by Kelly Robson
Published in The Exile Book of New Canadian Noir, 2015
Edited by David Nickle and Claude Lalumière
Posted with the permission of the publisher
Buy the anthology direct from the publisher or at online retailers.
5,050 words (about 20 minutes)
Simon wouldn’t have set foot in Canada again if the harvest hadn’t been late. He’d badmouthed the Okanagan all over the world, from Coonawarra to the Cape, calling it a shithouse of overpriced land, badly managed vines, and wannabe winemakers who had no business being anywhere near a ferment. Threw it off, every time.
Nothing did more damage to wine than amateurs with money.
But California was early and BC was late, and when Simon got the email from High Bench Estates, he had just finished laying a Rockpile Cabernet into new French oak barrels and he was planning to hit a Nicaraguan beach for a few months before Australia called him home to a hot February. But he had expenses, two of them, living with his ex in Melbourne. He’d emailed back with a jacked-up fee, and High Bench still wanted him.
So instead of surf and beer and stoned girls, he got a flight north and a long ride on a stinking Greyhound toward a valley full of no-hopers and vinifera trying like hell to ripen through frost.
Simon hunkered down in the bus’ triple backseat and tipped airplane bottles of rum into a travel mug. Just past Hope, the mountain pines turned from green to red. He probably wouldn’t have noticed if the hippie kids in the next seat hadn’t freaked out over all that dead forest. Pine beetles, apparently, killing trees by the millions. He listened to them whine about climate change for a minute or two, and then plugged into his earbuds.
The French oak back in Rockpile cost over three grand a barrel. A few pennies too much to pay for wood, but Rockpile was a professional operation from rootstock to shoot. Simon had worked twenty-hour shifts coaxing the juice through a textbook ferment and after a couple of years in those barrels, it’d bottle okay. The winery investors would be happy.
His ex had been happy too, when he sent her the money he wouldn’t be spending in Nicaragua. And High Bench – well, if the old man was going to put Simon through the wringer again he just better hand over a fat cheque with a smile on his face.
When the Greyhound turned off the highway, Simon punched a text into the cheap burner he’d picked up at the Vancouver airport. The red truck was waiting for him – he remembered its antique fenders and peeling paint better than the two vineyard grunts leaning on the bumper. Huey and Duey, he thought. Interchangeable. Both tanned deep brown but for the pale sunglass rings around their eyes and the white baseball cap stripes above their eyebrows.
Simon eyed the cuts and nicks knotting their forearms. “How they hanging?”
“Looking good,” said Huey. “The Merlot was ready to come off three days back but they said to wait.”
Two minutes off the bus and it was already amateur hour. “Who made that call? Not the old man. His Honour would never wait to put it in steel.”
Huey opened his mouth to answer but Duey shoved an elbow in his ribs.
Simon tried again. “He didn’t wait for winter last time. Nothing shy about him. Thought he could get a ferment from green grapes just by throwing in a pack of yeast.”
Duey grunted and tossed Simon’s bag in the back of the truck.
Simon watched the rows climb past the truck window as they wound up the bench. The Cabernet Sauvignon on one side was throwing out suckers and cordons and big fat watery clusters just like he expected. Bad farming, sloppy grapes.
The Cabernet Franc on the other side was only four or five years old. Nothing like the gnarled century-old Barossa vines he’d cut his teeth on, but they looked okay. Probably managed by a community college viticulture grad, doing it by the book. That would be fine until the owner decided he needed a higher yield. Then the kid would get canned and the vines would go to shit.
It was decent land, though. The slope coasted down to the lake, steep enough to create a nice breeze. Put it a thousand miles south and they might be able to make a bottle or two worth drinking.
“I bet the old man gets a gleam in his eye every time he drives down this road,” said Simon.
Huey smirked. “The Franc belongs to a couple of Vancouver kids. They’re going broke. And we’re gonna get the lease on that rangy Cab Sauv. In a year or two High Bench will have all this land from mountain to lake.”
Duey spat out the window. “Be a shitload of work slapping those vines into shape.”
