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TOASTING LESTER

When the invitation arrived, we were honored and a little baffled. The formal card read:

Mrs. Brandini invites you for an intimate evening, to drink Reserve and remember. 

Then we saw the date. Could it really be ten years later? The dinner would be on the anniversary of her husband’s abandonment all those years before. My wife and I were most intrigued to be invited. I loved the old lady of course, but I had hated Lester Brandini. Regardless, her Reserve was legendary. My wife and I would definitely attend.

In a community of winery owners and ranchers known for being, well, just plain nice, Lester had been the Rasputin of the Wine Growers Association. Meetings and Harvest Festivals had always ended in shouts (and even one fist fight), back when Lester was in our lives. Everyone secretly cheered when he left. Except for Mrs. Brandini, presumably.

It surprised no one that the monster would leave such a lovely lady as Agnes “Aggie” Brandini. Awful in public, we all suspected worse abuses by Lester behind their closed doors. The whispers from the tasting rooms said Lester fled to Spain, but left her plenty in the divorce. She never offered any details. Aggie never confirmed nor denied any rumors, so after a while we all stopped asking. The wine community had seen her thrive after that. Now, ten years later, she had us all to dinner, with lots of wine, and a big slice of memory pie.

Lit by candles, the main tasting room sparkled. The dinner was set up family style, and we all passed around the dishes until our plates were much too full.  The wine and gourmet treats filled our noses and then our bellies. Customary when wine makers get together, we all brought several bottles from our own stock, and Aggie had put out seven bottles of her special Reserve. Made by her personally, only fifty cases a year, a Reserve bottle retailed for $275 a bottle. They began to empty quickly.

Our plates clean, the stories flew around the elegant affair. “…Remember the costume party, Harvest Fest in, what was it, ‘97, or ‘98?” Her husband reminded her it was ‘98. She continued, “Right! Lester came in that kilt with those obnoxious bagpipes!”

My wife jumped in, “I remember he wasn’t wearing underwear.”

“Exactly! He mooned everyone. Oh my God, so gross.” We all laughed.

Mrs. Brandini laughed most of all. “He was a bastard, all right. But he was my bastard. To Lester!”

The glasses raised again, the wine continued to loosen the mood. James, who ran Cutlass Wines, finally asked what we had all been wondering for years. “Aggie, did the bastard ever turn up? Any contact after he left?”

The mood changed, the question laying an immediate hush over us, all eyes on the great lady. But Aggie didn’t answer, instead she laughed and turned the conversation. “I think about the simplicity of it all. Grapes, sweetness, sourness. I mean there’s a hell of a lot of chemistry, and PH testing, and hard science we must know. Of course, we are all adroit at what we do; we can talk about micro-climates, and loamy soil, and grades and elevations, or how much rain we didn’t get last year….”

We all gave a commiserate groan. Aggie continued, “…But it really comes down to grapes going bad and the delightful pursuit of lining up everything so it happens in just the right order, at just the right time.” She lifted her glass, “to make this amazing yummy juice we drink. We use words in our tasting room description lists like ‘elements of raspberry, coffee, or dark chocolate.’” She laughed again. “No one puts down what we really grow it in; no one lists cow shit. None of us tries to work ‘nitrate-rich fertilizer’ into our elegantly worded tasting sheets. But you can’t grow grapes without it, my friends. What it grows in matters. The things in the dirt, they change the character of the fruit ever so slightly. The roots that dig deep and share space with so many unknowable things…”

She slurred her words a bit as she trailed off, and I wondered if a joke would be appropriate to swing the conversation back into lighter subjects. But the grand lady’s face lightened as she stood. “Anyway, to Lester!” She toasted again, and everybody drank. “And no, I haven’t forgotten your question, James. I did confront him. And it wasn’t in Spain. We had a final scene of sorts. But what was said and done will never be repeated. It’s been ten years, my friends. The announcement I’ve been waiting to make is that I’m discontinuing my Reserve line. It’s time to move on.”

Jenny from Aspora Wines nearly choked. “But Aggie, that line is your premium seller. It’s too damned good to…”

“I know, I know. A lot of hard work goes into it. And I make a lot of money from it. I’ve been handcrafting this wine myself all these years. I’m done. This is the time to end it.”

“Can I buy the secret?”  I quipped, “Everyone’s dying to know your tricks.”

“No tricks. It’s all about where it’s grown, my secret little patch of the property. Special growing technique, and very special soil components. It’s been ten years since my dragon of a husband left us. I say good riddance. I’ve still got some living to do. I just wanted you all to be here to share in my decision. This is the end of my Reserve, so drink up!” She lowered herself and I noticed one of the last Reserve bottles landed in front of me.

I grabbed the bottle when a wild idea occurred. Left us, she had said. Not left her, but left us, a phrase one might use if someone had passed away. Special soil components, almost as if Lester was… I shot a glance to Aggie across the long table. She saw my look of incredulity. She smiled and shrugged, grabbed her glass and took a long swallow. The wry smile neither confirmed nor denied my suspicion.

I poured the last of the bottle into my own glass, and that of my wife’s. The label read Woman Scorned Reserve. I was enthralled that the wine was so balanced, so complex, so damned good; especially if the ground beneath it really contained what I suspected. Sour grapes, indeed. I remembered how Lester would get drunk and shout at this great lady, how we all feared the worst when they were alone. Then how thrilled we were when she launched her Reserve only a few years after he’d left. If he’d really left at all, of course. Whatever had been said between them, Aggie had gotten the final word.

But I was drunk, and it was a silly Hollywood-style notion anyway. I looked around and saw strange smiles on everyone’s lips. If anyone else suspected what I did, no one seemed to care too much. I laughed, thinking of that small patch of secret earth that grew these marvelous grapes.

I raised my glass, “To Lester!”Type your paragraph here.