In 2009, you may recall the nation underwent a severe economic downturn -- a consequence, I gather, of Jesus expressing his displeasure at the American people electing a Muslim president and Stony Lonesome Inc. did not escape unscathed despite aggressive diversification into foreign currency markets, cautious disengagement from collapsible no-load funds and re-capitalization of certain interlocking tech directorates. In fact, in order to avoid Chapter 11 I was forced to cease production entirely, shutter all plants and offices, lay off most of the work force, and put SLI into a period of stasis analogous to cryogenic suspension while we waited for the giant foundering garbage barge that is the economy to right itself. The only employees to weather the storm were Will, my batman -- a chap of dubious intellectual gifts but unquestionable loyalty -- and Clive, my valet. Clive, for those of you who have not been paying attention, is an orangutan, although not your ordinary Clint Eastwood co-star. He not only has the power of speech but took a first in economics at Cambridge and achieved a Blue in single skulls. Rampant species-ism among the global financial community prevented Clive from ever gaining a foothold in his chosen profession, but since joining my staff he has quite found his niche as the ideal gentleman's simian and I wouldn't trade him for a dozen Jeeveses. Some of the fellows around the club have made some rather pointed remarks about the suitability of employing both a valet and batman, but my loyal service to the regiment (Fusiliers, don't you know?) entitles me the redundancy.
In the summer of 2009 Will, Clive and I were careering up and down the northcoast in a 1968 VW camper van, solving mysteries, rescuing marine mammals, and devising colorful entertainment for the locals. After a wrestling exhibition staged at a biker bar in Bodega Bay nearly got us all pinched for moral turpitude, we hightailed it up the coast with a bag of counterfeit Reichsmarks we'd received in payment and headed out to wine country too soothe ourselves in the pastoral quietude of the region. As we moved along the undulating two-lane, an idea struck me. "Say, fellows," I said, turning to address my two companions playing dominoes in the back, "what say we involve ourselves in the wine business in some fashion? Either of you know anything about wine?"
"I know my favorite wine is beer," said Will, hoisting a Coors Light.
"I have an encyclopedic knowledge of every vintage, vineyard, and appellation in the Bordeaux and Rhone regions," said Clive, "and while I have heard that California vintners have, after years of blindly muddling about, managed to produce something resembling actual wine, I have had no need of ascertaining that fact as I have had access and control of your own very fine cellars of strictly Continental vintages which I hardly need mention I myself compiled."
"Don't be such a snob, Clive, you old turnip. I assure you these outliers are putting the grape to very good use," I said.
"Say," chimed in Will. "Don't a lot of these places offer free tastings in the afternoon? Plus I think we can get cheese and crackers at some of them. Don't go to KJ though, they got my picture up in there. Those guys have no sense of humor at all."
"Such a ruffian," said Clive. "Pull in here, sir; this looks like a likely spot."
We had arrived at a small boutique winery sporting a lovely half-timbered facade flanked by spreading shade trees. We filed out of the van and went inside to find a cool, dim, rustically yet elegantly appointed tasting room manned by a cheerful, bright-eyed young man slicing cheese behind the bar. "Come in, come in, have a seat. My name is Seth and we've got some really just excellent wines today, some really superb vintages. Plus we have these artisinal infused olive oils and a selection of cheeses and crisp baguette rounds to a company. Sit, sit."
We took a seat at the bar and Will immediately began digging into the snacks. "So you fellas from around here?" Seth asked. "You know, we don't see a lot of orangutans in here."
"Really," said Clive. "How many do you see, exactly?"
"I think you're probably the first," Seth said. "I have taken some days off, but I think my wife would have told me if she'd served any apes. Ape-Americans?"
"I daresay. And I carry a British passport, by the way," Clive said.
"Okay, well, welcome! Glad to have you! First up, we've got this really charming riesling we are all quite proud of. Please enjoy and tell me what you think."
Seth set the three of us up and Will downed his in a gulp, Clive eyed his glass suspiciously and I took a deep, slow inhale to capture the nose. "Hmmmm," I said. "Mountain laurel blossom, carried on a warm westerly wind, overlaid with, with, honeysuckle, royal jelly, and ambergris, yes?"
Seth was goggling at me in amazement. "Hey barkeep, make with the sauce, huh?" Will said, tapping his glass on the bar. "And don't be shy, I'm fully grown here."
Clive took his first tentative sip and rolled his eyes. "Himself tends to the florid, don't bring up the Spectator just yet," he said.
I took a sip and let it lie on my tongue for a moment, then took another. "Okay," I said. "This is an impertinent little wine, a bit saucy -- maybe a touch of the mordant? Yes, what's this I'm tasting? Loquat and water chestnut, carambola tinged with myrhh. Is that smoky quince? And deeper. I'm getting a sense of Schwarzwald moss drenched in Walpurgisnacht moonlight, oddly enough. And the whole glazed in pre-Raphaelite ocher. This is an amazingly complex little wine."
