Kurt couldn't wait any longer. Three silent days had passed since he had last seen Blaine. Three days of voicemails and texts and emails, all unanswered.
Kurt had kept busy meeting with the last of the Napa wineries, and outlining ideas for future columns, and answering Quinn's volley of questions about logistics, likely competitors and his contacts in both counties.
He'd sampled the last of the wines, full-bodied Cabs and buttery Chardonnays. He had quizzed their makers, inspected their labels and accounted for everything on a 100-point scale scoresheet.
He was done, at least with the Napa half of the equation.
Sonoma, on the other hand, remained the missing piece of the puzzle.
And Blaine Anderson, who had assured him he would help open the door for Kurt with Sonoma's smaller winemakers, was MIA.
Kurt didn't understand it. He thought they'd had a breakthrough. They'd spent hours talking, and about so much more than wine. It wasn't just a simple detente, or so he'd thought. But he'd done the right thing. He'd done what ethics dictated. He'd kept things professional.
And Blaine had retreated, pulled back into that shell he had seemed so deeply ensconced in when they'd first met.
Just after things seemed to have thawed after their chilly introduction, the temperature took a sudden turn south, and now, Kurt couldn't even get him to return a message.
He figured he had one option. He summoned his driver and headed to Sonoma Square.
"Well if it isn't the man of the hour, our own little cause célèbre," Santana said, sneering, foregoing the pretense of pleasantries.
"What are you talking about? And hello, Santana."
"Your column? It went live today. Thanks for painting us as bumpkins, city boy."
Kurt was dumbfounded. All he'd done was outline the Year in the Valley project, and tease the Taste Challenge. What could possibly...
"Did she put you up to this?" Santana hissed. "Is she just rigging this thing for Napa?"
"It's a blind tasting. How would she rig it? And I'm choosing the wines. Neither of us are judging it. But Napa will win by default if I don't get some Sonoma wineries on board," Kurt snapped back. "You told me to talk to Blaine. I did. He said he'd help. And then, nothing."
Santana seemed to have little concern for that, at least for the moment. She zeroed in on Kurt's column, on Quinn's motives, on issues of trust — and she was giving him an earful.Â
"Why is it you only want the boutiques over here? We've got our big names, too. Is this just about a good storyline, Kurt? Because if it is, and you're setting these people up to fail, the answer is no."
"I wouldn't do that," he said. "And yes, we're featuring the smaller wineries of Sonoma. What's wrong with that? This is a chance they may never get again."
"Why wouldn't you announce where this little shindig of yours is taking place, Kurt? Is it because it will be in Napa?"
"Santana, we haven't locked down a site yet. We're still in negotiations—"
"I'll bet," she said, cutting him off. "With Meadowood, or the CIA, or maybe at the Beringer Estate."
"And if you could hold it in Sonoma, where would it be? The Fairmont? I stopped by there. Lovely old place — and showing its age. The Renaissance? Too small."
"We have large wineries too."
"Remember that it was the Californians that won the Judgement at Paris, Santana? Location doesn't matter."
"Like hell it doesn't. What about neutral turf?"
"San Francisco? Maybe, but Quinn wants it tied to the Wine Country, and I agree."
"Then the Mondavi Center. It's new. It's big. It's at a university. It's located right next to the EVO department."
"At UC Davis?"
"Not far from the valley, but not on anyone's turf, technically."
Kurt promised to take a look, and would suggest it if the university's theater complex looked like it would suit their needs.
It was enough to soothe Santana's fiery temper, at least for the time being — enough that she was willing to print a list of contacts from small Sonoma wineries for him, with the caveat that he had to do the legwork.
"He told me I have to woo them. Over in Napa, they're wooing me," Kurt said.
"You mean Blaine? We're stubborn over here, Kurt. I mean, you could go with our big wineries and make your life easier, but if you want the boutiques, then you're going to have to sell this idea, because they don't trust Quinn, or you, or this promotion. And truth be told, when it comes to this, I'm not sure I do either — even if we have known each other since college."
"What about Blaine?"
"What about him?"
"I need him..."
Santana cocked an eyebrow.
"... for this. He's got pull with these guys, doesn't he?"
"What is it? I mean I get that he's smart, and I can tell by the wine that he's good, but I know enough winemakers to know that you have to earn that sort of influence — and he seems a little... a little young for that."
"Maybe he is that good," Santana said, with a tilt of the head that suggested she had a far better understanding of this than Kurt.
"Santana, when did you go soft?"
"Anything but. But I'd go to the mat for that man, Kurt. Let me explain something that I don't think you've figured out yet. Blaine's got integrity, and people around here reward that. He's a leader, even though he's young and from out of town, because he puts other people before himself, he gives back to this community and to this industry and to this life. He's the real deal, Kurt, and I thought I knew you well enough to assume that you would have figured that out pretty quickly, but apparently not."
In that moment, Kurt decided to tell her about their dinner, ostensibly a business meeting but god by the end of the night it had felt like a first date, a really good first date. He told her about how he'd caught up with his senses and reined them back in at the last minute, tucking them into emotional lockdown. And he told her how Blaine, who had finally opened up over the course of the meal, had turned cool again when he'd tried to explain himself.
How it had gone from Point A to Point B Kurt still wasn't sure. Maybe the wine. That luscious Sotto Voce, which he'd only intended to evaluate. Instead, he'd ended up drinking half the bottle, and agreeing to join Blaine for dinner and more wine, and for a conversation that leaped far from winemaking and dove deep into cautiously-guarded private lives.
"You two, hmm? Yeah, I should have expected that."
"There's nothing there, Santana. He's not even returning my calls, not even to follow up on the Challenge. He said he'd help, but nothing."
