In honor of NaNoWriMo, I’m kicking off November with the first ten pages of my current work in progress, Pairs With: Life. I’m currently about 7,000 words in, and my goal is to write 1,000 a day during the month. I hope you enjoy!
Let’s just get one thing clear right off the top. I won the bet fair and square, even though I cheated.
I shouldn’t have been working the party on the Terrace to begin with. There’s no one more senior than me on the staff at Appellation except for Chef Paul, which means I usually get whatever party I choose. Dornin, however, was being particularly douchey that night.
I arrived at the restaurant an hour before my shift so I could check the reservations, talk to Chef about the evening’s specials, think of pairings and confirm inventory. If you’ve never dined at Appellation, then you’re part of the 99.99 percent. Three years and three Michelin stars after opening, it has become the most coveted dining experience in all of Napa Valley, with reservations booked four months in advance. You need a DNA sample and a copy of your credit report to get a table, and then be ready to cash in your 401(k) when the bill comes.
Dornin was in his office, a glorified closet next to the staff bathroom. He was always in his office, of course, even when service was slammed, which drove me bat shit 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 guess I just have a different work ethic, and Dornin resents me for it.
That, and I got drunk a while back and relieved myself in his convertible.
I poked my head into 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 $4,000.00 a pop danced in my head. Tips so big they come in a brown paper bag…
“Yes,” Dornin grinned. He smiled like he learned how to do it from an infomercial. “They’ll be in the Verasion Room. With Andrew.”
“What?” I lunged into the tiny office, but nearly tripped over a carton of water glasses. The place was like something out of an episode of Hoarders, with one, tiny deer trail leading to the desk.
“You can’t give it to Andrew!” I said. “I’m the Lead Sommelier.”
“And I’m the general manager, so I can give it to whoever I want,” he replied. “If I want to let Felipe take a night off of bussing and let him pop some corks, I could do that, too.”
Time for a different tact. One that wouldn’t involve me going full-on Hanibal Lecter. “I’m just saying that people like that come 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’m practically a Master Somm already, and – “
“Blahhh blahblahblahblahblah,” Dornin said. “You know what you are, Corbett? You’re a glorified bartender. 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’re floor somm 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 pinching my face and jerking it back and forth.
“Rick, come on,” I said. “You know I can up-sell the whales more than Andrew can. You’re shooting yourself in the foot here. It doesn’t have to be like this.”
He gave me one, last dismissive glance then went back to his purchase orders. He had tiny lips and an adam’s apple the size of Detroit, and it bugged me. “No, it doesn’t have to be like this. And you don’t have to try and have sex with every hostess that comes through the door, either.”
Ah. So that was it. Apparently, the Convertible Episode wasn’t this evening’s Grudge du Jour. I turned and headed out of the office, stopping only to lob one last verbal grenade across his desk.
“I didn’t try and have sex with them, I had sex with them. All of them. All at the same time.”
Ok, actually I didn’t. Maybe I tried. Kind of. It’s just that something strange happened last year when my daughter turned twenty-four. Suddenly, any woman around her age was off limits. It just became…weird and gross. I mean, it’s not like I’m the Quaker Oats Guy (who always struck me as the literal picture of moral fortitude, glaring at me with that 17th-century, self-righteous smile from his little carton in the cupboard). But a guy’s got to have a certain line in the sand. I guess. Sometimes.
I needed to talk with Chef Paul. Chef was really the guy in charge at the restaurant: he had the authority to hire and fire his team as a condition to taking the job. Rick Dornin wasn’t his first pick. Chef plucked him from The Coop in Yountville after our original GM was caught stealing foie gras.
