“Water to Wine” was originally written for the audio anthology, Metatropolis: Cascadia from Audible.com. It was a shared world anthology, built on a story by Jay Lake about what might happen to the Pacific Northwest in the future. Because I wrote the story specifically for audio, I had given “stage directions” for how I wanted lines to be read by the actress, Kate Mulgrew. For the Subterranean version, I went back through the story and wrote additional material to cover the emotional content that a narrator’s voice can deliver. The story is the same, but it is adapted for a different medium.
Water sprayed out from beneath the wine barrel, carrying the faint stink of sulfur with it. I suppose it’s crazy to have a fondness for the smell of rotten eggs, but that means cleanliness in the wine industry. I shut off the hose and wrestled the barrel off the ancient Gamma-Jet, rolling it to the racks outside the cellar door so it could drain in the sun. I tend to grunt whenever I heave a barrel off the ground and let it drop onto the metal frame. It’s not the weight so much—an empty barrel weighed about a hundred pounds—but the size is awkward. I’ve seen men who can’t do this, and take a certain delight in being able to heft them. My hands are constantly getting nicked from where the metal hoops at the ends catch me, and the scarring would ruin any chance at a career as a hand model. As if I would leave the winery voluntarily. Still there are days when a physically easier job would be welcome.
At the far end of the cellar, my dad tromped into view. I straightened, putting a hand against my lower back as it cracked in protest. I hadn’t expected him back from Portland for another couple of days, so the trip either went really well or really badly.
He stopped at the end of the gravel drive running by the side of the building and cupped his hands to shout. “Emma, come in, when you’re done.”
I glanced into the dark of the cellar. Ten more barrels waited for me, which would take another hour or so. I wasn’t sure my curiosity could wait that long. “Be right there,” I hollered back.
He nodded and stomped toward the tasting room. That he hadn’t told me to wait till I was finished started a pool of dread at the base of my spine. I checked to make sure the bunghole was down so the barrel would drain, then hurried inside.
The tasting room had been converted to an office when I was around eleven or twelve, but the family still called it by its original purpose even though folks rarely made the drive out from the city these days. Originally, the high-ceilinged room had been built to host large groups of people and I can still remember all the wedding receptions that had hired it when I was a kid. They’d cleared it out when Susan got married last month and the room still hadn’t regained its usual clutter.
Dad stood in front of the wall of windows overlooking our vineyard, his hands tucked into his back pockets. Late afternoon light ducked under the broad eaves of the terraced balcony outside to light up the dust motes floating in the tasting room. Dad was a silhouette against the view. I’d grown up with it, but the sight of the vineyard spreading out around them in waves of vines still impressed me. It’s like a visual reminder of theterroir of wine, the expression of the place that the wine originates as a landscape painting.
The click of the door closing echoed off the polished concrete floors and Dad turned to face me. “Well. I think I might have ruined us.”
I stood, with my hand still on the door knob, trying to scan his face against the backlight to see if he was joking. “What do you mean?”
He took off his wire rim spectacles with one hand and rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know. Sit down.” He waved to one of the pine tables near the window where we usually ate lunch. I released the doorknob, aware that I’d been clenching it as if I could flee. Settling into a chair opposite him, I waited as Dad cleaned his glasses with the hem of his shirt.
He rubbed the hemp fabric in compulsive circles on the glass. “Sam Milton has ‘left’ the distribution business. I met with the man who bought him out. A fellow named, Ram Horn, if you can believe it.”
“Are you serious?”
“His parents were ranchers. They thought it was funny.”
“Poor guy. So now he’s in the wine business? Interesting switch.”
Dad settled his glasses on his nose. “He’s offered to buy us out.”
I cocked my head to the side, trying to understand. There was no benefit that I could see to the distribution company owning a winery. The distributors controlled the flow of wine through the region and had to some degree taken on the old de facto role of banks. Wine, it turned out, made for a surprisingly stable local currency base in the new economy. It was something purely of the region in ways that no other crop could express. The terroir, you see? Not that this helped individual wine makers any more than it had helped individual prospectors during the gold rush. The distributors, on the other hand, had a lock on controlling the supply and demand of wine from across the region and the means to move it to outside the region. If a distributor was going to get involved in wine-making, he wouldn’t do it at the boutique scale that we worked at. But why else would he want to buy us out?
“I thought you said that he owned Northwest Vintage Distributors now. Is he wanting to start making his own?”
“No… He wants to shut us down. He offered me three choices. Sell to him, move to a vertical farm or keep making our own, here.” Dad leaned forward and tapped on the table to emphasize the next three words. “With. No. Distribution.”
My jaw actually dropped, of its own accord. “What? Why? Does he know who we are?”
That sounds cocky. I’ll admit it. But we have old growth Pinot Noir vines.
Okay…before we go any further, you gotta understand this. The Pacific Northwest is one of the few regions that can still grow vinifera grapes, which is part of what makes it a valuable commodity for the region. Sure, if you wanted Muscadine wine, you could head to the mountains of Tennessee, but man—that stuff has some bizarre artificiality like the wines were petroleum distillates. Pinot Noir is a cool climate grape so all the places that it traditionally grew, like Burgundy, are too hot for it now.
In fact, there are some French houses that have tried moving way up into the northern end of the Cascades to grow it, but the soil and elevation aren’t right in most places. The few that are there…well, those are all young vines yet. No telling how they’ll do. Well, they’re French, so they’ll probably do well. But my point is that they don’t have established vines yet.
We have established Pinot Noir vines, which is why I was so stunned that Northwest Vintage would drop us. “You said he was a cattle farmer? No idea how—”
“He’s a rewilder. He showed me charts and a whole Spot-Light presentation on how much damage we are doing to the land.”
“Damage!” I had to laugh at that. “We’re a bio-dynamic winery, for Pete’s sake. No chemicals, no intervention, just grapes, wild yeast and time. Is he high?”
“He wants to re-wild the land and shut us down and he’s offering us the choice of a buy out or running us out of business.”
That made me slump back chair in disbelief. Re-wilding. When the climate started shifting, some of the other vineyards had given up and let their vines run wild. It’s hard to kill a grapevine, even if the weather isn’t right for making wine, but deliberate re-wilding of our land would mean pulling out old-growth vines that had been in the ground for decades and replanting forests. “So what did you say to his offer?” Ruin could come in two forms. Had Dad chosen to ruin the wine or ruin the company? Not that I had any real doubts; he loved the wine too much to mess with it.
“I explained that a winery been on this land for over a hundred years and that any damage was long since done. I explained about our practices. I talked about how we had old growth vines here and that moving wasn’t an option. He didn’t care. So I walked. Figured we could go to Northwest Signatures even though they are smaller.” He spread his hands. “They’ve been bought out, too.”
“Don’t know. They’re out of business.”
I wrapped my arms around myself, suddenly cold. “That’s a lot of money.”
“Have you talked to anyone else in the valley?” We had a pretty tight community, at least among the folks who’d stuck out the economic and climate changes.
“It was news to most of them, but two had heard the same tune, different variations. Domaine Halcyon is opting to try vertical farming, but their vines were getting slammed by phyloxera so they were going to have to replant anyway. Kadroj Vineyard is going for the buyout, but the twins don’t have anyone to pass the business on to.”
I held up my hand to stop him. “Dad, wait.” I swallowed against a new source of dread. “Would you have sold out if it weren’t for me?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. Your sisters don’t have any real interest in the winery. I love it but…it’s already so compromised. It’s been years since we could get French oak and even American oak we can only add in chips.”
“The Russian isn’t bad.”
“True. It’s not.” He stopped and snorted. “Of course, oak is one of the things Mr. Horn wants to plant here when he rewilds.”
“When.” I reached across the table and grabbed his hand. “Dad, if you want to sell to him, then we should think about it.”
“I’m not sure what choice we have. How are we going to move the wine without a distributor? That’s what I keep coming back to. What good is having a winery if no one is drinking your wine?”
“But…do you want to quit?”
“I came from California when it got too hot to make wine there. I’ve spent years cultivating our vines so that they would adapt to the climate change… No. No, I don’t want to quit. But perhaps…perhaps we don’t have a choice.”
“No.” I shook my head, pulling out my PDA. “We’ll find another way, even if I have to sell door to door myself.”
If there was one thing I have to say about my big sister, it is that Lizzie can be very…focused in her conversation. The kitchen rang with the stridency of her voice. “Are you out of your ever-loving mind? Let Dad retire, for chrissake. The world does not need another winery.”
I carefully lifted a dish out of the cupboard and took a breath to calm myself before answering. This was supposed to be a quiet family meal and Lizzie didn’t come home that often. “Actually, we do have unique vines on the property and in another twenty years we might be the only people growing Pinot Noir in the States.”
“Nobody cares, Emma.” Lizzie slammed a baking sheet on the counter. “Everyone is making their own, locally. As they should be, and they don’t care about things like vintages and new oak or varietals. Hell. I don’t even care about it and I grew up knowing the difference between cold soak and carbonic maceration.” She dipped a cloth into the goat butter on the counter and began greasing the baking sheet with a vengeance. “Take the money. Get out while there’s still some value to the land.”