Santana simply rolled her eyes.
"Kurt, for a smart guy, you can be awfully dense."
"He opened up to you and you shut the door. You had this moment, or whatever it was, and you asked him to help you professionally, then shut him down personally. Then, that column..."
"What about it?"
"What about it? Let's see," she said, walking over to her desk and turning the monitor toward him. "Chip on our shoulder? Dirt roads and pickup trucks? Saloons! We have bars, Kurt. Damn good ones. And some pretty fucking fine restaurants, too. And winemakers that can mop the floor with the best that Dalton can throw at us. These are clichés, Kurt. Worse yet, they're directed at one person."
"That's not true..."
"Kurt, you've met with Sonoma wineries before, but in the context of this project of yours, you've talked to exactly two people from our side the valley: myself, and Blaine. And I certainly don't drive a truck."
"Do you think he's—"
"I think he's pissed," she cut in. "And I think he has every right to be."
"You told me to work with him. Now I can't even reach him."
"Well, you're just going to have to get that ass of yours up that hill and talk to him, because I doubt he's going to go out of his way for you after that. Not right now."
Kurt handed the address to the driver, who quickly tapped it into the Town Car's GPS system, charting a course for Rhapsody. He navigated the winding, unmarked roads of Glen Ellen with ease, and Kurt lost himself in the passing oak trees and barns and freshly-pruned rows of budding vines.Â
When it came time to turn up the property's private drive, the chauffeur eased the sedan around the soft sand that had trapped Kurt's tiny rental car that first day in the valley.Â
Kurt allowed himself a moment to take in the view. He hadn't really paid attention to the vineyard on that first trip, something he suddenly regretted.
He had visited hundreds of wine estates because of his job, but never had he seen a vineyard quite like Rhapsody. The trellised vines were tucked neatly into the hillside property, embraced by a ring of ancient oaks.
They were meticulously pruned, their sturdy gray trunks supporting fresh buds and delicate tendrils of spring green.
Upper and lower vineyards appeared to be separated by a small lake or reservoir located not far from the winery building — basically, a large barn — where Kurt first sampled the vineyard's wares.Â
Higher up the hill, nestled among an oak grove, was the house he'd caught only a rough glimpse of before. It wasn't a palazzo or a castle or chateau like so many vineyard mansions. It was simple, a classic two-story home, with a wrap-around veranda dotted with rocking chairs and upstairs balconies pointed toward a lifetime of sunsets over the Carneros hills.
It was simple, lovely, perfect.
Kurt dropped his head back into the seat, heaving a sigh.Â
He allowed himself one last moment of peace, because he had a feeling he was about to go to war.
They stopped first at the winery building, where a young man, clipboard in hand, directed them to the house. The owner was working in his office, he said.
Securely back in the rear seat, Kurt tried to focus in on the veranda as the car approached the house. On it, he could see a familiar figure in jeans and a chambray work shirt sitting in a patio chair, hunched over something. He took a solid breath, and exhaled deliberately, seeking calm.
Blaine might be working, but he chose to do it outside his office. He sat in one of the rockers, patio table pulled close, typing rapidly on a laptop computer. An unimpressed Australian Shepherd rested by his chair, its chin nestled on top of Blaine's booted foot.
Blaine looked up as the car approached slowly along the drive, his immediate recognition of his guest etched grimly on his face. He closed the computer and stood, waking the dog, who stretched and jogged away toward the lower vineyard.
Kurt watched it trot by as he climbed from the sedan and walked toward the house.
"She helps keep the crows out of the vines," Blaine said dispassionately, just missing eye contact.
"So she's an employee?" Kurt quipped in an attempt to break the ice, and failed. So instead he aimed for the heart of the matter. "I was expecting to hear from you."
"I was busy."
"I left messages."
"You offered to help."
Kurt just stopped. The conversation, if it could be called that, had started out awkwardly. He worried that it was now at the precipice of hostile.
He weighed the odds of whether addressing the larger issue at hand would be met with silence or shouting. It wasn't that Blaine was overtly angry. He also wasn't welcoming. He just wasn't much of anything, showing no emotion at all.
"Blaine, I'm sorry if I upset you, but—"
"Stop," Blaine said sharply.
And Kurt did, dead in his tracks.
"I'm not angry."
Blaine still wouldn't meet Kurt's eye. He slowly shook his head and ran his hand through his unruly hair, his eyes straining to focus on anything but Kurt. He fidgeted, and fumbled with his words.
"You were right, Kurt. You're right. I shouldn't have... This is business. This is strictly business. You were right, and I shouldn't have assumed anything."
"That's not what I meant. Blaine, the dinner? That was a good night, and under any other circumstance... I want to get to know you. I do. It's just that while I'm working on this, there can't even be the appearance of a conflict of interest." He paused. "You know, normally I'd walk into a project like this telling people that I'm not here to make friends. Now, I'm trying to rationalize why I wouldn't."
Blaine nodded, and shrugged, and bit his lip.
"Like I said, business. I shouldn't have..." Unable to complete a sentence, and looking anxious to change course, Blaine worked his way out of the uncomfortable discourse.
"I was supposed to help you make more contacts in Sonoma," he said. "So I've sent out some emails to some of the other wineries. I've heard back from a couple of them."
Kurt wondered if this was what whiplash felt like. The person who had admittedly avoided him for the past several days was now sending out emails on his behalf?
"I don't know what to say. Thank you."
"Don't be too quick to thank me. I don't have wineries lined up for you like Napa did, but I've got a few to start."
"You could have told me."
Blaine finally looked him in the eye.
"No, I really couldn't."