CASE CLOSED October 2004

The Guy Who Came in from the Cold

Based on a true story, with names changed to protect innocent and guilty alike, a tale of a prince, a pauper and a prestigious wine bottle.

Bacchanal was a small wine boutique in Santa Monica, specializing in Burgundy. Its proprietor, Kingsley, always cut out before 5 p.m. to rendezvous with his mistress. This left Martin, his employee and the brains behind the operation, plenty of time to fume about his "insulting" salary and his "feckless" employer—and to cherry-pick the inventory that Kingsley never bothered to examine.

One cold December night, Martin, Lachsmi (his East Indian co-worker) and I were celebrating the sale of my novel, Sideways, when Martin got in one of his moods. It may have been Kingsley’s neglect of a Christmas bonus that had bent his rootstock, but whatever, Martin announced, "Let’s prune the inventory!" and uncorked a chilled ’96 Domaine Hervé Azo Chablis in the small tasting area at the back of the store.

Suddenly, a figure loomed in the back entryway. Chet, a homeless Vietnam vet, had stopped in for his nightly free beer.

"Chet!" Martin called out. "Come on down here and sample some wine."

Martin handed a glass to the sad bedraggled wreck of a man, with his mane of greasy hair and tattered, unwashed jeans. Chet sipped and reacted with a shrug. "I’d like my beer," he said with a nirvanic, faraway smile.

Seeking new heights of retribution against his employer, Martin pranced back to the refrigerated case and returned with an ’85 Krug Clos du Mesnil. Lachsmi and I exchanged bulging-eye glances. "Martin," I protested. "What about Kingsley?" As Martin waved my objections aside, fluted stemware was produced and the fabled bubbly was poured. The wine danced in our glasses—everyone rhapsodized over its aromas of fresh-baked baguettes and Golden Delicious apples, its chalky midpalate and roasted hazelnut finish. Everyone, that is, except Chet.

"’85 Krug, Chet," Martin prompted. "What’s the verdict?"

"Not bad," Chet said of the storied Champagne. "But I’d like my beer."

"All right," Martin said in a rising tone, his face florid. "All right, that does it," he threatened, a little on the other side of the vineyard by now. He unlocked the rare and collectibles case and raided the ’82 Château Pétrus.

"No, Martin," I remonstrated. "Kingsley’s bound to notice that he’s Pétrus-less!"

Deftly unloosening the lead capsule and employing an Ah-So, he removed the cork without losing so much as a crumb. "I’ll refill it with that Wine Glut Ordinaire," he said, nodding toward the sale bin.

Lachsmi replaced our stemware. Martin poured lustily. It was transcendent juice: opulent fruit, an almost tannin-less midpalate, and a finish that Martin likened to a part of his southern anatomy.

"Chet," Martin said. "We’ve summited the vinous Everest. What say you?" Chet sipped the wine and smiled broadly. "Very good," he finally allowed, a tough critic. "My main man!" Martin exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder.

"Very, very good," Chet elaborated, after another healthy quaff. Then, obviously rapt, he upended the bottle and started chugging it. "Give me that bottle, you philistine!" Martin screamed. Chet, flustered, Pétrus streaming down his bewhiskered cheeks, tossed Martin the bottle, but his aim was a little off. Martin leapt for it with the agility of a Jerry Rice and caught it inches before it would have shattered.

A couple months later, Kingsley invited Martin, Lachsmi and me over to his new house to celebrate his divorce. And there, on the sideboard, was the ’82 Pétrus, selected, no doubt, to impress his mistress. Martin did the uncorking and decanting duties, all the while sweating profusely, as though he were a sapper defusing a land mine. When the wine-lake plonk in the prestigious bottle was poured, our collective anxiety ratcheted up a notch. Kingsley swirled and nosed and I counted the seconds until discovery would lead to questions, questions to admission, admission to dismissal. Kingsley finally tasted. He worked it around in his mouth. The three of us stood catatonic, our glasses frozen in our hands.

"It’s aged beautifully, hasn’t it?" Kingsley finally said. "Lovely stuff. Gorgeous in the midpalate. Very long in the finish."

The relief on Martin’s face could have broadened the smile on the Mona Lisa. He would live to swill another day, and Kingsley would continue to "drink the label" for the rest of his life.
Rex Pickett is the author of Sideways (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), now a motion picture from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Published on October 1, 2004