Simon felt a little sorry for the neighbours. Not for going broke – anyone stupid enough to put cash into Canadian wine deserved what they got. But nobody deserved the pain that came from tangling with the old man. He fought dirty.
Simon had worked a lot of crush pads. They blurred together into one cool expanse of concrete walled over with stainless-steel tanks and towering racks of oak. Three, sometimes even four harvests a year. California, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia were in his usual rotation. Bordeaux and Tuscany now and then, just to pick up a few old tricks. Occasionally Washington or Oregon, twice Texas. British Columbia just the once. He’d sworn never again.
Most wineries left Simon alone to do his work. Only one owner had ever sat on top of him, poking him in the ribs and questioning his every move. At first Simon had ignored the old man and just tried to get on with the ferment. But it had escalated.
Duey turned the truck onto a potholed lane. Simon got one glimpse of a new tasting room building before they turned onto a farm track dividing the blocks. He twisted in his seat and watched the estate spread out below as they climbed the mountain.
The Quonset hut was still there, set deep into the rock and shaded by a row of Ponderosa pine. Even at this distance the fresh yellow paint couldn’t disguise the rust around the joints. The landscaping around the new tasting room was still raw. Two cars and three motorhomes threw long shadows across the parking lot. The setting sun turned the valley rose and gold, the lake a long dark pool from bend to bend.
The vineyards stopped halfway up the mountain. A twenty-foot trailer was parked at the edge of the snake fence. “You got the camper, that okay?” said Huey. “They said you’d want some privacy.”
“It’s a long climb from crush pad to bed,” Simon said. Not that he hadn’t slept on concrete once or twice.
“We’ll leave you the truck.”
Duey dropped Simon’s bag in the dust. The two of them waved and trudged down the track.
The trailer groaned under his weight but it smelled fresh enough. The bed was made, the water tank was full, and someone – bless them – had put six cans of Victoria Bitter in the fridge. There was a carton of eggs too, some milk, butter and cheese, and a loaf of bread beside the toaster. He flipped the safety catches on the cupboards. Coffee. More beer.
Simon added a dozen VB to the fridge and finished the cold stuff can by can, thinking how he should be on warm sand, watching tan lines wink at him from the brown backs of girls doing yoga in bikinis. He didn’t look out the windows, not at the stars overhead, not at the lake below or the mountains between, and certainly not at the grapes that waited in ranks for the frost.
The rising sun turned the camper into an aluminum oven. Simon dragged a nylon lawn chair over to the snake fence and watched the light creep down the mountain. The first movement was in the campground off the highway – the harvest was worked by French Canadian gypsies, if he remembered right. Just after dawn, they rolled out of their tents and headed down the road six and eight to a car. An hour later the valley was busy as rush hour, harvesters and trucks working the wide flat blocks at the bottom of the valley, roped pickers stripping the vines on the steep slopes above.
But at High Bench, the only signs of life were the starlings squawking in the rows. Nobody working the harvest or even taking samples. Nobody around the Quonset hut. No sign of Huey and Duey. The whole estate spread out below him, so quiet it was almost spooky. He cracked a can and drained it, then got in the truck and drove downhill.
The tasting room door was locked. No surprise there – far too early to be waiting on tourists.
Footsteps sounded on the concrete behind him. A pair of big-eyed deer hopped over the fence. Simon waved them off. The deer trotted into the home block and began browsing on the vines.
“Pest management isn’t my department,” he said. But he ran the deer up the rows anyway, tossing pebbles at their flashing tails. He chased them over the drainage ditch and into someone else’s vineyard – rows of Chardy that had been stripped weeks ago, the vines ravaged, leaves flyblown.
As he walked back down through the blocks, Simon had to admit the High Bench vines didn’t look too bad. The fruit would never properly ripen, though. He plucked a few grapes, chewed them up and spat the pips into his palm. The seeds were still green. No hint of telltale brown.
When he got back to the parking lot, the winery was still deserted. The Quonset hut was locked tight, its roll-down door secured with a padlocked chain. Simon ran his hand over the deep scars at the bottom of the metal door. The rust scraped over the pads of his fingers.
Seven years ago the door had been secured with two shot bolts threaded with heavy locks. Simon had hacked them off with an axe after the old man had locked him out of the crush pad.
