y host that night was a writer, Frank. He wrote soft-boiled porn, entertainments he called them, and sold them on Amazon, 99 cents apiece: “She Came at Midnight.” “Hot Babe on a Harley.” “Blowin’ Kisses in the Wind.”
“I throw the meat on at sundown, get here by then, Pete.”
“Sure. What can I bring?”
“Anything in particular?”
“Don’t spend any money, it just goes down the drain.”
“Pinot Grigio? Chardonnay?”
“Whatever, Pescatore.” A slow sigh made its way down the line. “Where are you, anyhow?”
“I’m up in Topanga, same old place. You remember how to get here?”
“I’ll find it.”
“Later.” He hung up.
I was back in California for a couple of weeks, seeing friends and family, what was left after 20-odd years. Not much. Leave a place behind, the place forgets you, goes on living, turning into something that no longer resembles your memories.
Twenty-five years ago I bought wine like gas. Chablis, as I recall, it came chilled in glass jugs at 7-Elevens: Gallo by the gallon. I was working the night shift at the Ventura post office, punching a keyboard on the sorting machine. I had lunch at midnight and a quart of Chablis or cheap Valpolicella after I got off work at four.
Twenty-five years later I drank wine made by artists. Grapes grown by hand on patches of land scattered over the slopes of Mount Etna. Selected by a master winemaker with love, clipped from the vines at just the right time, crushed and left to ferment for a while, aged in oak barrels a thousand years old. That’s what they’d have you believe, it seemed, the artists themselves, crafters of labels and fulsome reviews.
I was standing at the back of a gourmet food and wine boutique about halfway up Topanga Canyon, searching for a name I recognized. A Chardonnay Reserve from Cakebread Cellars, “Archimedes” by Francis Coppola, nothing under 60 bucks. I moved to the down-market end of the shelf. Imports. Chile, Australia, Spain. I peered at the labels. The one from Spain had an old engraving with a long-handled pick and three-pronged hoe. Armas de Guerra, BLANCO. I took the bottle in hand, turned it and read the blurb on the back: “Pairs well with chips and salsa.”
Perfect. I snagged a couple of bottles, paid and carried them out to the car.
The road took me up another half mile past million-dollar villas to a low, sprawling house built into the hillside. White plaster walls below terracotta roof tiles. I pulled in the drive with the sun going down, climbed out and walked up the old stone path past date palms and drought-friendly plants to the door.
Frank opened his arms and we hugged and lied, said we looked good. Not. He led the way to the yard out back. Burgers on the barbecue, Bud in the icebox on the redwood deck.
“I brought you some wine needs to go in the freezer.”
“Dump it in the icebox.” He turned his attention to the barbecue.
I buried the Armas de Guerra in ice, snatched a Bud, popped it and guzzled.
“She killed herself, Pete. Pills.” Frank flipped the burgers, lowered the lid. “What happened to yours?”
“Drove off the road, straight into a lake.”
“Sorry to hear.”
He was quiet for a moment. “You still write for that crime rag? Cronaca-“
“CNI. Cronaca Nera Italiana.” I drained the beer. “Once in a while.”
“What about the novel? That thing with the dog?”
“Dead as a doornail.”
Silence. He was thinking. I could tell. Washboard forehead, muttering to himself. He slipped the burgers onto paper plates and pointed at the mustard, ketchup, relish and onions lined up on a table against the wall. “You should do something with it.”
I picked up a plate. “It’s too late.”
“Why? You gonna write about crime for the rest of your life?”
“What’s wrong with crime?”
“It’s boring, Pescatore. You should write about food. Food and sex. Sex and food. Sex and wine.”
“Give the people what they want.”
“Hot Babe on a Harley with Chardonnay?”
He snorted, spat bits of burger, relish and cheese. “Don’t knock it, Pete. Take a look around.” He threw out a hand. “One day this could all be yours.”
“Right.” He’d sold a screenplay 30 years ago and camped out on the proceeds ever since. I dug out the Armas de Guerra from the icebox, scrounged a corkscrew and poured us a glass.
Frank took the bottle, read the back label and laughed. “Pairs well with chips and salsa.”
“I knew you’d like it.” I lifted my glass. We drank.
“Not bad,” he said. “Crisp. Flinty. Penetrating. Armas de Guerra?”
“Words, Frank. Tools of the trade.”
Armas de Guerra Blanco is manufactured by the oldest winemaker in the Bierzo region of northwestern Spain, Vinos Guerra (85 percent Doña Blanca, 15 percent Godello). Caveat: not exactly flinty or penetrating, but pleasant enough, and good value for the money.