Chef Paul was at a table with Stacy, the sous chef, looking over some notes. He was a big man, and by “big” I mean really, super obese. I’m not judging: this wasn’t a post-Christina Aguilera, Everyone Is Beautiful In Their Own Way issue. This was a Your Arteries Are Like A Tar Sands Pipeline issue. The Specter of Death surrounded him like Ebenezer Scrooge. He had a double chin so ominous it was like a head within a head. When he got drunk, which was most days, he would stick a cigarette in between his face-rolls and light it, then smoke one while the other smoldered there. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the guy. He was not only a loyal and trusted friend, he was a genius; straight-up the most amazing culinary artist of my generation, and it was an honor just to be in his presence.
“Corbett Thomas!” he bellowed. He had a voice that made Harvey Firestein sound like Ian McKellan. I often terrorized the staff by threatening to have Chef read them a bedtime story. “I’m doing a monk fish for the prix fixe tonight that’ll go beautifully with this Albarino you picked up.”
I noticed the near-empty bottle of 2016 Pazo Senorans on the table. “Yeah, Chef. Sounds great,” I said. “Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?”
“Sure.” Chef handed his stack of papers to Stacy. “Take these,” he said to her, “and if you want Allen to be more forceful on the line, then tell him to stop being such a pussy.” Stacy rolled her eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry,” Chef added with mock contrition. “Are we not supposed to say ‘pussy’ anymore? Is pussy off limits, too?”
At fifty-five, Chef was at least twice as old as everyone else here. I was only seven 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.
“Alright, rock star,” Chef said. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s Dornin,” I said, taking Stacy’s seat at the table. “There’s a major VIP party coming in tonight and he’s giving it to Andrew.”
“That’s his job, Corbett,” 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, which made a noise like a spine cracking in two. “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, it’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 gorged by a deer?”
“You know, if you die,” he explained. “Randomly. But horribly.”
I suddenly got the feeling that Chef would enjoy that. “I just need to know if you’re considering my replacement,” I said.
Chef grabbed my wine glass and drank down its contents in one gulp. “I’m not considering anything except a monk fish 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 case.”
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 Practical next week, you’re out of here.”
I didn’t know that my intentions had made it through the rumor mill, but then again, there are no secrets in a restaurant. “Honestly, Paul, I haven’t made up my mind yet. I mean, you’re right: this is Appellation, for God’s sake. There isn’t a somm out there that wouldn’t be thrilled to have this job. Why would I leave it all behind?”
Chef pried his way out of the chair and lumbered off towards the kitchen. “Why indeed, rock star?”
I had my own office-like space in the cold confines of the wine cellar. Usually I’d go there at this point and work on pairings for the prix fixe or maybe try a few of the innumerable samples left behind by random wine brokers. But this whole Dornin & The Whales Episode got under my skin, so I decided to go out on the terrace instead to get some fresh air check out the setup for the Jansen party.
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, 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.
Countless photographers and painters had set up in this exact spot, straining with all their powers and talents to capture some essence of this vision, this magic, this source of transcendence. And perhaps they’ve come close to capturing the color, but never the connection. Twenty years earlier, I drove into Napa on my way down to LA, stopped for the afternoon, and never got back in my car. Now this place was 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.
It may have actually calmed my shit down for a moment, until I felt a disturbing presence beside me. A peripheral glance confirmed it, and my fingers unconsciously tightened their grip 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 the antithesis of Chef Paul. He was preternaturally thin, to the point where his midsection curved in slightly, giving him the appearance a flat Pilsbury Crescent Roll. He had a Man Bun atop his tiny head, which looked like a lonely radish on a barren field, and 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 scenery 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.
“Your getting the Harrison party only proves that there’s no such thing as a just and benevolent God,” I said.
Andrew mockingly scratched his beard. Not a single hair was displaced. “Harrison…Harrison…oh, you mean Harrison-Lowell Partners, LLC? 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. There was no way I could be envious of a guy who was just this side of a wraith, but the truth was, he was half my age and 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 for sure, which in between hating, I grudgingly respected. What he didn’t have was a personality for sales: that ability to Read The Need. And yes, a sommelier is a service job; we’re there to provide information and recommendations and pairing suggestions and all that good stuff. But restaurants live and die by the margin made on alcohol sales. I knew that. It was a lesson learned from eight bankrupt restaurants over fifteen years, whereas this was probably Andrew’s first job after graduating from Gymboree.
