Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Winemaker, Part III

Earlier entries in this series:

Part I
Part II

The Owner had made his fortune three decades ago by aggressively securing every portable toilet service contract in the county and the one next to it. Soon after he drove out the last competitor, there was a suburban development boom. Every worksite had at least one overburdened Sani-John, and he was a local tycoon by the following Christmas.

He broke ground on "The Winery Construction Worker Shit Built" (The Winemaker's term) after he divorced his second wife and decided he was going to use the money the bitch didn't get away with to expand into real estate. By then he had a cellar full of Opus One and Cain Five, and saw no reason he shouldn't have his name on a bottle just as heavy and valuable.

People would try to tell him about terroir and the differences between his land and Oakville, and he would wave them off. Ya can grow grapes in yer yard!

The Winemaker was the fourth winemaker in eleven years, and by far the longest-running. The second  had quit after four months when The Owner, six Johnnie Walkers in at the holiday party, pushed him to the floor and brandished the roast beef carving knife in his face, threatening to cut his balls off if he didn't deliver a "Parka 95" within two vintages.

The Winemaker's longevity was due to his having figured out gradually--well, quickly--how to deal with this sort of volatility, which was compounding as the old man endured bullishly into his 80s. The key was making it very clear to everyone that The Owner knew nothing about making wine and that every time he tried to make suggestions about the process, the operation lost money.

The Winemaker's experience and many degrees gave him the needed credibility, even though The Owner thought formal higher education was a Johnson-era liberal scam. The final ingredient was to be fearless about giving the old man a long, cold stare whenever necessary, perhaps accompanied by a "Can you please let me do my fucking job?" 

Following this protocol, he had carved out enough space to get the work done.

But it probably wouldn't get him out of this major screw-up. A lot of product was gone and there would be clear financial consequences to the business. The Winemaker didn't indulge in fear much anymore, but he allowed himself a quick instant of it before exiting the lab.

The Owner was standing in the middle of the winery now, squinting at the pile of grapes. Agustino and Juan Luis were leaning on their shovels in no ingles mode.

Juice was still audibly trickling down the drain.

"How much of my money is in the drain right now?" The Owner said, turning to The Winemaker.

Good question thought The Winemaker. He realized he needed to start talking; taking too long to respond could put him in a bad spot. He pointed at the rotor tank.

"Do you remember when I told you that was a bad investment? That it was going to end up being a liability for you?"

"How much of my fucking money is in the drain right now?" 

The Owner was an excellent businessman, no one begrudged him that. And he was on a dangerous sort of autopilot right now. He despised waste of any kind--even going so far as trying to limit any tasting of wines from tank or barrel by The Winemaker or The Assistant to once a month.

"Fifteen grand maybe? All covered by your insurance."

The insurance part was somewhat true, the fifteen grand part was completely false. The Winemaker had lost control of the exchange and lying was a way of taking a little of it back.

"So this is what I pay ya for? Spilling my grapes?"

The Winemaker jabbed his finger at the rotor again.

"I told you not to buy that thing. The internal processor malfunctioned overnight and made it start spinning with a hose still attached to it. Ripped the valve off with no one here. Shit was made in China."

It was made in Italy, but that was the sort of claim The Owner would buy sight unseen. At age 17 he had drawn up a fake birth certificate in order to enlist in the Marines three days after Pearl Harbor.

"It what?"

"It ripped... the valve... off!" The Winemaker pantomimed ripping something apart.

"Whaddaya mean by that??" This was a favorite phrase of The Owner's when he needed to buy time in an argument.

"I mean this thing is a piece of shit, just like I said, and you should get on the phone to that Chazz asshole who sold it to you and let him know what his product ended up being worth to you!"

Suddenly The Owner's Jitterbug phone rang once, twice. He glared at The Winemaker for one more ring, then opened it and answered the call by stating his last name.

"Yeah... yeah... huh?... yeah... listen, I gotta call you back. I'm at my winery with a pile-a grapes the size of Kilimenjerro on the floor!"

The Owner went to Africa every two years to shoot large animals--on his desk was a priapic rhino horn he had sawed off himself in Botswana.

He hung up. The Winemaker felt the situation was partially defused and that his window out of it was open wide.

"Can you just let me handle this now? We'll get it cleaned up, I'll get a report into your office by lunch so you can collect the insurance, and we can get on with making your wines. We don't even need to haul this tank out of here until after harvest."

"I still wanna know more about what happened here... that tank was sposta be a great investment!"

"Yeah... You thought hiring your granddaughter to run the tasting room was a great investment too."

The Winemaker's heart skipped, he knew immediately he had pushed his luck. A fury far beyond anything The Owner had directed at the grape spill began to well behind the old man's thick glasses and narrow eyes.

Three years earlier, The Owner had installed his twenty-four year-old granddaughter as tasting room manager. She and her mom, his daughter, had convinced him to do so on the basis of her extensive partying experience and three abandoned semesters of a Publicity and Communications major at the local junior college.

Once hired she began to purchase things like blacklights, velvet ropes and fog machines. She often didn't show up until four or five in the afternoon and kept the doors open until midnight or later--sometimes forgetting to lock them after everyone was gone. ID-checking became sporadic.

She also bought three Jagermeister chillers, assuming that if the tasting room could serve wine, they could serve Jagerbombs too. When she learned otherwise, she just unplugged them and left them on the bar.

For some reason, she instantly hated The Winemaker, even though he initially made an attempt to be her friend. Perhaps she saw in him the sort of cerebral, workaholic, aesthetically average male she  avoided at all times and demeaned when possible. A obvious beta male posing as an alpha, or, in her terminology, a "creepster".

So he left it alone and kept making the wine, detaching himself from whatever nasty cocktail it might end up in after it left the winery.

Crowds increased in the tasting room, but not enough. Since age sixteen, The Granddaughter never settled for throwing anything less than the most epic parties anyone had seen--since her last one. So she contracted a party promotions company that was also known for supplying bulk quantities of ultra-premium Ecstasy and Ketamine to all their clients' events.

When the police finally traced a fatal drunk driving accident to the tasting room/nightclub and busted "DJ WWJD" for interstate trafficking, it cost The Owner over $150,000 in legal fees to keep the tasting room open and keep himself and The Granddaughter out of jail. Not to mention $35,000 settling private lawsuits. The responsible local family man who had been bumped out of management to make room for her came back, and the incident was eventually forgotten.

But The Owner protected his family like an underfed Doberman. It was understood that you could get away with just about anything once you were on his payroll, except talking shit about any of his blood relatives. The Winemaker knew this, and knew that in his nervousness he had just crossed the line.

The Owner clapped his phone shut.

"You're fired."