Sophia Stone knew life held few absolutes: good wine is art, good Italian cooking is passion, a good child is a gift, and good news never comes in a certified letter.
“You sure this is for me, Tito?” she asked the postman who thrust an envelope toward her. When she tilted her head she could read the word “Certified,” stamped in red like a guilty verdict across the front.
A heavy-set man, Tito had a ready smile and an easy, engaging manner. Each day while delivering mail, he also traversed the valley searching for tidbits of gossip with the zeal of an Army battalion scouring the countryside for insurgents. St. Helena was a small community where the denizens believed mining each other’s business was an inalienable right granted on the theory that without the titillation everyone would fall over dead from boredom. “Yeah, looks like it’s from Charlie. Certified, too.” Tito didn’t have the decency to hide his interest as he mopped his face with a dirty handkerchief then stuffed it back into his rear pocket. The wiping didn’t help—a sheen of sweat still covered his ruddy cheeks. August had been hot with no break in sight.
Sophia eyed him. She wouldn’t put it past him to have already steamed open the letter, a thought that made her a bit nauseous. Why had she thought a small town in Napa Valley would be a good place to hide?
“From Charlie, you say?” Keeping her hands in her pockets, Sophia tilted her head further and tried to double-check the sender’s address. Then she looked him in the eye. “Any idea what it’s about?”
Tito looked like a bully when his bluff was called. He shrugged—an exaggerated movement that seemed like the shifting of a mountain—but a noncommittal answer, leaving Sophia certain whatever was in that letter would be spread around the valley and germinating in imaginations as rapidly as seeds on a spring wind.
At an impasse, Sophia and Tito stood there, the letter between them, Sophia delaying the inevitable. Unfortunately, with a dinner to cook and a cake in the oven, Sophia didn’t have time to see if she could outlast him. So, with a sour downturn to her mouth and a knot in her stomach, Sophia took the letter.
Tito motioned for her to flip the envelope over. “There on the back, that green card? You need to sign that.” Handing her a pen, he waited for her to sign, then tore off the return receipt, pocketing it.
Confirming the return address, Sophia gave him a distracted wave as he climbed back into his truck. “Thanks, Tito.” A perfunctory nicety.
“Sure thing, Ms. Stone.” In a shower of gravel, he gunned the mail truck back through the vineyard down the winding driveway leading to the valley floor. Sophia glanced up as the trees enveloped him and her normal quiet smothered the sound, wiping away all vestiges of his presence.
Except for the letter.
From her landlord.
At least the return address was his—and Sophia was certain he hadn’t moved from the corner lot at the bottom of her hill. She could probably throw a bottle and hit his roof, with a little help from the wind
Charlie had owned this patch of five acres on the top of Howell Mountain since his parents had died in a small plane heading up from L.A. over thirty years ago. Sophia had lived here for fifteen of those years and, through feast and famine, the ups and downs of the wine industry, she’d never received a certified letter from Charlie. In fact, she couldn’t remember having received any letter from Charlie. Their business dealings were usually hammered out at the kitchen table over a bottle of wine and sealed with a handshake. Napa Valley was a handshake kind of place.
Sophia reached up and rubbed the worn piece of iron Daniel had nailed to one of the porch supports. Tocco Ferro. Her family had been steeped in the ways of the Old Country; her husband had become a believer. Touch iron to ward off bad luck. Being a bit too pragmatic, Sophia didn’t necessarily believe, but it couldn’t hurt. God knew she’d had enough rough patches. With a finger, she traced the initials the four of them had carved in the porch support. Time had whittled their number to one … almost.
Tapping the white legal-sized envelope on her open palm, she squinted against the sun as she looked out over her small patch of heaven. A rolling hillside with a couple of acres under vine, grapes from the Old Country, grafts of her grandfather’s original vines. A small garden flanked the house. Her own private retreat sheltered from prying eyes by a ring of trees.