“What happened to ‘the land belongs to everyone?’”
Lizzie stopped abruptly and leaned against the counter, her shoulders hunched. “Well that’s sort of the point of rewilding, isn’t it?”
Fine, then. I carried my stack of dishes to the dining room table and started setting the table for five. Susan and her wife were supposed to be joining us, but the newlyweds hadn’t been in evidence for the last hour. Not unless you counted the occasional thumps from Susan’s old room. A particularly loud pair of thumps caused me to glance at the ceiling. “What are they doing up there?”
“Sweetie, if you have to ask, then you need to get out of the vineyard more.”
A flush of heat swept up my face. I ducked my head as I set the plates with care upon the table and prayed she couldn’t see my blushing. “It’s not like they’re being rhythmic.”
“Newly. Wed. Do you have to know any more than that?” Lizzie rummaged in the cupboard. “Where’s the sugar?”
“We’re using honey, mostly. Cabinet to your right. Second shelf.” I waited until Lizzie put her hand on it before continuing. “So how are things in the Cascadiopolispolispolis daughter-cities?”
“It is not that hard to say.” Lizzie added the honey to a small metal bowl and shrugged. “It’s fine.”
I paused, waiting for more. When Lizzie had left she’d been full of excitement about the new project but her sudden intense concentration on the wet ingredients for the biscuits she was making either meant something had changed, or that she just needed to count spoons of honey really intently. Walking back to the counter, I tried to see my sister’s face. “That’s less than the glowing review I was expecting.”
Lizzie shrugged again. “It’s like anything. Some parts are good. Some aren’t there yet.” She gestured around the kitchen with her measuring spoon. “I mean, when I come back here all I can see is the wealth that we threw away. It’s such a waste of space, the two of you living here by yourselves.”
I pulled back, feeling like I’d been slapped. “Hey—”
“I don’t mean that you are wasteful.” Lizzie grimaced and put the measuring spoons down, then turned to face me. “It’s just that the house is and you will inherit the waste and you’ll have no choice but to work to maintain it and the land and it will just—. Look at how tired Dad is all the time. What happens when he gets too old to work? Will you do everything by yourself? And then what. I mean, take a look and tell me what you are you working towards. In the long term. What comes after you?”
“The wine.” I shook my head with disbelief that we could have come from the same family and yet Lizzie still didn’t get it.
Lizzie drew in a breath to argue with me more, but Dad walked into the room, smiling. “There’re my girls.”
“Two of us, anyway.” I pushed away from the counter and jerked my thumb to the ceiling. “Susan and Batari are upstairs.”
He glanced upward and cleared his throat. “What may I do to help in here?”
“We’re in pretty good shape…” I trailed off, seeing Dad deflate a little. He so clearly hungered for the sense that we were still a big happy family. “Want to make the salad?”
The three of us busied ourselves in the kitchen, keeping the conversation to memories and filling the room with laughter in a way that had been missing for years. I had to admit that the kitchen Mom designed to accommodate a large family, plus harvest guests, was too big for just me and Dad. Since Susan moved to Portland for work and Lizzie took off for the Green life in post-Cascadiopolis we just rattled around in the space. Most nights one of us threw something together in the smaller kitchen in the tasting room, or ate at the counter, ignoring the massive farmhouse table. It was better with Lizzie and Susan home. Maybe we could think about letting go of the house or repurposing it in some way.
By the time the polenta casserole was out of the oven, Susan and Batari had come down, all flushed.
“Am I too late to help?” Susan brushed a strand of her hair back behind her ear.
Lizzie snorted. “Yep.”
“It’s my fault.” Batari waved her hand.
“Young lady, I do not want to know any details.” Of course Dad only made Batari flush deeper and Susan giggle.
There were times when I don’t feel like the youngest child but right then, it took an act of willpower not to roll my eyes. I picked up the salad and led the way to the table. “Some of the honeymoon details, on the other hand, would be great. The pictures you posted looked amazing.”
“Maryhill was incredible.” Susan leaned against Batari for a moment, and I was pretty certain that she wasn’t thinking about the location. “You should see the view. There’s a run-of-the-river turbine that’s got nearly a 2000 foot head and they’ve built a viewing platform so you can stand over it and look straight down the turbine.”
Batari wrapped her arms around Susan and squeezed. “Didn’t I say you would like Maryhill?”
She turned her head and pecked Batari on the cheek. “You didn’t tell me it had new micro-turbines.”
“It was not easy to keep that from you either. Lizzie had to help.” Batari rested her chin on Susan’s shoulder, clearly pleased that she had arranged such a treat for her bride.
God. They love each other so much that it just kills me. I don’t know what it is, but I get this pang of loneliness when they are all lovey. I have to look away from their intimacy. Why lonely? I don’t even like people.
Lizzie pulled her chair out, prompting us to take our places around the table. Eldest child. She always, always thinks she can boss us around. “Well, I think it’s wonderful that they decreased their impact.”
Of course she did. Now, I’m smart enough to keep that thought inside and just settled my napkin in my lap instead of saying anything. All I wanted was to get as far through the meal as possible before the next confrontation.
“What?” Lizzie stared at me.
“What, what?” I raised my eyebrows in question.
Lizzie pointed at me with her fork. “You snorted.”
“Did too.” Lizzie waggled the fork. “Do you not think decreasing their impact is a good thing?”
“Don’t start, Lizzie. And don’t put words in my mouth.” I smoothed my napkin, the linen fibers snagging on my calluses.
“But it does segue into the reason I asked you girls to come home.” Dad spooned some polenta on his plate with deliberate care. “So let’s talk about it. Should we keep the winery?”
He set the spoon down and looked around the dinner table. I ducked my head, studying my reflection in the plain white ceramic of my plate. My mouth was drawn down in a scowl and I looked a thousand years old. I wanted to say, “Yes,” immediately, but wasn’t sure if the impulse came from selfishness or logic.
Around the table, chairs squeaked as my sisters shifted in the silence. No one seemed willing to speak first. On Dad’s left, Susan slid the casserole of polenta closer and scooped some onto her plate. She took a breath as if she were going to speak. “This smells really good. Who made it?”
“Emma did.” Lizzie busied herself with the salad. “Dad made the salad.”
“With vegetables from our garden.” He nodded. “Emma, pass the rolls?”
If they wanted to ignore the question, then I was willing to put it off. I still had no idea what the right thing to do was. I knew what my gut wanted, but kept second-guessing my motives. I handed the basket of rolls to Batari, whose smooth tawny hands made my own seem rough and red. Why didDad and I work so hard?
“I think you should keep it.” Batari met Susan’s gaze across the table. “We talked about it on the way down.”
“No offense,” Lizzie, of course, had an opinion. “But you don’t know the whole scenario.”
“Lizzie…” Dad’s voice held a warning in it and even though it wasn’t my name, I unconsciously straightened when he pulled out The Voice. He leaned toward Batari, fingers steepled in front of him. “Why do you think we should keep the winery?”
She pressed her lips together and sought Susan’s gaze again. “Well, sir, it seems to me that besides the fact that the winery is important to you personally, and to the community in a broader sense, there’s got to be some reason that Horn wants it. I mean, wants your winery specifically.”
“He said it was because we were damaging the land.”
“I know, but this isn’t the only winery. It’s not about rewilding if they didn’t approach all the wineries, right? So what is it about you? What’s unique?”
You couldn’t hear a thing for the next couple of minutes because we all started talking at once.
“The wine. It’s the Pinot. It’s got to be.”
Lizzie scowled and let the sarcasm flow. “Of course it’s the wine.”
“Oh come on. That’s the whole point of terroir, that the wine is unique to the land so it makes sense that he’d only approach some of the wineries. Especially since we’ve still got Pinot vines.”
Batari shook her head. “This would make perfect sense if they were buying the wine to distribute. According to your father, that wasn’t what Horn wants to do. He wants to pull out the grapes. Yes?”
Dad said, “Maybe we’re a pilot program? Or maybe they can’t afford to buy all the wineries?”
Batari shifted in her chair. “But that only brings it back around to the same question. Why do a pilot program here? Why rewild here and not some other winery?”
“The question of why doesn’t enter into this,” Lizzie said. “What we should be talking about is if the offer is good, not wondering about motivation. Why does anyone do anything?”
“Usually for some form of profit. Which you might want to know about.” Batari spread her fingers on the table top as if she were drawing out a problem. “If you don’t mind, what I would like to do is a data analysis to see what commonalities your winery has with the other two you mentioned.”
Dad looked at me, as if he were seeking my approval. I shrugged. “It seems like knowing more can’t hurt.”
The rest of dinner was spent talking about who to contact and why. It was mostly Dad, Susan and Batari talking. Lizzie and I were quiet, I think mainly because we’d reached a point where we couldn’t talk to each other without snarking. Don’t know why, but it’s always been like that between us.
