I originally posted this in November of 2017, after I’d started working on the full-length, novelized version of Pairs With: Life. A year-and-a-half later, I decided to update it with the final version of the first ten pages. I hope you enjoy!
Let’s get one thing clear from the beginning. I won that bet fair and square, even though I cheated.
I blame the whole thing on Rick Dornin, who was being particularly douchey that night. I used to be able to choose whichever party I wanted to serve without question. That is, until Dornin arrived at Appellation, with his anal-retentive online calendar and industrial-grade Napoleon complex.
Yes, that Appellation. The most coveted dining experience in all of Napa Valley, and one of only nine restaurants in America awarded three Michelin stars. It took a DNA sample and a copy of your credit report to get a table, and then you’d better be ready to cash in your 401(k) when the bill came.
Things started out normally enough that night. I arrived at the restaurant an hour before my shift to check reservations, talk to Chef Dan about the evening’s specials and think of pairings for the prix fixe. Dornin was in his office—a modified broom closet next to the staff bathroom. He was always in his office, even when service was slammed, which drove me batshit crazy. I don’t care if you’re General Manager or General Patton—when it’s time to schlep a plate or buff a glass, you step up and do it.
I poked my head through the doorway. “Hey, Rick,” I said, trying to keep things light and cheery. “What do you know about this Harrison party at eight?”
“Whales,” he replied. He didn’t bother looking up from his purchase orders. “Big whales, like Moby Dick whales.”
“Sweet!” I said. Visions of stockbrokers trying to one-up each other with bottles of Screaming Eagle at five thousand bucks a pop danced in my head. Tips so big they come in a brown paper bag.
“Yes.” He grinned like he learned how to do it from an infomercial. “They’ll be in the Veraison Room. With Andrew.”
“What?” I lunged into the tiny office, nearly tripping over a carton of water glasses. The place looked like a hoarder’s den, with one, tiny deer trail leading to the desk. “You can’t give it to Andrew!”
“I can give it to whoever I want,” he replied. “If I want to move Felipe off of bussing and let him pop some corks, I could do that, too.”
Time for a different tack—one that wouldn’t involve me going full-on Hannibal Lecter. “I’m just saying that a party like that comes to a restaurant like this to experience the highest level of service in the world. I’m the guy they’re coming for, not Andrew. I sit for my Master Somm next week, and—”
“You know what you are, Corbett? You’re an overpaid bartender.” Dornin had thin lips and an Adam’s apple the size of Detroit, and it bugged me. “You trained for twenty years to learn how to pull a cork from a bottle and tell people that red wine goes with steak. Whoop-tee-freaking-do. You’ll work the floor tonight, and you can have the Jansen party on the terrace at seven-thirty.”
My left eyebrow started twitching. It happens when I get stressed out. Apparently, no one can see it, but it feels like a two-year-old is digging tiny fingers into my face and stretching it like salt water taffy. I considered trying the No One Has Experience At Up-Selling Like I Do approach, but this was the third time in as many weeks I’d had such a run-in with Dornin. I was done. It was time to talk to Chef Dan.
Most people remember Chef Daniel Foyer from his five seasons on Elite Chef, The Food Channel’s number one show from 1998 to 2002. With a chin so chiseled it could slice a burnt chuck steak and blue eyes that screamed, “Come taste this gazpacho in my bedroom,” he was the prototype celebrity chef. But Father Time had been most inhospitable to Chef Dan, and for the past couple of years the poor soul tried to counteract a rapid aging process by dunking his scalp and Sam Elliott-sized mustache in a fifty-gallon drum of jet black hair dye. The net effect was so incongruous with the rest of his wrinkled face that I could barely look at him without drowning in the shore break of cognitive dissonance. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the guy. He was a loyal and trusted friend, and straight-up the most amazing culinary artist of my generation. But if I’d had any money, I would have bought stock in Just For Men.