Simon turned his back on the hut. He should just go back to the snake fence and drink beer until the old man came to find him. But there was no point in putting it off. And he wanted his cheque.
The track continued up a steep slope bordered by Ponderosa pines, blocked by a metal gate marked Private. Simon dragged it open and left it swinging as he drove up the twisting switchbacks that climbed the ridge above the vineyards.
How many times had he stomped up this driveway on foot, angry as hell after a day of putting right what the old man had done wrong? The first time he had been sure of winning the argument, imagining he could beard the old man in his den. After a few more fights he began to learn that the old man never lost an argument. Nothing, not evidence, not education, not boots on the ground, or a lifetime on the crush pad meant a thing to a man like that.
At the top of the drive crouched a house sharp and cold as a razor blade, a steel and glass box cantilevered over the cliff on a pair of iron beams.
Simon flubbed the clutch and the truck’s engine coughed and died. He started it up again and pulled around back alongside the old man’s hunter-green Jaguar.
This house was new. Seven years ago it had been a fake Tudor pile with flagstones and flower gardens, even a bloody grape arbor. Now no hint of the old house remained, its skeleton bulldozed into landfill and replaced by this thin slice of modernism.
One kind of rich man’s dream exchanged for another. When this one got stale the Ponderosa pines would see a new dream form on the edge of the cliff, if the pine beetles didn’t kill them off first.
The back wall was flat zinc siding, the door a slab of black marble. Simon knocked once, waited, then knocked again. He tried the door. It swung open.
Glass walls on three sides framed a panorama of valley and mountain and lake. An eagle’s nest perspective. No need for art on the walls when you’re the lord of all you survey. The furniture was low, dark, modern, and uncomfortable.
The only thing out of place was the hospital bed.
The old man was on a respirator, his nose and mouth plugged into a plastic tube that snaked up from a metal bullet of oxygen on the floor. Swollen ankles puffed out above his too-tight socks, his paunch shrunken to a bib of flab under a sunken chest. The fingers of his right hand were stained yellow but there were no cigarettes, no ashtrays, no hint of smoke in the air, just a faint antiseptic tang. The old man’s fingers fiddled compulsively, grasping at air.
A plate of scrambled eggs and toast sat on a side table along with a photo of the old man in his younger days, stark as a raven in his judicial robes. A plastic water bottle was tucked into the blankets at his desiccated hip. Simon circled the bed. He picked up the bottle and held it out.
“Your Honour,” Simon said. “It’s been a while.”
The old man fiddled the bottle with shaking fingers but couldn’t seem to grip it.
“Not much there anymore.” A woman’s voice. Simon dropped the bottle and turned. She was sharp and sleek as the house.
“Nothing left of Dad but his habits,” she said. “I’m sorry—” Simon said.
“The fiddling.” She twitched her long fingers, imitating the old man’s gesture. “Watch.”
The old man stared out the window. He lifted his fingers to his mouth, pursed his lips, sucked on air, and then lowered his hand.
“I always thought the cigarettes would get him in the end, but it was the drinking instead. Smoking’s not going to hurt him now, but I’m afraid he’ll burn the place down.”
Simon looked around. “Not much here to burn.”
“He could burn himself to death. But maybe that would be a better way to go. Liver failure isn’t pretty.”
“I can see that,” said Simon.
“Dad went into diapers a year ago. He would rather have died right then.”
The old man lifted his fingers to his mouth again. His eyes were glazed and unfocused, his jaw slack. A bubble of spittle hovered at the corner of his mouth. Simon walked to the window. “You’ve got quite a view.”
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
He didn’t, and that was surprising. She was pretty enough. But when he hadn’t been fighting with her father he’d been trying to save the ferment, practically sleeping with the spectrophotometer. And drinking, of course.
Simon shrugged. “It’s been a while.”
“Seven years. You fought Dad hard, and you taught him a few things even if he’d never admit it.”
“Did I teach him to let his Merlot rot on the vine?” “No,” she smiled. Her teeth were very white. “That’s
my decision.” She held out her hand. “I’m Marina, the judge’s youngest. You don’t remember me but I remember you.”