The farmhouse had been billed as a “fixer-upper.” She and Daniel had packed up the kids, moving up valley from the Bay Area, and spent the next several years making the remnants of a house into a home. They’d bribed the kids into helping by letting them paint their own rooms. Dani had picked pink, hot pink. As if the view from his window wasn’t enough, Trey had chosen wood paneling and a bucolic scene of vineyards on one wall. When he’d moved away for college, Sophia hadn’t had the heart to change it. Perhaps she’d harbored the hope that he would come home someday. He hadn’t. Now Dani was poised to fly.
Soon Sophia would be alone, the house emptied of youthful buoyancy. The prospect filled her with dread. Stripped of purpose, she half-feared she would grow brittle like the old vines until the weight of loneliness shattered her into bits and pieces of who she used to be. When Daniel had been killed, she’d had the kids. Now the false friend of sadness stayed ever near, her house echoing with memories. But memories didn’t make a life any more than the past made a future. However, the past was her tether. Without it, Sophia felt she would float away like a balloon loosed to the sky, growing ever smaller until vanishing from sight.
While the house cradled her past, the rows of vines just reaching their peak marching down the hill across her two acres held her dreams. Her grapes, started from grafts from her grandfather’s stock back in Italy, each juice-filled orb bursting with hope, with promise. Her life’s work hanging on the verge of a promise.
Through the screen door, the aroma of a cake on the verge of disaster wafted into Sophia’s consciousness, and she turned and bolted for the kitchen, the screen clattering shut behind her. With a dishrag to protect her hand, she opened the oven. The smell of chocolate carried on billows of steam engulfed her. She waved it away, squinting through the heat. She deposited the cake pan on the stainless steel countertop. Pressing her thumb lightly on the cake, she let out her breath in a long rush. Just in time.
Her mother loved chocolate cake. Sophia planned to visit her this afternoon. Perhaps a peace offering would soften her harsh moods of late.
Sophia spied the letter, pristine white and accusing, laying casually on the sideboard where she had tossed it in her haste. Without further thought, she stuffed it in the old cookie jar on the countertop and crammed on the lid. That cookie jar held a lifetime of happiness and heartache—her marriage license, the kids’ birth certificates, Daniel’s death certificate and obituary—it could handle the letter as well. Whatever problem lurked inside that envelope, it could wait.
Leaving the cake to cool, Sophia strode through the door to the porch, pushing through the screen and down the steps. The grapes, fragrant in the midday sun, neared perfection—harvest a few days away, at best. Sophia had plans for those grapes, unique varietals that would make unusual yet palatable wine … if she could just figure out the last piece. She was close, though, closer than ever before. Grapes—creating them, growing them, cajoling them to trust her—they were her true passion. Unfortunately dreams didn’t pay the bills, as her mother never missed a chance to bludgeon her with that little bit or ironic reality. So Sophia had to sell her skills to pay the bills and now found her days consumed with tending to grapes owned by Pinkman Vineyards, one of the vast commercial operations in the valley, that turned her carefully nurtured grapes into mediocre table wine.
She walked the rows testing the scent once more—the perfume of near perfection as her grandfather called the sweetness of grapes. Memories filtered through the shadows of time like wraiths, translucent, elusive … fleeting. When she quieted, stilled her mind and opened her heart, Sophia could hear his voice, rich and deep, his laugh, and smell the scent of earth and sun that clung to him, the wine on his breath. But, she couldn’t see him anymore. Like sun on paper, time had weathered and faded her mental pictures until only shadows remained, as if the present was slowly erasing the past.
Worry dogged her, the letter and its unknown message on her mind as she tended to each vine, brushing back the canopy, weighing the clusters. This far along in the season not much remained to do; nature would run her course. This year Sophia had planted wildflowers and grasses under the vines to entice the bugs and keep them off the fruit. The plan had worked well, as had her choice to prune more aggressively than normal this past winter. Under her care, her grandfather’s grapes flourished, and just now they were beginning to trust her, to give her their best.