It didn’t take long before we figured out that I was going to have to go into Portland to try to sell the wine myself. We had private clients who bought from us direct, but not enough to support the winery. Now, some things you can sell online, but wine is tricky because that it changes so much from vintage to vintage. This is particularly true of our wine since it’s bio-dynamic. That means that most of our effort goes into managing the vineyard and for the wine itself we try to stay out of the way and let it express itself. Most of the time this leads to wine that’s more complex than anything you’d get in a big commercial place. Every now and then we get a bad strain of wild yeast but not as often as you might think.
We aren’t completely cracked. We do intervene in the wine some but try hard not to get in the way of it. I mean the whole point is to let it express the land, not to express us. The joy of that is that every lot is completely different. Which is what sent me to Portland.
First stop, always, was Dwiggins, which has been the best restaurant in town for decades. They’d anticipated the buy-local movement and so had suppliers firmly in their pockets since long before folks were forced to buy local.
The dark interior was a blessed relief after the summer heat. The high squeaking of the ceiling fans was barely audible over the rattle of cutlery as the staff set up for lunch. I leaned against the door for a minute with my face upturned to catch the breeze as it was funneled down from the windcatcher installed on the roof.
“Emma Chavet! What are you doing here?” Aaron Crest’s voice always sounds like an old German Riesling to me—smooth and flinty all at the same time.
“Selling wine. The bossman keep the usual hours?” We’d noticed that I made better sales than Dad to certain clients, particularly when I let cleavage show. What? Just because I like flannel doesn’t mean I can’t clean up good when I want to. Mind you, the efforts I’d made to “fix myself up,” as Mom used to say, had largely been undone by the walk up from the MAX but Aaron wasn’t my primary target.
“Yeah, but there’s a line. Two fellows in front of you.” He tapped a clipboard on the table closest to the door. “Sign in is here.”
I jotted my name down and scanned the list. It shouldn’t have surprised me but I still got this little jolt of unpleasant nerves when I saw the name at the top: Ram Horn. The tasting days at Dwiggins are like cattle calls. Distributors will sometimes bring winemakers in as a way of closing a particular sale or breaking in a new product. But there’s also independent operators at these things too. With every po-dunk farmer trying to make wine from whatever he can grow on his roof, there’s a lot of people trying to break in and hope that a distributor notices and picks them up.
Ironic that I should find myself here again.
As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, I counted the heads. Maybe fifteen people. As usual, I was one of only a couple of women. Wine is still a heavily male dominated industry. Some of the faces were familiar but I was mostly just wondering which one was Mr. Horn.
While I was scanning the room, Aaron pulled out a chair for me and signaled one of the waiters. Now, when I say signaled, I mean that he caught the man’s eye, nodded, and that’s all. Water appeared on the table along with glasses before I was fully seated. Aaron’s got his staff that well trained. I’m not exaggerating when I say that Dwiggins is the best place in town. I wish he made the call about what wine to buy, but he just manages the floor staff.
A shadow fell over my table, and I have to tell you that in a place with “intimate” lighting like Dwiggins it’s pretty impressive to find a light source bright enough to let you loom. The man who cast the shadow was very tall, very lean and had the sort of weathered cheekbones that made gods of men in Hollywood. He had black hair that faded to gray in a spot over his right brow. Even before he introduced himself, I knew this was Ram Horn. Who else would approach me here?
“I hope you don’t mind. I heard your name and thought I’d take the opportunity to see if we could perhaps arrange a meeting later.” His eyes dropped, just for a moment and, yes, there was the cleavage check.
“I believe my father has already spoken with you.”
“I thought we might have a different conversation.”
“Have you changed your plans for our vineyard?”
“No. But if I could just—”
“I’m afraid I will have the same response as my father, so I don’t see the point in wasting either your time or mine.
Robert appeared from the next room and picked up the clipboard. “Ram Horn.”
Horn grimaced and managed to make it a smile. He pulled out a business card and put it on the table in front of me. “If you have reason to change your mind.”
I didn’t touch the card.
He gave this mocking little bow of his head and said, “Perhaps later.”
I sat there and seethed while he met with Robert plotting all the things I’d say to him at the next opportunity. He probably guessed that because when he came out, he nodded his head again but didn’t stop to speak.
My seething continued as Robert called the next producer. It took a bit, but I talked myself down from that place of rage and forced myself to rehearse what I’d say when I went in.
And then I was the only one there. The last winemaker left and Robert didn’t call me. I sat there for another five minutes, thinking he was taking a bathroom break before I finally snagged Aaron’s attention.
“Could you check with Robert? I think he’s forgotten I’m out here.”
He nodded and ducked back into the office for me. I had already started having a bad feeling but when Aaron came out and didn’t meet my gaze I knew that things had turned way, way south.
He cleared his throat before he started talking. “I’m afraid Robert isn’t going to be seeing any other winemakers today.”
“But I got here early.”
“Does he know it’s me?”
Aaron looked at me and I thought my heart would crack. “He knows.”
“You tell him that I have a Pinot Noir aged in European oak.”
“He doesn’t want to see you, Emma. Not even for French Oak.” He hesitated and slid Ram Horn’s goddamn business card across the table to me. “Do you understand why?”
“Fuck. Yes.” I snatched the card off the table. No wonder Horn thought I’d change my mind later. No doubt he pointed out that he had a monopoly on wine in Portland and that if Robert wanted to maintain Dwiggins’ deep wine list he wouldn’t do business with certain parties. I could offer him Oregon Pinot aged in oak. Horn could offer him the rest of the world.
I pulled out the bottle of Pinot and set it on the table, like I thought it would change anything. “Give him this.”
“Please?” God help me, I stared at him like I was freakin’ Bambi and my mom had just been shot in the meadow.
Aaron snatched a wine glass off the bar, opened the bottle and poured. He lifted the glass and buried his nose in it, like he wasn’t going to take it back if it were just ordinary. Not that I could blame him, since I was asking him to risk the wrath of the Great and Powerful Robert. His face softened as he inhaled. He shot me this look as he lowered the glass and that was all the acknowledgment I got, except for the fact that he took the wineglass to Robert’s door, knocked once, and entered.
Let’s all just pretend that the sweat trickling down my back was from the heat, shall we?
Five minutes passed. Then ten. My shirt clung to my back like I had just walked in from outside. We needed this sale so badly. If we could get back into Dwiggins then there was a fair chance we could get other restaurants to follow but if they shut us out…particularly if Horn won this round, we were pretty much doomed.
The door opened and Aaron stepped out, Robert hard on his heels.
I’ve known Robert Kaufman since I was little, and can’t remember a time when his hair wasn’t white. He’d lost none of his height with age and certainly none of his power.
Fixing me with a glare, Robert crooked his index finger at me and disappeared back into his office. I scrambled after him, dragging the case of wine I had to show with me.
Stark and well-lit, the inner sanctum felt as though Robert had pasted a different business onto Dwiggins. An old framed Broadway poster of “Long Day’s Journey” hung on the wall behind his desk. The other walls held some of his photos. The pictures changed slowly in their frames, showing scenes from the Oregon coast and his house in Ontario. The furniture was all antique from the ironically named post-modern period. Sleek lines and polished teak abounded. To one side of the room, a low wood credenza had a silver tray with discarded wine glasses waiting to be cleared.
His desk held a tablet, a white placemat, and a rack of Riedel glasses. Centered on the white placemat, was the glass of my Pinot.
“Sit.” He gestured to the low-slung black leather chair facing his desk. He set a glass in front of me and waited for me to pour some for myself. This was odd. Not unheard of, but generally the seller only poured for themselves to be certain that the bottle wasn’t flawed. There’s no point to it after the buyer has already tasted. Not that I was going to argue with the man.
Settling into his own chair, he tapped his glass of Pinot. The bottle I had poured from was from our Owl Hill site. We only had a limited number of bottles and I was praying to God and all that was holy that Robert would go for it.
He inhaled, swirled the glass and inhaled again. He cleared his throat. “Is that…?” He swirled the glass again and buried his nose in it so that the glass creased his cheek. “Is that oak?”
I nodded, feigning casual conversation. “Russian oak.” Oak barrels were almost impossible to get these days. The neutral oak barrels we used were at least ten years old and all the flavor had been stripped out of them years ago.
“Aaron said you had European oak. By God. It smells French.” He set the glass down and stared at it. “How did you get that?”
“You can’t expect a girl to give up all her secrets, can you?” Dad had made contact with a shipper in BC who brought over three barrels for us. The other two had split during the trans-Pacific crossing and we’d wound up chipping them and using the oak that way. Believe me, that hurt. A barrel is expensive under the best of circumstances and that doesn’t count shipping overseas.
He lifted the glass reverently and took a sip, closing his eyes as the wine rolled across his palate. I sipped my own, savoring the cloves, smoke, vanilla and smooth tannins. Robert shook his head. “You know what? I have to have this.”
“We made it with you in mind.” No lie, there. Of course, we’d also thought that our distributor could get the rest of the bottling outside the region to a more lucrative market, but we’d definitely figured Dwiggins would take some.
“So why won’t Northwest sell it?”
