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Excerpted from the novel due March 12 from Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin's Press) wherein the neophyte enters the shadowy world of Glass Act:
Two shiny couches, what looked like walls of unfinished timber, and not a single customer. He went in and sat at the scuffed, darkly lacquered bar with no beer taps. Those walls were really the ass ends of wine crates, branded with family names. A heavy-set man in a leather jerkin and gray pony tail was climbing down from a ladder used to reach bottles stored in what looked like old feed bins. He asked, “What’s your varietal, cowboy?”
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“I just got hired by the Press. I want a beer.”
“That’s not a sin. The Press, huh? Well, you have my sympathies.”
He was Ben Something-or-other, Slavic-like, extending a sand-papery hand at the end of a stout, hairy forearm wrapped with a sweat-stained leather bracelet.
“I’m Les Breeden. From Chico.”
“Well, Les from Chico, don’t you think you might like some familiarity with the valley’s main product? To adequately serve that great metropolitan daily?”
Not waiting for an answer, Ben held up a black bottle with an elaborate silver device in the neck and poured two fingers of red wine into a big, stemmed glass. Les wished he had just walked out, but it was too late. Then he noticed the price chalked on the board behind the bar. “Seven dollars? No way.”
“Indulge me. The first glass for a visiting fireman in hard times is free. Taste a pinot noir from the Central Coast to launch you on a voyage that, if you’re like the rest of us, will be long, and eventful. Stick your nose into the glass, inhale, and tell me what it smells like.”
Les went along with it. “Grapes?”
“Not specific enough. Think fruit.”
“Better. Now drink, but...” Ben already had a mouthful of wine. “... don’ schwallow. Shuck som’ air. Then closh lips and blow out da nose...”
Les tried. A surprisingly potent, fragrant liquid went up the wrong way and came painfully out his nostrils and all over the bar. Ben clawed the towel from his shoujlder and wiped down his jerkin first. “That wasn’t auspicious,” he said. “Let’s try again.”
“Don’t think so, but thanks for the introduction.”
“Wait, you’ve got to try the syrah, for contrast. Don’t aerate this one, and you don’t have to spit.” A web of smile lines transformed Ben’s otherwise scary face. “Okay, syrah’s called shiraz in Australia, and in France. Persia’s where it came from. Got that? Ancient grape, modern renditions.”
This wine was darker than the first. Les could smell it from two feet away, and feel it coating his teeth like little, furry sweaters. Ben was sloshing his wine around in his mouth, so Les tried that, too. The syrah was delicious. “Hot around the gums,” he said, taking a chance. “No resemblance to the stuff in jugs, or the wine coolers we used to drink Davis.”
“We’re progress. The heat comes from high alcohol, our big problem in California. And a paradox: if sun’s good for grapes, how can it be bad for wine? Because it drives up the sugars.”
“What are sugars?”
“Don’t get hung-up on the lingo, Chico. Words like ‘sugars,’ ‘varietal,’ they make some people sound smart so they’re here to stay. The important thing is, sugar makes wines pop, with the help of microbes. Basically the little buggers eat the sweet juice and excrete alcohol. The more sugar there is to eat, the more alcohol’s produced, the more powerful the wine.”
“So we get high on bacteria shit?”
“Basically. Alcohol also masks a wine’s defects, so winemakers love it. And big alcohol gets people thirsting for that initial blast of fruit, but it also makes them drunk.”
“Too much oak – splinters in the gums from too much time in new barrels.”
They drank again. Ben placed a basket of crackers on the bar. “Cleans the palate,” he explained, and turned and climbed back on the ladder, the treads worn by the passage of many feet. Ben looked up and down the bins, fingered a bottle and brought it down. “Now for the coup de grace, cabernet sauvignon, the valley’s triumph. Don’t let anybody tell you differently. The best ain’t pinot, it ain’t syrah, it ain’t sangiovese. Merlot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, all fall beneath the jackboots of Almighty Cab. The fuel under the fire, the sex in the enological equation.”
With a stroke of a mounted contraption looking like a bronze bicycle pump he delivered the cork right through the metal foil. “Ideally the wine should breathe, but life’s short.”
Then he reached down two fresh glasses that might have held goldfish at the county fair and generously poured. Les found his mouth watering as he watched the wine rise in his glass, the smell differing from the others. He said, “Dusty.”
