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Authors: Peter Lewis

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BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
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5
I rose early
and walked outside. It was a glorious day. I called Janie.
“You’re up bright and early,” she said. “How’s Danny?”
“Still sound asleep. I don’t think he’s ever up before ten out here. Must be the air. And the quiet. We don’t get a lot of traffic.”
The old, familiar silence descended on the line. All I could hear was the symphony of birdsong from the trees that surrounded the clearing.
“Have you heard from your brother?” I asked.
“Nothing.” Then, after a moment, she said, “What did you guys do last night?”
“We had pizza, and then I read to him.” Silence. “And then I spent a few hours going through some of Richard’s old newsletters. There are people around here who have reason not to welcome him with open arms. I’ve put the word out that I’m looking for him,” exaggerating the fact that I’d called only one person, Biddy Teukes, to make a few inquiries on my behalf.
“You think somebody might act on a grudge? Is that it?” When I didn’t answer, she said, “Listen, Babe, I don’t want people talking. Can’t you just take care of this yourself?”
“How do you suggest I do
that
?” I said. “You have to ask people if they’ve seen him.”
“No, you’re right. It’s just that . . .”
“Just what?”
“I mean, I worry about him. I know people hate my brother.”
“They don’t hate him. They’re afraid of him,” I corrected her. But she was right, and I knew it. Wilson could make or break a wine, make or break a fortune. There had to be at least a dozen people who would happily stuff his face in a barrel, and that was just between Napa and Sonoma. I’d heard plenty of winemakers say so at the bar, even some he’d treated fairly.
“I appreciate what you’re doing,” she said. “You’re the only one I can ask.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I said. “I promise. I’ll call you later.”
I flipped the cell shut. I was pleased Janie had turned to me. It was the first chance she’d given me to prove that I wasn’t such a bad guy, after all, and I was intent on showing her that I could come through in a pinch.
Picking up where I’d left off, I pulled out a pad of paper and jotted down the name of every winery Wilson had treated harshly or scored poorly in the older issues. I was going to be methodical and demonstrate to Janie that I still knew enough about the wine scene to find her brother. I was startled when my cell phone rang, and assumed she was calling me back.
“Hi. What’s up?” I said.
“Babe?” It wasn’t Janie, but I thought I recognized the voice. “Richard?”
“No, it’s Colin.”
“Norton?”
“You need to come out here. Now. We found Wilson.”
The espresso pot sputtered on the stove. I gulped the scalding sludge, ripped a sheet of paper from the pad, and jotted a note to Danny. ENJOY THE MORNING. I HAVE TO RUN DOWN TO THE BAR. BE BACK SOON. LOVE, DAD. I walked to the rear of the trailer. My son was wrapped in the warm cocoon of the sleeping bag, his mouth open, deep asleep. He looked angelic. I tucked the note by his pillow. I doubted he’d even be up before I got back.
 
