Ellen Crosby's third tale of suspense set amid the vines of Virginia wine country involves a two-hundred-year-old bottle of Bordeaux that Thomas Jefferson may have purchased for George Washington and is turning out to be a wine to die for.
It has been a year since Lucie Montgomery took over running her family vineyard at the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The Bordeaux Betrayal now sweeps her into a mystery that began more than two centuries ago in France and ends in murder not far from Montgomery Estate Vineyard.
When author and historian Valerie Beauvais turns up dead the night after a verbal brawl with a noted wine critic on the grounds of Mount Vernon, George Washington's home, Lucie is certain Valerie's death is related to something she knew concerning the authenticity of the priceless Washington Bordeaux.
As Lucie and her eccentric winemaker Quinn Santori bring in the last grapes of the season, Quinn's controversial past becomes intertwined with the murder and the rare wine, testing the bonds of their increasingly close relationship. New neighbors challenge Lucie for allowing a century-old hunting club to use her land for foxhunting; Mick Dunne, Lucie's ex-lover, comes back into her life; and her beloved French grandfather makes an unexpected visit that will rekindle painful memories some would prefer to forget.
As Lucie investigates the shadowy history of the Washington wine, she uncovers a web of deceit and betrayal and a long-forgotten scandal that affects not only the international wine world but her own as well
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August 04, 2008
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Excerpt from Bordeaux Betrayal by Ellen Crosby
St. Thomas Aquinas once said sorrow could be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine. Lucky him, if that's all it took.
Hector died shortly before Labor Day, the last event in a tumultuous summer weighed down by heat straight out of hell's waiting room. He'd been like a father to me, managing the crew at my family's vineyard in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains for the last twenty years. His death came hard on the heels of my second auto accident in the past three years, when the front end of my old Volvo collided with the back end of a large buck. And that event had been preceded by Hurricane Iola, whose wicked ways wreaked havoc just as we were about to harvest our white wines. If the month of August had been a fish, I would have thrown it back.
Fortunately autumn arrived in a kinder mood. The withering temperatures receded and the low-slanted sunlight washed everything in softer colors, blurring the sharp edges of the shadows. The air no longer smelled as though it had been boiled and the relentless metallic sound of the cicadas began to wane. Tonight, on an October Indian summer evening, the bullfrogs' serenade sounded plaintive.
I'd invited Mick Dunne, my neighbor and a man with whom I'd had a white-hot affair last spring, to dinner and a lecture on wine at Mount Vernon. Though we'd only just arrived, he'd glanced at his watch three times in the last fifteen minutes. Each time, I pretended not to notice.
When Joe Dawson, my cousin's fiance, had given me the tickets, I figured asking Mick would be a good way to let him know I'd moved on since last spring and that we could still do things together as friends. Besides, he'd just planted thirty acres of vines on land adjacent to mine. We needed to get along.
Right now, though, unless George Washington himself turned
up to offer Mick a tour of the place or told him they could nip down to the whiskey distillery, I already regretted the evening. Though Mick tried to mask his restlessness with well-bred feigned interest as only the British can, I knew he was bored.
We walked along a shady path that bordered an expanse of lawn known as the bowling green. Washington had planted some of the larger trees -- tulip poplars, white ash, and elms -- himself. I reached for Mick's arm to keep from stumbling on the uneven terrain. Ever since a near-fatal car accident three years ago left me with a deformed left foot, I needed a cane to keep my balance. Mick glanced down as I slid my arm through his. Another opportunity to peek at his watch.
I gave it one more try. "There's a fabulous view of the Potomac River from the other side of the mansion. Wait until you see it."
"Really? How marvelous." It sounded like I'd just offered him a cigarette before he got the blindfold.
"There's also a sundial in the middle of the courtyard. Too bad it's nearly sunset or you could check the time there, too," I said.
There was a moment of stunned silence before his laugh erupted like champagne fizz. "Sorry, love. I'm distracted tonight." His arm slid around my waist. "I didn't mean to be rude."
Love. Had the word slipped out, or was it intentional?
"Why did you come tonight, if you're not interested in this lecture?" I asked.
His arm tightened. "I am interested. But not in some woman giving a dull talk."
