Behind Cellar Doors

Keli’s second completed manuscript is a contemporary NA/Adult romance set in the Sonoma County Wine country.

Instead of embarking on a carefree post-graduation trip to Europe, 22-year-old TAYLOR LANSING is rushing home after her father’s heart attack to run the family winery. It’s trial by fire as she works to keep the financially unstable winery afloat, and navigate a budding romance with the gorgeous billionaire financier-cum-winery-owner ALEC ESTRELLA. A series of mishaps raises suspicion that someone is trying to force a sale of the winery. Could her new boyfriend have his eye on acquiring more than just Taylor’s heart?

Excerpt, Behind Cellar Doors, (75,000 words)
©2017, Keli Vice

CHAPTER 1

The clock on the wall reads 10:42. Eighteen minutes left — three questions to go. Pinching the bridge of my nose, I struggle to picture the notes I reviewed over and over last night. Bleary-eyed and exhausted, I crashed out on the couch at 3am, hoping to snatch a few hours’ sleep before my phone buzzed to wake me.

As though on cue, the backpack at my feet starts vibrating. I glance around, hoping no one can hear the low buzz. Thank God I switched the ringer off. Who the hell would be calling me right now? None of my friends ever call me. We’re a strictly text generation. Dad knows I’m in a final.
The vibrating finally stops and I concentrate on the paper in front of me.

# 48) Explain the primary role of malolactic fermentation in the production of California Chardonnay.

Though the question sends a smirk across my face, the answer is fairly straightforward and my scratching pencil joins the sounds of forty-one others, dashing across the paper.

Malolactic fermentation (or ML) is a secondary fermentation that converts harsh malic acids to rounder, softer lactic acids. ML produces diacytel as a side product of the fermentation, which gives a buttery character to California-style Chardonnay. ML is generally performed on a percentage of the wine, though some Chardonnays are taken through 100% malolactic …

If you want them to be buttery, fat, flabby Chard-bombs.

I snicker, and the guy in front of me glances back, frowning. I wave a silent apology. I’ve never been a big fan of Chardonnay — hated it from the first sip of well-watered-down Napa Valley Chard my mother let me taste when I was eleven.

At the end of my answer, I can’t help but add:

100% ML performed on warmer climate Chardonnay that lacks sufficient acidity will produce an overly fat, flabby wine. However, <50% ML on cooler climate fruit with ample acidity creates a mouth-filling balance.

Hopefully Professor Smith isn’t a fan of buttery Chards, either.

I flex my fingers, trying to work the cramp out. We’re in one of the smaller lecture halls at UC Davis. I remember walking into my very first class here, with nearly 300 students milling around the huge auditorium, many looking as nervous and jittery as I felt. It was a big change from my tiny Sonoma County high school. It wasn’t until junior year that classes for my major started getting smaller. And harder. A lot harder.

#49) How is saignée employed to make rosé, and how does it differ from the traditional rosé techniques of Provence?

Despite the ticking clock, the thought of Provence completely distracts me. France is going to be so beautiful this time of year. I wish our trip was starting there. I’ve been lobbying Jason for an extra few days in Burgundy, but he hasn’t agreed … yet. He can’t get his focus off Amsterdam, which honestly I’m not that excited about. I’m going to end up taking care of five stoned people for four days.

Dammit. My phone is ringing again, buzzing against my ankle. Ignoring it, I launch into my answer. Eleven minutes to finish.

Saignée translates to “bleed” in French. After a red varietal is crushed, “saignée” is when a portion of the pink juice is “bled off” to intensify the color, phenolics and flavor of the red wine being produced. In Bordeaux or Burgundy, this juice is most often discarded …

I smile. My mother, French to the core, often criticized saignée as a cheap way to produce rosé … though she had far more disdain for the sweet American debacle “White Zinfandel.”

The hall starts to fill with the furtive rustling of backpacks being hauled out from beneath seats and writing tables squeaking as they are lowered. Trying to ignore the dark shapes of students starting to file down the aisle, I hunker down and keep writing:

To craft dry Provencal-style rosés red grapes are destemmed, then crushed. …

Details continue to pour onto the page, hand aching as my writing gets worse and worse.

… The temperature-controlled fermentation (approx 64 degrees) lasts from 8 to 15 days.

The last word is practically a scrawl. That will have to do. Finally — last question.

#50) Name four ways to determine optimal fruit maturity.

I smile, picturing Dad walking beside me explaining the ripening stages of veraison. I always loved the sweet burst as the berries broke open between my teeth, followed by the bitter taste of skins and seeds.

The end of veraison is determined by Brix levels, berry metabolites, berry proteins and taste — primarily seed maturity. To measure the Brix of the fruit …

A few minutes later I’m scribbling out the last few words of my answer when my backpack starts buzzing again. Jesus! It’s all I can do to hold in my grunt of frustration. Leave me alone, already!
I finish with four minutes left on the clock. A hasty scan confirms I answered all the questions.

“Time’s up,” Professor Smith calls from the bottom of the hall.

Shock floods through me.

I just finished college. Holy shit!

I scramble to shove my pencil into my backpack and stand in the same motion, filing out of the row and joining the line of students shuffling down the steps to drop their blue test booklets into the wire basket on the long metal desk at the front of the classroom. I nod to a few classmates, but the pressure of finals keeps the chatter to a minimum.

With a little flutter of excitement, I toss my booklet into the pile with the others and head towards the side door. I consider waiting to thank Professor Smith, but there’s already a line of students in front of her. I’ll email her.

As the heavy door swings open, bright sunlight blinds me, a glaring contrast to the dim fluorescent light inside the hall. I shrug off the wrinkled flannel I’d worn in the chilly classroom and wrap it around my waist, pausing to enjoy the tingling sensation from the late May sun on my bare arms. Still squinting, I bend down to rummage in the front pocket for my sunglasses when my phone starts buzzing. AGAIN.

Monstrously irritated now, I rip open the side pocket, ready to give my wrong-number-caller a piece of my mind. The vibrating has stopped by the time I wrestle the phone out of my bag. But the message on the screen stops me short.

(4) Missed calls from Martin Sandcastle

That’s weird.

Walking over to a shaded bench along the path where I’m supposed to meet Carlee, I sit and press the screen.

Martin answers on the first ring.

“Taylor,” he says in a rush, his voice a mixture of anxiety and relief.

“Hey Martin, I was surprised to see your calls.” Martin Sandcastle has been the winemaker at my family’s winery for more than ten years. Since the day my mother died in a car accident, two days after I turned twelve. My heart clenches in the familiar pain that a decade has not managed to soften. “What’s up—”

Martin’s voice cuts me off.

“Taylor, something’s happened to your Dad.”

* * *