This year’s wine had the potential to be the stuff of dreams.
At the far end of her property movement across the fence caught Sophia’s attention. Shading her eyes with one hand, she still had to squint against the assault of the sun. Her next-door neighbors had sold their property recently to Specter Wines, a new player with new money. Scuttlebutt had it the owner had made a mint somewhere back east. Sophia shook her head as she watched heavy equipment struggle to tame the hillside, prepare it for planting. These days it seemed just about every rich guy wanted a piece of Napa to cultivate his own grapes, make a signature vintage that would rock the world.
As if it was that easy.
Nico Treviani’s mood stood in stark contrast to the collegial spirit of the throng gathered at the annual meeting of the Napa Valley Vintners Association. Housed in a LEED-certified, open and airy, steel-and-glass building near the library in St. Helena, the Vintners Association was Mecca to winemakers both experienced and novice—a repository of their collective knowledge and a gathering place to commiserate over the fickle affections of their shared mistress.
Had he had a choice, Nico would’ve done anything other than be a winemaker, but choice was not an option—he’d been born to it, a family heritage so strong that Nico suspected his blood was half Cabernet. As his father’s first-born, he was handed the reins to something that was less a business than a calling. On the other hand, his brother, Paolo, had been given the option, and, fool that he was, he chose wine. And the fool had died before he knew the brilliance of the last Cab vintage they’d crafted together. 100 points. Liquid perfection. Not many wines reached those lofty heights—not that it translated into much more than bragging rights, which were a damn poor substitute for food on the table. Without his own land, his own grapes, he was nothing more than the hired help. Oh, he could buy grapes and custom crush, but that wouldn’t be the same—he’d have no real control, and folks would take too keen an interest in watching him work his magic … assuming he had any left without his brother. No, he needed his own space far from prying eyes … and he needed very special grapes.
Their mother had always said while you’d be hard-pressed to make a good living out of winemaking, you could make a great life. Nico wasn’t sure he agreed. And now that he had Paolo’s, children to house, feed, clothe, chase down, and send to college, he was feeling the pinch. How his brother had done it, he didn’t know. Especially after his wife had fled to the city. Preferring a quiet, sophisticated life, she’d turned her back on her family, her children. Nico was sure that was one of the unforgivable sins, the kind that ensured an eternity roasting on a spit over the open fires of Hell. And if it wasn’t, when he got there he’d be sure to figure a way to make it so.
As he eased into the back of the large room and leaned against the wall, Nico thought about the price a life of wine exacted. He recognized the back of every head filling the rows in front of him as the speaker droned on. He knew their histories almost as well as they did. One guy was a recovering alcoholic—no longer able to risk tasting his wine, he still made it, slaving over every nuance of the process. One or two had hit a home run and now basked in the ability to make limited batch estate wines that sold for upward of a grand a bottle. Some scratched out an existence on the strength of their wine clubs. Most turned large fortunes into small, proving the old joke. And then there were a very few, like Nico, who had been born to winemaking or grape growing, selling their skills to those who could pay. Despite differing backgrounds, and differing futures, wine glued them together.
Except for Avery Specter, Nico’s current employer.
As if thought could conjure flesh, Avery materialized in front of Nico, his usual ruddy complexion flushed hotter than normal. With his eyes at half-mast, his comb-over falling the wrong way in wisps of misplaced hair, exposing his bald pate, he looked like exactly what he was: a self-important prick who’d made a fortune in manufacturing, or textiles, or running a hedge fund, or something, and had bought his way into the wine business.
Specter grabbed Nico by the arm and tugged him into the vestibule as he hissed, “Have you read this report?” Stopping in the center of the open area, Avery turned to face his winemaker and pressed a sheaf of papers into his chest. “And before we get started, you need to learn one thing, Treviani. You come when I call.”
