It was a dark and awful day, but that's Sonoma in January for you. My feet were just about the only thing on my desk as I leaned back in my chair and tried not to lurch over backward. I was listening to my secretary snoring in the next room when the phone rang. In a swift tactical move, she continued sleeping, so I answered it myself.
"This is Vin Magnum, Wine Detective."
"Hey, Vin," the voice on the other line said. It was Brett Rosenthal, an old friend and a lieutenant in the homicide division. "How's things?"
"Don't ask," I complained.
"I have a case I think you'll be interested in," Rosenthal said. "You know where Bistro Café is?"
"Sure," I said.
"Come down right away," he said. "You owe me one." Indeed I did. I don't recall exactly how that blind tasting in July got so out of hand, but Rosenthal saved my ass that night.
Bistro Café was a supposedly classy joint in a storefront downtown. I'd eaten there plenty, and the menu was the sort of California cuisine that took all the mystery out of eating. The coroner's van was pulled up to the door when I arrived, and Rosenthal waved me in. A man with a pained face was rigid in the middle of the dining room.
"Food critic?" I asked.
"That was my first thought, too, but no," Rosenthal said. "He's a business man from Chico."
"Poor bastard," I said as I looked around the dining room until something caught my eye. Or someone. She was a sleek blonde who had legs that went all the way up to the top floor and a rack of Riedels that were the biggest I'd ever seen. I complimented her as she playfully polished the glassware. "These are Schott Zwiesel, silly," she said. "It's a common mistake."
"Vin!" Rosenthal said from across the room. "Heel boy, I need you."
I walked over, and Rosenthal told me that the sommelier had barricaded himself in the wine cellar. I knew this sommelier, and he was bad news. He was always like a bottle of Champagne that had been shaken all to hell and ready to blow.
"Stay back!" I heard through the murky light.
"Harold, wait it's me, Vin Magnum."
Again something flew past my head, this time slicing into the case of wine above me. He had thrown a tastevin with edges sharpened like a ninja star, and it cut into the bottles. Wine began pouring out of the box.
"What was that?" Harold said. "Did something break?"
"Yeah," I said, leaning in for a taste of the wine. "I think it's a Bordeaux."
"Left or Right Bank?" he demanded.
I again leaned in for a taste of wine and told him, "Right Bank, I'm guessing."
"Dear God," he screamed, "not the Cheval-Blanc."
"It's hard to tell," I said, calmly.
"What have I done?" he yelled. "I hope at least it's the '99."
"Harold," I said, "We have to talk."
"What's the use?" he said. "He's dead, and he deserved it."
"We all do, Harold, we all do," I said, "but why him and why tonight?"
"He asked for it. He ordered a Merlot with…," he stammered. "I can hardly say it … Merlot with sea bass!"
"Well," I said, trying to humor him. "What sort of sauce?"
"Like it matters!" he rasped as another tastevin zipped past my head. "Sea bass for God's sake! The dolt!"
"You killed a man over that?" I asked.
"No, no, no," he said and then was eerily quiet for a moment. "That was just the last straw. The owner bought all these high-alcohol Napa Cabs and customers actually like them, and yesterday he said people might enjoy seeing critics' scores on the wine list. My wine list!"
Suddenly from behind me, Rosenthal yelled, "There's a customer out here who wants a bottle of Grüner Veltliner. We need your help."
"Yeah right, nice try," Harold barked. "How dumb do you think I am?"
"Harold," I said calmly, "take a breath and relax."
"Relax? And what about all these young punks who come into the restaurant and Twitter their friends for wine recommendations?" he asked, spitting out the words. "How can I compete with that? Who needs me anymore? Maybe I'd be better off if the cops put me away."
"You know," I said, drawing out my words for dramatic effect, "Maybe you're right. Think of all that time you'd have on your hands, time to yourself and to get away from all this pressure. You could study for your Master Sommelier certificate."
"I have that already," he said in a defeated voice.
"Well, then your Master of Wine."
He was quiet for the longest time. "Maybe," he said, more hopefully. "Or I could just change careers. I could go into winemaking, start my own label. I've had my eye on this little vineyard in Santa Barbara."
"There you go," I said.
"OK," Harold said, "I'm ready to come out."
I shook his hand as the police took him away.
"Thanks Vin," Rosenthal said. "Now we're even."
"For now," I said, as I winked at him. The blonde with the rack of Schott Zwiesels was looking my way, so I thought I might ask her to pour me a big tall glass of Pinot Noir.
I thought about calling my secretary to tell her I was calling it a day.
But I didn't want to wake her up.