THE CASE OF THE MURDERED CHARDONNAY
Or, How to ruin the taste of wine
by the Publisher
It was a sultry evening in town.
The sweat was just beginning to form under my oxford cloth shirt and roll down my back. It was the kind of night that makes you look longingly at back issues of fancy travel magazines. The kind that features miles of deserted tropical beaches with cool breezes gently blowing in the palm trees. And everyone wears an $8,000 watch.
You know what I mean
I opened the door to this new bar on First Street. It’s the kind that has lots of glass, plants, fancy wood, and waiters dressed like they had escaped from some kind of wannabe prep school.
No steaks, just kale, expensive macaroni, and fish. You know what I mean.
I moved over to the bar and leaned on the highly polished oak and placed my tired black brougham on the gleaming brass rail. I wondered who they got to polish brass these days. Nobody. Probably coated with some space age stuff of some kind. “Never Dullo” or something.
You know what I mean.
The bartender came over toward me, in his manicured hands was a white bar towel with a blue stripe that screamed imported, on his chest was a name badge in 20 point type that read “Harriston”.
Not Harry. Not Hal.
He smiled at me with perfect teeth. I knew what to order. It was that kind of place.
“Chardonnay,” I said, “California Chardonnay, the kind with someone’s’ fiscal year on the bottle.”
“We have many different ones for you tonight,” he said smoothly.” Russian River, Alexander Valley…”
I looked him dead in the eye and spat out my reply: “Sonoma Valley.”
He reached below the bar and I heard the gasp of a cooler door open and then the soft thud of it close. It was the kind of sound you hear at a wake when the booze runs out and the hearse is ready to leave. He placed a bottle on the bar. In the soft, dim indirect lighting I could see the expensive label on the back whispering to me exotic tales of Alc, pH, ML, and someone named Brix.
What a name for a dame, Brix Chardonnay…Vegas, tall, dreamy eyes, full lips, long legs, long golden hair, and a great finish…
Large beads of water were forming on the side of the bottle as “Harry”, I’d decided he needed to be called that at least once in his life, expertly took his rosewood French Waiter’s Corkscrew and after spending several years neatly cutting off the top of the dark cap, made a few twists of his wrist, a swift pull and popped the cork from the clear bottle full of golden promise.
“You’ve got a steady hand, Harry,” I said with a small smile.
He looked at me with narrowed eyes and didn’t reply.
Harry reached above for one of the gleaming large balloon glasses that hung above us like crystal bats in a cave.
Boldly, he poured the wine. It swirled around inside the huge bowl, the light from the brass fixture above sparkled with a thousand little lights. With a flourish, he finished without a drop escaping down the side of the bottle.
“Your Chardonnay, sir,” He said smoothly. We were closing in on tip time and he had throttled up to high charm.
I picked up the glass and gave the wine a gentle swirl. The color was perfect. I raised it. Then I noticed, its nose was gone. I mean hacked off and taken away. Maybe put in a box and mailed anonymously to some newshound.
I knew I was on to something. Something big. I tried to look casual as I eyed Harry over the rim of the glass. He hadn’t taken his eyes off me, or his mind off the tip to come.
A thousand thoughts raced through my brain. Was this Chardonnay? Who had monkeyed with the bottle? Whoever heard of a bartender named Harriston anyway? Where were my car keys? When was payday?
And, what about Brix Chardonnay?
Then I noticed that my fingers were growing numb. A cold feeling was slowly moving up my arm.
I took a sip of wine. Thin. Bitter. Cold as hell. Then I knew. It had to be. There was no other possibility.
I put the glass down on the fancy logo in the middle of the white bar napkin that Harry had slipped under the glass a moment before.
“It was you,” I said looking him dead in the eye. “There was no one else, only you.”
He looked nervously from side to side, but he was the only one behind the bar. Then he looked back at me.
“What do you mean,” he blurted out.
“You are the killer,” I said with cold fury. “You were alone with the victim. You slowly and cruelly…” I paused.
I suddenly realized that there were probably more victims, unseen. Behind the bar and in the back.
“Quickly, where do you store the wine,” I shouted, reaching across the bar and taking him by the collar of his peach-colored polo shirt. “Maybe there’s still time.”
His perfectly tanned face was turning pale. With a shaking hand, he pointed across the room to a polished oak door with a huge chrome steel handle. A brass plate said, “Keep Closed”.
I knew what it was. It was a walk-in cooler. Huge. Maybe hundreds of victims could be inside. In a flash, I was at the door. I grabbed the handle and the door opened silently on well-oiled hinges. A cold blast as from some half-forgotten nightmare greeted me.
When I had pushed aside the freezing mist from in front of my face, I saw them. Row after row. Just lying there helpless.
I wheeled. “How could you,” I screamed at Harry. “What did they ever do to you.” The room grew still.
He was frozen behind the bar staring at me with fear, guilt, and not a little fear for his tip all over his face.
“But, but, I don’t know what you mean, ” Harry babbled.
Before he could make a run for it, I was back at the bar. Taking him by the arm, I dragged him back to the open door, light mist still curled from the dark opening like a winter Carneros morning in the Sonoma Valley.
I screamed, “Look at this, it must be 28 degrees in here. How could they live in a place like that? You killed them.”
“It’s just white wine. It’s supposed to be cold,” Harry pleaded.
“Cold? Cold? Frozen you mean,” I said. “You can’t taste anything. There’s no aroma. No buttery taste. No damn apricots, pears, apples. No fruit at all. Some poor winemaker has gone crazy working on this. And you, with your own hands, have strangled it. Cut off its nose. Stifled it.”
Harry just looked at the floor. He shuffled a foot from side to side in front of him. I looked down. His highly polished boat shoe had never seen the sea. I bet Harry had never properly served a California Chardonnay either.
“Chardonnay is served cool, Harry. Cool to the touch. About 55 to 60 degrees if you’re the scientific type. Then you get all the flavors. Every one of them. Harry, listen to me. Maybe there’s still time. Turn up the thermostat on this locker and let’s let them come up a bit. They can still live, Harry,” I said with a rising voice.
Time stood still as we watched the thermometer rise. At 55, I watched Harry grab a bottle from one of the cases. Back at the bar, he pulled the cork from the bottle. This was for all the marbles. His hand wasn’t as steady as before, but you know the kid had guts. He poured the wine into two glasses and we both looked at the wine.
“It’s clear, the color is good,” I said.
We both noticed immediately the subtle aroma of the wine. The nose was back.
“No use ducking it any longer,” I said. With a single motion I brought the glass to my lips and took a sip.
Flavors swirled inside my mouth. Apricots, pears, apples, subtle toasty oak and more. I looked up from the glass at Harry. He was looking in his glass with a look of astonishment.
“This is terrific,” he exclaimed.
As I took another sip from my glass I reflected on what a close call it had been. The bartender topped off my glass.
“Harry, this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” I said with a smile. Case closed
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