Chef Dan was at a table with his sous chef, Stacy, looking over some notes. “Corbett Thomas!” he bellowed. “I’m doing a monkfish for the prix fixe tonight that’ll go beautifully with this Albarino you picked up.”
A near-empty bottle of 2016 Pazo Senorans sat on the table. “Yeah, Chef. Sounds great,” I said. “Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?”
“Sure.” Chef Dan handed his stack of papers to Stacy. “Take these,” he said to her, “and if you want Geoffrey to be more forceful on the line, then tell him to stop being such a pussy.”
Stacy rolled her eyes. “Oh, that’s right,” Chef sighed. “We can’t say ‘pussy’ anymore.”
At sixty, Chef Dan was at least twice as old as everyone else at the restaurant. I was only twelve years behind him, which made us both anachronisms in the eyes of the staff—cautionary tales from a lost generation, something to be tolerated at best.
“All right, rock star,” Chef said. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s Dornin,” I replied, taking Stacy’s seat at the table. “There’s a party of major VIPs tonight and he’s giving it to Andrew.”
“That’s his job,” Chef said. “He manages the staff. We’ve been over this.”
“I know, but you manage him and he’s doing a shitty job.” I grabbed the bottle of Albarino and poured the last of it in Stacy’s glass. It was gorgeous, the color of spring in Barcelona.
“God, you’re worse than Stacy.” He leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his asphalt hair. “Don’t take it so personal.”
“I’m not taking it personally.” I was. “It’s bad for the restaurant. It’s bad for the brand.”
Chef took the last swig of his wine and let out some ghastly noise that sounded like he’d been punched in the throat. “Look, you should know this by now, but every day a restaurant stays open is a miracle—a goddamn blessing. Rick’s doing something right, so let him do it. Revenue is up, the place is booked, everything’s working. Besides, Andrew needs the experience. What if you get gorged by a deer or something?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What if I get gored by a deer?”
“Yeah, you know, if you die,” he explained. “Randomly. But horribly.”
I got the feeling that he might enjoy that. “I just need to know if you’re considering my replacement.”
Chef Dan grabbed my wine glass and drank down its contents in one gulp. “I’m not considering anything except a monkfish entrée for tonight. And that’s why Rick is here, so I don’t have to consider you or Stacy or any of the fucking drama in this place.” He stared down the neck of the empty bottle like a telescope. “God, this stuff is good. Did you save me a case like I asked?”
“Yes,” I said. “And you drank it all.”
“Save me another.”
I sighed and got up from the table. “You got it, Chef.”
“Corbett,” he called after me. “It’s the worst kept secret that if you pass your sit next week, you’re out of here.”
I swear to God, the rumor mill at a restaurant was like playing a game of Telephone with a dozen drunk, horny sixteen-year-olds. “Look, I’ve always been honest with you, Chef. This is the best job I’ve ever had. Why in the hell would I leave?”
Chef Dan lumbered off towards the kitchen. “Why indeed, Rock Star?”
The whole Dornin and The Whales Episode was officially under my skin, so I decided to go out on the terrace and get some fresh air. Appellation was built into the side of the foothills of the Vaca Range, about a half-mile up a winding road in Rutherford. Our terrace was one of the most stunning places to dine in all of Napa, as it looked out across a 180-degree panorama of the valley floor, the view framed by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west. I leaned against the waist-high railing atop the stone wall lining the terrace and soaked in the view. The vineyards below weaved a delicate tapestry of early fall colors. Waves of vibrant green segued into pale yellow, which then collided with vibrant crimson and an orange so burnt it threatened to steal the glory from the autumn sun. Twenty years earlier I drove into Napa on my way down to L.A., stopped for the afternoon, and never got back in my car. Now this place was a part of me. Looking out across the acreage of Cabernet and Chardonnay, I could set my watch by the changing of the vines. These colors told me it was the third week in October, the end of harvest. This sunset told me I was home.
