Saturday, March 2, 2013

The crush party

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Excerpted from Nose, to be released by St. Martin's Press on March 12 but available now:

     Turning into the Hutt Family Estate, the renowned wine critic, Clyde Craven-Jones found himself gently insinuated from the twenty-first into the nineteenth century: manicured gravel drive, big, dappling live oaks obscuring the electronic surveillance cameras, a heavy-gage steel gate matching the white wooden fence, and vines trellised in the old manner, with red and white roses planted at the row ends. Beyond stood Jerome Hutt’s prized walnut trees, another living tribute to the past, the trunks painted a correct historic white, and a prune grove deep in shadow.
    A dozen rows of wheat stood beyond that, a demonstration plot for wine enthusiasts enamored of the authenticity of diverse agriculture. School children brought up regularly from the city could see what the valley had looked like when recent European immigrants lived here and nourished their crops with the natural bounty of roaming livestock. As if summoned by these expectations, sheep waded belly-deep in native blue stem grass, bright as sunlit cumulus. A signboard built by a cabinet-maker had been erected next to the driveway stating in tasteful gold leaf: The Hutt family seeks to preserve what is best and most lasting in the valley, and to keep it free of the discord of our modern world. Our uncompromising goal is to produce harmony in a special place, and a wine – Copernicus - of such exceptional quality that it will live and nourish generations to come.
    Not mentioned was the fact that the place had been a calf-and-cow operation of great squalor when Hutt purchased it. The rancher had filled the streambed with trash and grease-stained, axle-sprung tractors, threatened tourists trying to turn around in his rutted road, and had to be evicted by the sheriff after firing a bullet through the side of his own pickup. The original house had been demolished and replaced with the beautiful confection now coming into view, a perfect if greatly out-sized replica of a Victorian farmstead, with period siding, a long porch behind rampant rosemary, and guest quarters cleverly disguised as a California water tower. The handsome weathered barn, with its big hay boom and unsullied horse stalls, cleverly designed, massively built, fronted a thoroughly modern winery set into the hill.
    Guests in formal attire disembarked from large cars and smaller European jobs, eager for the annual party, and processed into the winery, under the big, unused hay boom. Alysssa Hutt reigned over the receiving line, turning and beaming upon each in turn, a sustained benignity bestowed upon whatever passed before her. Perfect teeth, not too white, ever so slightly varied, lent verisimilitude to one of the finest assemblages of resin and supporting platinum in the valley. And the set of Alyssa’s shoulders, at right angles to the earth, seemed unaffected by gravity, steely foundations under soft skin from which hung, in protuberant conformity, two large breasts perfectly constructed for both cleavage and levitation which she had not possessed when her husband first met her, sweeping up toward the broad overhang of generous, surgically modulated jaw line. “CJ!
    About to impart a secret, coming closer so that he caught a hint of breath freshener and glimpsed light reflected from a thin metallic plate inserted behind one pale blue iris. Jerome Hutt stood on the far side of the room, as far from his wife as he could get, turning that low, Australopithecine brow of his from guest to guest, his purposefully old-fashioned cut-away coat and elegant tie appropriate to the past but not to the present.
    CJ knew most of the people in this room and even liked a few. But others had been transformed as Alyssa Hutt had, the old personalities, and bonds, shed like chrysalises, gazing at the platters of hand-massaged, grass-fed beef, the phalanxes of dark bottles. He was touched by a sadness deeply rooted in family and departed friends, and drained his glass. Ordinarily he would have merely sampled the wine, and almost never did he pick up a fresh glass as he did now.
    Annoyed by the tightness of his jacket - only Americans could require evening dress at five in the afternoon – he impulsively took the arm of Tina Schupe, Jerome Hutt’s publicist and a woman whose looks dominated most gatherings. Requisitely blonde, modish in a blue-black sheath, fetching despite the drift of old acne scars, Tina was smarter than most people she dealt with and she looked at him in surprise. Clyde Craven-Jones wasn’t in the habit of approaching flacks. “Well hi, CJ.”
     “Any of that new blend around?” A mischievous ploy, but CJ was feeling his oats.
    “What new blend?”
     An unidentified wine had arrived at CJ’s house in a Pashmina shawl, an act that had Tina Schupe written all over it, and rated a perfect score. But she was too shrewd to take credit outright, if credit was due. Before CJ could respond he found himself bracketed by two vintners, the de facto Franco-American emissary from Champagne, and the beefy oldest son of one of the first families of the valley who wore a brocade vest that lent him a Barnum-and-Bailey touch, entirely appropriate, CJ thought. “Kind of woody, huh?” he asked conspiratorially, as if he and CJ shared an appreciation of subtle tannins. “I think Jerome pulled a little too much oak out of those barrels, don’t you?”
    But CJ made it a point never to discuss the wine at hand in a social setting. He watched Tina move across the room like a ceramic blade through oven-warmed Brie and lean close to Hutt, the long-standing intimacy between them impossible to miss. No tougher operator in the valley than Tina Schupe. She drank bourbon instead of wine, without excuse, yet in Hutt’s presence she softened, the two of them surrounded by the non plus ultra of valley society, and whispered something. Hutt looked at CJ across the room and raised his glass.