And here we came to the sticking point, lovely. I swirled the Pinot in the glass rather than look at him, willing him to look at it also and think about what was important. “Northwest doesn’t carry us anymore.”
“I know. I’m wondering why.” He rocked back in his chair. “You think a lot of this new wine, don’t you?”
I looked up at that, surprised that he’d completely misunderstood. “No, it’s not like that. They dropped us.”
“What?” This marked the first time that I’d seen Robert truly shocked. “Son of a bitch. Why?”
“Does it matter?”
“To me? Yes, it does. Is he trying to get you to drop your prices?”
I shook my head. Now I’ll grant that I should’ve seen his reaction coming, but it hadn’t occurred to me that he would have met Ram Horn, who couldseem charming. I was suddenly second-guessing myself. What if Dad had over-reacted? I mean, for all I knew Mr. Horn had in fact just been trying to bargain with Dad.
“It comes down to a disagreement about how we want to make wine.” I lifted my glass. “This is the only old-vine Pinot Noir you’ll find aged in oak. Do you think we should change our approach?”
Robert snorted and lifted his glass to touch mine. “The problem we face is that it has been made clear to me that if I buy from you then my selection at Northwest will be severely curtailed.”
“Did he actually say that?”
“He’s too smart. Just made noises about how he’d be best able to supply my needs if he knew my inventory, which meant not buying from anyone direct. In my opinion, he’s overreaching his bounds but…but he has all the wine. Except yours.” He swirled the glass again and set it aside. “Pour for me.”
I tried to parse that information as I started with the Chenin Blanc from the South Block. I was hoping it could reset his palate since normally I’d have poured this before the Pinot. It was showing well and the lightest bodied of the things I planned to show Robert. We had lighter bodied varietals, but nothing that was worthy of Dwiggins. The trick to wine-tastings like this is to gauge the client. Some want to pretend that it’s a social call, some just want to focus on the wine. Robert, for all his crustiness, likes the social aspect but you can never, ever forget that it is all business.
“How’s your son?” Against the white placemat on the desk, the pale amber color of the wine showed well. It had a picked up a little more yellow than usual for the grape from the barrel, but it wasn’t garish.
He swirled the wine in his glass, watching the legs that formed on the side. “Good. Started taking Bikram-Pilates last month.” He lifted the glass to his nose, burying it in the bowl and inhaling with his eyes half shut.
“Yeah, I hear that’s all the rage. Is David enjoying it?” I watched his brow furrow and resisted the temptation to pick my glass up and bury my nose in it. I’d opened all of these before getting here to make sure none of the bottles were corked. I knew what he was smelling; minerality, greengage and honey.
“Seems to be.” He set the glass down again and swirled it some more. “What are you aging this in?”
“It’s fifty percent new acacia and the rest in stainless steel. We thought the honey notes complimented the varietal.”
He cleared his throat, which could be good or bad, and lifted the glass again to inhale. Under the table, I wiped my palms on my trousers but he nodded as he set the glass down. “I wasn’t sure if this would be too sweet based on the nose but you’ve balanced it well. Is this you or your Dad?”
“Everything at Chavet Winery is a collaborative effort.” Although in this case, I could probably take more credit since I manage the vineyard and Chenin Blanc is notoriously fickle.
“Very politic.” He poured the remainder into a dump bucket by the side of his desk and set the glass to the side. I tried not to wince—not that he was using a dump bucket, that was normal, but that he wasn’t curious about how the wine would open up later. “What do you have next for me?”
We went like that through the five wines I’d brought, with me trying not to be pushy. He set the Mouvedre and the Malbec aside to taste after they’d opened up more. I held my internal squee to a minimum at that.
Why? Because of what he wasn’t asking. He hadn’t asked for prices or how many cases I had available. See, a restaurant needs a certain volume and they need to know that you can deliver it or it’s not worth putting on their list. He’d also said that the restaurant couldn’t buy from me so I had no idea why he was asking me to pour for him.
After the last wine he sat back in his chair and picked up the Owl Hill Pinot again, inhaling deeply. “It opened up nicely. Should lay down well.” He set the glass down and cleared his throat again. “I’ll take five cases of this and one of the Chenin Blanc.”
Five cases was fantastic. If he thought he could move that much each week then we’d probably wind up needing to allocate most of that lot to Dwiggins. I beamed at him, until he held up his hand.
“This is for my personal collection. I can’t buy any for the restaurant.” He scowled and twirled the stem of the glass, spinning Pinot up the sides. “I hate doing this. It’s a beautiful wine.”
“Thanks.” I tried to feel positive about those six cases, but it was likely all we’d sell to him this year. With two hundred and forty-one cases to move of the Pinot alone, this was like looking at the end.
I had no interest in meeting with Horn. None. And yet, I was standing in the lobby of Northwest Vintage Distributors waiting to meet him. Batari had been right. We needed to know more and the person who was most likely to have the information my family needed was Ram Horn. The lobby didn’t show any signs that it had new management. Zyda still sat behind the reception desk, sardonic and efficient as always. When she saw me come through the door, she jumped up from her desk, came around and gave me a deep hug. That shocked me more than anything. Zyda was, shall we say, not a demonstrative person.
She stared up at me, stout and comforting as some sort of pagan fertility goddess. Her sleeves were rolled up, revealing the ink that turned her arms into a series of waves straight out of a Japanese block print. “Honey, you all right?”
“Don’t bullshit me. I watch the database. I see what’s happening here.”
That gave me pause. “Well, hopefully we can get it straightened out.”
She snorted and rolled her eyes.
“How about here? Is everyone still around?”
“Yeah, he’s smart enough not to change personnel. Although I think Harriet is about to quit. She hates the changes.”
“Changes?” Yes, I was fishing for information.
“He’s buying from some vineyards in the vertical farms and the wine is awful. I mean, really bad.”
“What? It’s not like he can afford to fire me. No one else knows how to use the database. If he wants any hope of managing his inventory, I’ve got job security.” She shrugged and went back to the desk. “I’ll let him know you’re here.”
She buzzed and listened to the phone for a minute. “Okay. Go on back. You remember where Sam’s office was, right?”
I winced but nodded. The office was a funny little cube tacked in the corner of the warehouse. Three of the windows looked out onto the warehouse floor and the fourth faced the parking lot. Ram Horn sat at his desk studying something on his tablet as though it were the most important thing in the world. He didn’t look up as I walked past one of the picture windows to knock. Based on how long it took him to answer the door, I imagine that he was still studying it or just waiting for me to go away. When he opened the door though, he was smiling and affable as if I were an old friend.
“Come in, come in.” He held the door and gestured for a chair. “May I get you something to drink? Sparkling water? Iced Tea? And of course, wine.”
It creeped me out. His patter was that much like Sam Milton’s had been. I forced a smile, but it felt sickly even to me. I can only imagine what it looked like. “No, thanks.”
“Fair enough.” He sat down behind his desk and leaned back in his chair. “What can I do for you?”
I sat in the chair across from him and pulled out my notebook, slightly self-conscious that I was using paper for notes. I’d broken too many tablets in the vineyards and had given up on them a couple of years ago. To my surprise, I enjoyed the tactile sensation of pen on paper. I had a small bag with only four bottles, and though I didn’t expect to pour any while with him, still, you never know. “I wanted to know more about your offer for our winery.”
He leaned forward in his chair and the light from outside careened across his cheekbones. “All business, hm? I like that.” Nodding, he toggled his tablet and triggered a display on the wall. “But after we finish up, I hope we’ll have time to chat, socially. If we’re going to be working together, I’d like to get to know you.”
The gall. The unmitigated gall. This man was trying to run us out of business and thought he could get away with flirting with me on the strength of his cheekbones? Ire pushed blood into my face and I know I turned bright red. He smirked like he thought he’d made me blush. Asshole.
No suitable comebacks presented themselves and I didn’t really want to start a fight this soon, so I shoved my anger aside and pulled up the first of the questions on my tablet. “What I’d really like to know is if there’s a possibility of compromise. You told my father that you were interested in rewilding our vineyard because our winery was damaging the land. Maybe you could talk to me about the damage and I can see if there’s a way we can change our practices to avoid that.”
“It’s the very presence of the vinifera grapevines. They break the flow of migrating creatures, particularly since you employ techniques to keep deer off the land.” He tapped the tablet and the wall showed a satellite view of our vineyard. Rolling waves of bright green lay on the land, which meant the photo had been taken in the spring. The greenery was broken into quilt blocks by the brown of access roads. Only the winery itself and the cool blue of the pond at the bottom of the Northeast block deviated from the order. Around the vineyard were tangles of dark trees, mostly pine and fir with the occasional oak. Dad had joked about cutting our own trees for barrels but he never meant it seriously. American oak was coarse and wasn’t worth the paperwork hassle that felling a tree required.
Horn stood and went to stand in front of the screen, using smartlight to trigger the projected image from where he stood. He waved his hand across the screen, and the camera interpreted his movements as though he were directly manipulating the image on his tablet. It shifted to add an overlaid cluster of orange dots that flowed around the winery, sometimes to the North, sometimes to the South. “The scar that your vineyard leaves in the forest is blatant, but when you watch the migration patterns of the deer the disruption is obvious.”
