Lefty's Lounge was humming as I walked in and pulled up a stool. I was waiting for a client so I skipped the hard stuff and asked for a glass of Zinfandel. Lefty's was an old downtown dive bar that had a brief stint in rehab and was now considered retro-seedy and therefore cool. Go figure. Anyway, Lefty could still shake up a martini that would pop the hat off the Pope.
When my client came in the door, I motioned him to a booth in the back. His name was Walt Cooper and he owned a winery in Russian River Valley. "Thanks for seeing me," Cooper said as he ordered a Petit Verdot spritzer and cautiously scanned the room. His drink arrived and he drank it swiftly and ordered another.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Cooper?" I asked.
"It's my wi…" he sputtered, his eyes filling up as he hid his face in his hands.
"Take it easy Walt," I said.
"My wi…" he muttered before losing it again.
"Your wife?" I finally asked.
"What?" he asked as his face rose from hands. "My wife? No! My winemaker. He's cheating on me, the bastard."
I almost blew that one. His wife, Ava Cooper, was a hazardous combination: smart and luscious, a woman equipped with the sort of curves that required power steering. Over the years she had discovered more young winemakers than U.C. Davis.
"What makes you think," I said, trying to sidestep the wife issue, "that your winemaker is cheating on you?"
"His hands, well, they always seem stained red," he answered skeptically.
I shrugged, not understanding.
"We only make Chardonnay!" he growled under his breath.
It took me a while to calm Walt down after that but he finally gave me the winemaker's name and address. I knew the guy: Ryan Mitchell was the fidgety type, wound tight. The next morning I was parked outside Mitchell's bungalow and followed him to the Healdsburg plaza, where he parked. I tailed him around town as he changed taxis three times, which is no easy feat in Healdsburg. Finally, his taxi pulled up outside an old warehouse and he went in. I followed him inside.
"Who's there?" Mitchell said from the shadows, then a light switched on. He was wielding a wine thief at arms length.
"What? You gonna barrel-taste me to death?" I asked, holding my arms up. "I'm Vin Magnum, wine detective." I looked around and tanks and barrels of every size were scattered around the room and the scent of wine was heavy in the air. "You making a little vino here, Mitchell?"
"No," he said hesitantly, putting his arm down. "This, you know, is a friend's place. I'm just doing a favor."
"Right," I said, walking over to him, "Look, Mitchell, your boss is onto you. It's no use."
He looked at me for the longest time, then the air eased out of him as he sat back onto a stack of boxes. "What am I going to do?" he asked himself and then turned to me. "For 12 years the only wine I ever made was Chardonnay. Do you know what it's like doing the same thing year after year?"
"Well, I've never been married myself."
His voice turning high pitched and edgy, Mitchell said, "It was just so god-awful boring. We did the big oak thing and we did stainless, then malolactic and no malo at all. I stirred lees until I got tennis elbow. We did whole cluster, wild yeast, we filtered the hell out of it for a while and then we didn't at all. And you know, at the end of the day, it was still just Chardonnay."
"Mitchell, I feel for ya," I said, "but I have to report back to your boss."
"No, no you don't," he said jumping to his feet, a glassy red look in his eyes. "Taste my wines and you'll know I'm right, you'll know that I have to keep going. It's like this quest I'm on!"
"Riiight," I said, ever-so-slowly backing away. "A quest, sure."
He grabbed me by the arm and frantically dragged me toward a stack of barrels. Before I knew it he was pouring me samples of a Russian River Pinot Noir, then a Dry Creek Zin. They weren't bad. His voice grew downright manic as he continued to draw tastes with his thief: a Grenache, a Cinsault, three different Cabernets and a Malbec.
Trying to escape this guy, I said, "That about does it for me Mitchell, unless you have Touriga Nacional or something," giving him the best wink and chuckle I could muster.
Suddenly he was all twitchy and his eyes got big and scary looking, like a kid whose sneakers were on fire. "Oh… oh… I have a 30-gallon barrel in the back," he said, pushing me along. "And you just have to taste this outrageous blend of Aglianico and Nero d' Avola that I put together. That 10-gallon barrel over there is Blaufränkisch—just try buying a bottle of that at Whole Foods!"
By then he was walking around sort of aimlessly and there was a faraway tone in his voice. "I have two gallons of Zweigelt brewing in that spit bucket. I wish I had more tanks. What I really want to make is Tannat. Then maybe Folle Blanche. Wait. No! Whites are out. No white wines. I'm done with …. "
His voice trailed off as he whispered to himself, so I backed away and out the door. I got in my car and drove away quickly.
Too much Chardonnay, I guess, is a dangerous thing.
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