WHAT WINE GOES WITH WEASEL?
An Amusing, Slightly Fruity Novel with Intriguing Top Notes
Waverly Harrison Huff
As Told to Tom Greensmith
Prolog: Waverly Huff and the Wine Cellar of Doom
I do not consider myself an interesting person. Now, before you think “he’s just saying that to garner my sympathy,” let me explain. There’s an old saying about people who are not born great but have greatness thrust upon them. I was not born interesting nor did I develop interesting traits over my lifetime. I have, however, had interesting people and occasions thrust upon me.
I say this as I am sitting on the floor of the wine cellar of one of Napa County’s wealthiest and most influential couples – Frederik and Carlotta Champion. The door is locked securely, leaving me alone with my thoughts and with hundreds, maybe thousands of bottles of very fine wine. I don’t like wine, and my current confinement is a direct result of that fact. This I find amusing in and of itself.
At any rate, my situation gives me time to contemplate the interesting and bizarre cir-cumstances that brought me to beautiful Healdsburg, California – a charming village in Sonoma County, the heart of the Northern California Wine Country – and to where I am today. Some people, like the Champions, consider Napa County as the center of today’s wine establishment. The people of Healdsburg have a saying, “SONOMA makes wine. NAPA makes auto parts.”
I have not yet decided whether or not to smash every bottle of this prized collection, worth probably millions of dollars, against the gleaming, stainless steel, temperature controlled cabinets in which they are lovingly stored. I would probably gain immense satisfaction from this act but I’m quite sure it would piss off my captors even more.
Frederik Champion, as you may remember, was an admired Broadway director who had a Tony Award statuette sitting proudly on the mantle of his Fifth Avenue condo. The fact that he bought it on eBay was not generally known. Rich people in New York City, he knew, did not pay good money to see Broadway shows – they paid good money to be seen at Broadway shows.
Freddie, as he’s called by those society folk who so love giving childlike nicknames to the aged, was 60 and on his fifth wife, Nicole, when he hired 20-year-old Bertha Krups as his leading lady in his “re-imagined” musical version of Clare Boothe Luce’s The Women. It took one day for him to change her name to Carlotta Croupier and one more day to talk her into bed.
On opening night, Nicole sent the nervous star a bouquet of acacia flowers (Carlotta was allergic to them) with a card that read: “May your opening be as big as Ethel Merman’s.”
The show closed in one day. Unfortunately, Carlotta’s ample talents did not include memorizing lines, singing or dancing. Her ample talents did, however, encourage Freddie to get a quickie Mexican divorce and make her his sixth wife.
Nicole, also 60, drove away in his prized Rolls with her 20-year-old lover Philippe and ten million dollars in bearer bonds. She was heard to holler, “20 goes into 60 a hell of a lot more than 60 goes into 20, you stupid impotent fuck!”
I love show biz.
After his latest disaster, the only Broadway work Freddie could get was mounting still another revival of Grease. Casting Carlotta as Sandy wasn’t even Freddie’s biggest mistake. The rest of the cast was filled out entirely with American Idol losers, and not the good ones. Freddie vastly overestimated their marquee draw factor.
The show closed during intermission. Undeterred, Freddie closed down his office in Manhattan, moved to Napa and bought the old Robert Mondori winery. With typical humility, he renamed it Champion Cellars.
So, the Champions are upstairs, sitting in their burnished cherry wood and brown leather library with the rest of The Epicurean Club’s members planning to blow up the Lake Sonoma Dam, thereby flooding the Dry Creek Valley and destroying Sonoma County’s wine industry. They are also deciding whether to kill me and bury me or kill me and eat me.
Where shall I start?
Chapter 1: Celebrity Gourmet Cannibals
Little did I know, when I started writing that fluff piece on The Epicurean Club that the Healdsburg Vintage, our local weekly newspaper, hired me to do, that I would dig deeper than anyone expected. But, hey, that’s what a writer does.
On the surface, The Epicurean Club was a small group of immensely wealthy people who loved food and wine and contributed vast sums to local schools, police charities and politicians. They were as well known for their philanthropy as they were for their glut-tony. And, as the capitalization of their organization’s name so subtly implied, they raised pretentiousness to an art form.
The members were all big fish in little Napa ponds. Besides Freddie and Carlotta, the executive committee included Teddy Heller, Cyrus Rose, Jacques-Martin Bamberger and Dick Chastain. Each of them did one thing spectacularly well.
Teddy Heller: The Supplier
Teddy Heller ran The Spanish Steppes, his posh Yountville restaurant, like a movie star who believes his own press. A big-boned man in his early sixties, with a ruddy com-plexion, sparse blond hair, and a blond and bushy moustache, Teddy’s talent was limited. But the people he hired to promote him were exceptional. His head PR person, Bob Smith, was once a “fixer” for the Witness Protection Program. Some people fudge their resumes. Bob Smith created a background for Teddy Heller entirely out of blue sky.