The bucolic scene may have actually calmed my shit for a moment, until I felt a disturbing presence beside me. A peripheral glance confirmed it, and my grip unconsciously tightened around the railing. Andrew Ridgley stood quietly next to me, seemingly taking in the view, but mostly standing there just to piss me off.
Andrew was preternaturally thin, to the point where his midsection curved in slightly, giving him the appearance of a flat Pillsbury Crescent roll. A man bun popped from the top of his tiny head like a lonely radish in a barren field, and his face was framed by a freakish red beard, in which every single hair was of uniform length and curvature. If he was going for the King of the Very Polite Vikings look, he nailed it.
“So,” I said, still gazing at the majestic scene before me. “Might one call those pistachio-colored Capri pants?”
“One might,” he replied, faux-ignoring me as well. “Might one call that the world’s most heteronormative blue blazer?”
“One might,” I nodded. “If one knew what the word ‘heteronormative’ meant.”
“I rest my case,” he said.
I turned to face him. At six-foot-four, I was a foot taller and had at least seventy-five pounds on him. I wasn’t going for intimidation, though. Sort of.
“You getting the Harrison party only proves that there’s no such thing as a just and benevolent God,” I said.
Andrew scratched his beard mockingly. Not a single hair was displaced. “Harrison? Oh, you mean Harrison-Lowell Partners? The massive private equity firm whose board is having their party here tonight? Those guys?”
I wanted to rip my face off and eat my own head with it. Truth was, Andrew was half my age, but only a few steps behind me. He was an Advanced Somm, a WSET-3, CSW, and a whole bunch of other mostly useless acronyms. But he had mad tasting skills, which while also hating, I grudgingly respected.
“Just…get them to do different bottles with each course,” I said, trying to mask my aggravation. “No by-the-glass stuff and none of those imports I got on special—”
“Gee, thanks, Corbett,” he interrupted. “I’ll do my best to remember all of that complex and really insightful information.” He walked backwards towards the door, a smug little smirk spreading across his face. “In the meantime, you have an absolutely awesome evening with your bachelorette party.”
On my eighth birthday, my mom woke me up at 3:00 a.m., dragged me out of bed and into the cold back seat of her Datsun hatchback and said, “We’re going to Disneyland.” I’d never been, though I could sing all five verses of “Yo Ho, Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me).” She didn’t pack anything except a bologna and American cheese sandwich for me, and a thermos filled with “Mommy’s Orange Juice” for her. We drove seven hours from Tucson to Los Angeles, got out, and discovered the park was closed. “Oh,” she said with a frown. She shoved me back in the car and we drove home to Tucson without saying a word.
When I heard that Jansen was a bachelorette party, it felt a lot like that.
I already knew in agonizing detail how this whole night would unfold. Jansen was a party of fifteen, but only thirteen would show up, because the group had been out wine tasting the entire day, and two girls would have already passed out at the hotel, their heads balanced delicately over the edge of the bed to avoid vomit asphyxiation. Festivities would start with a round of Lemon Drops, followed by selfies, followed by a round of Himalayan Blow Jobs (the shot, not the Sherpa-based sex act), and more selfies. There’d be a polite but stern noise complaint from a nearby diner, which would be met with vitriol and retribution from the maid of honor, and eventually every single customer on the terrace would have to be re-seated with a comped entrée. By the start of the second course, two more bridesmaids would be “Man down!”, loaded into the limo and whisked away. This would cause the Bride to launch into Tearful and Wailing Speech Number One: Don’t You Understand This Is My Wedding? The remedy for this drama would be another round of shots, followed by the meat course, which everyone would secretly want to eat but no one will eat. I would be asked if dancing is allowed. I would say no. This would be met with Tearful and Wailing Speech Number Two: Don’t You Fucking Understand This Is My Wedding? At the end of the evening, three of the four remaining conscious bridesmaids would attempt to split the check, and they would get it wrong three times. It would be my fault, obviously, and then Drunk Math would result in a three-hundred-dollar underpayment, coming out of the service charge.
