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By Rex Pickett
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2004 Rex Pickett
All rights reserved.
The sun poured bright parallelograms of mote-swirling light through the venetian blinds of my rundown, rent-controlled house in Santa Monica. I was moving frenetically from bedroom to living room packing for a road trip with my best friend, Jack Cole. We were headed for the Santa Ynez Valley and a week of wine tasting before he was to be married the following Sunday. Though I couldn't afford this impromptu excursion, I desperately needed to get out of L.A. The place was suffocating me, fueling paralyzing panic attacks that had been a chronic affliction of mine over the years.
The phone rang, but the number that materialized on my caller ID didn't register so I stood frozen over the answering machine, waiting.
"Miles, is Roman," my landlord began in his Transylvanian-sounding drawl. "It is the fifteenth of September and I still not receive rent. Every month we go through this. If I don't get check by tomorrow I have no choice but to begin eviction. I don't like this. You are my friend. I know you are starving writer ..."
I levered the volume on the answering machine to 0, the hair on my forearms tingling. The rest of Roman's exhortation I could recite from memory. He would warm up with how lenient he had been, then he would launch into a foaming-at-the-mouth diatribe about how my financial shortcomings were the cause of his elevated blood pressure and a host of other onuses that daily racked him on the property owner's cross. His jeremiads were worthy of Job and their intent was to make me feel guilty and scrape together the $850 in question.
I resumed packing, the call pecking away at the edges of my already frayed psyche. Into my travel-scarred suitcase I threw a couple of bleak-themed novels I knew I would never crack. For good measure I added The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson's brilliant and exhaustive tome on everything you ever wanted to know about the universe of wine. It was the perfect book to calm the nerves at three in the morning when you wake in an unfamiliar motel room in a cold sweat, trembling from excess. After all, Jack and I were journeying to wine country, and I wanted to have the one book that had supplied me with all the basics of my one undying passion — besides, of course, the unrepentant penning of two unpublished novels and scores of unproduced screenplays.
As I was about to shutter the house the phone rang a second time, jangling my nerves. I raced over to the caller ID, expecting it to be my disgruntled landlord again, amplifying on his first message with another warning salvo. But the number that came up on the display was a 212 area code so I lunged for the phone. "Hello," I answered breathlessly.
"Miles," sang a cheery woman's voice. "It's Evelyn, your favorite agent." She was the sixth in a long line of backstabbing sharks, but so far she seemed to be the rare exception: an agent who believed in me.
"Evelyn, what's up? You sound upbeat for a change." In fact, she had that uncharacteristic lilt in her voice that promised argosies, ships of fortune that would diminish the pain of the thirty-five rejection letters from the who's who of major publishing houses that I had arrayed on my living room walls: a festoon of failure, I proudly told everyone.
"Some potentially good news," Evelyn said. "Richard Davis at Conundrum liked your book."
My jaw dropped. The novel she was referring to had been shopped around New York for nearly a year now with no takers. There had been the first tier of submissions to the cream of the crop, when excitement was high and optimism exaggerated. Then there was the second tier: less prestigious houses, which meant less advance money, and considerably less budget for promotion once I got published, which I still assumed I would. The slow morphine drip continued as more rejection letters sluiced through Evelyn's New York office and were shunted to me in L.A. Bringing up the rear was the third tier: boutique houses on the periphery seeking a home run and a move into the second tier. Short of vanity presses and the Internet self-publishing venues, this was where Evelyn disembarked and moved on to the BBD — bigger and better deal. We were clinging to tattered ribbons and we both knew it.
"Great," I replied, almost not wanting to hear the qualifications for fear they would put a damper on my excitement.
"He's passing it to the other senior editors to read over the weekend. I'm expecting a decision toward the end of next week. Of course, he recommended some revisions."
"Of course," I replied. "A publishing deal would certainly have that galvanic effect on me."
Evelyn laughed heartily, the gallows laugh of a hard-working agent who wasn't getting any younger. "So, we're in pretty good shape," she said. "I've got my fingers crossed."
"Terrific," I replied, glancing at my watch. "I'm getting ready to take off for a little trip."
"Santa Ynez Valley. An hour north of Santa Barbara. The poor man's Napa/Sonoma. My friend Jack is getting married and we're going to go out in style. It's research for my next book," I added.
"Sounds like a blast," she said. "Are you writing anything new, Miles?"
"Well, um," I began haltingly. I glanced around at the rejection letters thumbtacked to my walls, their stinging words glaring reminders of why I had been unproductive recently. Of course, there was also the divorce, the dwindling bank account, the renewed wave of panic attacks, the loss of my film agent to the St. Vitus's dance, and the sudden departure of a short-lived girlfriend who couldn't put up with my occupational moodiness. "I've got something brewing," I said finally. "Something epic."
"Well, keep writing," she encouraged. "And I'll call you when I hear something."
