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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-five THE SPECIAL WINE



rthur followed his gut down the dirt road 26 miles north of Cambria. Winding through the hills another 44 teeth-jarring miles yielded no signs of habitation, but the road continued, and his gut urged him on. He listened to his gut, despite the dead ends during the last six years. His gut and his taste. Taste led him from Italy to Napa California. The tang of the tannin was distinct. Still, the Napa Valley was big.

What was that?

He stopped his Mercedes. Cutting the lights to reduce glare, he peered through the windshield. Sheltered between two hills, a tall house stood silhouetted against the starlit sky. A barn loomed beside it. A single light burned in an upstairs window.

His hand shook when he turned the headlamps back on. This had to be the place. He released the brake and bumped down the road toward the house.

The distance was deceptive, and the rutted road made 18 miles an hour seem like a breakneck pace. It was after eleven o'clock before Arthur finally pulled up to the house.

When he climbed from his car, his shoes scraping the dirt seemed the only sign of life. No crickets or frogs or bats. Certainly no human sounds.

But he smelled grapes, with a hint of something rich and loamy. A secret the soil whispered to the vine. Scent coaxed memory's flavor. A tingle shivered down his spine as he mounted the porch steps.

He didn't see a doorbell. Why install one way out here? He dusted a spot on the screen door with his handkerchief and rapped upon it.

The door creaked open, revealing a lean man who towered two heads over Arthur. Solemn and at least sixty, he wore faded red long-johns and worn denim overalls.

His sun-beaten skin, wrinkled as old leather was drawn tightly over his bald skull. Eyes and teeth seemed fitted for a larger head, so when his mouth curled into a broad grin, these features protruded as if they might pop out.

He didn't seem surprised to see Arthur. He held the door open. "Come in. Come in." His teeth filled a third of his face when he smiled. "Right this way."

He followed Arthur across the worn floorboards into a kitchen crowded by tightly packed shelves, with cookware hanging from hooks beneath. The stove was a cast iron wood burning monstrosity, still hot from the embers of dinner. The refrigerator had the space-age lines of 1950's design. It let out a low growl as Arthur approached.

Apparently his host believed, if it's not broke, don't fix it. Much of the kitchen was antique, but everything was still in use.

The discolored paper on the walls had a patina of scents from a century of cooking. For Arthur, who spent so many years honing his nose and palette, the years of layered aromas were an overwhelming ocean of sensations. It made him dizzy. He grabbed the edge of the counter to steady himself.

His fingertips landed on the base of a wine glass. He stared hard at the glass. His vision darkened at the edges. In the null space on the edge of passing out, his attention became a singularity of focus on the dried drop at the bottom of the empty glass.

The barest hint remained, whispering of a fragrance, but enough to make the hair on his neck stand up. Just like the first time he tasted it. It was here. In this very glass.

Looking at the man with renewed attention, Arthur saw he had no hair at all. No trace of facial scruff, eyebrows, or lashes.He looks like a monk, Arthur thought. A bumpkin monk in bib overalls.

The old man appraised Arthur also. Looking for something. Waiting for something? Arthur groped for a way to explain himself that didn't seem tinged by madness.

Finally he said, "I came here looking for a wine."

The man nodded, gave a low chuckle, flashed his oversized teeth in a homely smile. "I know why you're here."

He led Arthur through the kitchen, around a bend, and down a hallway, to a door with a framed crest above it. Grapes crossed by a scythe, "Vinum Suggero" scripted above.

Arthur recognized the crest. It was on the bottle the Russian had. The man saw the recognition. A smile twitched across his mouth, as if those giant teeth were so eager to grin they would chew through his lips to do it.

"You've seen it before? No one ever stumbles on us, way out here. When someone finds their way here ... well, they must have been looking."

Arthur admitted, "It is an exceptional wine."

Craftsman's pride produced an aw-shucks grin that enveloped the bottom third of the wine maker's face.

Arthur never lightly gave praise, even when deserved. His opinions tended more towards unnecessarily harsh. Among certain people this was considered wit, so Arthur cultivated it along with his palette.

When he strung his stinging witticisms and faint praise together onto the typed page, he could always get it published. He wasn't above paying for placement. Money wasn't a problem, Arthur was born with that. The articles helped identify him as an authority, which opened doors that money alone couldn't.

