Parker Valentine has always dreamed of opening her own winery in her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. But she gets more than she bargained for when a food and wine critic unexpectedly shows up at Vino Valentine on opening day. A negative review could be fatal for her business, and not only does he seem to hate her chardonnay, he also collapses and dies shortly after drinking it.
Although Parker hoped that the attendees would put a cork in it, soon her winery is at the center of a social media firestorm. With #killerchardonnay trending online, Parker's business is in danger of closing, and she has no choice but to investigate the murder herself.
To restore her reputation, catch a killer, and keep her struggling business open, Parker needs only one thing: some good proof.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I arrange open bottles of wine behind the hard maple countertop from lightest to heaviest. A crisp white blend on the left, a jammy cabernet sauvignon on the right, and me, a cluster of nerves, right smack in the middle.
Today is the grand opening of my winery-I still can't believe I'm saying that-my winery, Vino Valentine. The world will finally get to taste the fruits of my labor, which is equal parts exciting and panic-inducing.
Because this is really happening.
My crazy pipe dream is becoming a reality. Although, as I'm all too aware, my reality could very well turn into a nightmare.
"Parker, where would you like these?" my assistant, Anita, asks, brandishing two baskets full of palate-cleansing crackers.
Towering over me, her willowy frame is accentuated by wedge sandals, long blond hair pulled into a high ponytail, and a flowery tunic dress.
"One on each end of the tasting bar," I answer.
Anita places them as directed and then returns to my side. She caught me in the back earlier hyperventilating into a paper bag that was meant for packaging goods. Ever since, she's kept an extra-close eye on me. Which I appreciate. Really. Except sometimes a girl needs to have a meltdown in peace.
She pushes thick-framed glasses up her nose. "So, are you ready?"
"No. Yes. I don't know." I bury my face in my hands and then peek through my fingers. "What if no one shows?"
True story, my parents couldn't even fit my opening into their busy schedules, as they so kindly informed me this morning via text. And it's a Saturday. Which begs the question, if my own mom can't make time for me, what hope do I have for the general public?
"This is Colorado, the land of handcrafted concoctions; they'll show," Anita says with a confidence I wish I felt.
Colorado may not be the first place that comes to mind when people think of wine tasting, but it's a burgeoning destination thanks to the high altitude and cooler climate, which give the fruit a more concentrated flavor.
She continues, "People are going to flock here like internet junkies to viral kitten videos. I mean, look at this place."
I must admit, the cozy area is picturesque. Shiny blue letters on the storefront window gleam with the name Vino Valentine. The interior is arranged with oak-barrel tables, simple espresso folding chairs, and wine-bottle lanterns overhead. More baskets full of crackers and pillar candles-unscented so as not to interfere with the delicate aromas of the wine-dot the tables, and photographs of vineyards from around the world adorn the walls.
"Maybe you're right," I concede.
"Oh, I'm definitely right." Anita's eyes sparkle with such good humor they rival the polished glasses lining the open shelves above the tasting bar.
"Okay," I say, clapping my hands together. "All that's left to do is light the candles. You do that and I'll get the door."
Anita flits away with a lighter, the candles giving the space a warm ambience.
As I make my way toward the storefront, I tug at the delicate beaded necklace around my neck. As always, it makes me think of my late aunt Laura. I wish she were here to see her investment come to fruition. What I wouldn't give for her steadfast support, to hear her tell me everything will work out as it's supposed to. My chest aches for how badly I miss her. But instead of dwelling on my sadness, I focus on making her proud.
The sign on the door is made of varnished oak and features a design of clinking glasses. It's heavy with importance as I flip it from closed to open.
And nothing happens.
There's no great tilt to the universe, no angelic chorus overhead, no stampede to get trampled in.
There's only me, unlatching the door and taking in my surroundings.
When I was deciding where to set up shop, I immediately landed on Boulder. It's where my heart is. I love the majestic mountain backdrop, sprawling blue skies, and ever-present scent of pine trees. The distinct city vibe but with trailheads practically in my backyard.
My parents balked when I chose this location for my winery, but I saw potential in the industrial part of North Boulder. I leased space in a modern shopping center with white cement siding, charcoal awnings, and floor-to-ceiling windows that let in plenty of light. The trendy caf next door keeps me in caffeine, and across the street is a nursery with rows of shrubs laid out like a welcome mat to the rolling foothills.
