliver of moon hanging over the ragged line of a stand of pine trees that crested a deep purple slope. The wind hissed through an olive grove.
In one of the boxes I found my files of
The Wine Maven,
three folders of back issues. I grabbed the Juan Clemente from the picnic table and hunkered down with the newsletters over the last of a bottle of Jade Mountain La Provençale at the kitchen table. Chairman Meow jumped onto the bench and curled against my leg, a disinterested sphinx.
In my previous incarnation I’d followed Wilson’s newsletters religiously. As I glanced through them now, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for at first. Typically Wilson’s reviews ran middling to good, and a few tended toward the ingratiating, but when I came upon the first of what turned out to be a series of nasty reviews, I realized there were winemakers out there whose reputations Wilson had destroyed. I decided, just out of curiosity, to flag them. By the time I’d finished, the newsletters sported a half dozen Post-its. Around midnight, I walked back, pulled Danny’s sleeping bag up around his shoulders, then nodded off myself.
I had a dream: I was walking. The sun stood behind me, casting a long shadow. Janie appeared in front of me, leading me on. She would walk, stop, turn to face me, and then turn away. I could never catch up with her. She was a phantom. By the time I woke the next morning, I wasn’t even sure if the woman in the dream had been her.