Teddy dropped out of college to pursue a major in marijuana distribution with a minor in intoxication. According to his best-selling autobiography, “A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine and Me,” Teddy graduated top of his class at the prestigious Julliard School of Gas-tronomy. There was no such school. It only existed because Bob Smith willed it to.
Immediately after this almost totally fabricated tome was published, Teddy was hired to star in his own cooking show on the Fox network. (Bob Smith apparently had some-thing on Rupert Murdoch that was really, really juicy.)
You’re probably wondering how anyone can get away with this kind of cock-and-bull story in an age of “instant” media. The fact is that journalism was never the same after 9-11. Not since the days of McCarthyism had the press been so afraid to take a stand on anything. Wiretapping. Secret prisons. Secret trials and tribunals. Fake celebrity (yes, I’m talking to you, Kardashians).
The fact was that The Epicurean Club would never have reached the status it did in a different, more open environment.
If Teddy’s reputation was built on Bob Smith’s talent (and undeclared passion for Teddy Heller), his restaurant’s reputation was built on the foolishness of people in gen-eral. The food was only so-so but so many wealthy folk equated mega-high prices with haute cuisine that Teddy was famous beyond reason.
Teddy was the supplier. He could buy any animal, vegetable or mineral from any-where in the world. And I mean “any.”
Cyrus Rose: The Money Man
Cyrus Rose had been a fixture in Calistoga since the Depression. He bought houses from the unfortunates and sold them to other unfortunates at loan rates that would be usurious by even today’s standards.
He owned more houses in Napa County than any other person. He was the richest person West of the Mississippi. Because his wealth was hidden in a wide and diverse portfolio of dummy corporations and obscure foundations, few were aware of this.
Under the guise of an obscure holding company, Cyrus Rose owned the Healdsburg Vintage. I did not know this when I turned my story in and it was the primary reason I’m in the pickle I’m in how.
Cyrus Rose was obsessed with recapturing his youthful appearance – which was never that appealing to begin with. He was short in stature with a crooked back, close-set eyes and a hook nose that made him look like Fagin in a bad road show production of Oliver! Add thin lips, sunken cheeks, and the worse toupee since early William Shatner.
With all that money at his disposal, you’d think he would give himself a makeover. But Cyrus Rose was cheap. Incredibly cheap. Unbelievably cheap. He would never, ever buy retail. His clothes and his hairpieces were secondhand from Salvation Army. His daily facial was a bar of Ivory Soap and a rough face cloth. His wire-frame glasses were stolen from the Calistoga Library Lost and Found Box.
Every year or so, Cyrus Rose would fly down for a “vacation” in Mexico where his stable of pseudo-doctors/dentists/upholsterers would do their best to make him look younger than his eighty-some years. They stretched, pulled, tucked, stapled, drilled and polished him as much as their limited talents would allow.
The fact that they never succeeded … and that Cyrus never figured that out … can be attributed to the fact that Cyrus lived in his own reality.
While others in The Epicurean Club had money, Cyrus had MONEY. He was the financier.
Jacques-Martin Bamburger: The Connector
Jack M. Bamburger was a poor kid from Austin, Texas, who had rich dreams. He also had incredibly good looks, the gift of gab and more charisma than a discount jewelry store. He also didn’t want to be Jack M. Bamburger from Austin, Texas. So, at the age of 20 with $200 in his pocket, he hitchhiked to Healdsburg and reinvented himself.
It was an incredible coincidence that the first person Jack saw when he got off the Sonoma County Transit bus at Healdsburg Square was Bob Smith.
Bob was in town supposedly on one of his monthly shopping sprees at some of Healdsburg’s posh men’s stores. He was actually cruising the Square for young lads who didn’t recognize a dirty old man when they saw one. For Bob, it was lust at first sight.
But then most everyone lusted after Jack when they laid eyes on him. Tall and lanky, with muscles in all the right places, he had spectacular red hair, striking green eyes and lips that said kiss me. With tongue. Before he left Austin, he had romantically and/or sexually conquered almost all his friends and acquaintances. Men and women. Straight and gay. Young and old.
Sex wasn’t a gay thing or a straight thing to Jack. He wanted to be nice to everyone he met and this was just another weapon in his arsenal. Jack was whatever you wanted him to be. You’ve heard of universal remotes. Jack was a universal lover.
I don’t mean to imply that Jack was disingenuous. He was inside exactly how he looked on the outside. He wasn’t manipulative in the least. People just did what he wanted them to because he was … Jack.
(Yes, I also fell in love with Jack. Unexpectedly. Incredibly. Bewilderingly. Like many of those in Jack’s circle, I didn’t plan on it, expect it or want it. It took some time, but he fell in love with me as well. But that part of the story comes later.)
That day in Healdsburg, Bob Smith was sure he saw an angel getting off that bus in Healdsburg Square … an angel in a tight white T-Shirt and blue jeans. His red leather cowboy boots added two inches to his height and tons of attitude to his persona.
