It was late when I rang the doorbell at the estate in the hills above Napa. It was one of those retro-Italian, post-good-taste mansions that only a wad of new money could buy.
"Mr. Magnum, thank God, please hurry," Amanda Sternwood said. She was the second or maybe third trophy wife of Miles Sternwood, the scion of an electric nose-hair trimmer empire who had recently made Napa one of his many homes. Tall and sleek, she glided back across the marble floor like an ice skater confident of a perfect score.
Admiring her form, I followed her into the dining room. Done up in marble and mahogany, it had space enough for roaming buffalo. Somewhere near the center, guests were mumbling in groups around a big table that was littered with wineglasses and bottles wrapped in brown bags.
It was just as I expected: a blind tasting gone bad. In my job, I'd seen it plenty. The Sternwoods were trying to impress some new friends with a tasting of primo Napa Cabernets, but something went horribly wrong.
Only one bottle was unbagged: Screaming Eagle. I picked it up for a whiff. It didn't smell too fancy. "They're all from the 1995 vintage," Mrs. Sternwood said.
"A sublime year in California," added a guest, a young fella whose eyeglasses were such narrow rectangles that his eyes looked like hyphens. His stubby sidekick chimed in, "If only I'd put more in the cellar."
A crash rang from the kitchen and everyone turned, but I was undistracted and picked up a wayward glass for another sniff. Something, I decided, just wasn't adding up. Mrs. Sternwood motioned me toward the kitchen door, and I went over and slowly opened it.
The kitchen was a catastrophe on a scale that only FEMA could ignore. Tables were knocked over, pots and pans lay scattered around the room. A woman in a white frock, armed with a large whisk, cowered behind the fridge. Across the room, a well-dressed man was dunking another guy's head in and out of a large pot of liquid.
"No!" the woman cried, "I've been working on that lamb stock all afternoon!"
"Yes, and I'm …," the dunkee stammered sloppily, his head sinking and then reemerging again, "…a vegetarian!"
I pushed the two men apart. The dunker turned out to be Miles Sternwood, and his anger turned to fear. "Are you the police?" he asked.
"No, I'm Vin Magnum, wine detective."
"Vin," he said with relief, "The last thing I want to do is make this public, but this man has swindled me."
Once the stock was wiped off the man in question, I recognized him: Jack Meyers, a notorious local wine broker. "Hey Vin, thanks for the save," Meyers said. "This guy is nuts."
"Oh yeah, well, follow me," Sternwood said as we returned to the dining room. "This," he said, picking up the bottle, "is not Screaming Eagle!"
The bottle looked like your standard Screamer to me, and I said so.
"It can't be," Sternwood continued, "I rated it 14th out of 20. I paid $500 for that bottle, and this bastard sold it to me."
He proceeded to tear bags off each of the bottles and handed me a glass. It was a hell of a lineup: Bryant, Colgin, Pride, Araujo. "You try them," he demanded, pouring a taste of one in my glass. "Does this taste like Insignia to you?"
I hesitated for a moment, and looked around the room, then swirled the glass and took a whiff.
"Oh for God's sake, just taste it," Sternwood yelled.
"I thought it was monolithic," Mr. Hyphen-Eyes said. "I'm on the mailing list." "Yes," his toady added, "It was my top wine."
The color and aroma were all wrong for a 1995, but I swirled and spit it out. It was juicy and simple, but it sure wasn't Insignia. I looked more closely at the bottle and edged a fingernail under the label and peeled it off. Underneath it was a 2005 Two-Buck Chuck.
The room gasped collectively and I lifted my hat and wiped my forehead.
"Well," Hyphen-Eyes said, clearing his throat, "It is rather green and simple now that I revisit it." His friend added, "Yes, I'm beginning to hate it."
Sternwood in a rage tore the labels from each of the bottles to reveal an array of cheap brands: Barefoot, Barton & Guestier, Pepperwood Grove. "I paid you a fortune for these wines," he said to Meyers. "I bought most of my cellar through you. Are they all fakes?"
Meyers ran back through the kitchen door, and Sternwood was close on his heels. A thundering of pots and pans rang through the house as I walked over to the phone and dialed a number. "Hello," I said to the dispatcher, "can you connect me to Brett Rosenthal in homicide? I think I'll need him."
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