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SunLit

SunLit Excerpt: “Killer Chardonnay” leaves bitter finish for wine critic

Kate Lansing's first "cozy" mystery novel intertwines the author's love of the grape with a nefarious narrative in Colorado's wine country

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.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

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.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

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.

No, that’s a horrible idea.

Gaskel looks from side to side, craning his neck so intensely that I worry for his fitted collared shirt. At first I think he’s checking out the ambience, but then I notice the way his eyes nervously flit about, landing on nothing in particular.

“Is everything okay? You seem distracted.”

“Fine,” he says gruffly. “Just waiting for someone.”

“What do they look like?” I ask eagerly. “I can help keep an eye out for you.”

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

“In the back and to the left.” I purse my lips in concern as he stumbles. I didn’t realize he’d had that much to drink but his rosé-red face says otherwise. He steadies himself and continues.

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

Chatter and laughter waft from tables. Sage’s voice rings out above all the others. She catches my eye and raises her glass to me with a wink. She’s out in full force, maintaining a conspicuously loud running commentary on how amazing I and my wine are, in case anyone needs extra convincing (her words, not mine).

Her compliments are sweet, and beyond the call of duty. But they mean nothing if my wine isn’t up to snuff.

Surely one peek at Gaskel’s tablet wouldn’t hurt . . .

I glance at the restroom; he’s still in there with the door shut. Carefully, I lean over the bar, curiosity winning over logic. Even upside down, I can see his notes are acerbic. The words sour, bitter, and amateur leap off the screen.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

I clench my hands into tight fists, outraged. Then I remember the harsh truth about this business: taste is subjective. What’s well balanced and buttery to one person could taste like vinegar to someone else.

My face flushes in shame. Why did I think I could do this?

“Say cheese,” my brother’s voice says at my side. I nearly jump out of my suede ankle boots as Liam snaps a picture of me.

Stars dance in my vision from the flash. “No offense, but this really isn’t a moment I want captured on film.”

“I’ve gotta document my little sis’s big day,” he says, snapping another picture with his vintage Nikon camera. A bag of extra lenses and accessories is slung over his lanky frame. “Besides, I need the practice.”

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

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

Liam slouches 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 eyeing this one’s expertly mussed sandy-blond hair and the thin scars etched up his toned forearms.

“Parker Valentine,” I say, reaching out my hand. His grip is strong in mine and his fingers are rough, like he uses them for hard labor every day. He holds on a second too long.

He has broad shoulders, at least a day’s worth of scruff on his chin, and a confident demeanor. “Reid Wallace.” His lips flinch into a frown as he reads the tasting menu. This guy definitely needs to loosen up.

“What kind of wine do you enjoy?”

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

“And I have yet to meet a drink I don’t like,” Liam says, needlessly. He attempts an artsy close-up shot of the signature Vino Valentine labels I spent months perfecting, crisscrossing grapevines punctuated by the sun.

I study Reid’s indie-band T-shirt and slate-green eyes. “The Campy Cab,” I finally say. I pour them each a taster, trying to instill confidence in my voice. “Smoky and fruit-forward with just a hint of tobacco. Pairs especially well with s’mores.”

Anita carefully sets a tray of empty stemware on the counter, a strand of hair escaping her ponytail. She tucks it behind her ear and nods toward Gaskel’s empty barstool.

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

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

“I bet it’s going better than you think.” Her cheeks are glowing with the sheen of naïveté. “I already sold a case of the cab to the group of guys, and the couple in the corner bought a bottle of the Ski Lodge Cherry.” Anita dashes off to package the recently sold wine.

Hope balloons 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 grovel if I must.

I pour a sample of the Mile High Merlot and then idle near the bathroom door, glancing at the grapevine clock hanging over the hallway table. Gaskel has to be done soon.

A customer with dark brown curly hair and a prominent nose fidgets in line behind me and I become even more aware of the time. In fact, the longer I wait, the more worried I get, especially when I remember the way Gaskel’s chest heaved when he stood up.

I knock on the door. “Mr. Brown.”

No answer.

“Mr. Brown?” I try again, the hair at the nape of my neck rising. “I’m coming in, sir.”

I try the doorknob and find it unlocked. My unease grows as I slowly push the door open.

I gasp, bringing my hand to my chest. There’s a shattering of glass and, faintly, I realize I’ve dropped the merlot. Burgundy wine dribbles over the Tuscan-tiled floor.

And there’s Gaskel.

His ego would take a major hit if he knew he’d been discovered in such a messy state. He’s sprawled ungracefully on the floor, his legs bent at awkward angles. It looks like he’d almost made it to the toilet before he threw up, vomit all over his face and starched shirt. One hand cradles the expensive watch strapped to his other wrist. A piece of paper sticks out of his front pocket like a flag of surrender, and his eyes stare glassily at the ceiling.

There’s a stillness emanating from his body. Somehow, I know he’s dead.


Kate Lansing is an award-winning short story author. She lives in Denver with her husband, daughter, and a chair-napping tabby cat named Maple.