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Sotto Voce

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The click-clack-click of his booted heel on the pavement had always helped set the pace for the week.

It would clear his head, give him focus, help him tune out the hustle of the Monday morning subway crowd as Kurt set mental to-do lists and, at least today, considered proposals for the meeting that was creeping up on him all too fast.


Quinn, 10 a.m. The first face-to-face in six months, and she's expecting a plan for features, columns, tastings, promotions and special events for the next year -- all in the name of Taste, her magazine, her baby that I helped nurture and raise when I signed on as her wine critic.


I need a plan. I need a plan. I need a plan.


What the fuck is my plan? 

Kurt Hummel had made a successful career -- and possibly killed a few -- discovering and sometimes verbally dismantling new wineries, winemakers and wine regions for American oenophiles, at least those upscale enough to subscribe to the slick, polished and costly monthly publication. Technically, it wasn't a wine magazine. It was, as Quinn often said, "a life guide for tastemakers."

The publication had climbed the ranks quickly, tracking food, fashion, entertainment and literary trends for a demographic that was young, educated and upwardly mobile.

But it was the wine section, specifically the wine critic, that had made a name for Taste  and quickly set it on par with Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Kurt's columns and reviews were ruthlessly pointed and unquestionably accurate. He also had a sense for undiscovered talent, and when an unknown winemaker was featured in one of his columns, that winemaker's days of anonymity were numbered. 

He was also known to write scathing reviews of some of the most well-established names in the industry, including one which famously affected the stock price of a corporate owner of a major Napa brand, resulting for a while in his insistence of absolute privacy -- no mugshots with his columns, hotels were to be booked under pseudonyms, no personal appearances. Kurt convinced himself that if he was going to do this job right, he had to do it in a protective bubble.

That lasted only until the moment Taste took off, and became a cultural phenomenon of its own. Quinn had insisted on a series of events -- high end tastings, pairings, wine and food fairs -- designed to bolster and supplement the Taste brand. Kurt's participation was essential, she said. You are a part of this brand, she said. You will share that lovely face with the world on behalf of Taste, she said.

And he had a contract that said he would cooperate. And when he did, his life changed for the better.

It had never been a part of the plan to end up here. He'd always expected to become a writer, to be sure, but his road to managing the Style section of the New York Times detoured, sharply, when a college job waiting tables opened doors to a world of fine wine.

He rarely even drank wine before that job, but his manager quickly discovered he had a natural nose and palate for assessing the good, the bad and the vinegar, and how to pair certain wines to particular foods. He was immediately assigned to the sommelier, as an apprentice of sorts, learning the art of wine tasting.

That he could put these skills into words was a bonus, and a career-maker. He was officially "influential," a wine celebrity, even if his fame was limited to an exclusive circle. He feared no wine makers, no corporate power brokers, so long as he was granted the freedom to speak honestly in his column.

There was only one person he feared, and he was supposed to present a non-existent work plan to her in exactly fourteen minutes: His editor-in-chief and publisher, Quinn Fabray.


"What a pleasant surprise." Quinn walked with a preternatural grace, extending her well-manicured hand and her less-than-sincere good will.

"Surprise? Our meeting's been on the calendar for weeks," Kurt said, accepting a handshake that morphed into a light hug.

"I was surprised you showed up. These meetings have a way of getting rescheduled."

Quinn looked up at him through her lashes, feigning modesty. If they were still in high school, he would have thought it coquettish. As an adult, he sensed a trap.

If he had the slightest attraction to women, he would have been both terrified of and possibly in love with Quinn Fabray. She was such a complex creature: Brilliant, ambitious, Yale-educated. She was also a classic beauty, the green-eyed golden girl who graduated from prom queen to publisher with nary a misstep.

"My inbox is lonely, Kurt. It's been expecting an outline from you."

"Well, I've been thinking about that."


"Perhaps a profile of rivals."

"Go on."

"Maybe a series."


"That leads to an event ..."

"Maybe a competition?"

"A blind tasting between regional stars on the rise."

Kurt was making this up as he went along, and he suspected that Quinn was well aware of it, but as long as she was along for the ride, he could keep going.

"And which regions would you propose?"

OK, that's tricky. Kurt had traveled the world preparing profiles for Taste, and each region could be considered another's rival. 

