This Is Not Sad (opening chapter excerpt)

“I want to make the greatest wine in the world.”  

Roger Tillis, although no stranger to megalomaniacal hubris–truly, the only crop more plentiful than Cabernet in this famed Napa Valley–sought refuge in a polite cough and a prolonged sip of water as he awaited the brief blush of astonishment to recede into his well-worn mask of professional alacrity.

“I understand absolutely, Johan.  Yours is a property that I feel has vast untapped potential.  With the right investment and execution, I see no impediments to your estate being regarded as one of the elite in this valley within,” Roger paused for dramatic flourish, “well, I’m not generally one to be so optimistic with my time frames but if you’re willing to purchase top fruit from other sites while your new vineyards are in development I think we’ll have you firmly in that conversation within ten years.”  Roger beamed back at the diminutive, silver-haired man across the table from him with a smile that clearly demonstrated a genuine belief that this verdict would be warmly received.

“You are not hearing me, Roger.  I’m surprised: I had been told you were clever.  You are nattering on about local gossip and I am referring to birthing a wine of singular endowment.  A star that shines undeniably brighter in the night sky than its would-be peers. Do you imagine yourself capable of such a feat, or have your successes made you complacent, content to churn out for your many clients wines of doubtless quality yet lacking any semblance of distinction?”  Accusatory though the chain of words might otherwise have seemed, Johan delivered them without hint of aggression. In fact, he seemed only even mildly curious to know the answer, more focused as he was on delicately scooping just the right amount of tartare onto a thin plank of freshly-baked sesame lavash and ferry the perfect bite to his mouth–which, admittedly, possessed the natural advantage of inhabiting an altitude not so terribly elevated from the surface of the table–without precipitating an avalanche of finely-diced lime-cured tuna into his lap.     

Much as the potentially rancorous interpretations of Johan’s banter were diffused by his obliviously sincere demeanor, Roger marveled at how the man could effortlessly quash the painstakingly-constructed aura of elegance at the table–and even, perhaps, in this entire swath of tables in the restaurant.  Perfectly creased white linen, spotlessly polished crystal stemware, and modestly-obsequious service were no match for the black hole of social charms sitting across from him. Indeed, it nearly gave Roger pause about pressing forward with their potential business arrangement. Rather, it gratified Roger to tell himself as much–to pretend that he retained the liberty of self-determination in his business dealings.   If pressed, however, he would easily confess an inability to say ‘no.’ He would smirkingly cop to the smarmy line–once coined about him by an early client–that his biological imperative to flush out lucrative opportunities was no less hard-wired than a shark responding to blood in the water.

Knowing all too well that in spite of Johan’s capricious demeanor Roger held the upper hand in this interview (of sorts), the renowned winemaker advanced the conversation with a mix of polite deference and playful antagonization.  “My concern, Johan, is that the nature of a term such as ‘great’ is fraught with subjectivity. Perhaps you might expound on what the markers of greatness are to you, specifically.”

The wrinkled tributaries of Johan’s expression rearranged into a flooded landscape of muted revulsion.  “Surely you are kidding.” He spat the words out as he chewed, punctuated by incidental flecks of salmon flesh and sesame seeds.  “Greatness isn’t achieved by fulfilling a series of parameters. It is not the sum of its components and, as such, can only be recognized not described.  Critics recognize it, I recognize it, and you–in spite of your coy line of conversation–you must recognize it because you have a storied history of making heralded wines.  It is precisely because of that history that you are sitting here today, but make no mistake: my wines will establish a new benchmark whether you are involved with the project or not.  Now, as I have another appointment shortly, we can either spend the remainder of our time waxing philosophic and then part ways or we can discuss the practical details of your potential engagement.”

Roger remained sanguine in the face of his wealthy companion’s apparent consternation.  More, he lingered reverently over his words as he spoke them, leaning into the strong consonants.  “It would be my distinct pleasure to discuss those details, Johan. I’ll spare you the pitch–what precisely is it that you would like to learn from our conversation?”  

“Again, you disappoint me, Roger.  What is it ever?” Johan asked with the most censuring condescension his bantam body could summon.  “How much do you charge?”