By the time
I’d driven the fifteen miles to Norton, the parking lot was awash in red, white, and blue flashing lights that pulsed like a
frayed neon flag in the fog. The Chevys and Fords of the St. Helena police and Napa sheriff’s departments were parked at odd angles, as if in near collision. An ambulance had pulled in closer to the entrance of the winery, its rear doors left open, expectant. The gurney had been removed. A white van was parked perpendicularly to the ambulance, its side door wide, its contents splayed on the asphalt as if it had been disemboweled. The evidence kits, cameras, print kits, tape recorders—everything had been pulled to work the crime scene over.
Inside there were already three cops from the St. Helena force. I recognized Jens Jensen, the chief, whom I knew by sight, and Russ Brenneke, a sergeant whom I knew better. With them was a younger, Asian-looking officer I hadn’t seen before.
No one stopped me as I walked through the doors, but Jensen, tall, stern, and Nordic, froze me with a look the moment I stepped up to the spot where Norton and I had stood the previous afternoon.
“Brenneke!” the chief bellowed, “Get your fucking pal out of the way. Where’s the goddamned tape? Would you please draw another perimeter?” It wasn’t a request.
As Brenneke searched for the roll of yellow tape, I hurriedly took in the scene. The place was a mess. They had already brought in the first load of fruit, and there were stacked bins and a half-empty gondola in front of the destemmer. The floor was littered with the grapes they’d tossed at the sorting table. Someone had been hosing it down, and I could see boot prints and tire tracks from the forklift and tractor. Colin Norton spotted me but made no acknowledgment. He was arguing with a tan-uniformed Napa County sheriff’s deputy while three Chicanos huddled off to the side, their wrists cuffed together with plastic bands. Two of them looked sheepish and terrified, while one just stood there stoically, looking directly at me. It was the same man Norton had been conversing with when Danny and I dropped by the winery.
“I’ve got a crop to bring in,” Norton kept repeating.
The deputy stood impassive, arms folded, oblivious to the appeal. Disdain was all that was visible on his face. Clearly, the cops had ordered Norton to shut down, and he wasn’t happy about it.
Brenneke approached me, readying the tape to set a second perimeter, and nodded for me to step back.
“Get lost, Babe. The chief’s having a shit hemorrhage. You working tonight?” he added under his breath.
“No, sorry. My son’s with me.”
“I’ll have to catch up with you later,” he said, and stretched the tape across the floor.
I turned and wandered back through the official vehicles and decided to check out the office. Carla Fehr was hunkered down on a bench, her shoulders shaking, head in her hands, hair covering her face. The staccato click and static of walkie-talkies reached us all the way from the winery, scratching the air.
She raised her head, hearing me come in. “One of the pumps went out . . . The giant oak thing . . . The hose was clogged,” she muttered. “Colin climbed up and found Richard floating inside. The smell coming off the tank . . . It’s awful.” She lowered her face into her hands again. “Awful,” she repeated dully.
It hadn’t been brett I’d smelled the day before coming off the
foudre.
It was the first bouquet of death emanating from the bloated corpse of Richard Wilson.
 
I needed to
get back to Danny, a visceral, primitive urge to protect him rising up in the pit of my stomach. But first I needed to call Janie. I pulled over on the side of the road just outside St. Helena. I sat there a minute, looking out to a vista of flatland vineyard that extended as far as the eye could see to a line of hills, periwinkle blue in the distance. An immaculate morning in the wine country.
I hit speed dial. Janie picked up after a couple of rings.
“Danny? Is that you, sweetheart?”
“No, it’s me. Janie . . .” I didn’t know how to tell her. “The police found Richard this morning.”
“Where is he, the stupid jerk? Is he in trouble?”
“Janie . . .”
“What is it? A DUI? I hope they locked him up. Richard Wilson, in the clink for drunk driving! Perfect.”
“Richard’s dead, Janie.”
“Oh, no,” she moaned. “No, no, no.” She finally grew silent.
“You okay?”
“Should I . . . ?” I knew what she was asking.
“Stay put. There’s nothing you can do here. They found him in a vat at Norton. A wooden fermentation tank.” I heard her gasp. “The cops are in charge now. I’ll call you when I learn a little more.”
“This is unbelievable. Missing is one thing . . . but dead . . . in a vat. This isn’t some kind of joke?”
“Janie, please. I would never . . .”
“No, of course not. I’m sorry.”
I wasn’t going to tell her I’d smelled him myself the day before, an unwelcome touch of macabre humor.
“What about Danny?” She paused. “Babe, I can’t do this without you . . .”
That voice.
“Pull yourself together. I know it’s a shock. I’ll do the best I can. Trust me.”
I couldn’t believe I’d said it, and then it was too late to take it back.
There’s a certain kind of woman a man keeps coming back to, no matter what the injury, no matter how severe the damage. And a certain kind of man who keeps going back. How many times can you have your heart broken and still take a sucker punch to the solar plexus?
The human capacity for pain is almost infinite. Almost.
 