That was how he came to judge at the International du Vin competition, and how he came to meet the Count. He considered the Count's title, legitimate or not, to be an affectation, since any legitimate claim to titled lands in Russia had been obsolete since the first world war.

Count Dmitri Grigoryevich Orlov, or Dougie as Arthur preferred, certainly had an estate large enough qualify as a fiefdom. His family settled in Tuscany in 1898, at the Broglio estate in Verona. They had run the vineyard and winery since.

Count Dougie had high aspirations. He talked of refining and distilling the qualities of the land through the grapes. It played well with the back-to-nature set, but Arthur was too cynical for that.

Without a doubt, Arthur's personal dislike affected his choices at the competition, but as mean-spirited people often do, Arthur considered his opinion unimpeachable, and deserving of the most caustic expression possible.

True, Arthur couldn't put his thumb on a flaw with Dougie's wines. A fellow judge declared that the absence of flaws was the definition of flawless.

So Arthur took the refinement itself to task. He said it was too refined. It lacked the flaws that added character. Nothing about the wine was distinctive. Nothing set it apart from the crowd.

He was able to sway enough judges to knock the Count's wine from the top ranking, although his exceptional Chianti did very well in its class. In an article in the trade magazine Sommelier Selections, Arthur described Dougie's wine as pedestrian, and likened selection by committee, to mob rule.

The following spring, Arthur was invited to a reception at Dougie's estate, and the Count sought him out.

He said that, although they did not agree on some things, he respected people of strong opinion. Arthur had a true passion for wine. Count Dougie had a special wine, that he was sure Arthur would appreciate.

Arthur suspected he was being set up for a comeuppance, but Dougie's manner intrigued him. He followed the Count upstairs to a room overlooking the gently sloping vine-laden hills.

Dougie explained that this room was optimum for appreciating wine. A silver tray atop a Louis XIV writing table held a wine bottle and two sherry glasses.

The bottle was still sealed. A mechanism with a hypodermic needle and pump, inserted through the cork, allowed the extraction.

This ruby treasure had been poured into the glasses to breathe. Arthur feigned disinterest, but his pulse raced. The rarity of the wine was apparent. Dougie was very rich, and he treated the wine with extraordinary deference.

Arthur took in every detail. The Vinum Suggero crest on the label, 1987 hand-lettered beneath with permanent marker. The label was crooked, and looked like a worn wood print. The bottle glass was thick and uneven.

Everything about it said made by hand. It was a throwback to a time much earlier than the eighties. He had seen something similar at a family winery on the outskirts of Carmignano. They couldn't compete with their outdated equipment, so they sold the bulk of their grapes to other wineries. They still produced a batch, for family and special friends, reusing bottles that were fifty years old.

Dougie gestured for Arthur to take a glass. Dougie took the other, and deeply inhaled its fragrance. When Arthur breathed in the aroma, the hair on the back of his neck stood on end. He felt dizzy, had to put down his glass.

The Count nodded. "I knew you would understand. Not many are capable of appreciating just how special this wine is. You sense it, without even tasting."

Dougie tipped his glass and drank. A smile spread across his face. "Drink."

Arthur sipped. His cultivated tastes recoiled from the brusque vinous tang, like grapes gone soft on the vine with wild ferment. The flavor was as distinct as the brash varietal aromas, but Arthur couldn't place the grapes, as if there were a variety of Vitis vinifera he was unfamiliar with, which was of course, unthinkable.

Hints of elderberry and sage, a suggestion of iron, an oak barrel bouquet. The flavor, like the bottle, seemed a throwback from a prehistoric vinification process.

It was undeniably powerful, direct in a primal way. It seeped into him, sharpening his senses while relaxing his body, similar to absinthe.

Renowned as a hunter and adventurer, Dougie remarked how the wine reminded him of drinking munono with the Maasai. "Not the flavor, but the sense of strength. The immediacy of life."

Arthur profusely agreed. He declared it the most extraordinary wine he had ever tasted. He complimented the Count's taste, and made polite inquiries into getting a bottle for himself.

Dougie almost managed not to appear smug when he said, "It cannot be bought at any price. Only given as a gift. I shared my gift, because I want your good spirit, but I am compelled by oath to tell you no more."


The man opened the door beneath the crest, took up a candlestick with a sputtering tallow, and led Arthur into the labyrinthine entrails of the house. Narrow hallways lined with dusty bookshelves forced them to go single file.