We signed off and I stood still for a moment, a hundred thoughts crisscrossing in my head. I had almost given up the book for dead — two years down the toilet and all the bad debts that backed up with it — but I was thrilled Evelyn had not. I made a mental note not to give up all hope in humankind.
I locked up my house, threw my suitcase into the back of my Toyota 4Runner, and headed off to the weekly Friday afternoon wine tasting at Epicurus, where I was to rendezvous with the incorrigibly late Jack.
Epicurus was a long railcar-shaped wine emporium wedged in between a mattress store and a spa that specialized in high colonics. Wine bottles were racked halfway up both walls and down the middle of the long rectangular space, arranged according to varietal and country of origin.
The familiar crowd was packed into the small cordoned-off tasting area, affectionately dubbed The Bullpen, in the rear of the shop. In recent years The Bullpen had been witness to many wild Fridays after the owner had gone home, leaving the store entrusted to James, his English wine guru. Usually James would uncork bottle after bottle, recklessly cherry-picking the store's inventory in retaliation for what he referred to as his insulting salary. It was the place to be on Friday for the Westside wine cognoscenti.
This afternoon they were pouring Gary Farrell, a high-end vintner whose winery is smack in the middle of the Russian River Valley. Pinot Noir country. My grape. The one varietal that truly enchants me, both stills and steals my heart with its elusive loveliness and false promises of transcendence. I loved her, and I would continue to follow her siren call until my wallet — or liver, whichever came first — gave out.
There was a buzz in The Bullpen when I arrived. A few people called out hellos and waved as I squeezed into the small space and found a clean glass. Most of the regulars were already holding court in their customary positions,arms crooked with wineglasses held below their noses. They included: Carl, an electrician at Warner Brothers, a small roly-poly man with a thirst for Bordeaux and a private cellar stocked with some of France's finest (and the burst capillaries in his face to prove it); Jerry, a reptilianfaced, paunchy man in his forties, dentist by trade, oenophile by avocation, who used the Friday tastings as a way to meet prospective new paramours even though we all knew he was married; Eekoo, a wealthy Korean real estate entrepreneur who boasted a temperature-controlled bedroom stacked floor to ceiling with the finest California Cabernets, Chardonnays, and Pinots, the highly allocated ones, the mythical bottles you don't find in wine stores. Eekoo's trademark was the varietal-specific Riedel stemware he lugged around in a wooden case from tasting to tasting. Then there was Malibu Jim, a slender, sallow-faced man in his fifties who sampled the wines, then typed in tasting notes on a laptop, research for a book he probably would never get around to writing. Recent newcomers, I noticed, were a pair of pleasantly plump office assistants who had discovered the best $5 party in the city and were fast becoming regulars. They didn't know much about wine, and they came reeking of perfume — a wine tasting no-no — but they were a load of laughs once they got a few tastes under their belts. And then there were the walk-ins, the one-timers, the curiosity seekers who heard the convivial banter in the back of the store, noticed wine being sampled, and thought it would be fun to join in. Sizing up the fresh dramatis personae, I became aware of three attractive women in their early thirties, huddled together, demarcating a proprietary space, conscious of the leering stares but determined to enjoy their afternoon outing.
"Miles," Carl called out, raising his glass, already flush in the face. He tended to arrive early and get a head start on the festivities. "Didn't think you were going to make it."
"Gary Farrell, are you kidding?" I said as I elbowed my way over to the lineup. Manning the bottles was a matronly woman with a pie-shaped face and a friendly but strained smile. As disembodied arms snaked in between jostling bodies she tried to monitor the amounts that were being poured. It usually began politely, then slowly deteriorated into a help-yourself-to-all-you-can-drink line of attack. We were still in the polite phase of the afternoon when I held out my glass to her.
"Would you like to begin with the Chardonnay?" she asked over the din of voices.
"Absolutely," I said.
She picked up an open bottle of the Farrell Sonoma and poured me a splash. I put my nose in the glass, inhaled deeply, and got a whiff of honeydew and underripe pears. On the palate the wine was indelicate, slightly oaky, very tropical-fruity, a little on the flabby side: a fairly typical California Chard for the Chard-swilling masses. I compared notes with Carl and he readily agreed.
As I waited for Jack, I edged my way nearer the three women who were making their first appearance. They were deep into the reds and I sensed they were getting ready to head for the hills.
"What do you think of the Farrells?" I asked the one in the middle, a pretty, dark-haired slip of a girl.
"Mm." She wrinkled her forehead. "I guess I like the Merlot the best." Her pals concurred with her assessment, nodding and mmm-ing.
I grimaced. Merlot, a quintessential blending grape, when left to its own devices almost always — Pétrus notwithstanding — results in a bland, characterless wine. "What about the Pinots?" I asked, smiling what I hoped was a charming and knowing smile.
"I didn't like 'em." She formed her mouth into a tight little O trying to describe her displeasure with my favorite grape.
Disenchanted, I backed my way toward the lineup of bottles, sensing I had struck out. As the crowd shifted and reshifted in the cramped space, I quickly sampled the second Chard, a single-vineyard wine with a better balance of fruit and acidity and subtler oak overtones that imparted a slightly smoky, almost nutty taste.