“Um. The winery doesn’t appear to be stopping them from going anywhere. They just go around.”
“But imagine if everyone had a winery. If they covered the hillside, then what would the deer do?”
“Most of that land is no good for growing grapes. Not the right exposure or elevation. It wouldn’t be vineyards. Ever.”
He squinted at me, mouth crimping in a sort of smile. “Humor me and imagine it.”
“Why? I mean, thought experiments are all well and good but I’m here to talk about practicalities, not what ifs. Right now, I don’t see that our vineyard is preventing the deer from going anywhere they want.”
“Except your land.”
“There’s no shortage of land.”
Horn tapped the pond. “What other drinking hole is there?”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh please. You honestly expect me to think that we’re the only pond in their grazing area? A winery has been on our land for over a hundred years. Any migration patterns were disrupted long before these deer were here.”
“And yet it is a disruption that is unnecessary.”
He wiped the screen and cleared the deer’s orange spots. In their place, he pushed the image of the vineyard to a false color one. “This is a representation of the ripening patterns and vine yields of your vineyard.”
I was out of my chair with no memory of rising. “How did you get that?”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “It’s public information.”
To the best of my knowledge, we had never shared our books from the decades of tasting and testing that Dad had conducted. Half of them weren’t even in digital form, but in old spiral bound notebooks that had yellowed with age. We always talked about entering it all into an artificial savant but never had time. I suppose we could have turked it out, but that would have involved getting some poor schmuck to make the trip from Portland and it was a job better suited to many hands. So, it remained undone.
And yet, Horn had what appeared to be an in-depth analysis of our vineyard on his wall. “We’ve never released any of this information.”
“You—you do know that you have smart dust on your property, right?” He looked as befuddled as I felt.
“No. Dad’s always been opposed to it because there was no way to tell how it would affect the wine.” I pointed at the wall, trembling with fury. “You shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t have dusted the winery without our permission.”
Horn tapped the wall. “I didn’t do this. Look. The records go back a couple of years.”
Ill, I stared at the wall as he toggled through screen after screen showing all the ways the winery was measured. Temperature, ripening, humidity…
“Who would do that?”
“Lots of wineries have this. It’s a way for clients to keep track of what’s happening with the crop remotely. You don’t do any of that?”
“We’re a biodynamic winery. No intervention. Certainly nothing artificial. We can tell the temperature with a thermometer, the humidity with a barometer… What you’re showing me is slick, but nothing I don’t already know about. Why would we risk compromising the wine by adding smart dust? Do you know what that’s stuff’s made from?”
He waved it away like it wasn’t a concern. “It’s inert. With this information, we could replicate the conditions of your vineyard in a vertical farm. Pick any year you want, and we can make that happen. What would you say if I offered you that?”
“I’d laugh in your face.”
“Without reason.” He turned back to the screen as if he were going to pull up another image.
“You don’t get it, do you? Making wine is about expressing the terroir—”
“Yes, yes, I know all about terroir. But why take chances that a wine can go wrong? Why not look at the chemistry of the wines you like and recreate those or at the very least the conditions which grew them?”
“Because that would strip the soul out of it. Part of the joy of the wine is the uncertainty and the way it evolves.”
“It’s not a good business model.” Horn folded his arms across his chest and tucked his chin in to consider me. “We’re making a very generous offer to recreate the conditions of your winery in a vertical farm. The wine you make is important, but you can’t make it where you are now.”
“We can’t make our wine anywhere else.” I scooped up my bag and headed for the door. “Our wine is our land.”
The conversation with Horn had shaken me. As soon as I got back to Susan and Batari’s apartment, I started surfing to see if the information about our winery really was public. I’d told Horn that we didn’t need that information, but the truth was it would be handy. What I found staggered me. Smart dust made a record of the minutiae of our land, showing all the different microclimates we had. If I could judge by the numbers I was looking at, the top quarter of the Northeast block might actually support Viognier. The way the land dipped there, the sun didn’t hit it as soon and it stayed cooler than the rest.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I knew that sampling was an application of smart dust but it had always seemed pointless to me. Why have a machine do what we’d been managing just fine for decades? Domaine Tranquil swore by it, but I thought their wine was stiff and unyielding so I’d always dismissed it. Dad had agreed and we’d never installed it.
Now though, I wondered if I was flat wrong. It had been there for years and we’d noticed no change in the wine. What did that say? Of course, thinking about putting in Viognier made no sense when I wasn’t even sure if we could sell the wine we had.
As I was clicking through permutations, Batari came in with two string bags of groceries in her hands. I abandoned my search, thankful for an excuse to procrastinate on trying to figure out what to do. Sadly, Batari was not so willing to let me escape my thoughts.
She set the bags on the counter and the cilantro sent up a wave of crisp, green fragrance into the air. “How did the meeting go?”
I pulled out a box of raspberries, thinking. “Well…he had this cloud of data about Chavet vineyard that I didn’t even know existed. It was…weird. You know? Seeing all this stuff out on the net that I hadn’t noticed.”
“Really?” Batari stopped, with a bulb of fennel in her hand, like some bizarre torch of knowledge. “You didn’t know it was there?”
“No! Please don’t tell me you did.”
She bobbed her head and put the fennel down. “‘Fraid so. I thought you knew or I would have said something. When I started dating Susan, I looked up your winery on the net.” She led me out of the kitchen to the wall screen. “See? I have a program running that keeps me posted on how harvest is going. It translates it into layman’s terms because I’m pretty clueless, if you hadn’t noticed.”
The screen showed a chart in bright turquoises and greens. Next to it, the screen said, “Ripening is a little behind last year but still within normal parameters. High-heat might lead to stress if it continues for more than two additional weeks. Based on current trends, sugar levels, acid, and tannin structure, this harvest should comparable to the 2011 harvest.” It linked to in-depth discussions of prior harvests, exact sugars and an almanac.
Yes. Yes, I can be very focused on the wine and don’t have much use for technology when it comes to winemaking, but how had I not known this existed? At the same time, I was totally affronted. I mean, it was our land. Our vineyard. Who got off on collecting and broadcasting our information to the world? “I don’t understand. Who would do this?”
“I think the program is originally South African but I plugged in the coordinates for the winery. It didn’t look like anyone else was tracking it, though you have 127 followers now.”
“I—What? Really? I just…I—None of this makes sense to me. How did the smart dust get on the property in the first place?”
“It probably blew there and propagated naturally.”
“Natural? How are tiny sensors natural? Is there any way to get rid of them?”
Batari cocked her head, brows furrowing. “Why is this upsetting you?”
“Because! Because it could have affected the wine. Because no one asked us. Because it’s not necessary. People have been making wine for thousands of years without smart dust. It gets away from everything that wine is about!”
“You mean getting drunk?” Batari held up her hands quickly and I can only imagine what my face must have done. “I was kidding. A joke. Ill-timed, but a joke.”
I buried my hands in my hair, as if that would somehow help me control my thoughts. Lord knows, there were few enough things that I could control. I pressed the heels of my hands into my temples and groaned. The smart dust predated Horn so it wasn’t responsible for his proposal.
I dropped my hands. Was that true? “Batari, you said you wanted to compare our winery with the others in the valley. How many have smart dust?”
“Most of them, I should think.” She picked up the tablet and began pinching and pulling faster than I could write my name. “Yeah. Looks like the valley is pretty well saturated but…huh. The concentration is heaviest at your place.”
“What does that mean?”
“Literally? It means that there’s more smart dust there, which means it’s the first source. Probably. Easy enough to verify by looking at when records start for any given place.” I watched her perform her mystic incantations over the tablet. Batari made good money as a data sifter, even if I had no idea what she did. “Yeah. First report to the net is from three years ago. Someone definitely seeded you on purpose.”
Mom had died three years ago. My brain immediately started trying to make causal links between the two. As if smart dust could kill someone. “Does it have the exact date?”
Which was, in fact, disturbingly close to when Mom died, but afterwards. Not that I actually thought that she was killed by smart dust. Even a luddite like me knew it couldn’t do that. “It doesn’t say who?”
She shook her head. “No and there’s no image of anyone doing the release, which isn’t unusual. Unless they were released in huge numbers, it would take awhile to cohere to form a picture the first time.”
The apartment door opened and Susan walked in, a propeller or turbine—a spinny thing of some sort tucked under her arm. “Hey, beautiful.”
“Hey yourself.” Batari shot me an apologetic look and set the tablet down to greet her wife.
I focused on the images on screen so I didn’t gawk at them being lovey. It always makes me feel like a voyeur when I’m around people in love. And newlyweds? Man. Talk about sappy.
Whatever screen Batari had gotten into had some machine language or something that was out of my realm of understanding. I backed it up and wound up on the satellite view of our land. What was unique about our property?
Susan came over and gave me a quick hug. “Whatcha looking at?”
She pointed at the stream running down to the pond. “Any luck convincing Dad to let me install hydro in the stream?”