Janie’s mother had
died the previous spring, and Janie decided to move her father, Bob, already in the grip of Alzheimer’s, to San Francisco. Her cottage on Telegraph Hill was too small for the three of them, and it would have been impossible for Janie to care for him anyway. She found a nursing home in Pacific Heights and paid for it with the proceeds from the sale of her parents’ apartment in Manhattan. During their mother’s illness and their father’s relocation, Richard had not so much rebuffed as neglected her. Janie was so competent that he assumed she could handle it. At their mother’s funeral he’d apologized for getting caught up in the demands that fame imposed upon his life: tasting trips, speaking engagements,
wine competitions, author appearances. She said she understood but couldn’t help being bitter with resentment. Now that Richard had been found murdered, she’d be guilt stricken as well. They’d never have the chance to clear the air.
I felt guilty, too. Wilson’s death was my opening, my one last, best chance to show her that I cared, that she could depend on me, that I was someone better than my own former self.
But I would need to immerse myself in the life I’d left behind if I was to understand who might have had a motive for killing Wilson. As I drove slowly through St. Helena, I decided to stop at a wineshop, where I bought every trade rag they had. Then I headed back up the mountain. Danny was sitting at the picnic table, eating a bowl of cereal and reading.
I sat across from him and flipped through the magazines, trying to avoid picturing Richard’s body. I wanted to tell Danny what had happened to his uncle but didn’t know what to say or how to put it. I distracted myself by skimming pages that I used to devour. If I’d thought of the wine scene as silly before, by now it was ridiculous. There were still technical pieces and travel pieces, vintage reports and buying guides, but lifestyle was the new thing: wine country décor, wine country entertaining, wine country markets, wine country bistros. I was reminded why I’d quit the game and congratulated myself, even if it had been a downwardly mobile slide.
The number of special events had exploded with the velocity and virulence of wild yeast: tastings, auctions, conferences, trade shows, a self-promoting hype factory, the wineries all vying for awards and scores handed out by individuals or panels composed of the same names whose bylines I saw over and over again in the pages of the trade press. And the ads!
Wine Watcher’s World
sported big, splashy, four-color jobs that treated wine as though it were designer jewelry or the latest luxury model off the assembly lines of Detroit.
I took the phone and walked out past the truck so that Danny wouldn’t hear me. I called Tanner Cellars and waited for six or seven minutes until Biddy barked into the phone, “What?”
“Sorry to break into your day, amigo, but Wilson was found floating in a tank this morning at Norton.”
“No fuckin’ way.” He whistled. “Richard Wilson. I can’t believe it.”
“Who’d want to get rid of him? I mean, sure, he pisses people off, but
murder
?”
“Hey, some people take their bad press very seriously,” Teukes said.
I knew he was right. Though I’d reassured Janie that people didn’t hate her brother, I knew it wasn’t true. They envied and resented him, too. He had become too famous, too iconic, too controversial.
“In a tank?” Biddy asked incredulously, as the news sank in. “How do you get a big guy like Wilson in a tank?”
“In the middle of harvest,” I added. The whole thing seemed impossible.
“No simple thing to waltz into Norton unseen,” Biddy mused. “So many people running around . . .” I could feel him trying to puzzle it together. “Gotta be someone at Norton,” he concluded.
“I read a bunch of Richard’s old newsletters last night. He liked Norton.”
“In a tank,” Biddy repeated. “Jesus, Colin’s a goner. Poor sonuvabitch.”
“Okay, assume for the moment that Norton’s cleared; who else in the valley might be gunning for him?” I asked.
The line was silent, and then he said, “Well, sure. Wineries, mostly. But if you’re looking for an individual, the only guy who comes to mind is Michael Matson. Great winemaker. Quiet, soft, a lovely cat. Very delicate style that could never stand up to the fat, tannic shit that shows so well when you’re tasting a hundred wines at a crack. Wilson took him out at the knees. Anyway, he basically lost the ranch. He’s a little bitter, but he holds his own. He splits his time between Chateau Hauberg and struggling to get his own thing going again. It’s an old pig farm—just a barn and a couple of outbuildings on White Cottage Road. Low, brick red, under a giant weeping willow. You can’t miss it.”
Hauberg was virtually in my backyard on the eastern slope of Howell Mountain. I’d driven by it dozens of times but didn’t know its owner or anyone there.
“Thanks, that’s a start.”
“No problem. Look, I’ve got to get back. The Cab is piling up.”
“Do me one favor: The only
Wine Maven
s I have are from years ago. Bring me some recent stuff to look at after you get off work.”

Bueno
,” Teukes said.
I returned to my reading. The magazines I had just bought leaned to favorable reviews—the formulaic run-through of color, bouquet, and extraction, their high marks always falling on the side of big, overly ripe fruit. I knew such verdicts came on the heels of extensive tasting: sixty, seventy, a hundred wines in one sitting. No surprise that any juice characterized by delicacy would get lost in the shuffle. But I knew most of these wineries could stomach a low score. Their pockets were deep and their production sufficiently extensive to sustain a slam or two each season. Hell, most of the boutique wineries had been bought up by giant liquor conglomerates anyway.
BOOK: Dead in the Dregs
8.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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