“Just…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 and –“
“Gee, thanks, Corbett,” he interrupted. “I’ll do my best to remember all of that complex and really insightful information.” He walked slowly 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 3am, dragged me out of bed and into the cold backseat of her Datsun hatchback and said, “come on, we’re going to Disneyland.” I’d never been, though I could sing all five verses to “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. She put me back in the car and we drove back to Tucson without saying a word.
So, yeah. When I heard that Jansen was a bachelorette party, it felt a lot like that.
“Mother of All That Is Holy,” I said, stretching my face-skin across my cheekbones like an astronaut hitting ten gees. “Please, just tell me that you’re fucking with me because you hate me.”
“Hate’s a powerful word, dude,” Andrew said. “Though I will say I have a tremendous lack of empathy for your situation.”
It was almost as if my life flashed before my eyes. I could see in agonizing detail how this whole night was going to 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 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 & 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 sped away. This will cause the Bride to launch into Tearful & Wailing Speech Number One: Don’t You Understand This Is My Wedding? The remedy for this drama will be another round of shots, followed by the meat course, which everyone will secretly want to eat but no one will eat. I will be asked if dancing is allowed. I will say no. This will be met with Tearful & 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 will attempt to split the check, and they will get it wrong three times, and it will be my fault, obviously, and Drunk Math will result in a $300 under-payment coming out of the service charge.
“I’ll bet you a hundred bucks I sell the most expensive bottle tonight,” I blurted out. I’m still not sure why I said it. Frustration with a job I still needed but knew I didn’t want; anger at a boss who didn’t respect who I was or what I’d been through; 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 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 he put it that way. Regardless, what I was betting on was my ability to optimize potential. I mean, it’s not like the Jansens had booked their party at Applebys.
“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 where it 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 Cupcake Chardonnay to the system and charge $1,000.00 per bottle 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 commented.
“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 on her head that there would not be a single fuck given for the wine list. I had to admit, though, that the bride glowed. She beamed. She was all smiles, dewy skin and smokey eye, 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. Selfies were snapping away like the paparazzi. I could have been Ryan Gosling riding in naked on a unicorn and got less attention.
“Good evening, ladies!” I bellowed. “And a special hello to our beautiful bride-to-be, Nicole!” That got some ‘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 sign 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. There was no one obvious as the party walked in, but as I opened the list to the sparkling wine section and brought it over, I noticed one woman at the far side of the table, 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 none the less.
“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. That’d be $700. A solid start, but perhaps not enough to drop the mic on Andrew.
“Yasss Queen!” One of the bridesmaids rushed up and threw her arms around Nicole’s waist and squeezed hard. She turned to me. “We need Prosecco! Have you heard of Prosecco?”
“Prosecco, hmmm, I may have to look it up,” I said. I knew I’d have to deep-six the sarcasm or I’d be a hundred bucks shy by the end of the night. A very, very, very long night.
I went to go 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. $300 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 alright. 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 woman from before. She was alternately staring at me and her phone. This went on 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 at me. “You’re Sensitive Ponytail Guy.”
So, here’s the thing. It never gets old being recognized, and I have an egogasm every time it happens. That said, my brief brushes with fame are exactly the same every single time, so my response has become perfectly crafted over the last twenty years.
“Yes, I recorded that song,” I smiled. “But you have to understand, I was singing about Sensitive Ponytail Guy. That’s the irony.”
“Oh my God!” she squealed. She went back to looking at the music video playing on her phone. “I saw you guys open for Soundgarden in 1996! I loved this video!”
“Thank you,” I said. “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, here we go!”
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 death knell to the bet.