“No more so now than when you were fifteen.”
“You people are no fun.”
The non-verbal part of my brain had a thought and I chased it around in my head trying to figure out what the heck had caught my attention. Half-conscious of what I was doing, I toggled the screen to back away from our property, showing more of the landscape. “Hey…Batari? Can you see who else has water on their land?”
She and Susan made nearly identical grunts of recognition, which would have been cute another time. Batari took the tablet from me and within seconds had the answer. Halcyon, Kadroj and ours were the only vineyards with springs.
I stared at the results glowing on the screen. “Does that answer the question of why he wants our land in particular?”
“Yes…” Batari spun data streams into a graph. “Or rather, it tells us what your land has in common with the others. We still don’t know why he wants the water.”
“He mentioned that deer couldn’t get to the pond.”
Susan settled into one of their overstuffed chairs and pulled Batari onto her lap. “Is that all? We can just undam the pond.”
“It’s not a natural pond. Granted the damming was done way before Dad came, but it’s clearly artificial.”
For a moment, I had a hope that things could be solved so easily. Batari brought me back down to Earth. “He’s working for rewilders. There’s no way just rerouting it would make them happy.”
I grimaced. “Having met the guy, I’m inclined to agree. I asked if there were a compromise and he offered me the same ‘get off the land or else’ choice he gave Dad.”
There wasn’t a lot to say to that so we all sat there staring bleakly at the screen. The problem was that Ram Horn hadn’t actually done anything illegal. The distributors were still private businesses and could decide what they would and would not carry. Horn actually hadn’t blacklisted us by name but the damage was just as stark as if he had.
Susan let her head drop back on the chair and stared at the ceiling. “What are you going to tell Dad?”
I liked how she said “you” as if she weren’t his daughter, too. At the same time, I recognized the truth, that the winery was ours. She and Lizzie had never had the interest in it that we did. “I don’t know. If we had the money, I’d probably be inclined to go ahead and do this harvest anyway.” The thought of letting the fruit rot on the vines made my stomach turn and I held a firm grip on my thoughts to keep them away from any future that involved ripping up grapevines. “I guess we could always sell the grapes to another winery. It’s not like anyone else in the valley still has Pinot in the ground.”
Batari shifted on Susan’s lap. “Have you thought about selling Pinot vines?”
“They don’t transplant. The root system is too deep to be able to dig one up and move it.”
“I didn’t mean transplanting. I meant…well. Maybe I’m wrong. When you buy new vines they’re clones aren’t they? Have you thought about selling cloned vines?”
Susan lifted her head. “Not cuttings—that’s a crazy amount of work. Sell the cloning rights. Holy crap, Emma. That would probably work.”
“Maybe…” We could sell the clones, all right but I didn’t know if they would grow anywhere else. To an extent Batari was right, all vines are propagated from clones, but Pinot Noir has a high tendency to mutate. Dad’s been taking advantage of this for decades by selecting for the plants that are best suited for our climate. As a result, when other people gave up and pulled out all their Pinot vines, Dad just grafted the heartiest vines onto existing rootstock and kept on growing the grape. I suppose there’s a limit to how long he can do this before it just starts being a different grape, but it’s still recognizably Pinot Noir. Or, at least, when I compare it to the Dijon clones of Pinot out of Toronto it seems like it still has the same hallmarks. Ours tends to be a little more fruit-forward but given the heat, that’s not surprising. The thing is, I didn’t know how it would perform outside of our micro-climate. But our vines stood a better chance than other options. I nodded slowly. “I’ll talk to Dad about it.”
“Good.” Susan pushed Batari off her lap. “You do that and we’ll start dinner.”
I winced. Thus far, I’d managed to avoid talking to Dad, and Susan knew it. I was being a wimp. Yes. Admitted. But I kept hoping that if I waited I’d be able to report good news. You’ll note that the good news was being remarkably slow to present itself.
I went out on the balcony of their apartment, overlooking the MAX line on 6th street. The heat was preferable to having them listen in from the kitchen. Besides, if I needed to, I could always pretend that I didn’t hear something over the rumble of the light rail. Their apartment was a fifth floor walk-up, but the view across the neighboring rooftop gardens was well-worth it. Two buildings away, someone had grape trellises but I couldn’t tell from where I was what type of grape. Probably concord.
As I waited for Dad to answer, I had a hope that he was wrapped up working on something and would miss the call. I’d already started rehearsing a voicemail when he answered.
“Well?” He didn’t waste any time. “Any luck?”
“No. We’re shut out of restaurants and Horn hasn’t changed what he was telling you.” I caught him up as fast as I could on the conversation I’d had with Susan and Batari. Dad’s language was even more colorful than mine was upon learning about the smart dust. I’ll leave that to your imagination, if it’s all the same.
I finished and his breath rattled in my ear. The breeze lifted the smells of barbeque from someone’s terrace and cooled the droplets of sweat on my arms. “Dad. Look.” I stopped, not certain what I was going to say. I didn’t want to give up the winery but things would have to change if we were to keep it. The question I couldn’t answer for myself was why I wanted to keep it. I suppose part of it was the dread of having to explain to family and to clients that we were closing down.
“Dad… Do we have anything to gain by keeping quiet?”
He huffed and I could picture him settling his chin into his chest as he thought. “What are you thinking of?”
“I’m not sure, really. It just…you’ve been doing this a long time and it occurs to me that a lot of people like our wine. I was—Do you think we could crowdsource the harvest? I mean, if we sell the cloning rights to the Pinot, that—I’m guessing here—that would pay for bottles and labels. But if we let everyone know what was going on, maybe people would come help.”
This idea sounded stupid once I put it out into the world. The people in the valley would all be wrapped up in their own harvest. It would come down to the people here. I looked at the buildings surrounding me, with the laundry hanging from lines stretched over the street, and the people walking to the MAX and all the layers of city life and tried to imagine any of them harvesting grapes.
Dad sighed. We were both doing a lot of that, I think. Like the despair inside had to escape somehow or we’d break. “It can’t hurt, I guess. It’s not like he can blacklist us more.”
I laughed and some of the despair cracked. “No, I guess he can’t. Worst case, we do a small batch just for family and then figure it out from there.”
“Sure.” Dad cleared his throat and was so quiet that I think he was holding his breath. “We should make sure the offer doesn’t have an expiration date.”
“I don’t want to sell to him.” The words were out before I had time to think about why. But I didn’t. If we had to sell the winery, fine, but not to him. I couldn’t stand the thought of Horn ripping out vines that were older than any of us.
“We can think about that later.”
“Yeah.” The rest of the conversation was awkward as we tried to talk about normal things, but both of us were just thinking about the wine.
I love harvest. The work is brutal and you never get enough sleep and I spend the entire time in a sleep-deprived and aching haze but I love it nonetheless. I don’t know if it’s sheer machismo or—no, that’s not true. I know exactly what it is. Sure, the masochistic pleasure of surviving harvest is there, but the real joy of it is that we move from growing grapes to making wine.
Dad would scoff at that. He’d be right, too. The wine starts with the grapes,always. But until harvest, until you start crushing the grapes they could just be food. It’s when crush starts that we move irrevocably into wine making.
This harvest, I had no idea what to expect. We’d posted on the winery’s site an abbreviated explanation of what was happening. It got passed around, and the friends who knew all the details told their friends, full of righteous indignation on our behalf. The turk ad we’d placed filled up fast. The astonishing thing was that folks were willing to do the work for wine. Friends, family, folks we’d never heard of all wanted to come help. Heck, even Robert Kaufman showed up for a half day and helped sort fruit with his son, David. Most of the folks wanted to wait to receive payment so that they had shares of the wine that they helped make.
Back in the day, all the harvest workers had been immigrants, moving from place to place. They’d moved on to countries that still had a functioning economy, leaving desperate former programmers to take over. It’s hard explaining to an MIT graduate that he doesn’t have the skills to harvest grapes.
You think that harvesting grapes is unskilled?
Um. No. Not really. Especially not the way Chavet Winery approached it. See, we expected workers to recognize which clusters were ripe and only pick those. Some of the big places don’t care. That’s not how we make wine. At least, not normally.
But this time, we just took whatever labor came our way. I’d just finished showing a gaggle of volunteers how to avoid slicing off their thumbs with the shears when my phone rang. I let it drop into voicemail, since it was Dad’s ringtone, and paused with one of the recruits to answer a question about ripeness in grapes.
The phone rang again. “Excuse me.” I pulled it out and toggled it on. “What’s up?”
“Ms. Chavet?” The man on the other end of the line was not my father’s. At this point I began officially freaking out. “Your father wanted me to ask you to come to the crush pad.”
I turned my back on the recruits and walked away from them without pausing to explain. “What’s wrong?”
“The hydraulics just gave out on the forklift. It hit the crusher thing.”
“The press.” Shit. I ran, looking over the rows of vines to the winery even though the crush pad was out of my line of sight. I kept telling myself that Dad couldn’t be dead since he’d asked this fellow to call me. “Is anyone hurt?”