My face felt warm. "Joe said she's supposed to be riveting."
She was also Joe's friend. I moved out of the circle of Mick's arm.
"Not many people here," he said. "She can't be too riveting."
"That's because it's a select audience. I'm sure she'll be fascinating."
He stuck his hands in his pockets and grinned like I'd said something amusing. "Have you read her book?"
"I haven't even read the newspaper since August we've been so busy with harvest."
"Then let's have dinner and slope off. Come on, Lucie. Who cares if we stick around?"
"Joe cares. I promised him we'd stay for the whole evening. Anyway, I think her book sounds interesting. She followed Thomas
Jefferson's voyage through the European vineyards when he was ambassador to France."
I got another gun-to-the-head look from him. "Why isn't she at Monticello if she wrote about Jefferson? What's she doing here?"
"Because Jefferson bought a lot of George Washington's wines for him. And she is going to Monticello. I think Joe said she's going to wrap up her book tour in Charlottesville. She just finished traveling around California. Now she's doing the East Coast."
We had come to the ivy-covered colonnade connecting Washington's servants' quarters to the main house. In the distance the river gleamed like dull pewter. I led Mick to the embankment where the ground fell away, leaving a view of the Potomac that stretched to the horizon. In the dusky light, the river -- friendlier to pleasure boaters and fishermen where it snaked ribbonlike past Washington -- looked vast and depthless here at Mount Vernon.
We stood in silence until finally he said, "You were right. It's an incredible view."
I had not expected him to sound wistful. "I thought you'd like it."
"Those cliffs remind me of Wales." His voice was soft with nostalgia. "We used to go up from London on summer holiday when I was a boy. My Lord, how I loved it there. On the north coast, the castles are perched on the bluffs just like this, except it's all rocks to the Irish Sea."
I believe that it is possible to miss a place you love so much that the ache is physical. I'd read that Washington pined terribly for his home when he was away from it -- which was often -- fulfilling his duties as commander in chief of the Continental Army or in Philadelphia as the first president. Staring at his cherished view, which had changed little since he and Martha looked out on it centuries ago, I knew I, too, would be homesick for this breathtaking place, just as Mick sounded homesick now for the north coast of Wales.
A bell rang behind us and I turned around. The western sky was the color of liquid gold and the mansion appeared to be sitting inside a rim of fire. Silhouetted figures began to converge on the columned piazza.
"The tour must be starting," I said. "I wonder where Joe is."
"He'll turn up." Mick's arm slid around my waist again and this time I let it linger. As we reached the house, I saw a man and woman framed like a cameo in one of the colonnaded archways. Lantern light from the east courtyard illuminated his face as he leaned close to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. The woman tucked a strand of shoulder-length blonde hair behind one ear. Then she reached up and pulled his head down for a long, slow kiss. I couldn't stop watching them. The man was my cousin's fiance, Joe Dawson. I did not know the woman, but she sure as hell wasn't Dominique.
"Come on," Mick said. "The crowd's moving. We'll miss what the guide is saying."
Either he hadn't seen what I just witnessed or else he didn't recognize Joe.
I had taken this tour so often over the years I could practically give it, but Mick, who had moved to Virginia six months ago, had never been to Mount Vernon. We began in the dining room, the largest room in the house, which had been restored to its original colors -- two eye-popping shades of Washington's favorite green. I was glad to see Mick interested in the docent's talk, but I couldn't stop thinking about Joe and that blonde.
It didn't take long before I found out who she was. Someone jostled an elderly woman as the group moved out of the dining room. The book she'd been holding hit the floor and landed at my feet. I picked it up. European Travels with Thomas Jefferson's Ghost by Valerie Beauvais.
Joe had been making out with the guest of honor.
"Thank you so much, dear." The woman smiled, pearl-white teeth in a face as wrinkled as old fruit. "So clumsy of me."
"So clumsy of whoever bumped into you." I'd picked up the book facedown so I was staring at the author photo. No wonder they'd splashed it on the back cover. She had the racy good looks of a fashion model, a slightly lopsided smile, and a sly, almost naughty expression like she'd been talking dirty with the photographer. Stunning but tough-looking. By the time our tour finished winding in and out of the house and up two flights of stairs, I decided I didn't like Valerie Beauvais.