The winemaker’s modest smile belied inner revelry:  he cherished this moment in a negotiation. Earlier in his career he might succumb to self-doubt, dancing around the topic and hesitating to materialize the plump figure from his mind into the shared light of day.  No longer. Roger understood that he was in the enviable position of being courted by his potential clients, even if polite pretense dictated that he “interview” with them in order that the fragile ego of wealth not be needlessly tread upon.  More and more wineries broke ground in Napa Valley every year, more than existed established names to helm them, and for new entrants into the luxury-tier of the wine business the prospect of selling anonymous bottles of hundred-dollar red wine was dubious enough without having a marquee name tied to the brand in at least one strand of its triple helix DNA comprising of vineyard, winery, and ownership.  Historically, Roger may not have signed on the bottom line with every estate that knocked on his door, but he handily inked as many as he could reasonably (and even, frankly, unreasonably) service so there was long longer any excuse to blush when presenting his terms. When demand so exceeds supply there are no disappointments to endure, only minor delays of gratification. 

“My fee is $10,000 per month if you retain me as the titular winemaker.  Conversely, I would consider signing on as a Consulting Winemaker for $6,000 monthly.  In the latter capacity I would advise on picking and blending decisions only.”

“And as the winemaker?”

“I will become a resource for your every decision–excluding marketing, although I can put you in contact with some fabulous people who specialize in that.  For other clients my expertise has assisted with winery design, clonal and rootstock choices for vineyard planting, picking decisions, fermentation management, blending…the whole works.”

“Who does the physical work?”

“I have relationships with a myriad of full-service facilities from which you can choose to house your project until your cave is constructed.  When the time comes I can attract and identify the best candidates to hire directly to staff your own winery. I will also recommend the most suitable vineyard management companies to meet the specific needs of your nascent estate.”

Johan slowed his incessant fidgeting for a brief moment.  After a few beats of rumination, he bleated, “Then what the hell do you do, given that I still must hire other people to do all the work?”

The two men sat across from each other, chewing their respective lunches in short silence until Roger grasped that Johan’s utterance was not rhetorical complaint:  he sincerely expected a forthcoming explication from the renowned winemaker enumerating the specific ways in which he added value to a project.

“Now it is my turn to express gentle dismay at your show of nescience, Johan.  We both know you wouldn’t be sitting here with me if you didn’t already know the answer to that question.  I instill my philosophy, my expertise, and my influence. I ensure that the fruits of your labor will receive unmitigated privilege from the gatekeepers of public opinion.  Every major wine critic visits the valley to sit down with me and taste through my entire portfolio of clients. They come to me–they knock on my door.  Collectors and restaurateurs across the nation clamor for my wines–unseen and untasted–by simple virtue of my name gracing the back label.  You see, Johan, I give your fledgling project credibility before you squish a single grape.”

Before replying, Johan scraped his plate clean with his fork, parsimoniously assembling one final bite from the detritus of remnant tartare.  He vigorously wiped his face as he chewed, then blew his nose loudly into the soiled linen napkin. “My money gives me credibility.” He blew his nose one more time and then continued,  “I don’t need your credibility, I bring my own. My track record of successes is all the testimonial that I could ever need.”

“I’m loathe to quibble with you, Johan, but I encourage you to cast a gaze outside at the parking lot.  You’ll find it peppered with enough Bentleys that even my Porsche looks low-rent. This valley has changed rapidly, it’s no longer the humble homestead of farmers and dreamers.  Your money may have gotten you in the door and it certainly got me in this chair, but look around you and you’ll find that your immense fortune is precisely what makes you unexceptional in Napa; these hills are crawling with titans of this or that industry from this or that corner of the world, all of whom have endeavored to retreat to this rural paradise to recreate their successes in a more alluring fashion than owning the market on smart locks for freight containers or some other kind of widget.  It should be of no surprise that you won’t find these neophyte luxury estates marketed on the basis of storied business conquests by the new owners. The world already assumes as much–it’s a given, and it’s equally given for you as it is for your neighbors as it is for theirs and so on down the road all the way into the next county.”

“But in such a world as you imagine, what happens when every one of those neighbors hires a fancy big-name winemaker of their own?  Wouldn’t I be in a nearly identical situation, only bilked out of many thousands and with even less freedom to distinguish myself than you purport me to have now?”

The unguarded laughter that spilled forth from Roger’s chest was unprecedented in the two men’s previous interactions, its candid vivacity recontextualizing his previous polite chuckles in the mind of his prospective employer.  Roger composed himself quickly and smilingly parried with, “In that case it sounds like you can’t afford to not have a big name attached, and preferably the biggest name at that.”  He jokingly presented his hand across the table towards Johan as if to shake an introduction.  “Roger Tillis, at your service.”

Johan did not reciprocate the moment of levity, but he evidently found some modicum of satisfaction in Roger’s reply, because he pressed the inquisition forward.  “How many clients do you currently service?”

“I engage in a strict policy of non-disclosure with regards to all of my clients.  In fact, in the event that you do not retain my services you should know that I never discuss even potential clients–”

“But surely the number isn’t insignificant,” Johan interrupted.  “I can count offhand of seven wines that have you listed as the winemaker.”

