Behind Cellar Doors

Keli’s second completed manuscript is a Contemporary Romance set in the Sonoma County Wine country, and is a finalist in the Adult category of the 2017 PitchWars competition.

With the ink not yet dry on her winemaking degree, Taylor rushes home to run the family winery after her father’s stroke. She struggles to manage a stubborn winemaker, missing barrels, and mounting bills, while exploring a budding romance with Alec—the sexy-as-hell new investor in the neighboring vineyard. But someone’s trying to force a sale of her financially-unstable winery, and she soon suspects her new love is after more than just her heart.

Excerpt, Behind Cellar Doors, (95,000 words)
©2018, Keli Vice

CHAPTER 1

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

As though on cue, the backpack at my feet starts to vibrate. I glance around, hoping no one can hear the low buzz. Thank God I remembered to switch the ringer off. Who the hell would be calling me right now?

The vibrating stops, and I concentrate on the exam in front of me.

# 98) EXPLAIN THE ROLE OF MALOLACTIC FERMENTATION IN CALIFORNIA CHARDONNAY.

The question sends a smirk across my face and my scratching pencil joins the sound of forty-one others, dashing across the paper:

Malolactic (ML) is a secondary fermentation that converts tart malic acids to softer lactic acids. It produces diacetyl as a side-product, which adds “buttery” notes to Chardonnay. It’s generally performed on a percentage of the wine, though some Chardonnays are taken through 100% ML…

… but only if you want them to be 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 fan of Chardonnay—hated it from the first well-watered-down sip my French mother let me taste when I was eleven.

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

100% ML on warm-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.

Let’s hope Professor Coyle isn’t a fan of buttery Chards, either.

I flex my fingers, trying to work the cramp out. It’s chilly in the lecture hall, and I pull my wrinkled plaid flannel closer, anxious to finish in time.

#99) 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 France distracts me for a moment. I wish our grad trip was starting there. I’ve been lobbying Jason for an extra few days in Provence, but he can’t get his focus off Amsterdam. Which, to be honest, I’m not that excited about. I’m going to end up taking care of five stoned people for three days.

Dammit. My phone is ringing again, buzzing against my ankle. Probably some telemarketer wanting to hook me with a fake “free cruise” offer. Ignoring it, I launch into my answer. Nine minutes left.

Saignée translates to “bleed” in French. With this technique, a portion of the juice is “bled off” the crushed grapes to intensify the color, phenolics and flavor of the red wine being produced. In Bordeaux or Burgundy, this pale pink juice is discarded…

 My pulse quickens as a furtive rustling starts to grow around the room—papers shuffling over the low thud of backpacks. My shoulders hunch forward and I keep writing, the last word practically a scrawl as I ignore the dark shapes of students starting to file down the aisle.

Last question.

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

 The corners of my mouth lift at the fleeting image of my father, walking beside me along the vineyard rows as we taste the grapes, the berries breaking open in my mouth with a sweet burst, followed by the bitter taste of skins and seeds.

Optimal ripeness is determined by Brix levels, berry metabolites, berry proteins and taste—primarily seed maturity. To measure the Brix of the fruit

I’m scribbling out the last few words of my answer when my backpack starts buzzing…again. It’s all I can do to hold in my grunt of frustration. Leave me alone, already!

“Time’s up,” Professor Coyle calls from the bottom of the room.

The warm flush of realization trickles through me.

Holy crap! I just finished college!

A wide grin blossoms across my face as I shove the pencil into my backpack and grab the test booklet, standing to file out of the row and join the line of students shuffling toward the front of the room.

With a deep flutter of satisfaction, I toss the booklet into the wire basket on top of the others, a weight lifting off my shoulders as it lands with a soft thud. The one hundred hand-written pages mark the end of four long years at UC Davis training to be a winemaker. Like my mother.

At the side exit, bright sunlight blinds me as the heavy door swings open, a glaring contrast to the thin fluorescent glow of the lecture hall. Shrugging off my flannel, I pause to enjoy the tingling sensation of the late May California sun, warm on my bare skin. Still squinting against the glare, I drop to a crouch and start rummaging through the front pocket of my backpack for my sunglasses when my phone starts buzzing. Again!

Irritation sends my eyes rolling back and with a snort I rip open the side pocket, ready to give my wrong-number-caller a piece of my mind for interrupting me during a freaking final. The vibrating has stopped by the time I wrestle the phone out of the bag, but the message on the screen stops me short.
(4) Missed calls from Martin Sandcastle

My eyebrows draw together, alarm bells going off in the back of my head. Why would Martin be calling me?

I hurry over to the shaded bench where I’m supposed to meet Carlee after her Econ final and press the screen to return the call.

Martin answers on the first ring.

“Taylor.” The word comes out in a rush, a mixture of anxiety and relief.

Martin Sandcastle has worked at my family’s winery for sixteen years—taking over as head winemaker after 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.

“Hey, Martin, what’s going on—”

“Taylor,” his voice cuts me off, “something’s happened to your dad.”

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