Simon shook her hand and turned back to the window. From this height he could see the big estate up the valley. Narrow orange trucks climbed the rows, tiny as ticks.
“Are you the High Bench winemaker now, Marina?” “Not me. But I know what’s good for grapes. Dad knew
too, only he never applied the principle to the vines, just to his children.”
“Your neighbours have the jump on you. Getting their harvest in as fast as they can.”
“The weather will hold.”
“The weather will hold?” Simon placed his fist against the window, clenched it hard. “You’re playing chicken with winter. There’s deer in your home block and starlings mowing through the rows. Get your harvest in so I can put the grapes in a fucking tank.”
He said it too loud, but he didn’t care. He was sick of amateurs and their magical thinking. The weather would hold, the ferment would take, and everything would work out. Well, she was paying for his advice so he’d let her have it.
“Wine is farming. It takes hard work, not luck. You’re battling the elements. And you know what? The elements always win. Making wine is chemistry. It’s not art. It’s not an opportunity for self-expression. It’s science. Farming and science. You don’t leave any of it up to chance or it’s not a business, it’s just a rich man’s hobby and a fucking waste of time.”
She blinked but didn’t back away.
“I’ll take care of the deer, but the birds are fine. They only nibble around the edges. The grapes want more sun so I’m going to let them hang. And anyway, I was waiting for you.”
“Waiting for me. Why? The old man would have hired a kid from the local college. Someone he could boss around.”
“If you’ll come downstairs, I’ll show you. Bring that toast.” She padded down the stairwell, bare feet on slate. Simon looked around, confused, and then his gaze fell on the old man’s uneaten breakfast. As he plucked the toast off the plate the room filled with the smell of shit.
Simon shook his head. “Your Honour,” he said, “that’s a hell of a sad way to go, even for an asshole like you.”
The old man lifted his fingers to his lips.
Marina waited in the kitchen. A woman in scrubs was drinking coffee at the granite counter. At one look from Marina she put down her cup and trotted upstairs.
Marina unlocked a heavy oak door. “You’re going to like this,” she said.
“Is there a cellar down there?” Simon laughed. “Of course there is. Or do you call it the wine library?”
The stairwell spiralled down into a stone cavern lined with shining wood racks lit with pot lights recessed into rock. Ranks of wine bottles were filed into alcoves with brass rack labels. Decanters and stemware gleamed above a marble counter with an array of corkscrews and decanting funnels and aerators. A digital humidity and temperature gauge blinked on the wall by the stairs, and the far end of the room was dominated by a towering stainless steel fridge vault. In the middle of the room, a pair of armchairs faced off across an oak table. The air was fragrant with yeast and leather.
“I call it the cave. I don’t know what Dad called it. By the time it was finished, he couldn’t really walk anymore.”
“You’ve got a private cellar dug into the cliff but you’re still making your wine in a Quonset hut?”
Marina ran the rack ladder along its noiseless track and climbed up to fetch an unlabelled bottle. She looked at the slice of toast in Simon’s hand and raised her eyebrows. Fair enough, he thought, as he bit into the cold toast. Let’s do this right. Don’t want to be tasting crap wine with a tongue fouled by VB.
Simon browsed the racks. One side was almost all Bordeaux, good labels and expensive vintages. Next to that was a rank of Barolo. Nothing wrong with the old man’s taste. There were several dozen big spendy Napa Cabs further on, and then a rack of port followed by a dog’s breakfast of local reds, vintages all jumbled together, some bottles past their time and most not worth drinking.
The other side of the room was devoted to High Bench wines, the bottles racked opposite the Bordeaux, and just as carefully organized. The rest of the wall was filled out with vintage Champagne. Nothing wrong with the old man’s ego, either.
Marina stripped the foil from the bottle she’d chosen and eased the cork. “We’re not making wine in the hut anymore. There’s a new crush pad built into the hill under the tasting room. Didn’t you see it?”
Simon’s mouth was full of dry toast. He shook his head. “Well,” Marina said, “it’s nice. Everything you’d want.” He swallowed. “I can make wine in a garage if I have to.” “But don’t you like it better when you have a proper set-up?” She turned her hand over and gestured at the room, a model’s move, slow and elegant. “You can’t tell me you don’t like this. Be honest.”
