Dead in the Dregs: A Babe Stern Mystery

It was held, that every wine disease had its specific microbe. In reality, there is no such thing. Wine bacteria are the result of adaptation by a large number of species to this environment, which is in the first instance unfavorable to them. A few cells of each species have been able, with time, either by mutation or by adaptation, to attack the wine’s substrata . . . and have changed into spoilage bacteria.

—Emile Peynaud, Knowing and Making Wine

in the beginning nothing raw matter cold dark a void there are two latent on the surface of the sphere of all nature they split and then split again from two four, from four eight, from eight, hundreds they eat and eat and multiply and multiply again warmth there are thousands they stuff themselves, eating and shitting, their offspring the spontaneous combustion, spawning nebulae of voracious appetite there are millions identical in their instantaneous gestation roiling the waters of the void devouring sugar, more sugar whipping the dark chaos into a froth of birth and death heat the stink of their exhalation, foul odors of exhumation fill the atmosphere oxygen, no oxygen the frenzy of feeding and coupling, gorging themselves primitive violence of creation bacchanalian orgy of bubbling, frothing, stinking life and death the boiling waters of life quintessence of spirit and their bodies rise and sink, exhausted no air no air there is only spirit and death and wine


They brought in the harvest early that year in Napa, and with it, Richard Wilson’s body. A perfect flowering, a mild spring dotted with just the right amount of rain, and a hot, dry summer had ripened the fruit to twenty-eight Brix by late August. Wilson’s selection, on the other hand, had nothing to do with how sweet he was.

The bar was always dead that time of year. The whole world, it seemed, was out picking. I dreaded going to work but dragged my ass down the mountain and opened the place. I did the books from the night before and swept up. A few customers wandered in, guys too old to stoop in a vineyard for ten hours straight in ninety-degree heat. By three o’clock, I’d done a staggering twenty bucks.

I’ll never forget that day. It was the first time I’d seen Wilson in more than a decade, and it was the last day I would see him alive.

I was just settling into the lazy rhythm that creeps up on you late in the afternoon: time to slice lemons and limes, fill the condiment caddy, and contemplate your favorites on the jukebox. Al Green was serenading the few off-hour drinkers who’d straggled into Pancho’s, asking his plaintive question “How can you mend a broken heart?” Apparently, none of my customers had a clue.

It was sweltering, so I’d propped the front door open to capture what little breeze there was. I had my back turned and was just emptying the last of a jar of McSweet onions into the caddy, when a voice out of my past said, “Pour me something I’ve never tasted.” I turned around. He’d put on weight, a lot of weight—the college jock gone to seed—but he was immediately recognizable.

“Hello, Richard.” I ducked under the backbar and pulled out a bottle, set a wineglass in front of him, and started to pour. “An old-vine Mataro that’ll knock your socks off,” I said, as if I had seen him only the day before. He held his hand up.

“Just a taste. I’m on my way to Norton.”

“In the middle of harvest?”

“Filling a few gaps before the second edition of my California book