Being treated like a dog to be trained was enough to kick up Nico’s simmer to a boil, so he wasn’t about to validate Specter’s contemptuous attitude by making excuses … although he did have a good one. He figured talking the sheriff out of turning his twin thirteen-year-old nieces over to the Juvenile authorities would earn him a get-out-of-jail-free card, but ego wouldn’t let him play it. The psychologist said the girls were just acting out and they’d get beyond it. Fine for him to say—he didn’t have to ride herd on the heathens. Who knew two pint-sized females could bring a grown man to the point of complete surrender? Nico snorted at his own weakness.
“You think this is funny?” Specter’s voice rose enough to turn heads as the meeting broke up and Nico’s friends filtered out of the meeting room. When Nico ignored the sheaf of papers, Specter pulled them back and began rolling them into a tube, his agitation poorly hidden.
“No, sir.” Nico avoided making eye contact as he fought to get his temper under control. “There’s a lot more to life than making wine, Mr. Specter.”
“Not while you’re on my payroll.”
Specter had no children of his own, and that thought alone reassured Nico that there was indeed a God. But it also made arguing with the man futile. So he argued with himself. He had sold out. Lowered his standards. And he couldn’t shake the feeling it was going to bite him in the ass.
“You wanted to talk to me about a report?” Nico asked even though he knew all about it. Avery Specter might need a report to learn what had been painfully obvious for years, but Nico didn’t. Hell, he could’ve written the damn thing himself—he’d been saying as much for a long time now to anyone who would listen. It didn’t take some government expert to know the baby boomers were transitioning to fixed incomes, their penchant for high-end wine taking a hit along with their lifestyle. The next generation, whatever they were referred to—the Millenials, the Me generation, the Y generation? Nico couldn’t remember, but whoever they were, they didn’t yet have the disposable incomes or the sophisticated palates to support the high-end wine industry at the current levels. Something had to give.
Wineries had to reposition themselves.
Keeping his eyes lowered, Nico managed to avoid the few stragglers just now leaving the meeting room. It was bad enough being called to heel by his boss, but having his colleagues witness it threw gasoline on the embers of his foul mood. A few greeted him, and he nodded but didn’t invite conversation so they didn’t stop. Out of the corner of his eye, Nico caught the looks many flashed at Avery: contempt, thinly veiled if they tried to hide it at all.
Avery wasn’t stupid … anything but. His barely contained frustration and worry pulsed from him like light from a dying star making his hands shake as he unrolled then re-rolled the sheaf of papers into a tighter tube. “Cult wines are coming under economic pressure and there’s nothing we can do about it.” His reedy voice screeched like notes played by a fourth-grade clarinetist.
Nico crossed his arms and glowered at his boss. Cocking an eyebrow he feigned interest.
Avery didn’t wilt when he ran headlong into Nico’s scowl. “They say that the number of Boomers, the population segment solely responsible for the record profit of the cult wine industry, is shrinking.”
“Age attrition. People die, Mr. Specter.” Nico’s voice was flat, hard.
Avery’s mouth pulled into a thin line. His backbone straightened. But at six feet he was still several inches shorter than Nico, so he leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “I like being talked down to about as much as I like tardiness. You’re property bought and paid for. You’d be wise not to jerk my chain.”
“And you’d be wise to show a bit more respect. You need me, Mr. Specter. Without a winemaker making wine’s damned difficult. And you want high-priced juice, so you need a man with my CV—and, to my knowledge, there is only one.”
Heels firmly dug in, both men stared at each other. Neither wavered.
Finally, Specter shrugged as his gaze slithered to the side, focusing over Nico’s shoulder. “I know what people think of me around here. You people think I haven’t paid my dues. I don’t have wine running in my veins, filling my soul.” His derision leaked from each word. “You think I’m the worst kind of blight since phylloxera—a businessman thinking he can buy his way into making great wine. And you know what?” He stepped back and slapped the rolled-up report into Nico’s chest. “That’s exactly what I am.” He shot Nico a grin. “Working pretty good so far, don’t you think?”