Will peered doubtfully into his again empty glass. "I think mine's broken," he said.
Clive took another small sip. "If there was any left after cleaning the lawnmower parts, I might drink it, if there was nothing else in the house."
"You have an extraordinarily sophisticated palate," Seth said, addressing me. "If I may, I'd like your opinion on something quite special we've got here. It's a private reserve pinot, very limited pressing. This is a 2000, probably the finest vintage. We may not be bottling anymore for reasons I'll tell you about later."
"Can I have something with bubbles in it, please?" Will asked.
Seth reached into a mini fridge under the bar and pulled out a bottle of Cold Duck.
"Now you're talking," Will said, popping the cork and lapping at the overflow. "Join me, Clive?"
"Don't mind if I do. To California's finest!" Clive said as they clinked glasses.
Seth opened the Pinot and poured me a glass. I swirled it about and held it to the light. It had the legs of an Olympic miler and the complexion of a fevered Scheherazade. I took a deep draught of the bouquet and was nearly overwhelmed. "Great Caesar's ghost!" I said.
"What? What is it?" Seth cried.
"No, I believe I'm actually smelling the ghost of Gaius Julius Caesar," I said. "Definitely a Roman statesman, but the imperium and gravitas absolutely point to Caesar -- these grapes have antecedents in the classical world. What else do I detect here? Rainforest, dark matter, and Whitechapel fog."
I shivered a little. "This wine has depths unto depths." I took a healthy sip and let it trickle slowly down my throat, making a Homer(Simpson)ic pleasure gurgle as I did so. "What I am tasting is the honey from an extinct colony of these who overdosed on the nectar of a rare species of night blooming bromeliad. That, and green jujube -- charred teak from a Mediterranean shipwreck and fresh Volga River sturgeon roe, black truffle, Turkish delight, Cohiba smoke and rare earth elements from a distant star cluster. And more, there's more." I took another large draught, pouched a cheek and inclined my head to either side to ascertain the wine's specific gravity and aid in its analysis. "Aaah. This wine is well educated, perhaps excessively so. There is a slight bit of gender confusion and a tendency toward excitability. Valencia oranges steeped in oolong. Gooseberries and avocado, hints of bacon and Boursin, a touch of low-voltage direct current, and finally-finally-attar of indigo. This wine is indeed special, sir. It has captivated my senses entire, and if you would be so good as to unlimber your most capacious drinking vessel, I would consider it both an honor and a privilege to render myself insensate on its charms."
Seth, open mouthed with admiration, began clapping. "Oh, indeed bravo," said Clive superciliously, hanging by one arm from a wrought iron chandelier and scratching himself idly.
"Look, the monkey's gone native," said a very drunk Will.
"That's it, hayseed, it's go time," said Clive, dropping to the floor and advancing menacingly toward Will.
"Relax, boys, we're guests here," I said. I took a deep quaff of the matchless Pinot and addressed Seth. "So, you said something about not being able to produce this nonesuch anymore?"
"Yes. As you may or may not be aware, the pinot is a notoriously fussy grape that must be coddled throughout its lifecycle or it will spontaneously destroy itself. Through a painstaking process of coercion, flattery, subterfuge and music we have managed to coax the full potential from the grape. Most of our resources, both human and financial, have been dedicated to the maximization of our beloved Pinot."
"But?" I said.
"But is right. We lost our strolling grape serenader. We discovered that grapes like midieval music faithfully rendered in period costume, so we dressed up a musician and set him to strolling among the vines playing lays, madrigals and the like. The grapes responded immediately and positively and we'd come to depend on our troubadour, but he recently decamped for parts unknown -- without so much as a fare-thee-well."
He was quiet for a moment.
"Say, you wouldn't be of a musical bent, would you?"
"I can play anything with strings," I said.
"How about 16th century handcarved lute?"
"Sure, let's see it," I said.
Seth and I went into the back, and when we emerged 30 minutes later I was draped in several acres of purple velvet studded here and there with flounces and furbelows, small clouds of white lace puffing out of every aperture and a lute strapped to my back. "Fall in, boys," I said to my drunken employees. "We are employed."
Clive looked at me doubtfully. "What are the terms, sir?"
"Ten percent of the Pinot revenue, a cabin on the grounds, and all the plonk we can stomach. Clive, this is for you." I tossed him a walking stick beset with bells along its length. "And Will, you've got the low end." He reeled over and took his instrument, a shallow skinned drum with attached mallet.
We set out into the vineyard as the setting sun bathed the noble berries in its aureate glow. I struck a chord, Will and Clive set the rhythm and we sang:
With a hey-nonny nonny and a hey-nonny noo
Sun and soil and nitrogen too
Grow til you stop
Drink til you drop
and there ain't no party like a pinot party cause a pinot party don't stop -- (hey nonny nay)
And that, my friends, is the story of how the Stony Lonesome saved Pinot Noir. Next up: We will learn about how we became Sheriff Tom's personal aestheticians.