“Not badly, I don’t think. Some bruises.”
I stumbled on the uneven ground and went down to one knee. One of the turks, that I hadn’t even noticed following me, helped me back up. All of the volunteers had followed me at varying distances, which I guess says something about the degree of panic I was exuding. I thanked everyone and got off the phone. It wouldn’t help anyone if I maimed myself running for the crush pad. You hear horror stories of people losing arms when hydraulics fail so bruising was fine.
I took two minutes to tell the turks to go ahead and start picking. Worst case we’d have to pay more attention while sorting the fruit but at the moment that seemed a reasonable price to pay for getting out of the vineyard faster.
The situation, when I got to the crush pad, was worse than the guy on the phone had made it sound. The forklift had just lifted a bin of Chenin Blanc to dump into the funnel when the hydraulics blew. So a half-ton of grapes had dropped on it at a speed just slower than free-fall. The funnel had crumpled and torn off, wrenching the outer door of the press out of true.
People were milling about in clusters, without purpose. Until we got the forklift running again, we would be at a standstill. It took me a minute to spot Dad amid the chaos.
He was sitting against the wall of the building with one of our neighbors standing over him. Dad held a bag of ice to his head and parts of the cloth were stained with blood.
The adrenalin flooded through my system like shaking a bottle of warm champagne. I basically teleported the last few feet between us. “Dad!”
“It’s worse than it—I mean, looks worse than it is.”
I squatted next to him and reached for the ice bag, trying to see the damage. He swatted my hand away as I scowled at him. “The guy on the phone said it was just bruises.”
“That was Wes, here. I told him not to say anyone was hurt because I didn’t want you to panic.”
I sputtered, trying to start five different sentences at once, ranging from “Why don’t parents ever trust their children?” to “I’m not panicking!” Though the last was clearly a Giant Lie. I finally settled on, “What happened?”
“I was standing on the press guiding fruit into the funnel when the hydraulics gave. I fell, hit my head. The rest is pretty clear.” He grunted and put one hand against the wall as if he were thinking about standing. Wes and I reached for Dad about the same time and pressed him back down. “I’m fine. I just want to see how bad the damage is.”
“Let me handle that. It’s why you wanted me here, right? You sit.” I peered up at Wes, who had a hazelnut orchard down on the valley floor. “Unless you’d be willing to walk Dad into the office.”
“You said that. You’re also bleeding.”
“The bleeding stopped. It was just a scrape.”
“Dad.” I used The Voice on him and, to my surprise, he stopped arguing.
After Dad was safely inside, I climbed up on top of the press. The damage on top was as bad as it had looked from the ground, with the addition of needing to remove the fruit from a precarious position. We had to reduce the weight before we could get the forklift off the press. Once that was down, we could look at repairing the blown hydraulics.
I slid down the ladder on the side of the press. My feet stung when they slapped against the pavement. I clapped my hands together. “Okay, folks. We need to do a bucket brigade so here’s what I want.” I started pointed at a cluster of folks at random, mostly based on how close they were and that they looked like they were paying attention. “You folks drag an empty bin over. Everybody round up all the F.Y.B.s you can. Oh. And the 8-foot ladder. Aluminum, by the circuit breaker in the lab area.”
Folks scrambled pretty fast and in short order we had the bucket brigade going. I stood on top of the press, scooping grapes out of the bin with FYBs and passing them to Aaron, from Dwiggins, who had taken duty on the top rung of the ladder. Turns out Aaron was the one driving the forklift when it died and was feeling guilty. Not his fault. It doesn’t happen often, but when hydraulics blow there’s no warning at all.
Balancing on the edge of the tank, I passed a full FYB over to him. “I didn’t know you drove forklifts.”
“Years ago. I worked a warehouse job before I started waiting tables.” He took the bin from me and passed it down. They got dumped into the large bin on the ground fast as we could go.
I leaned into the bin, scraping clusters into the FYB. “Really? I thought warehouse gigs were more lucrative.”
“Oh yeah, but the restaurant industry has much better blow.”
I laughed at that, inhaling the over-sweet smell of bruised Chenin Blanc. Robert Kauffman was notorious for having a zero tolerance policy.
“Yeah I kno—Fuck!” Aaron yanked his hand away as he passed the FYB to the next person on the line. He glanced up at me, all sheepish, as if I didn’t curse like a sailor.
I grinned at him. “You’ve just discovered why the industry term is FYB.”
“Fucking Yellow Bin.” I scooped another FYB full of the fruit and handed it to him. “They’ve been around since last century, always scrape people’s hands and no one has ever bothered to come up with a solution.”
“That’s wine-making. We’re too small an industry to have R&D solve things like this.”
We bantered like that for a while until my back started to ache from all the twisting and scooping, then I just settled in and focused on getting it done. I don’t suppose it took more than a half hour but by the end, when I was leaning way into the bin the stretch in my lower back just screamed at me to stop and take a break.
When I handed down the last FYB, then entire group cheered. Clearly, everyone had learned how FYBs had earned that particular moniker. My hands had the tiny scrapes and raw knuckles from a day spent with the blasted things.
Even empty, it still took a fair amount of wrestling to get the bin off the forklift tines and lowered to the ground. By the time we got the forklift itself backed away and the tines lowered, I was more than ready to call lunch.
Yeah. All of this happened and it wasn’t even noon yet. You can see the sort of day it was shaping up to be. It would also give me time to figure out what to do about the press. Meanwhile, the vineyard crew was piling up the grapes.
Here’s the dilemma I was facing. We had to pick the fruit, because it was ripe. Picking it meant we had to crush it. Time. Harvest was always about time. Getting the forklift repaired would take a day—if we were lucky—during which time we wouldn’t be able to load fruit into the press. I lingered on the crush pad after the crew had gone into the tasting room for lunch. Dad came out to get me, a giant bandage stuck to his forehead, not quite hidden by his cap.
He rested a hand on my shoulder and stood next to me looking up at the press. “Got any ideas?”
“If I could figure out how to get around the fact that we don’t have a forklift, yeah. The bucket brigade won’t keep up with the vineyard.”
“I’m more worried about that door.” Dad swept his ball cap off so he could run his hands through his hair. “We’ll wind up rupturing the bladder if we run it like that.”
I gnawed the inside of my lip, thinking. It didn’t look good. What we needed was a really big vise to squeeze it back to true. Fruit flies swarmed around us in clouds, reminding me of the time pressure, as if I needed a reminder. I wiped at a trickle of sweat on the back of my neck and groaned. “Well, let’s get something to eat and maybe a miracle will occur.”
Dad laughed and followed me inside. I could not wait to get out of the sun and into the cool air of the winery. Which is why it is surprising that I was half way across the cellar before I realized that I wasn’t cooling off.
“Dad…is it warm in here or am I hitting menopause early?”
He stopped between bins and rested his hands on his hips, looking around. “It’s warm. Should’ve noticed that.”
“You do have a concussion.”
He rolled his eyes and headed for the thermostat. Grunting, he pushed the buttons and then shook his head. “The temperature is still set at 57 but it’s currently 84.”
I covered my face with my hands and groaned. Could the day get better? Possibly but I was hoping it wouldn’t try. “I’ll call the service department.”
Because, you know, when you are struggling with money the thing you want to do most is have your air-conditioner repaired. The problem is that the wines would cook in a day, maybe two. There was no telling when it had stopped functioning or how much warmer it would get.
I crawled under the deck to get to the cooling system, praying that it would be something within my grasp. A clogged filter, a blown circuit. Something simple. Random scraps of wine boxes and construction debris littered the ground under the deck. I found an old corkscrew I’d lost ages ago and a pair of pruning shears. I tucked both in my pocket as I crawled. If you set your back to the building, the view across the vineyard was bright and green outside the cool shelter of the deck. With your back to the vineyard, half-crouching to get to the cooling system, it was all dusty apocalypse.
The access hatch came off easily and I lowered the panel to the ground. The interior of the unit was shaded but it was still easy to see that a cable had been clipped. I held still, not really wanting to believe what I was seeing. The sound of the workers in the field and the people having lunch on the deck seemed more real than the clipped line in front of me. I shone my flashlight on it, as if that would change what I as seeing.
The angle of the cut, the way the rubber housing was sliced, all reminded me of the way a pair of shears cuts through a grape vine. I patted my pocket and the shears I’d found on the ground seemed too heavy.
I scrambled out from under the deck, pausing at the edge to look into the fields, wondering which of the turks was missing. If they were missing or if they were still on the property… I jogged around the side of the building to the crush pad and the forklift.
There wasn’t a thing wrong with it.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, the hydraulics were definitely drained, but the tube hadn’t blown. It had been pulled free and didn’t have any of the representative rupture marks.
I was not surprised, but it was still shocking. Bad enough that Northwest Vintage wouldn’t carry us, but now Horn was actively sabotaging the winery? I mean, equipment fails, granted. The fact that the forklift and the cooling system failed on the same day… Had it been dumb luck that took out the press too, or had they somehow timed it?
