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They called it the French Laundry, but I hadn’t seen a steam iron or a sweating Chinaman all night. We were on our seventh or eighth food course, none of them larger than a nine-volt battery, and I for one was still hungry after two hours at the table.
The wine was another story. Six dusty bottles of Château Giroux Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon lay at anchor before me like galleons in a sea of crystal glassware, all of it rocking and swaying in the gentle swell of my incipient intoxication. Commanding this ambrosial armada, his silver personage outfitted in a blue blazer and paisley ascot, was the owner of the eponymous winery whose dark nectar I’d been imbibing—the winery generally acknowledged, or so I’d come to learn, to be the crown jewel in the glittering tiara of California’s storied Napa Valley.
“Here,” Philippe Giroux said, reaching for another bottle. “Let’s try the sixty-one.”
A waiter, noticing movement, sprang into action. He intercepted the bottle and walked it around to my side of the table where, cradling it like a premature newborn, he measured three inches of purple liquid into my glass.
He then did the same for my prodigal host.
The Frenchman raised his glass, turning it slowly in the half light, and gave it a swirl. He passed his sharp Gallic beak over the rim and inhaled. Eyes closed, he took a sip and made a bubbling noise with his mouth, then spit the wine back into the glass.
“Black currants,” he pronounced, dabbing at his lips with a napkin. “Tar and licorice and wet pebbles.”
I took a slug. Like the others before it, this bottle was aces high.
“Tell me something. Why is it always plums and cherries and notes of old-growth cedar? How come wine never just tastes like grapes?”
Giroux brightened. “Ah. Therein lays the artistry. In the hands of a great winemaker, each vintage is a precise expression of the soil and the climate from which it is born. The soul, if you will, of the grape itself. What we French call the terroir.”
“We have the same thing here in America. We call it Beechwood Aging.”
He chuckled, setting down his glass. “I’m the luckiest man in the world, Mr. MacTaggart. For over thirty years, if ever I came home to dinner and didn’t reek of wine, my wife would say, ‘Philippe, what mischief have you been up to?’”
He chuckled again, and this time, so did I. He was a charming old rooster—a boulevardier of the Maurice Chevalier stripe, all raffish twinkle and easy warmth—and you couldn’t help but like the guy. I’m sure he’d sold a lot of wine over the years.
“Let’s try the ninety-four, shall we? That was an excellent vintage.”
I placed a defensive hand over my glass just as the next phalanx of waiters arrived from the kitchen with steaming plates of braised chinchilla testicles in buerre blanc. Or something very much like it. Another thing I hadn’t seen all night was a menu.
“Maybe we should get down to business while a part of my brain is still dry. You spoke on the phone about a matter of some delicacy?”
Giroux’s smile faded, a shadow passing behind his eyes. He lifted his napkin again and dabbed, stalling for the waiters to move out of earshot.
“Very well then, to business. I have two sons, Mr. MacTaggart. Or had, perhaps.”
He reached into an inside pocket and handed me a slip of newsprint. It was an article clipped from a back issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, bearing the headline VINTNER’S SON CLAIMED IN AVALANCHE.
I read the story. It described a heli-skiing mishap somewhere north of Lake Tahoe from which Phil Giroux, age thirty-nine, had been rescued, but his brother Alain, age thirty-eight, had not. The incident had occurred in mid-February of this year.
“By the time he was found, my son Philip had lost three toes to frostbite. Alas, he was the lucky one.”
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said, returning the article. “But you said ‘perhaps’ just now. Does that mean Alain’s body was never recovered?”
“Correct.” He folded away the clipping and patted his breast pocket. “There was a rock slide, apparently. The body could easily have been buried. That’s what the authorities say.”
“But you don’t believe them.”
He thought about that, lifting his glass again and gazing into the wine. As if peering into some rose-colored past.
“Do you have children, Mr. MacTaggart?”
I showed him my left hand. He grunted.
“Perhaps I’m just a foolish old man, but something here”—he tapped again at his heart where the clipping was folded—“tells me that Alain did not die. That if he were dead, I would know it. That I would feel it.”
“I hope you’re right about that. But I don’t see how I’m in any position to help.”