“Who wouldn’t like it? It’s a fucking wet dream. But it’s in the wrong place. You can’t make good wine here.”
“Can’t we?” Marina smiled. “Oh, I see. Tell me, what do you need to make good wine?”
Alright, Simon thought. Kindergarten time. He resisted the urge to look at his watch. “Good grapes.”
“If you’ve got a winemaker who knows what they’re doing and a hardware store within a couple hundred miles, no. A few pieces of equipment would be nice, and an oak barrel if you’re making red. But Sicilians make killer red in concrete troughs. It’s not clean but it’s tasty.”
Marina plucked a pair of stems from the cabinet and placed them on the table beside the unlabelled bottle. She sat back in one of the leather chairs and crossed her legs. “And how do you get good grapes?”
“You farm the fuck out of them. And you don’t grow them in Canada.”
“Don’t you? Well, you’re the professional.” She lifted the neck of the bottle to her nose and inhaled. Her eyes rolled back a bit, an involuntary gesture of pure sybaritic delight. If this was a High Bench wine, she was putting on a show. Either that or her palate was borked.
“Let me tell you how to get good grapes.” She spread her fingers again in that model’s gesture, inviting him to sit.
The scent of leather enveloped him as he sank into the big armchair. “What do you know about farming, Marina?”
She leaned back and crossed her slim legs. “I used to work in the vineyards.”
“Sure. The vineyards at Tiffany’s, maybe.”
She smiled. “Since Dad got sick I’m more in sales. But you remember me. Think about it.”
Simon remembered a skinny teenager in coveralls and a baseball cap bringing in truckloads of grapes, working the sorting table, hauling loads of stems out to the compost. She had kept her distance at first, but as the fights with the old man got worse and worse she started sticking close. He remembered her hovering at his elbow as the old man shoved his shotgun in Simon’s face. He thought she was being protective of her dad, but maybe she had been learning something. Learning how to survive her father, maybe.
“Okay, farmer. Tell me what you think you know.”
She leaned toward him. “Vines are generous; they want to produce. If you water them and baby them and let them get comfortable, they’ll throw out canes galore and give you as much fruit as they can. But it’s bad fruit. No flavour.”
“Sure,” he said. “That’s Viticulture 101.”
“So you torture them. Plant the vines close together so they have to compete for water and nutrients. You cut them back hard to keep them stressed. Keep them thirsty and force them to drive their roots deep. Then you thin the buds until the vine is forced to put everything it’s got into a few clusters just to please you. You don’t get much quantity for your effort, but what you do get is the best quality. That’s what Dad believed. Torture brings out the best. I know it better than anyone.”
Simon sat back in his chair. “We still talking about grapes?”
Marina nodded. “What’s good for grapes isn’t so good for people. But I learned. I’m not sentimental. I don’t baby the vines, I keep them scared and make them work for me. And let me ask you, what’s crueller than forcing vinifera to grow this far north? They beg for every ray of sun.”
“If you’re going to go crazy on me, better I get my cheque now.”
She laughed and poured. A ruby stream tipped into the crystal, studding the lip of the glass like gemstones.
“Anyway,” said Simon, “this isn’t that far north. You’re on the same latitude as Champagne.”
“Now you’re making my argument for me. No reason why we can’t grow good grapes here.”
“Go ahead! Grow Riesling and Gris. Cool climate varietals make nice little patio sippers. Bottle some fat Merlot and sell it at the grocery store. Make a sparkling if you want to brag about something. But you can’t grow good Cab, and that’s what you need to make real wine.”
She pushed a glass toward him with the tip of her finger. “Cabernet Sauvignon likes heat, and we have plenty of that. It’s just getting hotter every year.”
Simon sighed. “You’re the judge’s youngest? I bet you never lost an argument, just like him.”
“Dad lost plenty of arguments. Just never admitted defeat.” She lifted her glass. “How about you? Ever admit defeat?”