Nico grabbed the papers before they could unfurl like the white flag of surrender in the heat of battle. A tic worked in his cheek as he watched the bastard saunter away. Avery Specter didn’t deserve much, he thought. Perhaps a grisly, lingering, painful death and a pine box, but not much more than that.
Nico felt someone step in next to him, but, wearing the blinders of pride, he resisted looking to see who.
“He’s wrong, you know. To me he’s more like Pierce’s disease. Kill a vine in less than five years and no cure in sight. Phylloxera we got under control.” Billy Rodrigues clearly had been eavesdropping, a fact that would make Nico mad if Billy wasn’t his best friend.
At the sound of Billy’s voice, Nico felt himself relax. “Quatro, you do have a way with words. Let’s hope he and his friends don’t kill the wine business.” Nico called Billy “Quatro” as did many others, because he was William Xavier Rodrigues IV. His father was Tres, same logic. Nico called him “Sir.”
Through the years, he and Quatro had witnessed many of each other’s indignities; one more wouldn’t matter. “But there is another side to all of this. And maybe I’m justifying,” Nico said, his temper dissipating. “God, I hate to give the guy any credit, but without money it’s damn hard to make a truly great cult wine. When you and me scratched our way up the ranks, making wine was like voodoo, a bunch of wine drinkers relying on folklore and playing around with a kid’s chemistry set. And the growers were nothing more than hobby farmers. But now, with property values through the roof, international distribution agreements, hundreds of wineries in this valley alone, it’s big damn business. ” Nico shot his friend a serious look minus the scowl he’d used for Specter.
“I still can’t figure whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” Quatro was thick and solid, his hair and skin different shades of brown, his eyes black, and his smile pure mischief. He’d been working the fields so long his hands were a mass of callouses permanently stained from red dirt, and red grape skins, and scarred by the brutal work. As if remembering his manners too late, Quatro swept his sweat-stained broad-brimmed straw hat from his head then raked his fingers through his thick salt-and-pepper hair. When he was done, he set his hat back in place, low over his brow.
“Both. More money to go around, but long-time residents are being priced out of the game.” Nico stuck the tube of papers in his back pocket. “All of us are in this together, the whole Valley. If we don’t figure out how to distinguish ourselves, the economic contraction is going to squeeze us all back into oenophilic oblivion.”
“All your awards—”
“Couldn’t save the family vineyard or keep my brother from dying.” Nico snarled as his brows snapped into a frown. The emotional tempest dissipated as fast as it had arisen. He squeezed his friend’s shoulder. “Sorry. Got a lot on my mind.”
“You made a 100-point wine from Beckstoffer grapes. And we all know they are the best.”
“I made the wine. My employer makes the money.” Nico didn’t voice his fear that now, without his brother, his wine wouldn’t be as good. They’d been a team. Was half really as good as the whole? And, his worst fear, could he even make wine without his brother? “What I need is something new, something better than Beckstoffer.” Nico raised his hand before Quatro could get a word in. “Not better, that was the wrong term. Just different, but not too far a reach for the discerning but limited American palate. Something amazing that we can produce at a reasonable price point.”
“Amazing yet accessible. The Holy Grail. Well, if anybody can do it, you can. But God knows where you’re going to find those grapes. And I know you’re a Cab guy, but, if I were you, I’d be thinking about something white or rosé.”
“Yeah, short or no aging, quick to market. I got an MBA in the family who’s been singing that song for years. We just haven’t found the grapes.”
“I’m pretty sure if you start making wine on the side, Mr. Specter will have no problem dragging you into court. As I recall his lawyers spent a lot of time crafting your non-compete. He’s got you tied up pretty good.”
“Given time and conviction all knots can be loosened.”