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IN VINO VERITAS
by Anatoly Belilovsky
The lights come on: dazzling white-on-white. “For the love of God, Montresor!” I say, shielding my face, but in seconds my eyes adjust and the abrasive glare softens. “What is this place?” My voice drops to a whisper, its echoes mere pinpricks.
“But, my dear Fortunato,” says Montresor, “it should be obvious.”
He speaks quietly, perhaps to show me that he knows of my affliction, perhaps to remind me how he came to know. Ah, Montresor, my colleague, my friend, hast thou forgiven me? I search his face, I listen to his expression: Elgar, “Pomp and Circumstance.” Entirely appropriate for the occasion. And yet, serenity evades me.
“It isn’t obvious to me,” I say, doing my best to banish tremors from my voice.
“What is under Salzburg?” says Montresor. “Salz. This is a salt cavern, leased at great expense from a spa which uses it for healing treatments. It has the silence and the purity of air which people less talented than you would need to pass the Grand Master of Wine examination; yet it is large enough to hold all those who long to witness your triumph.”
“Will there be a great number of—” I begin.
He waves my question aside. “You'll quite approve,” he says, “of the guest list. Quite approve.” His mien is playing “La Donna e’ Mobile,” in allegro ma non troppo, not a note false. He is sincere in treating “The woman is fickle” as a scherzo. A joke.
I clear my throat. “You are too kind,” I say. “I don't quite know what to say...”
“Say nothing, then,” he says. “All ended well. Gloria went to you because no woman can resist the way you look at women; she returned to me because no woman can stand a man who will not listen. I understood her pain; and yours. We have been friends and colleagues too long to let her come between us.”
Has the aria transposed, momentarily, to a minor key?
“What of your motto?” I say.
He shrugs. “Nemo me impune lacessit?” he says. “I never felt... Impugned. Never that.”
His face segues to the duet, “Pace e Gioia sia con voi” — “Peace and Joy,” from “The Barber of Seville.” Legato. He plans no violence, that is certain. The song is from an opera built of deceptions within deceptions, yet he has not lied, not once. Of that, if little else, I am certain. In any case I’ve no choice. My examination shall go on today, with Montresor as Master of Ceremonies. His reputation among oenophiles excels my own, though, Bacchus willing, not for long.
Others trickle, one by one, into the great cavern. Basie and Belfer barely nod to each other, take seats at opposite ends of the cavern; Atkins lifts Lorraine off her feet when she runs forward to embrace him; Radcliffe and Salmonson begin a heated debate that fades to stinging whispers under Montresor's disapproving stare. Their faces play the notes, disordered yet euphonic, of an orchestra tuning its instruments before commencing the overture.
“There's room here and to spare for every living Master,” I say. “Is every one of them coming to this examination? It is unheard of!”
“Not every Master,” says Montersor, “but many an aspiring...” he pauses, his smile whistling the “Lovely Ladies” chorus from Les Miserables. Damn him, can he not avoid thinking in double entendres?
“Every aspiring Master?” I ask.
“In a manner of speaking,” he says, while his face sings in counterpoint: Lovely ladies waiting for the call, standing up or lying down...
Ah, Montresor, blessed by the gods to have found Gloria first, cursed to get by with his limited abilities of discernment. Whoever coined the phrase ‘easy on the eyes’ must have had Gloria in mind. So rarely do all our senses reveal a harmonic whole—in wine more often than in people, but in Gloria the most pleasing of all. I wronged my friend, I caused him pain, and my apologies, though profuse, are watered down by absence of regret. If asked to choose again, I would still choose Gloria, even as I spend my days half-expecting Montresor’s revenge. Like his beloved Barolos, his thoughts take decades to be ready for the light of day, and grow in strength and subtlety year by year. This tasting, today, this opportunity to triumph—I cannot help but suspect a ruse. Will he choose a wine unparalleled in its obscurity? Not even Montresor suspects the vastness of my powers of discrimination.
At that very moment a group files into the chamber, and I forget about Montresor. The sight of them is a caress: short skirts, low-cut blouses, brilliant sparks of their mingled perfume, and from their awe-struck faces emanates the glorious Freude chorale of the Ninth:“Joy are all God’s creatures drinking
At our Mother Nature’s breast,
She gives roses and wine while kissing
Both Damned Men, and Bless’t.
“You see? I know you well,” says Montresor. “Is this not the crowd from which you crave approbation the most? First en masse, then, later, one by one?” His grin turns sour. “Oh,” he says. “The smell! They must have emptied every perfume shop in Austria. So sorry, Fortunato. I shall ask them to sit farther away. Blind tasting is difficult enough without confusing odors—”
“They bother me not at all,” I say. “As long as—”
“They have been told,” he says, “to stay perfectly quiet for the duration—”
“Then,” I interrupt, “I have all I require. Unless someone forgot to bring the wine.”
“Or corkscrew,” says Montresor. “Wouldn't that be an excellent jest?”
“We would have had,” I say, “many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo.”
“Over our wine,” he adds. His eyes are twinkling to Saint-Saëns’ “People With Long Ears.”
“A very good joke indeed,” I conclude.