Simon swirled the wine and plunged his nose in the bowl. The first whiff was pure black fruit, concentrated and treacly like a Napa Cab but then all that fruit spread out over hot soil, sunk into good stony dirt. He swirled again and sipped. The fruit burst over his tongue and slid like velvet down his throat. The finish was plush with pepper.
Simon tasted wine all the time, tasted, measured, assessed, critiqued, and criticized. It had been years since he’d drunk wine for pleasure, but this glass practically begged to be drained.
He sipped again. “That’s decent Bordeaux.”
“It’s not Bordeaux.” “Whose is it?”
Simon put the glass down. Crystal rang on oak. “Ours,” she continued. “High Bench, seven years ago.”
“I never made wine here. Your dad did. I just kept his mistakes from turning into vinegar.”
“Yes, you did. You gave Dad hell over it, just one barrel of your own, the way it should be. The way you knew it could be. And this is it.”
She sipped. Her eyelashes fluttered closed.
She could be lying. Could have soaked the label off a thousand dollar Grand Cru and poured him a big glass of bullshit. But no – she didn’t just like the wine, she was proud of it. Proud like her father had been of his Jaguar and his big old house. Every sip seemed to puff her up just the way her father had puffed up every time someone down in the town called him Your Honour or gave him right of way at an intersection.
Ego, that’s what he saw in her. Pure ego.
He tasted again. It was good. Very good, and after seven years starting to open up and even out. It would stand another ten years in the bottle, maybe even twenty.
He drained the glass and held it out. Marina refilled it, generously.
“Just one barrel, you said?”
“Yes, three hundred bottles. It’s our Grand Reserve. We don’t sell it, just give it away to wine critics and break it out for special guests. There’s just ten bottles left.”
One barrel. There had been one barrel. Simon had slept on the concrete beside it, kept the old man off it for weeks. In the end, he had stood over it with the axe clenched in his fists as the old man shoved the shotgun’s muzzle under Simon’s chin. He remembered panting with the urge to drive the axe blade through the old man’s skull, his vision turning red at the edges. He had nearly done it, nearly scattered the old man’s brains across the concrete, nearly painted the crush pad with his blood.
Instead, he’d used the axe handle to shove the shotgun aside and just walked away. Walked straight down to the highway, hitchhiked into the city, and had never thought about that barrel again once he was on the plane to Australia. Just wrote the whole thing off.
And now here it was, good as anything, anywhere. “Grand Reserve,” Simon said. “I bet the old man labelled his own Grand Reserve every year.”
“No. This is our only Grand Reserve.” She filled his glass again. “But you could make another this year, if you think you can do it again.”
Simon swirled the wine. It clung to the crystal like blood and streamed into the bowl in thick rivulets.
Could he? He wasn’t sure. Nothing in his experience could explain getting a wine this good from grapes like these. But he’d done it, somehow. Grand Cru quality. The kind of wine people search for, shed tears over, fight about. Legendary wine. His.
“Alright,” he said. “But I still want my cheque.”
Marina stood and walked over to the cold storage. “I haven’t got it.” Her voice echoed off the stainless steel. She opened the door. Cold air washed over Simon’s skin.
“Fuck,” he said.
“I haven’t got the money,” she repeated as she closed the door. “The new tasting room, new crush pad, finishing this house before Dad dies. And the nurses, three shifts a day. Dying at home isn’t cheap. But I’m talking to the bank again on Monday and we release the new reds in November. I’ll have it, just not right away.”
She placed a can of VB on the table beside his wine glass. Condensation pearled the aluminum.
“The bank would be a lot nicer to me if I had a winemaker. A permanent one, not a hired gun. Someone to stay year-round, take the ferment from harvest to bottle. Especially if he was the one who made our Grand Reserve.”
She was clearly crazy, Simon thought. He should grab the beer and run like hell. Go to Nicaragua and forget everything.
But there were only ten bottles left of his Grand Reserve. He would do it again, make more wine this good, or die trying.
“Stay,” she said. “Forget Australia, forget France and California. Stay and make wine here. I’ll make it worth your while, eventually.”
Simon settled back in his chair and lifted the glass to his lips. “What the hell,” he said. “It’s just getting hotter.”
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