The Return of Vin Magnum, Wine Detective

Episode 5: Murder is on the menu at a Sonoma dinner party
Mar 10, 2010

A storm lingered west of Healdsburg all afternoon, and just after dark it came in fast and hard. When I stepped onto the porch of the Cipollini mansion, I shook about a gallon of water off my coat. The Cipollini place was the oldest and classiest in town, just off the plaza. The family had been making wine in Sonoma County since the Last Supper or thereabouts. Dino Cipollini was the patriarch, and he was 96 or 97 or 110, depending on who you asked. (Anyone who really knew was already dead.)

I’d met Dino years ago when I was a young wine detective, and he took me under his wing. Later he put me on retainer. Occasionally I did some real work for him, but mostly I think he liked to drink Zinfandel with me and talk about the old days.

Dino’s wife, Carol, answered the door. After outliving his first two wives, Dino married a young bride, claiming he couldn’t bear losing a third. Or so he said. Carol was in her early 30s, and she was charming and not too bright and had the sort of body that made a guy wish he had three hands. She gave me a hug, and the air was full of lavender and almonds.

Dino was making an announcement to the family that night and had asked me to be there as a disinterested party, and I suppose for moral support. I wondered if anyone there suspected what was about to happen—that Dino was changing his will.

I exchanged pleasantries with the usual suspects. There were Dino’s children from his second marriage, Giulio and Salvatore, the last of the sons and the final nails in the coffin of the Cipollini dynasty. Giulio at age 44 was fat and fleshy and went through life with the grace of a rhino on a trampoline. He was friendly enough but passive-aggressively undermined everyone and everything. Younger by three years, Salvatore had his father’s good looks and ambition but the penetrating intellect of a thumbtack.

Giulio’s chief interest in life was his inheritance, and while Salvatore had a shaky tenure as the family winemaker, his career came to a quick end when bottles of the 1996 Merlot started detonating like torpedoes in wine shops. Salvatore’s replacement, Lyla Hill, was also there. She was the pale redhead with the weak chin who was pouring wine for everyone.

“Dino will join us in a minute. Why don’t we take our glasses into the dining room,” Carol said. I lingered at the back of the group as everyone filed out of the room. Then came a crash and a scream. I pushed through the people and saw Dino at the end of the table, face down in a bowl of pasta e fagioli. I lifted his head out of the soup and checked his pulse.

“He’s dead,” I told them.

Giulio started screaming all over again as Lyla tried to calm him down. Salvatore looked dazed. Carol took a very long drink of wine.

“He was never a good swimmer,” Carol said.

“What?” Salvatore said, “You think dad drowned, you imbecile?”

“Well, I dunno … Hey! Who you calling …,” Carol yelled.

“Oh, do shut up,” Salvatore interrupted. “What happened?”

“His heart must have finally given out,” Giulio said, wiping his face.

“Maybe,” I said, studying the room. No one had seen Dino for more than an hour, or that’s what they said. He could have keeled over into the soup, and it could have been worse—he did love pasta e fagioli. And yet something else wasn’t right. I wiped off his face, and it seemed unusually pink, then I opened his mouth.

“What are you doing?” Giulio asked, but I ignored him. Dino’s air passage wasn’t blocked, and there was no residue of the soup in his mouth, but his tongue was dark and purple. There was a bottle of wine beside him, and I picked up his wine glass, sniffed and then checked the bottle.

“This wine is badly corked,” I said, as much to myself as anyone.

“My God, that’s it, he had an extremely low tolerance for TCA,” Giulio said, starting to cry again.

“TCA does NOT kill people,” Salvatore said.

“It could be just terroir,” Lyla said.

Terroir doesn’t kill people!” Salvatore yelled.

“Shut up and sit down, all of you,” I demanded. Salvatore leaned into me as if to test my will, then stepped back and took a seat. The others followed. The last thing I needed was a distraction. I had to concentrate. I moved Dino’s chair back and examined his body but found no wounds or marks of any kind. I smelled the wineglass again. There was something in the wine besides TCA. What was it? I bent down to examine Dino’s mouth again and then it hit me.

“Dino,” I said, turning to the others, “was poisoned.”

The gasp was collective and loud.

“Oh my God!” Salvatore said.

“That’s it, I’m having the salad. No soup for me,” Carol answered.

“It wasn’t the soup that killed him,” I said. “It was the wine.”

“Everyone loved Dino. Who would want to poison him?” Lyla asked.

“Yeah?” Giulio said.

“A fair question,” I said. “Why don’t you tell us why you did it—CAROL?”

Stunned, Carol looked around the room with a blank face. “What?” she asked. “What do you mean?”

“Cyanide is a clumsy poison,” I told her. “What were you thinking? Even Giulio could figure this out.”

“Figure what?” Giulio asked.

“Carol killed Dad! God, keep up with the conversation,” Salvatore said, turning to Carol with a puzzled look. “Why did you do it? You had everything he had?”

Carol’s shoulders sank for a moment, and then suddenly her body went straight and rigid. When she finally spoke, her voice seemed deeper, and she turned to me. “How did you know?” she asked.

“It was the almond aroma I smelled on you when I came in,” I told her, “and then I had trouble picking it up through the TCA. You masked the classic bitter almond aroma of cyanide with a wine taster’s nightmare—a corked bottle of wine. Clever.”

“Why?” Giulio asked, “Why did you do it?”

Carol’s eyes narrowed; she pointed toward Lyla and said, “He changed his will and was going to leave everything to HER!”

As everyone looked toward her, Lyla hesitated for a moment, her eyes darting around the room until finally she said, “OK, yeah, she’s right. Dino was my boyfriend! He loved me. He wanted me to have his child.”

“Eww!” Giulio said, his face twisted with disgust. “How is that even possible—I mean, just the mechanics involved … He was 96.”

“97!” Salvatore insisted.

“Whatever!” Giulio said.

Lyla laughed greedily and said, “Dino was ALL man!”

Carol covered her mouth as all the color left her face. “And I gave that man the best years of my life,” she said.

“He never loved you. He was a Zin man for God’s sake, and you only drink Chardonnay,” Lyla said. “The relationship was doomed.”

“Both of you deserve a glass of the Zinfandel that Dad was drinking,” Salvatore said. “Mr. Magnum here thinks it’s killer.”

“Dino hated you even more,” Lyla yelled at Salvatore as the group of them crowded together in a small, angry mob.

They were too distracted to notice that I picked up the phone and dialed Brett Rosenthal in Sonoma County Homicide. “Brett, it’s Vin. Get over to the Cipollini mansion ASAP and have the coroner tag along.” I strained to hear his response with all the noise in the room, so I just kept talking. “What? No. Just haul ass. We’ve got one body, but the night is young.”

I scrounged up an unopened bottle of wine, pulled the cork and poured a tall glass, then I settled into the chair next to Dino.

“Salud, you old rascal,” I said, clinking my glass against his. “We’re in for a long night, but don’t worry, Dino, I won’t leave you alone with these bastards.”


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