Bob stared at him with such overwhelming awe that Jack couldn’t help but saunter over to him and strike up a friendly conversation. For his part, Bob wiped the drool from his lips with a linen handkerchief and invited Jack to lunch.
When they were both seated at an outside table at the Dry Creek Diner, Jack told Bob his story. Bob immediately saw himself as Professor Henry Higgins to Jack’s Liza Doolittle and agreed to help in his transformation. For a price, of course. Jack didn’t care about that; he was free of Austin, Texas and starting a new life.
It wasn’t long before, with Bob Smith’s help, Jacques-Martin Bamberger (pronounced “Jock-Martan Bombur-jay”) was the toast of the town. He was at all the right parties, hosted all the right charitable events and was photographed with every important person in Napa and Sonoma Counties.
Jack was the Kevin Bacon of the area. Anyone who was anyone was connected to him in six degrees or less.
Congressman Dick Chastain: The Fixer
Little Rickie Chastain became a gambler early in life when, at the age of seven, he played strip poker with the girl next door. More important than seeing her boobies was the revelation that he could cheat at cards and get away with it. It wasn’t long before his biggest thrill in life was putting something over on someone.
In college he agreed to help a really rich, really fat freshman get even with a senior football star who bullied him mercilessly. Rickie stole some sleeping pills from the campus infirmary and spiked the football star’s rum and tonic as he was celebrating a win at a local bar.
When the star woke up the next morning in a cheap motel room, he was in bed stark naked next to large yellow Labrador who was licking peanut butter off the star’s genitals. The shock was magnified when he saw the Polaroid photo on the bed stand. This time the peanut butter was on the dog’s genitals and the sleeping star was posed in what could only be called an extremely embarrassing position.
While pulling a fast one on a self-absorbed bully football player was rewarding in and of itself, Rickie goals in life became crystal clear when his “client” presented him with a check for $10,000. With equal parts ingenuity and money, Rickie figured, he could make anything happen.
And he did. He fixed little league baseball games, beauty pageants and local elections. In this latter endeavor, a relatively insignificant mayoral race in Pratt, Kansas, he incurred first the wrath of, and eventually the respect of, Cyrus Rose.
Cyrus had taken an interest in the race because of his land holdings in the area. The current mayor was about to use eminent domain laws to turn Cyrus’ slum housing into a city park. After infusing his opponent’s campaign with a seven figure donation, Cyrus figured his problems were solved.
This would have worked except for one coincidence. The incumbent Mayor of Pratt Kansas was none other than the really rich, really fat freshman that Rickie had helped in college. The Mayor called Rickie. After Rickie cashed the really big check, he brought his supply of sleeping pills, peanut butter and a Polaroid camera to Pratt. There were no Labradors at the dog pound so he settled for a Pit Bull. The rest was history.
The loss of Cyrus’s land was nothing compared to his discovery of a man with fewer morals and lower ethics than he himself could claim.
With Cyrus’s fortune behind him, Rickie set up shop in Napa. From there he fixed the Golden Globes, the NCAA basketball tournament and two seasons of The Voice.
When the congressman from Napa dared to have Rickie investigated for the NCAA scam, Rickie engineered one last amateur fix – he ran against the congressman himself and beat him by a wide margin in what locals say was the dirtiest political campaign ever. Now Rickie was a professional fixer. He was a politician.
As I mentioned previously, Sonoma and Napa counties have had a mostly friendly competition for many years. Napa used to be called the “wine capital of America” but now most experts are giving the edge to Sonoma vineyards. A recent issue of Appellation magazine, in fact, called Napa “a has-been in a forest of would-be’s.” To Freddie and his friends, this was the last straw.
By now the Lincoln Navigator carrying the well-paid agents of The Epicurean Club and the boxes of dynamite should be well on its way to Lake Sonoma. For those of you unfamiliar with Sonoma County, I should explain that Lake Sonoma is a man-made lake (although I’m sure some women were involved as well) at the end of the lush Dry Creek Valley.
The Warm Springs Dam, which forms Lake Sonoma, was built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1983. The dam is 319 feet high, 3,000 feet long and creates a lake with a capacity of 381,000 acre-feet of water. Visitors to the lake often stop at the Cyrus Rose Visitor Center and the Congressman Dick Chastain Fish Hatchery. Yes, that Cyrus Rose and that Dick Chastain. The plot thickens, doesn’t it.
If, let’s say, the dam should be blasted apart by, let’s say, dynamite, millions of gallons of water would flood the Dry Creek Valley and wipe out some of the best wine grapes on earth. Not to mention thousands of wine drinkers and non-wine drinkers.
As Freddie said to the agents as they headed off to on their mission, “This ought to make those buffoons at Appellation magazine eat their words and then wash them down with a lovely Napa Pinot Noir.”
More to come …