With a sigh, I pad back to the tasting bar to wait for someone to show up. Please, I think, someone show up.
Then the bell over the door jingles.
I spin around as my first customer traipses through the door.
Of course, it's my best friend, Sage.
A petite redhead with a penchant for fashion and nerd canon, Sage is dressed in sky-blue capris, a drapey silk shirt, and her prized Khaleesi dragon-claw necklace.
My face splits into a huge grin. "Thank you for coming."
"Wouldn't have missed it." She shoves her giant sunglasses on top of her head and looks around in awe. "You did it. You effin' did it."
My eyes swim with tears at the pride in her voice.
"I had no doubt, obviously," she says. "But it's even more amazing than you let on."
Sage's live-in boyfriend trails behind her like an anchor. Jason is unremarkable in every way-mousy-brown hair, pale freckled skin, and eyes that are a little too close together. I've never understood what Sage sees in him. Nonetheless, I'm glad he's here. I tell him as much.
The bell jingles again and a group of college-age guys come through the door, followed by a chic couple who look vaguely familiar, and then my older brother, Liam, with a friend I've never met.
Liam envelops me in a giant bear hug, lifting me an inch off the ground.
"Set me down," I say through clenched teeth, swatting at him. I smooth my pencil skirt after my feet are back on solid ground.
"Relax, Parker," he says. "The party has arrived." He takes a mock bow, clearly expecting me to fall over myself with gratitude.
I roll my eyes.
Anyone would peg us for siblings with our matching raven hair and blue-gray eyes. But our looks are where the similarities stop. What Liam lacks in ambition, he makes up for by having this weird sixth sense for where to find the next good time. Which I suppose bodes well for my opening.
I scan my suddenly bustling winery, nerves prickling.
The group of college-age guys commandeers a long table made of three oak barrels smooshed together, the couple settles in at a private two-top in the corner, Sage and Jason tuck in near the front window, and my brother and his friend pick a table center stage.
Just like that, I'm open for business.
Anita and I hop to. We pour tasters, talk through the winemaking process, and give pairing tips for different varietals. Wine bottles deplete and new ones are opened. Baskets of crackers are replenished, and glasses swapped out.
I feel myself easing into a groove, the butterflies that have filled my stomach for the last week finally subsiding. That is, until two things happen.
First, the couple, who are apparently chic only in appearance, begin to bicker. Loudly.
They raise their voices as accusations fly.
"Not my fault-" the woman cries, getting to her feet. Anger radiates off her, from her clenched fists to her narrowed eyes.
The man cuts her off, speaking in a continuous stream of angry French.
"Taste this," she shouts as she raises her glass and, proof that real life is every bit as dramatic as a soap opera, throws the contents at the man.
Time seems to slow as every eye turns to them.
Drops of the Ski Lodge Cherry wine dribble down the man's chiseled face, onto his cream-colored sweater, and all the way to my pristine hardwood floors.
That's when the second thing happens: another customer walks through the door.
He has the stocky build of someone who enjoys a good meal, and is every inch the intimidating figure his reputation suggests. In slacks and a pressed collared shirt, he clutches a leather-bound tablet, his keen eye taking in every detail of my winery, lingering on each of my customers in turn.
I recognize him immediately based on his pictures from social media, news articles, and, more important, his popular food and wine blog.
Gaskel Brown, the most reputable critic in the Front Range, is in my winery. At the exact moment chaos descends.
All sorts of problems can arise in winemaking-oxidation, tartrate crystals, overpowering aromas of vinegar or must. The tricky part is pinpointing the cause, like playing a fermentation detective, and course-correcting before the entire batch is ruined. The same is true in life.
I glance desperately at Anita. She understands my silent plea for help and dashes toward the imploding couple.
Greeting the esteemed new arrival in a frazzled gush of niceties, I escort Gaskel to the tasting bar and wave him onto a barstool. "Best seat in the house."
I don't think I've ever heard someone actually harrumph, but I swear Gaskel does. "I suppose this will do." He pulls out the stool and wipes a fleck of nonexistent dust from the seat.