“I’ll bet you a hundred bucks I sell the most expensive bottle tonight,” I blurted. I’m still not exactly sure why I said it: anger at a manager who didn’t respect who I was or what I’d been through; or jealousy of a kid who accomplished in six years what took me twenty.
Andrew froze at the door. “Wait, what? Are you serious?”
“Dead serious,” I said.
Andrew folded his arms across his chest and stared at me as if I asked him to solve a quadratic equation. “So, you’ll bet me a hundred dollars that you can sell a more expensive wine to the Mike’s Hard Lemonade Crew than I can to the Board of Directors of the nation’s third-largest private equity firm?”
Well, when you put it that way. No matter. I was betting on my ability to optimize potential. I mean, it’s not like the Jansens had booked their party at Applebee’s.
“You got it,” I said.
“You’re on.” Andrew stuck out his hand and I shook it. He had that kind of non-committal handshake that feels like you’re clutching a wet hunk of pork loin. I dropped his hand and brushed past him. I’ll never say out loud that I doubted my potential to win the bet, but it also crossed my mind to add Franzia to the system and charge $1,000.00 per box for it.
Helena was leading service for the Jansen party that night, which was good news. She was awesome—an absolute pro at her job, and mostly unflappable. We met for a few minutes to talk strategy. I didn’t tell her about the bet, though maybe I should have, because she thought it was rather odd of me to be so concerned about a bachelorette party. “Chances are we aren’t even going to need you,” she said.
“How sexist,” I admonished her, practically vomiting hypocrisy. “What if the bride is a director at Google? And all her friends are instructors at the Culinary Institute? What if they’re all writers for Wine Spectator?”
She wasn’t, they weren’t, and hell no. When the bride-to-be finally sashayed into the restaurant atop a wave of millennial entitlement, it was as obvious as the rhinestone tiara atop her head that there would not be a single fuck given to the wine list. I had to admit, though, that the bride glowed. She beamed. She was all shiny teeth, dewy skin and smoky eyes, and radiating with the glorious possibility of a love eternal—a happiness unhinged and unfettered, as ethereal as a dream whispered to the breeze. It was practically contagious, something I could breathe in or feel wash over me for one perfect moment as she sauntered by. Oh, well. Life would drop its fucking jackboot on her heart soon enough.
Helena agreed to let me go in before she asked for an initial drink order, just to see if I could sell them on wine and not something vodka-based. I gave the group exactly seven minutes on the terrace before making my entrance. They were snapping selfies like the paparazzi. I could have been Ryan Gosling riding in naked on a unicorn and no one would have noticed.
“Good evening, ladies!” I bellowed. Mostly silence. “And a special hello to our beautiful bride-to-be, Nicole!” That got a few ‘woot-woots.’
“My name is Corbett and I will be your sommelier tonight.” Blank stares. “That means I’m the wine guy—”
“Champers!” Nicole screamed, followed by a chorus of twelve other screams.
This was a good sign, and the only indication so far that Andrew was not going to hand me my ass on this bet. The next step was to identify The Decision Maker of the group. Though typically the bride gets what the bride wants, there’s usually somebody else lurking on the periphery who actually foots the bill. I didn’t see an obvious candidate as the party walked in, but as I opened the list to the sparkling wine section and brought it over to the bride, I noticed one woman at the far side of the table who was definitely closer to my age than theirs. Her dress was just a tad less revealing than the spaghetti-strap numbers that dominated the herd, and her general demeanor belied a more mature—if not matriarchal—attitude. I made note of her but brought the list to Nicole nonetheless.
“May I suggest the Nicolas Feuillatte,” I said. “It’s a beautiful, delicious, creamy Champagne.” Then I moved in for the kill. “But what I like to recommend is a bottle of the 2007 Cristal for just you and the maid of honor. You know, something to keep under the table, special for the two of you.” Sincere smile, friendly wink, and that’d be seven hundred dollars. A solid start, but perhaps not enough to drop the mic on Andrew.