Arthur heard pieces of the vintner's story as they walked. His name was Karl Tubbs. They were winemakers going way back. Brought their craft when they settled here, over 200 years ago. The grapes, the recipe, the techniques. Exactly the way they had always done it.

"We stayed in operation right through prohibition. It didn't affect us out here. We only make a few barrels a year, and we don't sell any of it."

"You don't sell the wine?"

Tubbs shook his head. "It would be disrespectful."

"Surely," Arthur wheedled. "You sell a bottle now and then?"

Tubbs turned, stared at him, all teeth and eyes by candlelight. His weathered skin moved restlessly over his skull like a chamois polishing an egg. "Never." Finality in his words. An edge of panic also. Karl was frightened by the mere suggestion.

Tubbs opened a door, revealing a large room with a rough hewn table, heavy wooden chairs, and a fire crackling on the hearth.

Like a compass needle, Arthur's attention was pulled to the open bottle on the table. Skin tingling, Arthur realized that Karl drank this miraculous wine every day. He stared at Tubbs with a reverent awe.

Karl generously poured. He handed Arthur a glass. "As I said, it cannot be bought. It can only be given as a gift. And we're always ready to offer up hospitality to anyone who makes it way out here."

Tubbs lifted his glass to toast Arthur. The restless leather pulled back from his oversized ivories in a smile. "To new friends, and old wine."

They drank. Arthur's quickening pulse beat down to his fingertips and back. Light softened in ways that reduced glare and revealed detail. Colors saturated and deepened. Objects seemed more in place, belonging to the here, the now, the wine.

Karl smiled as the glow spread over Arthur. "Does that feel familiar?"

"That's what it is," Arthur agreed. "It's not the taste that's familiar, it's the feel."

Old Karl doubled over, letting out a grunted, "Hayugh." Like he was puking. When he continued this without falling dead, Arthur assumed it was Tubbs' peculiar way of laughing.

"That's about it all right. You feel it. And it feels you too. Hu-huh-hayugh."

As he went on laughing, Arthur realized Tubbs didn't have any friends way out here. No one to tell him his laughter sounded like something had just ruptured internally. Arthur felt uncharacteristic patience towards Tubbs' little quirks though. He could be Karl's friend, despite his spasmodic reaction to humor. He would visit him every day, and gladly share his wine.

Karl throttled his seizure of mirth down to a wheezing chuckle. "We have a deal with the grapes. We tend to each other. They keep us young. Keep us healthy."

"It's a natural digestive, rich with antioxidants."

"Among other things." Karl said through his aw-shucks smile full of crocodile-sized teeth.

Arthur assumed the references to 'us' meant more family members, but there was no trace of anyone else. He wondered if Karl was the last of the line. They had been making wine for over two centuries. Would it die with Karl?

"These grapes are special. They speak to some people."

"A siren call." Arthur said.

"Wine can be just wine, and still be all things."

Arthur recognized the manner of a quotation, but didn't recognize the source. When he asked, Tubbs told him it was from Percy Shelly.

"I didn't recognize it." Arthur admitted.

"It wasn't something he wrote down. It was just something he said after he tried our wine." The leather and teeth reformed into a grin. "I just remembered it because I thought it was clever."

Arthur realized that cleverness was something he could use to reach old Tubbs, to ingratiate himself. Arthur had a truckload of unused sweet words and flattery. This seemed like the perfect time and place to apply them.

From his vast mental file on wine he brought up a quote from the cleverest person he knew, himself. It was from a magazine piece, where he rhapsodized on the magnificence of wine and used his lofty ideal of perfection to flog winemakers for their shortcomings.

Arthur raised his glass. "The blood of the fruit that sprang from the ground, where lives were spilled by those that made war on the gods."

Karl ripped out a couple convulsions of laughter and said, "Ol' Eudoxus, there was a man who liked his wine."

Tubbs raised his glass in toast and drank. Arthur reminded himself that Karl was no ordinary bumpkin. He knew his Plutarch and recognized Arthur's source, despite the paraphrasing and poetic license.

Karl said, "Plutarch didn't get it quite right though. He was plenty drunk himself by then. What 'Doxus actually said was, For their vanity they were broken and they nourished the gods' vine."

Karl gave a little shrug, took a gulp, grinned. "Six of one, half dozen the other."