Aaron had been driving the forklift when it had failed. I’d have to find out who had been spotting him when it had failed. Whoever that was had yanked the hydraulic line.
That meant we had to figure out who had done it and get them off the property before they could do more damage. I figured the cooling unit was likely to be one of my group of pickers since they were the ones who had access to the shears. And this, my friends, is where it pays to have a sister-in-law who’s a data-cruncher.
I called Batari and after she finished being shocked and angry, she took our list of turks and got to work. While she did that, Dad and I worked on sliding a jury-rigged funnel onto the press. It was cobbled together out of an old corrugated plastic sign and some lumber left over from when we built the deck.
My problem now was that every time someone offered to help, I wondered if that was the saboteur and this was another part of the plot. Yes, thank you, I do tend to paranoid sometimes. But I think this time was fairly justified.
So when the phone rang with Batari’s signal, I practically sprinted out to the parking lot for privacy. “Yeah, what do you have for me?”
She laughed in my ear. “You sound like a spy novel.”
“And that’s inappropriate, how?”
“Is this a secure line, Agent Chavet?”
“Okay. It looks like you’ve got three moles.”
“Three?” I sat down on the cross-tie at the edge of the lot. What was the third one’s job? “Really?”
“Mm-hm. There’s a blind, but once I got past that, both have two payments from Horn in the past week. And…and this is where it gets weird and unpleasant. The payments are from two different companies. One of them is from Ciudad St. Helens. A Cascadiopolis daughter-city.”
I was suddenly very glad I was already sitting down. “Are you kidding me?”
“I wish I was. You know… Lizzie probably has no idea.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, until blue green blobs danced across the inside of my eyelids. “Go on. Who’s the other payment from?”
“A cattle rancher farther down the valley from you. Two guesses who the rancher is.”
“That bastard.” The picture of Horn standing in his office, talking about the stream on our land was so clear in my head that I might as well have been wearing VR lenses. “Can you send me proof?”
“It’s in your inbox right now.”
I got off the phone with her and heaved a sigh knowing that things were going to get worse before they got better. If they got better. But for the first time, I thought they might.
Setting up a meeting with the people in the Cascadiopolis daughter-city community is not easy. It’s hard to get any of the Green freaks to even admit that they were in charge, so I finally just went there. I stood at the outer perimeter of Ciudad St. Helens, waiting with an armed guard while someone checked with Lizzie to be sure that I was, in fact, her sister.
“Emma, what are you doing here?” I heard Lizzie before I saw her, and then she was crashing down the path, hair wild.
“I came to see you.”
“You could have called.” She flashed the guard some sort of sign and he relaxed, letting me pass.
“Well, the truth is that I need to see the powers that be.”
Lizzie stopped on the path and stared at me. Her head was pulled back on her neck and her chin held high, like a deer ready to run. “Why in heaven’s name?”
“Ram Horn. He works for the Cascadiopolis Greens.”
“Yes. And?” She crossed her arms now and glared at me.
I stopped. The angry script in my head was thrown by her admission that she had known. She was supposed to bluster and deny involvement. I was supposed to badger her and either get her to admit it or shock her with the truth, but I was the one who was shocked. “How much did you tell him to do?”
Lizzie squeezed her eyes shut. “Look. I thought it would be a good deal for you and Dad. But you turned the offer down and so now it’s over. You can keep making your wine until you both die.”
“Which you’ll hurry along by every possible means.”
Bewilderment crossed her face. “What are you talking about?”
“Horn. He sent turks to sabotage the winery. Almost killed Dad.” I paused in the face of her confusion. Lizzie and I don’t always get along, but that’s partly because we know each other so well that we know where all the buttons are. This was the shock I was expecting to see earlier. I pulled out my pad and zapped the datapacket containing the information about him and the ranchers to her. “Look. This isn’t an unfounded accusation. There’s proof in that packet that he paid people to disable the press and the a/c.”
Lizzie hesitated and opened the packet. I saw the moment when she got to the part about the cattle ranch because her face darkened and the vein in the middle of her forehead suddenly stood out. Whirling, she faced the forest behind her and used that strident voice of hers to address the leaves. “Horn is double-dealing us.”
With no discernible moment of transition, five people melted out of the forest. A short dark woman with hair that spoke of African roots at some point in her history led the others. She stopped in front of us and tilted her head back to stare at me. “Explain.”
So I did. I explained about the way we’re being driven out of business and the “accidents” and then I explained about the ranchers. “It’s like this. If the rewilding happens, that pond on our property will be undammed and the outflow would no longer be redirected to the winery.”
“Which is our goal.”
“Yeah, I get that. We’re interfering with nature because we use that pond as a reservoir for everything from cleaning barrels to irrigating the vineyard. But you understand, that once we’re out of the picture and that stream returns to its natural course, it’ll flow onto the land that Horn’s family had recently purchased on the valley floor. For cattle ranching.”
Her nostrils flared at that. I didn’t have to explain that however invasive she might think a winery was, a cattle ranch was far worse. The only thing that kept Horn’s land from being perfect for ranching was the lack of a water supply. “And you say you have proof?”
I nodded. “Payments to the turks at our vineyard. Plus when you looked at our winery and the other two he targeted… All of them have a natural watershed that would flow onto that land.”
Lizzie sat down as I was talking and put her head between her knees. Her hands were shaking.
I broke off. I’d said pretty much everything I needed to and the rest was in the datapacket. I knelt next to her and put my hand on her shoulder. “Hey…”
“I didn’t know. I swear to God, I didn’t know. When we started talking about rewilding the valley, I just thought it would be a way for you and Dad to retire. You’re always tired all the time.” She buried her hands in her hair and her voice cracked the way it had when mom had died.
“I believe you.” With my hand still on her shoulder, I looked up at the greenfreaks surrounding us. They were tense and looked ready to kill someone. “Look. Folks, I’m not sure what conversations you’ve had but we don’t want to leave the vineyard. At this point the vines have been there for over a hundred years and it might not be the original ecosystem but it’s still a thriving one. We’re biodynamic, that means we strive for minimal impact.”
The short woman nodded. “It’s true that the smart dust data Lizzie showed us is much healthier than many of the other properties. We thought it would be easier to reclaim.”
My hand tightened on Lizzie’s shoulder. Had everyone known about the smart dust but me? “Maybe it doesn’t need to be reclaimed. At least, not now?”
“If you don’t want to leave the land, we won’t force you off.”
“Yeah…” If there were a time to push for anything, it would be now. “The thing is that with the equipment damage we might lose this harvest. Even if that doesn’t happen there’s still the fact that Northwest Vintage won’t carry our wines.”
Have you met those people whose brains work so much faster than yours that all you can do is watch the gears turn? She was one of those. I could tell she was processing things, not just me and the winery but some larger picture and all I could do was kneel by my sister and wait for her judgment.
She turned her head to the group, but kept her eyes on me. “Moved, that in light of the emotional distress and inappropriate actions of an agent of Ciudad St. Helens against Chavet Winery two stages of recompense are warranted.
“1. All damaged equipment shall be replaced at Ciudad St. Helens’s expense with models consistent with our mission.
“2. That Ciudad St. Helens commits to purchase wine commiserate with the average amounts that Chavet Winery has historically sold.”
A man almost hidden in the trees lifted his hand. “Second.”
“All in favor?”
Every hand in the clearing went up. “Motion carries.”
Thank God, I was already kneeling or I would have fallen in thankful relief. “I—” The sheer volume of emotion I felt, wiped out my ability to speak for what felt like a full minute. “I thank you. And in return, Chavet Winery will work with Ciudad St. Helens to find ways to improve our environmental impact.”
Lizzie lifted her head, eyes red and strained. “What about Horn?”
The woman’s face tightened into a mask of disapproval. “Horn will not trouble your family anymore. I doubt he will trouble anyone.”
They stayed and we talked particulars for a few more minutes, with me finding myself agreeing to do a labor exchange over the next harvest. But while we were talking through that my brain had already started chewing on the one piece that we hadn’t talked about.
After they had left and it was just Lizzie and me sitting in the middle of the path, I put my thoughts to words. “So…the smart dust?”
“I seeded it.” She wiped her hands down her face and looked up at the sky, cheeks still damp. “After Mom died. I was afraid Dad would… I wanted a way to keep an eye on you two. The rewilding came later. I’m sorry.”
“Why didn’t you just tell us?”
“I did. You said it was stupid.”
My face burned red, with a memory I’d forgotten. “I’m sorry. I was wrong.”
Lizzie stared at me, jaw slowly opening as if she were going to speak. She shook her head and then laughed.
“Did you really just admit to being wrong about something about wine?”
I tried to keep the grin from my face but pretty much failed. I couldn’t stop the laugh that followed. “I did. You were totally right. Smart dust is…smart.”
“Brilliant statement.” Lizzie sobered. “I’m still sorry. About everything.”
“It’s okay.” And it was. Lizzie was loud, she could be abrasive but when it came down to it she was like wine and expressed where she came from.
Take two vines from the same rootstock in the same vineyard and you’ll get different wines but at the heart… At the heart of it, we shared the sameterroir.