The Chardonnay Charade (A Wine Country Mystery)

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9781416535980: The Chardonnay Charade (A Wine Country Mystery)

Mixing fine wine and murder produces "another hit" (Kirkus Reviews) in Ellen Crosby's second mystery as Virginia vineyard owner Lucie Montgomery discovers that uncovering a killer can bring a harvest of dilemma and danger.

Lucie Montgomery thinks she has troubles enough with a freak spring frost that is threatening to kill her tender young Chardonnay grapes, but when the body of Georgia Greenwood, a controversial political candidate, is found lying in her vineyard, the situation becomes complex indeed. Suspicion immediately falls on Georgia's husband, Ross Greenwood, who is not just Lucie's doctor but also a close friend. Determined to prove Ross's innocence, Lucie crosses swords with her attractive but cantankerous winemaker, Quinn Santori. Then a second vineyard-related death drives the tension even higher. Lucie still believes that in vino veritas -- in wine there is truth -- but she's starting to wonder if her own risk level is moving into the danger zone along with this year's Chardonnay.

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About the Author:

Ellen Crosby is the author of Multiple Exposure, the first book in a series featuring photojournalist Sophie Medina. She has also written six books in the Virginia wine country mystery series. A former freelance reporter for The Washington Post, Moscow correspondent for ABC Radio News, and an economist at the US Senate, Crosby lives in Virginia with her family. Learn more about her at EllenCrosby.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER 1

Some days I wish my life ran backward, because then I'd be ready for the catastrophes. Or at least I'd know whether there was a happy ending. I own a small vineyard at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Atoka, Virginia, where our winters are cold, our summers hot, and spring is the blissful season of growth and renewal. But not this year.

On what should have been a balmy May night, a warm air mass moving up from the Gulf of Mexico looked like it was going to smack into arctic winds sweeping down from Canada, causing temperatures to plummet below freezing. A week before Memorial Day, and Jack Frost nipping at our nose like early March. The weather forecaster on the Channel 2 news at noon recommended bringing tender young plants indoors for the night, "just to be sure." A fine idea, unless you had twenty-five acres of tender young grapes.

A lot of science and math go into making wine, but most people don't realize it's also a hell of a crapshoot, meaning a hearty dose of guessing and finger-crossing figure into the equation, too. Mother Nature can always pull a fast one when you least expect it, and suddenly you're scrambling -- like we were this afternoon.

Normally I play it safe with my money and my business. Last fall, though, an unexpected financial windfall landed at my feet and I did something I swore I'd never do. I spent it. The money would go into clearing more acreage and planting new vines come spring. Literally a bet-the-farm gamble, since we were trying grapes we'd never grown before.

I'd expected Quinn Santori, my winemaker, to be as gung-ho about the decision as I was. Of the two of us, he was the risk-taker. Imagine my surprise when he made a case for planting less and using some of the cash to install wind turbines. Quinn had moved here from Napa eighteen months ago and he was still hard-wired for California, where turbines, which protect the grapes from late-season frosts, were common. I'd lived in Virginia for most of my twenty-eight years and we got that kind of killing frost once in a blue moon.

And since my family's name was on every bottle of wine that left this vineyard, we did it my way. For the past few months we'd cleared land and plowed new fields. Thank God we hadn't started planting yet.

Quinn never said "I told you so" once we heard that weather forecast, but he came close. My father had hired him shortly before he died last year and it had been a marriage of convenience. Leland needed someone to work on the cheap, freeing up money for his gambling habits and low-life business deals. Quinn wanted to make a new start in Virginia after his former employer's decision to add tap water to his wines -- boosting production for a black market business in Eastern Europe -- had earned the ex-boss free room and board at a California penitentiary. When I took over running Montgomery Estate Vineyard nine months ago, I quickly found out that Quinn had a macho streak as wide as the Shenandoah River, a problem with authority, and a habit of speaking his mind with a candor polite folks would call unvarnished. If you happened to be a woman and also his boss, you would call it mouthy.

"Now that we've got our back to the wall thanks to you," he said, "the only way we're going to save our old vines is if we move that freezing air away from the grapes. Since we didn't install turbines, we'd better get a helicopter in here. Expensive as hell, but beats waking up and finding we've got a few acres of frozen grapes we could use for buckshot."

I closed my eyes and wondered how much "expensive as hell" cost -- not that it made any difference. If I couldn't hire a helicopter, we'd kiss about forty thousand dollars' worth of wine goodbye in one night. At least we were only talking about the whites, since they were farthest along.

"I'll get someone," I said. "Don't worry."

"You'd better," he said, "because I look pretty stupid strapping wings to my arms and flapping 'em around the vines like the paisanos do back in the old country. Besides, I got my hands full with the pesticide guys over in the new fields. They gotta get those protective tarps down right away."

"They don't really use wings and flap their arms in Italy, do they?" I asked.

He tucked his fists into his armpits and moved his elbows up and down. "Are you going to make those calls or aren't you?"