Arthur's glass was half empty. He dug deep. "It is no mistake that communion is done with wine. Wine is living, like blood. If God says that this is his blood and commands me to drink it, who am I to say no?"

He took another electrifying sip. Time slowed. The wine surged in his veins. He rolled on, "Communion is communication. Sharing the experience of being."

Karl said, "The wine knows you."

Art said, "It is the beauty that breathes and feels inside you."

"You belong to each other." Tubbs concluded.

"It flows through you like a ribbon of experience, stitched with ecstasy." Art said.

Arthur knew he was laying it on thick. It felt more like Dougie's patter than his own, but it seemed to be playing well for Karl. Even more, Arthur believed it. He felt its truth to the marrow of his bones.

He took another drink. Tubbs smiled his egg in a chamois grin. Arthur felt something had shifted in his favor, that a test had been passed.

Tubbs refilled the glasses. "Our Vinification operation is modest, some would say downright primitive. But it's the way we've done it from the start."

"You haven't changed techniques since you built this winery?"

Tubbs chuckled through his teeth. "We been making wine a lot longer than that. Little things change. We set up the foundry and started using bottles when we came here. Seemed like a big change at the time, but it didn't affect the wine. Nothing about the wine has changed since we started. The same grapes, same recipe, same barrels. We're punching down the cap the same way we always have."

"The only way to do it." Arthur imagined Karl dancing barefoot in a pigeage vat. It didn't seem funny or pathetic or sad, which seemed odd to Arthur, because that was how he was used to thinking of people. It was as if the wine's enlarging effect upon his consciousness didn't leave room for such belittling thoughts.

Karl regarded Arthur as if he could see the changes the wine made. Finally satisfied, he asked, "Want to see where the magic happens?"


Tubbs opened the tall double doors of the barn. He stepped inside, and switched on the overhead light.

Arthur followed. A dozen feet up, a loft made a shelf of a third of the interior. It was stacked with barrels. Arthur estimated over 30. Tubbs only did a few barrels a year. The extras indicated a decade-long aging cycle.

"Haven't used it since last season." Karl slid a tarpaulin off the equipment. The newest gear looked over a century old. It was arranged clockwise, high to low, so each stage gravity-fed the next. Some of the troughs between stages were stone, others wood, some were hand-shaped clay.

There was no sign of a crusher, or destemmer. Arthur assumed grapes were hand-crushed directly into the pigeage vat, which was made of oak slats, and looked like an open oblong barrel. There was a pole across the top to hold onto while stomping wine must, the pulpy mash of fermenting skin, stem, and juice.

The press was a cylinder with gaps between the bottom slats, and a cast iron screw mechanism in the lid. Flat stone basins caught what fell through. Troughs channeled juice into clay jugs with wide bases and tapered sides, to age until it was ready for barreling.

Spare slats, rings, and a wooden mallet were nearby. A barrel-dolly was parked on a rusted freight lift that went to the loft. Tubbs said, "We installed that in 1908, so we could store barrels upstairs."

To the right of the lift was the bottling station. To the right of that the pigeage vat. The operation made a full circle.

The bottle rack was two-thirds filled with empties, ready to be reused. There weren't any full bottles. Arthur figured they were in a wine cellar under the house.

Tubbs commented, "The glass foundry is outside, because of the heat. I only need to replace broken bottles, so most years I never fire it up."

With a gasp, Arthur recognized Roman amphorae, ancient clay wine vessels. Five were along the wall, resting on hay.

Tubbs followed his gaze. "We used those for a good while, before bottles. Little things change, but we make the wine the same way."

"With the same grapes." Arthur put in.

The toothy grin swallowed the bottom of Karl's face. "I bet you'd like to see the grapes, wouldn't you?"

Arthur's heart thudded. All he could do was nod.


The vines grew on the western slope of the hillside to catch the first rays of the rising sun. Karl retrieved a kerosene lantern from a nearby tool shed and lit it.

They went among the grapes. The dark red skins looked blue black by lantern light. A gentle powdering of natural yeast dulled their luster.

"Our tradition is simple. We do it the way we always have. The grapes do the hard part."

"The terroir is extraordinary." Arthur put in. "I've never seen this variety of grape, and I'm familiar with over four thousand variants of Vitis vinifera."

Tubbs smiled. "They were never common. Now I reckon these are the only ones."

"How long have you been making wine?"