Roger shrugged dismissively.  “I can assure you, Johan, I have developed a more-than-sufficient business infrastructure to handle my commitments.  The people I have in place working for me are second-to-none. Honestly, in another ten years they’ll likely have rendered all of us in the old guard obsolete.  So there’s another hidden benefit for you: a built-in succession plan at the top.”

A fresh-faced busboy approached the table to organize the disarray and remove the castoffs.  Roger met eyes with the young man and attempted to smile welcomingly but the employee cast his eyes nervously downward at the first sign of eye contact.  

“Give me a double espresso, with a side of steamed milk,”  Johan commanded to the bus boy as he endeavored to stack plate on plate, the top dish wobbling precariously on a fulcrum of flatware.  The fellow nodded assent but wordlessly scurried away before even completing his task–an apparition jostled from the serene anonymity of his spectral realm.  

Johan’s gaze had scantly broken from Roger since the two had been seated, but the winemaker slowly understood that the man’s mental attention had little association with the haphazard placement of his eyes.  In point of fact Roger had the distinct impression that his client-to-be was exceedingly bored throughout their negotiation, allowing (or perhaps simply unable to prevent?) his mind to wander freely as his mouth conducted the rote formalities.  Had they been playing poker, Roger would have hypothesized Johan’s ‘tell’ was his fidgeting–that only in his moments of relative corporeal stillness was he indeed actively engaged in their present conversation–but as it was Roger favorably attributed the behavior to some shade of genius.  After having spent an uninterrupted hour across from the man, it was clear that he operated at a higher cerebral capacity than most; Roger allowed himself to wonder, ‘at what cost?’

Again, tiny alarm bells rang in his psyche as Roger reflected that never once had wine been the actual topic of conversation between the two men.  Wine as a proxy for prestige, absolutely, but not a hint of talk of wine as a tangible liquid, to say nothing of the hackneyed poetic ascriptions of fermented juice as an elixir of heavenly rhapsody.  The winemaker felt unsure of whether he considered that departure from wine-country tradition refreshing or deeply sacrilegious, but he did know that the wine industry did not well tolerate the blatant rejection of its collective narrative steeped in romance.  The fraternity of wine demanded that all baser motives be heavily cloaked by grand concepts such as artistic passion, tradition, and even (nearly) divine inspiration. Wine is not produced, it is vinted, or crafted. Wineries are no longer presented as businesses, but as labors of love.  Granted, wineries depended heavily on marketing consultants for this fictive identity, but an owner has to be willing to wholly buy in, and Roger wondered if that were something that the singularly-minded Johan could do.  

Fittingly, Johan’s glass of Sauvignon Blanc remained on the table nearly untouched, long after Roger had licked every last drop from the rest of the half bottle.  “Enlighten me as to what this expensive infrastructure of yours entails, exactly.” Johan glanced at his watch then back at Roger’s face.

“My people operate like satellites, gathering vineyard and winery samples, analyzing it all and then recording it in our comprehensive database.  At the click of my computer I have access to winery inventory and analysis, vineyard crop projections and maturity records, even which blocks are on which irrigation schedule.  At any given moment I can know what is happening at your winery better than if I were standing in the fermentation hall.”

Johan scowled at this final phrasing.  “You can, certainly, but the question is:  do you?”

“Oh I’d say that my track record answers that question incontrovertibly, wouldn’t you?  My business is in place to do for my clients exactly what you are looking to achieve on your property:  coax world-class wines from some of the most dynamic vineyard sites in the world. And to answer the unasked question–that elephant in the room of all my negotiations–I can abley service a multitude of clients without creating a conflict of interest precisely because every wine that I make is tailored to express the site from which it comes.”  Roger took a deep breath, he was matching Johan’s candor perfectly, although struggling to do so equally as dispassionately. “I don’t have a recipe, Johan, I have an approach. My approach manifests itself distinctly from vineyard to vineyard depending on the raw elements inherent in each. For that to work, I need to understand the micro as well as the macro.  So yes, I would say unequivocally that I do keep up with the little details. Does that answer satisfy your concerns?”

The silver-haired many-millionaire held Roger’s gaze until he was finished speaking, at which point he glanced again at his watch and pulled a billfold out of the breast pocket of his jacket.  As he laid a credit card onto the table he grimaced–what may have been just a politely forced smile–and said, “Perfectly, although I can assure you that my questions to you are merely discussion points; my only true concern at this moment in time is to do with whether I will indeed get my espresso before I must go.”

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