“Killer Chardonnay” leaves a bitter finish for a wine critic


My success or my failure is based on a glass of chardonnay. I invested everything in opening my own cellar – my savings account, the best part of my 20s, my social life. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know who I am anymore. Just a budding entrepreneur with an excessive fondness for wine on the fast track to old age. I can’t blow this away.

Gaskel raises his glass of golden liquid to the light, admiring the legs dripping down the sides of the crystal bowl. He inhales the aroma, a tiny crease forming between two rather bushy eyebrows.

“I’m detecting peaches,” he growls. “These grapes must come from the western slope.”

“You have a good nose,” I say in a voice that sparkles with champagne.

“Yes of course.”

“Right. Well, the grapes are from Palisade,” I said, fiddling with my necklace.

I don’t own my own vineyard and instead order grapes from growers outside of Grand Junction. Which means that if Gaskel doesn’t like my wine, it’s because I didn’t do justice to the fruit, I didn’t manage to extract all the aromatic profile. In short, everything depends on me.

I continue: “In addition to the peaches, there are notes of melon, honeysuckle and a woody finish. “

“We’ll see.” Gaskel takes a sip with the characteristic gurgling of an expert.

I hold my breath as he swirls the wine in his mouth. The moment spans an eternity. My stomach turns as I study his stoic face, barely daring to move.

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In the background, my cellar is a burst of movement. Absent-mindedly, I notice that the man from the wine-blasting incident has returned to his table, now in an undershirt, his cream sweater resting on the rose-stained windowsill. Fortunately, he and his counterpart seem to be doing well.

I refocus on the distinguished figure in front of me, honored that Gaskel has deigned to present himself at my opening. Honestly, I don’t even know how he heard about it, although apparently he has his ways.

From the hottest spots in town to hidden gems, there is a mystique in how Gaskel selects establishments to feature on its website. Some say it’s a new way of preparing food or wine that appeals to him, others assume it’s the promise of free dessert, but I always thought he had to follow his stomach . Either way, his presence could be huge for my business. Or a total disaster. Gaskel is notoriously difficult to please.

He swallows with a shudder and throws the rest of the wine into a decorative vase. A vase not intended for the disposal of wine, hence the daisies.

I wince and then force myself to smile, remembering the thousands of dedicated subscribers who regularly read her blog and follow her recommendations. Daisies are a necessary victim.

Gaskel types a note into the tablet in front of him, jaw clenched in a frown. It can’t be a good sign.

“Can I give you a taste of something else?” I ask with more than a hint of despair. “Mount Sanitas White or Pearl Street Pinot? “

The names of my wines pay homage to the terroir. The most popular parks, streets, and even the local Boulder college mascot. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now they look stupid coming out of my tongue.

“I’ll clean my palate first.” Gaskel bites into a cracker, crumbs sticking to his hipster silver goatee, a stark contrast to his otherwise meticulous appearance. He glances around my cellar, his disapproval palpable.

I try to suppress the panic that rises in my chest. Maybe his tastings always take forever. Maybe the fact that it’s taking so long is actually a good sign. Maybe I can take a look at his tablet.

No, that’s a horrible idea.

Gaskel looks side to side, craning his neck so intensely that I worry about his shirt with a fitted collar. At first I think he’s checking the mood, but then I notice the way his eyes flutter nervously, not landing on anything in particular.

“Are you all right? You seem distracted.

“Good,” he said gruffly. “I’m just waiting for someone.”

“What are they like?” I ask eagerly. “I can help you keep an eye on yourself. “

“No,” he said a little too quickly. He coughs and stands up abruptly, a slight sheen of sweat beading on his forehead. “Where’s your bathroom?” “

“To the rear and to the left. I pursed my lips in concern as he stumbled. I didn’t know he had drunk so much, but his rosy-red face says otherwise. It stabilizes and continues.

Gaskel’s bright tablet screen catches my eye. In his haste, he forgot to close it. I refrain from nosing around only by straightening the tasting menus for the umpteenth time and realigning the open wine bottles behind the hard maple counter.

Chatter and laughter spring from the tables. Sage’s voice echoes above all the others. She meets my gaze and raises her glass to me with a wink. She’s in full force, maintaining an ostensibly running commentary on how amazing my wine and I are, in case anyone needs more conviction (her words, not mine).

Her compliments are sweet and beyond the call of duty. But they don’t mean anything if my wine doesn’t measure up.