He set down the glass and took up his fork, his eyes falling to the steaming plate before him.
“Indulge me, if you will, in a bit of family history. My father came to this country after the Great War. He was Bordelaise. He grew up as a field hand, an ouvrier, working for some of the great châteaux of the Médoc, planting and pruning and harvesting. Then, once the war had ended, he set out to buy a vineyard of his own. But not in France. Not after all that carnage. So he did a bit of research, and he learned of a sleepy little valley in a place called California where German and Italian immigrants were already making wine. There, he said, is where I will raise my family. He married my mother in 1918, still in France, and together they bought twenty-five acres of land here on the eastern edge of Napa Valley, sight unseen, through a farm agent with whom he’d corresponded by mail. That was in May of 1919. The price was quite reasonable, you see, because his research was not very thorough. He bought just in time for Prohibition.”
Giroux smiled ruefully as he sampled the braised whatever, his eyes closing to savor the culinary moment.
“But still they came. Instead of planting vines, they grew vegetables. For ten years, nothing but vegetables. All the time making contacts and connections with the very best restaurants in San Francisco. Connections that would pay off handsomely when, in 1933, they finally planted their first fifteen acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, plus a few odd blocks of Cab Franc and Merlot and Petit Verdot. They were, as I said, Bordelaise.”
I tried the cooling dollop on my plate, for which so many chinchillas had sacrificed. Then I tried the rest.
“In order to consecrate the new vineyard, or so the story goes, my parents conceived a son. Their only child, as it turned out, since my mother died in 1937 of complications from pneumonia.”
I nudged my empty plate aside, the better to resist licking it. “So you inherited the family business from your father when he died.”
“In a manner of speaking. Here is where you come in, if I may be so presumptuous.”
He reached into another pocket and produced a different piece of paper. It was a three-fold brochure, the kind you’d find in a rack at the airport, printed on glossy paper stock. It promoted something called the Napa Springs Spa and Golf Resort.
“By the time my father died in 1979, Château Giroux had grown to a hundred and fifty acres. Today it includes the original stone château, the vineyards, the winery, four other family residences, and a new visitor center run by my daughter, Claudia.”
“You also have a daughter.”
He nodded. “Our youngest child. Or mine, to be precise. Marie, my beloved, passed in 2003. It seems to be a curse of the Giroux men, to outlive their wives.”
But not Alain, I thought, as Giroux leaned sideways in his chair and produced a wallet from his pocket. From it he removed a color photo of a real looker—a twentysomething blonde with notes of ripe apricot and vanilla spices. She had her father’s nose, and what appeared to be Kate Moss’s body.
“You’ll meet Claudia tomorrow. She is the spitting image of her mother. She too is a lawyer, although she’s never actually practiced. Instead she manages all aspects of our hospitality—the tasting room, the winery tours, our wine club. In many ways, she has become the public face of Château Giroux.”
“And this Napa Springs Spa?”
The shadow returned. He reached to pour me another drink, and this time I let him.
“My father and I were never close, despite the many years we worked together. Or because of them, perhaps. He was a stern man, très severe, with what you might call an Old World point of view. To him, the wine business was just a business, like selling vegetables, or vacuum cleaners. No public tours for him, no tasting room. It was a source of conflict between us. We were estranged, you might say, by the end of his life. When he died, all of Château Giroux became part of a trust for the benefit of his grandsons, my male heirs.”
I nodded. “It’s a common estate planning device, called a generation-skipping trust. Although the male part is unusual, in this day and age.”
“As I said, his views were quite old-fashioned. According to the trust document, I have control over Château Giroux only until the youngest of my sons reaches the age of forty years. After that, it passes to them outright, as equal beneficiaries.”
“And the resort?”
He glanced at the brochure again and sighed.
“A bit more local history, I’m afraid. In 1990, Napa County voters passed an initiative limiting the conversion of vineyard properties to nonagricultural uses. I personally helped to lead that effort, and provided much of the funding. Its purpose was to prevent urban sprawl from gobbling up the most storied vineyard acreage in all North America.”
“I’d call that sound public policy.”