"How about something traditional? Something big name?" Quinn offered. "How about Napa versus Sonoma?"

"Really? Haven't they been done to death, Quinn?"

"Kurt, I know you haven't thought this through. But I have. And here's what we're going to do."

Quinn went on to detail -- in excruciating, well-reasoned detail -- her plans for a "Year in the Wine Country," a series that would not only contrast and compare the famous neighboring appellations, but also profile both their established and up-and-coming wineries and winemakers. It would be a series of established names versus new philosophies, of corporate stakeholders versus boutique vintages.

And it would result in a major event pitting the best of both regions against each other, an event with major advertising sponsorship money.

"We have advertisers with major interests in California. Big advertisers with even bigger interests, and this, this, will keep them coming back to Taste until they are established with us.

"So pack your bags, Kurt. You're moving to California."



"How did I go from writer-without-a-plan to soon-to-be-former New Yorker?" Kurt muttered to himself.

There was little doubt that Quinn had been planning this for ages, and that she fully expected him to show up for the meeting having to wing it, no plan in hand, making him vulnerable to this sabotage.

She'd already made enough arrangements to start the wheels in irreversible motion.

Kurt had exactly three weeks to settle what few personal affairs he had to attend to. Quinn had already identified a subletter for his apartment, if he was agreeable. She'd also booked his one-way ticket to SFO. And made a reservation with an extended-stay hotel in the nondescript but conveniently located town of Rohnert Park -- just temporary, she reminded him. He would have to find a place to call home for the next year.

As for leaving, it really wasn't all that hard.

As much as he loved the pace and eclectic nature of New York, he had always enjoyed his trips to California. He just hadn't planned on moving there. The wine country was beautiful but also, by definition, an agricultural zone -- farmland. It wasn't exactly the environment Kurt was accustomed to making his home. But it was also 90 minutes from San Francisco, so he would have an urban escape available when he needed it -- an out he expected to take full advantage of.

And he had no entanglements to detangle from, not since he'd caught his last boyfriend, a choreographer, providing ... perhaps he should think of it as private lessons ... to one of his proteges. 

In bed. 

Their bed.

Kurt had been making the rounds, a few appointments with local sommeliers to discuss up-and-coming wine regions and consumer trends. But when his last call of the day canceled at the last minute due to illness, Kurt found himself home two hours earlier than he -- or Mario -- anticipated.

He walked into the apartment to noises, like the banging of pipes or the clatter of pots and pans, but coming from the bedroom, not the kitchen. And then, the unmistakeable, unrestrained whine, one he'd heard so many times over the past year, above the clatter of the rattling bed.

He willed himself to follow the trail of clothes down the hall, coming full stop in the open doorway.

Kurt peered into the room just in time to see and hear the last of it, as Mario fucked the boy through his orgasm, grunting and pumping until he came, loud and hard across his chest. The bed was a tangle of limbs, a familiar back with unfamiliar calves and feet draped over his bare shoulders. Moments after their climax, they had stilled, but remained unaware of Kurt's presence until he said, crisply and bitterly, "I expect you to clean up, change the sheets and get the hell out, in that order." 

No, leaving New York actually wouldn't be that difficult for him at all, and Quinn knew it.


He knew he would need to make rapid progress on the project. Kurt was uncertain of its long-term viability, but also knew that he would have to make the best of it as Quinn had apparently connected the idea to ad revenue.

He got to work on it not long after concluding his business with Quinn, sending a flurry of emails and calls to his west coast contacts, seeking ideas, names, housing leads, whatever he could get.

Napa would be easy enough. The big names don't change much, and the valley had a well-established publicity machine more than willing to set him up with private tours, meetings, tastings, whatever he needed. The individual wineries frequently had their own public relations staffs and consultants, and were often accountable to corporate offices in New York, Paris or London.

Sonoma was another story.

Though the valley had come into its own as a winemaking market, much of it still clung to small, family-run vineyards and winemaking operations. Many of the wines were difficult to locate in anything but the most local of wine shops or restaurants, with their small runs sometimes sold out to devoted wine clubs.

Like Napa, Sonoma had an association to promote travel, tourism and investment in the valley, and its executive was a longtime friend who was both devoted to and confounded by the industry she represented.