A long time later, yet somehow too soon, the seats are filled, some filled better than others. The sommelier approaches with a bottle. It is wrapped, of course, in such a way as to disguise its origin, but clearly not a fiasco. No surprise, this: Chiantis are far too easy.
The cork pops with the barest twinge of pain. I must be quite on edge to feel it at all. Good; I suspect I'll need to open my senses even further to triumph this day. The sommelier is excellent; he pours without a clink or a gurgle, and places the bottle in its tall, opaque ice bucket. I have the full attention of everyone present. A bow for them, and for myself a smile before I turn. Blind tasting, indeed. The fools have no idea.
The sommelier hands me the glass without a word. The room is silent.
I swirl the wine in its globe of singing crystal. When I set the goblet on the table, the wine flows in sheets and faint rivulets down the clear surface. Cold catabatic winds and blazing sun make a battleground of my cheeks; snowflakes stab my hands with icy needles. I'm close to the answer now; there aren't many terroirs at that altitude where extraordinary wines may be grown.
I inhale its aroma of mountains, green-clad, grizzled at their summits; lakes whose smooth surfaces reflect the mountains and the sky; a riot of flowers in alpine meadows. Mendoza; it must be Mendoza.
I sip the wine, slowly, so slowly. First I taste the howl of the wind and the songs of the grape pickers. Then, as the first impressions fade, I hear the grapes scream on my palate as the life and juice are crushed out of them. They scream in Spanish, with an Argentinian accent (E-L-L-A pronounced like “edge-ya”, not “eh-ya”, as in most Latin countries), and with that charming Mendoza lilt. “Yo era Chardonnay a las cinco de la tarde,” they proclaim; “yo morí a las cinco en el punto. Recuérdame!”
I smile, and spit out the wine with delicacy borne of long practice. Oh, I’ll remember. The grapes scream for a long, long time. It’s an uncommonly good Mendoza.
There is, to be sure, a difficulty. There are quite a number of great Mendozas. I wait for voices to fade, and in time only a few remain. I strain, I open my senses to their fullest, I strain beyond the edge of audibility to hear a whisper, a name:
¡Eran las cinco en sombra de la tarde! Señor Quiroga me mato a las cinco de la tarde.
My Spanish is more than fair, as is my command of invective, but now I learn new, erudite maldiciones. They are pronounced upon the family that reaps the profit of the grapes’ suffering.
“Enrique de Quiroga y O’Riordan Mendoza Chardonnay,” I say.
The crowd holds its breath. I pause to listen again. Some of the grapes are screaming still. A most impressive finish, rare in whites, and sure to improve with age. The wine is more than good; it’s one of the best. I can pick out individual voices, heavy with pain and sorrow yet clear and articulate. I hear their words. Would that they could hear mine! “The year! Tell me the year!” I scream in my mind, but they seem fixated on cinco de la tarde, five o’clock in the afternoon. They number poets among them, those grapes, and learned sages. They cry out in the words of Federico García Lorca, of misty grapes and singing blood. Their lives may be extinguished, but their spirit remains. Nevertheless, “At five in the afternoon” is not a recognizable vintage.
“Riserva Especial,” I add. “A truly extraordinary wine.”
All eyes converge upon me in the silent cavern. The grapes grow still. Slowly, so slowly, I reach for the water glass and rinse my mouth. I turn to Montresor; their gazes follow.
He grins: Triumphal March from Verdi’s Aida. I should have guessed.
I should have guessed.
I should have guessed the year of the vintage before the bottle was uncorked. Anno Glorioso. The year of Gloria.
“Two thousand eighteen,” I say unto the silence.
The march plays on in Montresor’s smile, not a note missed. Have I made a mistake? I call to the grapes again, but it is too late, their voices are silent, drowned, washed away by water.
Water under the bridge.
Ever the showman, Montresor takes his time unwrapping the bottle. “2018 Enrique de Quiroga y O’Riordan,” he reads at last. Pausing for effect, he looks at me. My own smile wilts under the waxing radiance of his. “Chardonnay Riserva Especial,” he finishes, every syllable distinct.
Why has Triumphal March missed not a beat? Why has it gone uptempo, from Andante to Vivace? Does Montresor not see that he is beaten?
Or is he?
The silence shatters; I’d rather my bones were shattered, the torment would be less, but, God, the noise! The noise! A white-hot spear of pain pierces my skull; I yearn for my brain to explode and end my misery. In vain I try to reconstruct the barriers I had erected against onslaughts upon my intermingled senses, and so unwisely demolished in service of my vanity. Oh, it’s bad, it’s much worse than I expected, and it does not end, not for an eon of anguish. The tears that stream down my cheeks only prolong the crowd’s adulation, and my agony. My triumph sprung the trap I built with the miraculous acuity of my senses. But now—oh, the horror! Shall such suffering attend each standing ovation?
“Oh, for the love of God!” I moan. “For the love of God, Montresor!”
“Yes, for the love,” he says. “Of Gloria.”
Anatoly Belilovsky was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language. He has neither cats nor dogs, but was admitted into SFWA in spite of this deficiency, having published stories in NATURE, Ideomancer, Immersion Book of Steampunk, Daily SF, Kasma, UFO, Stupefying Stories, Cast of Wonders, and other markets. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net, pediatrics at belilovsky.com, and his medical practice web site is babydr.us.