He nodded. “But you must understand that Napa Valley is more than just a wine-making region. It has also become an international vacation destination, with tourism accounting for over a billion dollars per year in local spending. Tourists, of course, need restaurants and hotel beds. So the developers hired lawyers, and the lawyers hired lobbyists. Soon loopholes were exploited, and resorts like that”—he flicked a finger at the folded brochure—“were permitted to move forward. It’s a monstrosity, I can assure you, and it borders Château Giroux to the south. The owner is a man named Clarkson, Andy Clarkson. He and Alain were schoolmates.”
Foggy though I was, the picture was coming into focus.
“Now Clarkson wants to expand, but your vineyard is in the way.”
“Correct again. He wishes to build a second golf course. A course he cannot complete without fifty acres of my prized Cabernet!”
Heads turned at the neighboring tables. I leaned forward, lowering my voice.
“And if Alain is dead, that puts exclusive ownership of Château Giroux in your son Phil’s hands when he turns forty.”
“Just so. Two and-a-half months from now, on the thirtieth of August.”
“Is Phil willing to sell out to Clarkson?”
Here the old man hesitated. “That I cannot say. He denies it, of course, and I prefer to believe him. His wife, however, is another story.”
A hushed murmur rippled through the restaurant as a large, florid man in a chef’s white jacket and toque appeared at our table. He and Giroux spoke in fluent French, the chef obsequious, beaming and bowing at what I presumed were Giroux’s expressions of gastronomic approval. Giroux filled a glass—I think it was the ninety-seven—and watched as the chef did the old swirl-and-sniff routine.
Like me, he was a swallower.
“Jack MacTaggart, meet Lucien Moreau. Lucien is America’s greatest sous chef.”
The big man bowed in my direction, then bid a reluctant bonne soirée to Giroux as he continued on his rounds, taking the wineglass with him. Giroux watched him depart before resuming his story.
“My son Philip has filed a legal action to have Alain declared dead. Merely to clear title, he says, to Château Giroux. But I know that Lourdes, his wife, is the one behind it. She cares nothing for the vineyards, nothing for the wine that is our family legacy. She cares only for the thugs and criminals who would drive us into bankruptcy!”
“Thugs and criminals?”
“The United Farm Workers. A terrorist gang of extortionists that she, in her misguided naiveté, both idolizes and enables.”
As Giroux’s trembling hand lifted a bottle and filled an empty glass, I recalled my college Tolstoy—that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
“Why are you telling all of this to me? I’m sure there are plenty of excellent lawyers in the area, and certainly in San Francisco.”
Giroux nodded. “There is a firm in the City of Napa that we’ve used for many years, called Melchior and Moore. Perhaps you’ve heard of them?”
I had not, which wasn’t surprising, since there are nearly two hundred thousand lawyers in California alone. As my late uncle Louis once observed, two lawyers can make an excellent living in a town that can’t support one.
“Thad Melchior is the senior partner there,” Giroux continued. “He tells me that, having represented Château Giroux in the past, his firm would have a conflict of interest taking sides in any personal dispute between Philip and myself.”
“So you plan to oppose Phil’s action.”
“Yes, of course. And when Betsy Rothstein told me about you, I was intrigued. She’d spent a small fortune on attorneys’ fees, not to mention a year of sleepless nights, and yet the answer to her problem was right there, staring her in the face the entire time. I value an agile mind, Mr. MacTaggart, and I value tenacity. I take it that estate planning is not your field of expertise?”
“No. I’m strictly a trial lawyer.”
“No matter. I’ve checked up on you. You’re exactly the kind of lawyer I need.”
Which was good, because Philippe Giroux was exactly the kind of client every lawyer needs—a worried millionaire. I poured myself a glass of the ninety-seven, and I raised it in his direction.
“All right, you’ve got me. But in this case, agility and tenacity won’t be enough. If we’re going to disprove that Alain is dead, we’ll need more in the way of evidence than a gut feeling from his father.”
The twinkle had returned to the old man’s eye as he leaned across the table to grab hold of my sleeve. “We have the evidence, Mr. MacTaggart. Solid evidence. And I’ll show it to you in the morning.”
Copyright © 2014 by Chuck Greaves