I made the calls. Finally Chris Coronado from Coronado Aviation in Sterling said he'd take the job. "I'm not cheap, Lucie," he said, "but I'm good. I've done this before."

He flew to the vineyard later that afternoon to see the fields in daylight and mark the coordinates in the helicopter's GPS navigation system so he could find them in the dark. His partner arrived in a Dodge pickup, towing a bright yellow fuel truck, which he parked near the Chardonnay block in the south vineyard. The pleasure of their company came to seven hundred and fifty dollars an hour for the helicopter, with an extra two-fifty for the fuel trailer.

Chris reckoned the temperature wouldn't dip below thirty-two until three or four in the morning, meaning they would only be in the air for a few hours until dawn. So about thirty-two fifty for the night. Anything a smidge above the freezing mark and we were home, but not free -- they still collected a thousand-dollar retainer and got to spend the night in the warm comfort of Quinn's spare bedroom instead of fighting vertigo flying in near-total darkness above our vines.

So that Chris could see where he was going, we needed to put flashlights around the perimeter of the fields he would strafe, our own version of airport runway lights. I figured about forty would do the job. We owned eight.

Randy Hunter, one of our part-time field hands, walked into the tool room in the equipment barn while I was checking the batteries. Good-looking in a rough, tough cowboy way, mid-twenties, with bright blue eyes, curly blond hair, and a few days' worth of grizzle that said sexy, not scruffy. When he wasn't working for us, Randy delivered furniture for an antique shop and groceries for an upscale supermarket. In his spare time he worked out and played local gigs with his band, Southern Comfort. Maybe it was the slow, languid Louisiana drawl or maybe the way those ocean-blue eyes could caress, but Randy had a way of looking at a woman -- any woman -- like she'd been created just for him on God's best day.

"What're you doing, Lucie?" He set his heavy-duty gloves on the workbench and took off his leather jacket. I couldn't help staring. Looked like he'd added another tattoo, this one around his muscular left bicep. Lightning bolts.

"I'm trying to figure out where I can get about thirty more flashlights in the next few hours," I said.

"You could buy 'em in a store," he said with an easy smile, "like most folks do."

"They sell them in stores?"

His eyes flashed appreciatively as he laughed. "What's the rush, needing so many?"

"We need to put them around the boundaries of the Chardonnay and Riesling blocks so they can be seen in the dark. I'll be driving to every hardware store in two counties before I'm through."

"I'm supposed to be moving that shipment you got from Seely's, but if you need to, I can help here instead," he offered. "Long's I have enough time to set up for your party tonight."

I liked the lilt in his voice.

"That'd be great. I could really use a hand," I said. "We'll worry about the plants later."

The sound of furious fiddling came from somewhere near his belt. He pulled a mobile phone out of the pocket of tight-fitting jeans and squinted at the display.

"'Scuse me. I gotta take this. Be right back." He flipped the phone open, cutting off the tune. "Hey, darling. Been thinking about you."

I could see him outside through the window, pacing back and forth as he talked to his lady friend. When he returned, I was struggling with a balky flashlight, trying to unscrew it so I could remove the dead batteries.

"I got that." His fingertips brushed mine and he opened it like the threads had been greased. "There you go."

His frank, wolfish eyes held mine, flustering me so the flashlight slipped through my fingers. It hit the floor and the batteries ejected like torpedoes. He winked and reached down for them, clearly enjoying the sight of my face turning the color of a hot chili pepper.

"So what's that song on your phone?" I needed to divert his attention.

"'The Devil Went Down to Georgia.' Charlie Daniels." He grinned and set the batteries on the workbench.

"You playing it tonight?" I gave up and smiled back at him. That much flirtatious charm ought to be illegal.

"We don't got a fiddler," he said. "And we're nowhere near as good as old Charlie. Besides, we're country rock 'n' roll, not redneck. But we are gonna play 'Georgia on My Mind.'" Another sly wink. "By way of saying thanks."

I laughed. "Good career move."

Georgia Greenwood had wanted Southern Comfort to play at the vineyard tonight at the black-tie fund-raiser, which we were hosting for the local free clinic. The band didn't have the polished sound I would have chosen for this well-heeled philanthropic crowd, but Georgia's husband, Ross, the doctor who once saved my life and now ran the clinic, was paying the bill. He adored his wife. What Georgia wanted, Georgia usually got.

Randy and I divided up the hardware stores and headed in opposite directions.

The errand didn't take as long as I'd reckoned, even though we bought out two stores. When we got back, he came out to the fields to help me. While I attached temperature sensors to the wooden trellis posts, he dug shallow holes and stuck the flashlights in them so the light pointed skyward.

"You sure this is gonna work? A helicopter?" He was on one knee, tamping the earth around the last flashlight. "Kind of seems like burning green wood for kindling, if you ask me."

"The alternative is a pair of wings," I said. "It has to work."

Randy smiled his slow, lazy smile again. "I hope so for your sake. You been wor...

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