Karl set down his lantern, gently twisted it back and forth to seat it in the soil. "Since the beginning."

The man was old, but not as old as the house. Arthur suggested, "Since you were born?"

"Since the very first batch." Karl refilled the glasses, and all other thoughts went straight out of Arthur's head.

Tubbs said, "Our tradition is to toast the grapes with their wine, as a way of honoring their sacrifice." Karl demonstrated. He drank, lifted his glass, and shouted, "Vinum suggero!"

Karl flashed his teeth in a broad grin. Intent upon the wine, Arthur didn't notice that something wild twitched at the edges of Karl's demeanor.

Arthur was engulfed by the effect of the wine. His heart fluttered. His palms and pits were slick with sweat. His hair stood up like prickly antennae buzzing with delicious tension.

There was a feeling he couldn't identify, thrumming with vibrancy. It made him feel so wonderfully alive. Arthur marveled at it. Is this love?

He finished his glass, lifted it high, and lustily bellowed, "Vinum suggero!"

Back in the tool shed, Karl Tubbs had slid a claw hammer into the side pocket of his overalls. A multitude of different hammers existed for various uses. Karl owned several types: mallets for barrel-making, sledgehammers, tack hammers, ball peen hammers.

But the humble claw hammer was the most common, and Tubbs found it well-suited for this job. The style was first introduced in ancient Rome, and that was when Karl acquired his hammer. He had used it ever since, replacing the handle as needed.

While Arthur drank, Tubbs slipped it out. In the flickering lantern light, at the apex of the toast, as it had done so many times before, the hammer came down, making a tight damp thud on the base of a skull.

Arthur heard a crack, and grinding bone. Then nothing seemed to work. He crumpled to the ground. Physical sensations faded as the neurons that connected his head to his body blinked out like disconnected holiday lights.

The rush of life, that delicious tingling imbued by the wine remained, and Arthur was finally able to put a name to the feeling.

He was afraid. Fear was all he had left. His body wouldn't respond to him anymore, but it reacted to the situation and promptly evacuated itself.

Karl rolled him over. He gently brushed Arthur's face clean of the glistening spit and sweat and tears and left him staring up into the endless expanse of the stars.

Karl went to the tool shed, rattled around inside, and pulled items out to inspect in the lantern light.

"I've been told the paralyzed limbs are insensate to pain. Course, them that feel it can't talk about it, so who's to say? What do you say?" Tubbs asked. He even gave Arthur time to reply.

He undressed Arthur, cleaned him, anointed him with the wine, humming a 12th century sea ditty as he worked.

Tubbs tied off the limbs to stop blood flow. Then carefully pruned them back to nubs. While he did this, he reminded Arthur about the wine. How the grapes gave a special gift.

But the grapes expected a gift in return. Every year the gift arrived and presented itself to the grapes. A gift that chose the grapes, and understood the sacrifice inherent in making wine.

Karl continued as he gathered Arthur's sheared branches. "This is what you came looking for. Our primitive rituals might shock your refined sensibilities, but take solace that you have finally found something greater than yourself. Something you know is worthy of your sacrifice. Some men never find that.

"I suggest you set your mind on that. It might make the next part easier."

Karl wheeled over a chipper-shredder and started the motor. It rattled and gnashed steel teeth in its ravenous maw. While Arthur watched, Karl fed the sheared limbs in. The shredder sprayed a pulpy mist of Arthur over the grapes.

Karl poured wine down Arthur's throat, admonishing him to remember that he was giving a gift. He carried Arthur to the shredder.

For Arthur, the smell was the worst thing. He was disgusted by the noxious things inside him. His inner truth was exposed as the offal it was, to humble him, as he ground down toward the teeth and release.

He knew that he was little more than a jackal, whose proudest achievement was ripping a juicy strip of flesh from the still-twitching corpse of human decency.

He had been a petty and vicious man. It wasn't something he looked upon with regret or bitterness, just a fact he recognized, now that he was part of a greater whole. Part of the grapes. Part of the wine.

Almost finished. Soon they would be together forever.




Lance Dean has published in Bewildering Stories, Mystery Weekly, Caffeine Magazine, Sheila-Na-Gig, the anthology Scream When You Burn, and wrote a widely read blog while touring the world with Megadeth. Latest publications and audio work can be found at his blog -- https://lancedeanblog.wordpress.com

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