"Excellent," I said to the wine rep, when she asked if I liked it. I rinsed my glass and held it back out. "Let's get serious."
She reached for the first Pinot and poured me a splash. It was Farrell's Sonoma standard, blended from a selection of vineyards. It gave off that unmistakable Pinot nose of cassis and blackberry, but it wasn't distinguished, drifting in the mouth like a rudderless boat. The second Pinot was a single-vineyard from the nearby storied Rochioli property. It had notes of cardamom and exotic berries, and it pinwheeled around on my palate, deliciously lingering. Mm, I thought to myself, rolling the wine around in my mouth, this is more like it.
I shuffled my way through the crush of bodies back to where the three neophytes were winding up with the Cabs, hoping for one last shot. I was beginning to feel a little high and it emboldened me to re-approach them.
"You don't like this Rochioli Pinot?" I asked.
The dark-headed one shook her head again.
"Really?" I sipped and took another spin around the block. "I think it's close to dazzling."
Jerry the dentist, face florid from having already traipsed through the lineup several times, butted in. "I don't think it's that dazzling," he contended, hoping to curry favor with women I didn't think would give him the time of day. They all smiled at him and I drifted away for a second and final time. Ten minutes later he had the darkheaded one buttonholed against the wall and — more appallingly — she seemed fascinated by his ineloquent winespeak.
Dispirited, I kept returning to the Rochioli as if to a trusted friend. As the rep poured me more, Carl sidled over to solicit my opinion. I barraged him with hyperbolic hosannas, reaching deep for the metaphors and the polysyllabics, which always made him chuckle.
"You're right," he said, after I had finished reeling off my lyrical account, the wine liberating my tongue to new heights of glibness. "Absolutely first-rate Pinot."
"How was Spain?" I asked.
"Excellent," he said. "Had a great time."
"Drink any good Riojas and Riberas?"
"Yeah, some really tasty ones." He winked, then filled me in about a big feast at a winery where they roasted lambs over flaming vine cuttings.
While listening to Carl's chronicle of his Spain trip, I bypassed the Merlot and reached for the Zin, not wanting the rep to think I was hogging the Pinot. I refilled Carl with a scandalously healthy splash that drew an admonitory stare from the rep. We clinked glasses and laughed, delighting in our naughtiness.
Then Carl bent close to my ear and whispered, "Woman in the black shirt and blond hair is checking you out."
I shot a furtive glance in the direction Carl was indicating. One of the dark-headed one's friends was not just looking at me, but smiling. I didn't know if she was flirting or had simply discovered the slippery pleasures of Pinot at my urging.
"They don't like the Rochioli," I told Carl. "I can't date a woman who doesn't like Pinot. That's like getting involved with someone who's disgusted by oral sex."
Carl laughed. "How long's it been since you've had a girlfriend?"
"I can't remember. A while." I sipped the Zin. It was spicy and full-bodied, but it didn't transport me. "But it's been a welcome break. I can feel the creative juices starting to flow again."
Carl screwed his face up in disbelief. Suffering months without sex was unimaginable to him. Indiscriminate in his own tastes, he often came to the Friday tastings accompanied by the lees of womankind. "Maybe it's time to reevaluate the pleasures of Merlot," Carl suggested, tipping his head toward our three novices.
"I'm not going to journey from the sublime to the pedestrian for a phone number," I said, shaking my head. "What's the deal with Jerry?" I noticed that the dentist was still locked in conversation with the dark-headed one.
"Flatters them, doesn't put them down for not liking Pinot," Carl affectionately criticized me.
"Imagine getting a root canal from that guy." I affectedly staggered in place, imitating a drunk. "He's probably one of those drill-and-fillers who anesthetizes his patients and then feels them up in the chair."
Carl laughed, goading me on. We loved the mordant humor that the combination of wine and gossip evoked in both of us.
Eekoo edged into our cabal, his Riedel Sommeliers glass cradled in his hand like the Hope Diamond. "What do you think of the Farrells?" he said, his speech hobbled by the series of tasting events he had strung together beginning early in the day.
"Rochioli is nice," I said.
He sipped the wine from his bulbous stemware and worked it professionally around in his mouth. "Not as good as the '99 Kistler."
Carl and I rolled our eyes at the same time. Of course, nobody but Eekoo could find — let alone, afford — the '99 Kistler, so the reference was a nowin one-upmanship, but we humorously tolerated his elitism all the same.
"Heard you were taking a little trip," Eekoo said to me, blinking like a gargoyle through the thick lenses of his glasses.
"My friend Jack's getting married a week from Sunday. We're going to do a little Santa Ynez wine tour."
"Ah," Eekoo said, smiling benignly as if recalling fond memories of just such a trip.
"Where is Jack?" Carl suddenly wondered.
Excerpted from Sideways by Rex Pickett. Copyright © 2004 Rex Pickett. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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