"Take a look at our tasting menu and I'll be back in a jiff." I'm not sure which is more shocking, that the Gaskel Brown is here or that I used the word jiff unironically.
I tag in for Anita, who has procured a towel for the spilled wine and directed the man to the restroom to freshen up. She mops up the last of the pink liquid and disappears to check on the other tables.
"I can't believe I did that," the lady says.
She sinks into her chair, her eyes rimmed in red. Her tanned skin flushes so deeply it almost matches the funky yet tasteful maroon highlights streaking her hair. She's decked out in a fashionable sheath dress, gorgeous suede kitten heels, and a statement necklace.
I still get the sense I know her from somewhere, but no matter how much I strain my mind, I can't place where.
"Please don't worry about it." I continue, in a tone I hope comes across as both stern and soothing, "Only, let's try not to let it happen again."
She nods sullenly and I feel a pang of pity for her. Unfortunately, I know what it's like to experience a relationship going south. "Let me know if you need anything."
She finally meets my gaze. "I will. Thank you."
It's my turn to nod.
Then I shift my attention to Gaskel. He's settled in at the bar, waiting not so patiently with an empty glass before him.
I scoot around the maple countertop and to the other side of the bar, flashing him my most winning smile. "Let's get this tasting started."
My success or failure hinges on a glass of chardonnay. I've poured everything into opening my own winery-my savings account, the better part of my twenties, my social life. If this doesn't pan out, I'm not sure who I am anymore. Just a wannabe entrepreneur with an overfondness for wine on the fast track to spinsterhood. I can't blow this.
Gaskel lifts his glass of golden liquid to the light, admiring the legs dripping down the sides of the crystal bowl. He breathes in the aroma, a tiny crease forming between two rather bushy eyebrows.
"I detect peaches," he grumbles. "These grapes must be from the Western Slope."
"You have a good nose," I say in a champagne-bubbly voice.
"Of course I do."
"Right. Well, the grapes are from Palisade," I say, fiddling with my necklace.
I don't own my own vineyard and instead order grapes from growers outside of Grand Junction. Which means if Gaskel doesn't like my wine, it's because I didn't do the fruit justice, didn't manage to extract the full flavor profile. In short, it's all on me.
I continue, "In addition to peaches, there are hints of melon, honeysuckle, and an oaky finish."
"We'll see about that." Gaskel takes a sip with the trademark gurgle of an expert.
I hold my breath as he swishes the wine around in his mouth. The moment stretches on to an eternity. My stomach flips as I study his stoic face, scarcely daring to move.
In the background, my winery is a flurry of motion. Absently, I notice the man of the Wine-Tossing Incident has returned to his table, now in an undershirt, his cream-colored sweater resting on the windowsill, blotched with pink. Thankfully, he and his counterpart seem to be behaving.
I refocus on the distinguished figure before me, honored Gaskel deigned to show up for my opening. Honestly, I don't even know how he heard about it, although apparently, he has his ways.
From the hottest places in town to the hidden gems, there's a mystique to how Gaskel selects which establishments to feature on his website. Some say it's a new way of preparing food or wine that attracts him, others surmise it's the promise of a free dessert, but I've always figured he must follow his stomach. Regardless, his presence could be huge for my business. Or an utter disaster. Gaskel is notoriously hard to please.
He swallows with a shudder and dumps the remaining wine into a decorative vase. A vase not meant for disposing of wine, hence the daisies.
I wince but then force myself to smile, recalling the thousands of devoted subscribers who regularly read his blog and follow his recommendations. The daisies are a necessary casualty.
Gaskel taps a note into the tablet before him, his jaw clenched into a frown. That can't be a good sign.
"Can I get you a taste of something else?" I ask with more than a hint of desperation. "The Mount Sanitas White or the Pearl Street Pinot?"
The names of my wines pay homage to the locale. The most popular parks, streets, and even the mascot of the local college in Boulder. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now they just sound silly rolling off my tongue.
"I'll just cleanse my palate first." Gaskel bites into a cracker, crumbs sticking to his silvering hipster goatee, a stark contrast to his otherwise meticulous appearance. He glances around my winery, his disapproval palpable.
I try to squelch the panic rising in my chest. Maybe his tastings always take forever. Maybe the fact that he's taking so long is actually a good sign. Maybe I can sneak a peek at his tablet.