“Yasss Queen!” One of the bridesmaids rushed up, threw her arms around Nicole’s waist and squeezed hard. She turned to me. “We need Prosecco! Have you ever heard of Prosecco?”
“Prosecco, hmm, I may have to look it up.” I knew I’d have to deep-six the sarcasm or I’d be a hundred bucks short by the end of the night. A very, very long night.
I went to grab the wine. We did have a Cartizze Prosecco at $150, but I didn’t have the heart to spring that on them. On my way into the cellar, Andrew was coming out, holding two bottles.
“The ’14 Edmond Vatan Sancerre,” he crowed.
Ugh. Three hundred bucks a bottle, and that’s just the first course. “Your suggestion, or does someone know what they’re doing?”
“Two collectors. They’re completely geeking out.”
This was not a good development. “That’s all right. The maid of honor is the sous chef at Franglais in Los Angeles,” I said.
“No, she’s not,” Andrew dismissed me, walking off.
“Your parents named you after the guy who did nothing in Wham!” I called after him.
“I don’t even know what that means,” he said.
By the time I got back to the table, Helena’s crew had already set up the glasses. Since we were out on the terrace and the mood was festive, I took one bottle and popped the cork like a rocket. That elicited another round of screams, which in turn elicited the first round of noise complaints from the neighbors.
As I poured the wine, I couldn’t help but notice the older woman from before. She was alternately staring at me and her phone. This continued the whole time I went down the line of glasses until I reached the one in front of her.
“I know you,” she said.
“You do?” I asked.
She held her phone up to me, and there I was, guitar in hand, circa 1995. “You’re Sensitive Ponytail Guy!” she squealed.
Here’s the thing. It never gets old being recognized, and I have an ego-gasm every time it happens. Honestly, twenty years later, it totally makes my day. That said, my brief brushes with fame are exactly the same every single time, so my response has become perfectly crafted over the last two decades.
“Yep, you got me. I was lead singer and guitarist for Reality Star.” I smiled. “That was my band. But you have to understand, I was singing about Sensitive Ponytail Guy. That’s the irony of the song.”
“Oh my god!” She went back to looking at the music video playing on her phone. “I saw you guys open for Soundgarden in 1994. I loved this video.”
“Thank you,” I said. “I really appreciate that. So, hey, maybe you’d like to take a look at the wine list and see if there’s something special you’d—”
A young woman dropped a case of wine on the table beside me. “Ok, bitches! It is ON!”
It was unfortunate to say the least, but it wasn’t uncommon for guests to bring bottles to the restaurant that they’d purchased on their wine tasting adventures. I could only hope that Andrew’s group did the same, because this turn of events was probably the bet’s death knell.
I opened the case and immediately saw that all the capsules were the same. I took out one bottle. Then another. Then one more. My stomach became the Pit of Despair, tied in more knots than a maritime museum. I read the label aloud, like I was reading my own death sentence.
“Rich Bitch Chardonnay.”
“Rich Bitch!” the young woman screamed. “You’re a fucking rich bitch, Nicole! WOOOOOOOO!” More screams. All the screams.
Rich Bitch Chardonnay. $12.95 at the local Safeway (“But only $9.95 when you buy six or more!”). There were about seventy-three smart ass, wine snob responses I could have said at the moment, but I was rendered speechless. I sulked off to find Helena. One dozen red Solo cups for table eight, please.
Andrew was at the terrace door. He’d probably seen the whole episode go down and was waiting to twist the corkscrew even further into my heart. Silently, without expression, he presented a bottle of 2006 Domain Armand Rousseau Charmes Chambertin Grand Cru. I found that I was still carrying a bottle of the Rich Bitch, much the same way Jesus had to carry his own cross. I presented it to Andrew in return. He pursed his lips and nodded slowly. I think he actually felt sorry for me.