Santana Lopez was no outsider. She'd grown up in the valley, the daughter of a field hand who worked his way up the chain of command at a Sonoma winery until he had become the vineyard manager. He didn't have the college degree like his peers or even many of his underlings, but he understood the terroire like only someone who had grown up with it could, and had a knowledge of vineyard growth and management that few others possessed. He had earned enough of a living to set aside funds to send his bright and cynical daughter to college. He thought he'd never see her again.

Instead, she returned eight years later, sadder, wiser and devoted to the valley that had given her father a chance, and in turn, gave her one, as well.

She dedicated her time to promoting the local industry that refused to take its cues from its bigger and more prestigious neighbor, despite the fact that many of its wines had also won global acclaim. 

She met Kurt's request with restrained, practical enthusiasm. An opportunity for her? Possibly. For Sonoma? Absolutely. Is it workable? To be determined, she said.

"On the bright side, Napa'll be a piece of cake. Your biggest problem there will be staying sober," she said.

"The big ones over on the other side will jump at it, but if you're looking for independent Sonoma labels, they may be a little hard to pin down. They don't have the back-up staff like the big guns, and to be honest, I can't always predict what these guys will do. But I've got some ideas. Let me work on it, and I'll have you set up by the time you get here."

Kurt turned his phone on moments after touching down at SFO and it lit up with messages. One, two, three, four, all from familiar Napa names. 

But Sonoma? One text, from Santana: If you want me to set you up, get your ass over here as soon as you land.

He had shipped most of his clothes ahead, so he grabbed his carry-on, hustled to the rental car counter and picked up the car -- the very tiny car -- Quinn had reserved for him. It's a clown car, he thought.

He normally would have paused for an hour, a day or more in San Francisco. The city felt so familiar to him, sort of New York West, but with steep hills that made him grateful for BART, taxis and automatic transmissions. 

There wouldn't be time for his usual dinner on Nob Hill or North Beach this time. Instead, he made record time through the crowded streets near the waterfront, past the Presidio and toward the Golden Gate.

Kurt immediately felt the urban pace he was so accustomed to shift the moment he crossed the bridge into Marin County. Mere minutes out of the city, through parkland and past Sausalito's rows of houseboats, he could feel his body begin to exhale.

Just shy of 90 minutes out, he was greeted with the first of row upon trellised row of Cabernet, Merlot and Zinfandel. They glimmered in the mid-day sun, the sunlight reflecting on metallic tape intended to drive ravenous birds away from the valuable fruit. To Kurt, it looked like the flash of paparazzi strobes in the middle of farmland.

Tourists pulled to the side of the road to snap pictures of their first vineyard sighting, but Kurt drove on, straight to Sonoma Square, a collection of small galleries, stores, restaurants and offices facing a central park and a 150-year-old stone building, the city hall, in the center of the community. It was tiny by most cities' standards, but it was also a state historic landmark and a source of civic pride. The well-walked park surrounding it served as a short-cut and a picnic spot for tourists who first stopped at one of the boulangeries, tasting rooms or cheesemongers that make their home along the large square.

Wedged between a restaurant and a jewelry store, the Sonoma Wine Association leased offices on the square. It was where, after spending a little too much time looking for a parking space, Kurt found Santana, hands on hips, smirk on face.

"So, tell me about Q's latest act of pretension," she said, a thread of bitterness stringing her words together.

Kurt knew he would need Santana's help securing winemakers in the region. He was not as established, not as well connected, in Sonoma as he was in Napa. That, he suspected, was by design. Some Sonoma winemaking families went back generations in the valley, and they were deeply rooted in doing things their own way. They were equally cynical about the powerful winemaking machines located one county over.

So he spilled it all, described every detail of Quinn's concept, down to the effort to use the series to secure longterm advertising dollars. The only thing he hid was his own concern that the drive for new advertisers could compromise the longterm goal of the project: A blind tasting pitting big business Napa against the artisan winemakers of Sonoma.

"And you want me to set you up?" she asked. "Well, there are the classics ... and there are the trend setters."

She handed him a list and a map, and added, "Whatever you do, you'll want to go here," pointing to a remote parcel in the Valley of the Moon appellation and a sly smile.

"Rhapsody?" Kurt said. "I've never heard of it."

"And that's one reason why its exactly the winery you're looking for," she said. "And you'll like the owner."


Sotto Voce 1