A glance at Gaskel’s tablet sure wouldn’t hurt. . .

I glance at the toilet; he is still there with the door closed. Cautiously, I lean over the bar, curiosity winning out over logic. Even backwards, I see his notes are sharp. The words sour, bitter, and amateur jump off the screen.

I clench my fists, indignant. Then I remember the hard truth about this matter: taste is subjective. What is well balanced and smooth to one person may taste like vinegar to someone else.

My face flushed with shame. Why did I think I could do this?

“Say cheese,” my brother’s voice said beside me. I almost jump out of my suede ankle boots as Liam takes a picture of me.

The stars dance in my vision from the flash. “Don’t be offended, but it’s really not a moment that I want to film.”

“I have to document my little sister’s big day,” he said, taking another photo with his vintage Nikon camera. A bag of additional lenses and accessories hangs from its lanky mount. “Besides, I need the practice.”

I shouldn’t be surprised that Liam somehow manages to do this about him. He notoriously switches from hobby to hobby, his most recent interest being photography.

“Seriously, cut it off,” I hiss at him in annoyance. “Gaskel will be back any minute.” Unless he decides to slip out of the back.

Liam slumps onto a stool. His friend follows suit.

I learned the hard way that my brother’s friends were off limits. That doesn’t stop me from staring at his expertly tousled sandy blonde hair and the thin scars etched on his toned forearms.

“Parker Valentine,” I say, extending my hand. His grip is strong in mine and his fingers are rough, as if he uses them for hard work every day. It takes a second too long.

He has broad shoulders, at least a day of skin on his chin, and a confident demeanor. “Reid Wallace.” His lips curl into a frown as he reads the tasting menu. This guy really needs to relax.

“What type of wine do you like? “

Reid tilts his head to the side as if in a challenge. “Surprise me.”

“And I haven’t come across a drink that I don’t like yet,” Liam said, needlessly. He attempts an artistic close-up of the signature Vino Valentine labels that I have spent months perfecting, crisscrossing vines punctuated by the sun.

I’m studying Reid’s indie band T-shirt and his slate green eyes. “The Campy Cab,” I said at last. I give them each a taste, trying to instill confidence in my voice. “Smoky and fruity with just a hint of tobacco. Goes particularly well with s’mores.

Anita carefully sets a tray of empty stemmed glasses on the counter, a strand of hair escaping her ponytail. She places it behind her ear and nods in the direction of Gaskel’s empty bar stool.

“How’s it going with the fanciful critic?” ” she asks.

“Okay,” I answer vaguely, adding Gaskel’s glass to the dishwasher-safe collection.

“I bet it’s getting better than you think.” Her cheeks shine with a radiance of naivety. “I once sold a case of a cab to the group of guys, and the couple in the area bought a bottle of Ski Lodge Cherry.” Anita rushes to pack the recently sold wine.

Hope rises in my chest and I feel a surge of determination to convince Gaskel to give my wine another chance. By any means necessary. I’ll crawl if I have to.

I pour in a sample of Mile High Merlot, then idle by the bathroom door, glancing at the vine clock hanging above the hallway table. Gaskel must be done soon.

A client with curly brown hair and a prominent nose flutters behind me and I realize the time even more. In fact, the longer I wait, the more I worry, especially when I remember the way Gaskel’s chest heaved when he stood up.

I knock on the door. “Mister. Brown.”

No answer.

“Mister. Brown?” I try again, the hair at the back of my neck standing on end. “I’m going in, sir. “

I try the doorknob and find it unlocked. My unease grew as I slowly pushed the door open.

I jump, bringing my hand to my chest. There is a shard of glass and, faintly, I realize that I have dropped the merlot. Burgundy wine flows over the Tuscan tiles.

And there is Gaskel.

His ego would take a hit if he knew he had been discovered in such a messy state. He is lying helplessly on the floor, his legs bent at awkward angles. Looks like he almost made it to the bathroom before he threw up, vomiting all over his face and starched shirt. One hand cradles the expensive watch strapped to her other wrist. A piece of paper slips out of his front pocket like a flag of surrender, and his eyes glaze over at the ceiling.

There is stillness emanating from his body. Somewhere I know he’s dead.


Kate lansing is an award-winning news writer. She lives in Denver with her husband, daughter and a tabby cat that naps in a chair named Maple.


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