    God, what an incestuous world it has become, CJ thought, and what a wonderful one. The existence of hermetic American wine nobility rising in his lifetime, in part on his broad shoulders, was still a source of pride. Thirty years ago there would have been real farmers here, ruddy-faced men not in tuxedoes but in lumpy jackets and their friendly wives enjoying a party, companionable and full of advice for new-comers. Today, the burnished complexions all belonged to golfers and mountain-scramblers, to wine-besotted inheritors and hyper-developers, all connection to the land tenuous and filtered through immigrants who lived close to the source and did all the work.
    Seeking relief, CJ turned to the heavy doors at his elbow that led to the caves and the winery and on impulse leaned on an iron handle cast as merry Bacchus. He found himself in the deserted private tasting room, before a long table made of some South American tree, and he pushed through another set of doors and into the winery itself, suddenly engulfed in the smells of wet stone and fermentation, primal and still oddly thrilling after all these years.
    He started across the concrete floor toward the winery exit, stepping over big rubber hoses nuzzling stainless steel tanks like serpents out of Grimm. Once outside, he could call Claire on his cell phone, and escape, but now he was drawn to the towering, double-jacketed monoliths silently coursing with glycol that soothed the microbial rage of the microbes. Climate control kept the whole place cool as a mausoleum.
On his right rose the steel superstructure from which the wines’ progress could be monitored, impervious to earthquakes. It had been years since CJ had last looked down into the maelstrom of nascent wine. Suddenly he missed the innocence of his early days in the business, wanted to go back and sweep beards of mold from old bottles in Europe, to knock the tops off magnums of bubbly with a cavalry sword and lie hung-over on a bench in the Reims railway station, to spit first-growth Medoc onto crushed marble, and to sip Margaret River chardonnay while watching kangaroos slip eerily through the forest south of Perth. And, of course, to make love to the impetuous wife of a vintner, on her grass tennis court not two miles from where CJ now stood. Things had been much easier in those days, especially at the mere one hundred and ninety pounds he then weighed.
    CJ placed his glass on a tread and a hand on the railing and heaved himself up to the catwalk. An adventure. Take it slow; there was a cane in CJ’s immediate future, he knew, but had resisted out of vanity. He moved forward and at random chose a handle on hinged steel and, with a grunt, pulled up the trap door. Here the smell was strongest: bramble and jam and the acrid plume of alcohol. The hatch slipped from his hand and collided with the tank, bringing a mournful echo from the far end of the winery, and CJ looked down into thousands of gallons of dense red liquid. A scummy blanket floated on the top, the fermentation complete. Calculating quickly, he estimated that the tank’s contents were worth a million dollars, more or less, a handsome return for Hutt. Incredible in fact.
    He thought he heard a door close, then nothing. A sanctity in this dimness, humming compressors, softly keening computers measuring temperature in bright, ever shifting liquid numerals, other-worldly, unspeakably expensive. He felt a mischievous elation: CJ was a journalist, after all. It had been a long time since he had looked deeply into any wine not in a stemmed glass. If Hutt was faking the culling of his harvest, or making a small lot of mystery cabernet, perhaps he was also manipulating it in these resplendent tanks, but the view down into this one was of darkness.
    Bending over, he pushed his face through the wide portal. Clyde Craven-Jones was not above experiencing anew the rawness of the hallowed process, but he was touched by unexpected fear of falling. He pulled away, the stem of his glasses catching on the edge, and they dropped.
    “You oaf!”
    He could see them in the gloom, hanging from a baffle blade above the priceless vat of wine. The glasses were almost weightless, thin frames and graduated lenses supposed to lend him an air of authority. Cursing, he lay flat against the smooth tank top and thrust one arm downward. The gap was too great. So he maneuvered his right arm and shoulder into the portal, already hearing his wife’s complaints about his soiled jacket, but even with his cheek pressed to cold steel he couldn’t quite reach them. No option but to grope his way back to the reception, but his pride - and fear of embarrassment - forced him to try again.
    One shoulder all the way into the tank, the rest of him shutting out light, the closeness of the tank’s interior oppressing, CJ stretched. He touched the thin edge of one lens but, at that moment, his feet shot upward out of the black dress shoes that hurt his ankles so he had left them loosely tied. “Goddamn it!” he bellowed, the words thrumming off the steel cylinder as he watched the dislodged spectacles sink into primordial ooze.
Head and arm firmly inside now, the other elbow wedged between him and unforgiving metal, America’s greatest wine critic was dangerously cantilevered, teetering like a seesaw and lacking strength to right himself. He couldn’t fall through - abdomen and buttocks prevented that - but neither could he escape without help. But his cell phone, a hard knot against his hip, was on the wrong side of the hatchway, and to reach it he would have to release his grip on the edge, twist to the left, and work that hand up crab-wise along his meandering mid-rift.
    He tried, recalling the line: The probity of a wine critic is inversely related to the size of his waist. What idiot said that? Some people are more disposed to flesh than others. “Everybody” – screaming, surprising himself – “doesn’t jog!
    He touched the phone at last. Candy bar model, not a flipper, small mercy. Grope the polyester. Where’s that redial button? But his shoulder slipped and he found himself up-ended, one hand gripping the baffles, the other in new wine still warm and sticky. CJ gasped, his face infinitely heavy, suddenly back in boarding school, under ghostly white goalposts, smelling rank grass as his face is thrust into the earth by beastly rugby players. Make the air last, he thought, a winery’s never empty for long at crush time. They’ll come for you. Ignore that fearful heart, abide with dignity and watch the lovely spears of light in that dark pool.

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