Turned out I had company. After we'd seen the house, everyone spilled out on to the lawn where buffet tables had now been set up for dinner. I saw Ryan Worth, wine critic for the Washington Tribune, sitting in one of the Windsor chairs lining the piazza. He got up and waved, heading toward Mick and me. On the way he flagged down a waiter holding a tray of champagne flutes. Ryan handed a glass to me, then helped himself to two more for Mick and himself.
"Don't be a stranger," he said to the waiter. He clinked his glass against ours. "Tell me why you two have to be here. I came because I'm getting paid to introduce the guest of honor." He looked like he'd been asked to gargle with Draano.
Ryan wrote "Worthwhile Wines," a weekly column that was syndicated in more than two hundred newspapers, a statistic he frequently enjoyed quoting. Short, wide, in his late thirties, with thinning black hair, his Van Dyke and pursed-lip smile made him appear slightly sinister, or else like he knew something I should but didn't. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of wines and wine history, though sometimes he took himself too seriously, acting as though he were sharing information he'd brought down from the mountain on stone tablets. Still, I respected him. He knew his stuff.
"I'm here because Lucie dragged me," Mick said.
"Oh, come on," I said. "We've been over this. Dinner and a talk. How bad can it be?"
"Obviously you've never heard Valerie." Ryan covered his mouth and faked a yawn. "She may look like a babe but she can clear a room faster than someone yelling 'fire.' As for her book -- "
"Talking about me behind my back?" Valerie Beauvais had a husky Bacall-like voice with a hint of a drawl. "Hello, Ryan. I hear you've got the pleasure of introducing me tonight." Her smile seemed to mock him.
Close up, her eyes were even more arresting as she took us all in, dismissing me and settling suggestively on Mick, as though there were already some private joke between them. I wondered where Joe was.
"Don't let it go to your head, Val," Ryan said. "I'm not doing it for free. Besides, your publicist groveled and I took pity on him."
For a moment she seemed startled, then her eyes grew hard. "Funny. He said the same thing about you." She focused a slow-burn smile on Mick, ignoring Ryan. "I don't think we've met. Valerie Beauvais."
She held out her hand and Mick shook it. "Mick Dunne. And Lucie Montgomery."
Valerie didn't shake my hand. "I've heard of you," she said. "You own a vineyard and you're holding that auction."
Who had told her that? We'd barely publicized the auction, a fund-raiser for a program for homeless and disabled kids in the D.C. metro area. One of my former college roommates, now the program's executive director, came to me for help after I'd raised a bundle of money for the local free clinic last spring.
"That's right," I said to Valerie.
"How'd you manage to get that bottle of Margaux?" she asked. "You must be very persuasive."
It didn't sound like a compliment. "You'd be surprised," I said. "And it's for charity."
In 1790, Thomas Jefferson ordered a shipment of wine for himself and his good friend George Washington from four of the greatest French wine estates in Bordeaux -- Chteaus Lafite, Margaux, Mouton, and d'Yquem. Apparently some -- or perhaps all -- of the shipment never made it to either Mount Vernon or Monticello. One bottle, with the initials "G.W.," the year, and "Margaux" etched in the glass, turned up more than two centuries later in the private collection of Jack Greenfield, owner of Jeroboam's Fine Wines in Middleburg, Virginia. A week ago Jack called me and offered the wine for our auction. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was in poor condition. More than likely, he'd said, it had turned -- now probably a bottle of very old, very expensive red wine vinegar.
Still, it represented liquid history. And it would be the jewel in the crown for our little charity auction. When Ryan heard the news, he'd offered to write about it in "Worthwhile Wines."
"You'll get national attention thanks to me," he said. "Syndicated in -- "
"I know. More than two hundred newspapers," I said. "Thanks. That would be fabulous publicity."
But his column didn't run until tomorrow. Someone had already told Valerie about the wine. Her smile was gloating. She knew I had no intention of asking how she'd found out.
Ryan polished off his champagne and grabbed another flute from a passing waiter. "Anyone else? No?" He gulped more champagne and stared hard at Valerie. "