“That’s tannin. What else?”
“Some kind of berry?”
“Spot on, Les.”
The door opened and a couple came in, he in a white shirt and jeans, his long, dark hair in ringlets, she looking Asian but wearing a safari suit and wide-brimmed felt hat. “Hey, Benny,” the young man said.
“Hey, Train. Kiki.”
They sat down and Ben dragged the bottle of cab over to them, covering the label with the soiled towel. “This gentleman and I were just sampling a very excellent expression of mountain vines on a southwest facing slope. What say?”
“Sure,” said Train.
Les noticed the Ferrari parked at the curb outside and was glad he had left his truck up the street. A clear plastic shield covered the outsized engine, which was painted red. “Testarossa,” said Train, noticing his interest. “Eats BMWs for lunch. Who’re you?”
“This is Les,” said Ben. “A reporter, and a damned good one.”
“I’m Train, this is Kiki. And this is...” Train smelled, tasted, sighed. “... is an ’02...”
Les didn’t catch the name, not that it mattered. Ben whipped off the towel. “Mi complimenti!”
Then somehow the bottle was empty. Kiki went on text messaging, Train and Ben talking, Les looking up contentedly at the wall of famous wineries with proper names, some of them famous, but also those of mountains, ridges, creeks, valleys, trees, flowers, fish, mammals, birds, women, even pickups. The variety was mesmerizing.
“I’m feeling the need of a flatlander,” said Train, and Kiki squealed with delight and pushed aside her cell phone. Ben moved crabwise toward his ladder, saying in passing, “You’re on your own now, Chico.”
Next: Les Breeden, PI
The dream was mauve, smelling of some violent earthly upheaval. Darkness filled with faces, all women’s; each time he reached, they receded. Then he was drifting on an incoming tide that flooded the flats, unburdened except for the pain behind his eyes, something unspeakable gaining on him, the tide turning, carrying him backward...
Thin morning light lay in neatly scissored strips on the concrete floor of Les’s apartment. His cell phone alarm had used up the remaining battery power, and Les still wore his trousers and socks. A scrub jay sitting on the landlord’s rock-sawing bench outside the window reminded him that it was a new day, but he couldn’t let go of the faces of the night before. New ones had appeared at the bar, indistinct now, but not the feeling of bonhomie, everyone happy, knowledgeable, privileged, including Les.
He showered and put on clean clothes and drove downtown, parking outside a still-darkened Glass Act. What had Ben said? “If I don’t have one before eleven, I must have eleven before one.” The words had been attributed to a Spanish sherry producer, touched each day with a yearning for artisanal alcohol.
It was cool in the depths of Glass Act, the door hanging open to the view of willows on the far side, in the lee of half-finished construction out of another century. Ben was up on the ladder - lived there, it seemed - sleeves rolled, a case of something balanced dangerously on his head. Shirttail out, heels fleshy nubs at the back of clogs. “Yo, Chico,” he called. “Have a seat.”
Ben dismounted and plunged a hand into the cooler; he lifted a dripping, golden bottle like some miracle from a blessed fount, the fancy rubber cork coming out with a whishhh. The bottle advanced on two narrow glasses. “No,” said Les.
“Don’t tell a soul, but this is French. It’s also the best fucking Muscat on earth.”
Pouring now, the exotic smell swimming through the intervening air like something alive, the glass absorbing all available light. “Beaume de Venise.” Ben was grinning for, yes, it was the best thing Les had ever tasted. For a time he couldn’t speak, gulls calling as if from a great distance, car doors slamming, classical music Les couldn’t identify seeping from dusty speakers in the dark corners of the ceiling. “Albinoni’s Adagio,” said Ben. “We should settle up.”
“Settle up what?”
“I didn’t know I had one.”
Ben placed the itemized receipt on the bar, Les’s initials scrawled at the bottom but the items listed above it all too legible. “Two hundred and seventy-three dollars?”
“You bought a Ridge zin, then insisted on buying into Train’s super-dooper Tuscan. I thought that one was a bad choice, but you guys wouldn’t listen. Then...”
“It’s the biggest bar bill in history.”
“Welcome to Enotopia, Chico.”
Next: Les Breeden, PI