“If memory serves,” he said, “that bottle does not cost twelve hundred dollars.”
I didn’t go back to the Jansen party. What was the point? The servers could pour the case of plonk, and if by some miracle they needed me for something else, Helena would come find me. I worked the floor for a little while, which typically lifted my spirits when guests needed recommendations or wanted to chat about some extraordinary winery they had discovered that day. But on this particular night, it wasn’t working.
I hadn’t been entirely honest with Chef Dan. No, I didn’t want to leave Appellation once I got my credentials. But not because I loved working 3:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. six nights a week, or dealing with bachelorettes who didn’t know their chardonnay from Kool-Aid, or losing a bet to a somm who recently graduated from Gymboree. I wanted to stay for the clout. For the respect. It wasn’t exactly like performing before 30,000 screaming fans, but Master Sommeliers were rock stars in their own right. There were only 236 of them in the entire freaking world.
And with that notch on my wine key, I could kiss the world of one-bedroom apartments and Top Ramen goodbye forever. Seamus O’Flaherty, my partner in crime (though attorneys hate being described that way), had been lining me up some pretty amazing freelance gigs over the past year: marketing consultations, restaurant wine lists, that sort of thing. Ten times the money and half the work. As a Master Sommelier leading the wine program at the top restaurant in Napa Valley, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have to take out an ad on Craigslist to get more big-bucks consulting work than I could possibly handle.
I took my fifteen-minute break in the kitchen—a practice that was usually frowned upon. Though there’s no such thing as a “slow night” for a restaurant that’s fully booked six months in advance, I was able to convince Stacy to take pity on me and fix me a double portion of the pork belly course. As comfort food went, it was pure heroin, melting in my mouth like so much pig fat happiness.
And then I saw Rick Dornin.
More appropriately, he saw me, and his face twisted into a perturbed expression that only occurs when somebody yanks on the stick that’s been wedged up your ass for thirty-five years.
“You shouldn’t be in here,” he said. “And didn’t you already get your dinner before service?”
“Richard!” I said with game show host enthusiasm. “What, pray tell, brings you out of your shit hole on this fine evening?”
“Seriously, if you have to eat that, do it in your office. But if you’ve already—” He stopped suddenly, and his lips cracked into some bizarre, smile-like expression. “On second thought, you just stay here and enjoy that. Shouldn’t kick a man when he’s down.” He patted me on the shoulder condescendingly.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, although I already feared the answer.
Dornin didn’t reply, but if smarm was a moisturizer, it was slathered all over his sunken face. He gave me one more shoulder pat and walked out of the kitchen, then turned and said, “Never take a bet you can’t win, Corbett.”
Freaking Andrew. I could just see him scurrying into Dornin’s rat hole to tell him all about our bet, his lips awash with the golden-brown hue of a major ass-kissing. The kid wanted my job in the worst way, and was probably willing to be paid even less for it. Dornin was looking for any excuse to give it to him.
I ran out of the kitchen and caught up with Dornin outside his office. “You’re right, I shouldn’t take a bet I can’t win. So, here’s the deal. I’ll bet you I pass my sit next week and become a Master Somm. If I do, you just stay out of my way around here. You can set my hours, but I choose my parties, and I don’t answer to you.”
Dornin raised a cynical eyebrow. “And if you don’t pass?”
“Then Andrew can be Lead Somm. I’ll do what you ask me to, no questions asked.”
Dornin nodded. “And you won’t run off and complain to Chef Dan every time like a little bitch?”
I glared at him. “We don’t get to use the word ‘bitch’ anymore. Bitch.”
“It’s a bet.” He tried to do that grinning thing again. It made me want to press my thumbs into his cheeks and guide his face into what an actual smile looks like.
As Dornin slithered off to his lair, I felt an uneasy sense of relief mixed with anxiety. A week from now, The Dornin Problem would be settled once and for all. All I had to do was pass my exam.
An exam I had failed the year before. And the year before that.