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.

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 10:42am. 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’d finally crashed out on the couch at 3am, hoping to get 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 of the phone. Thank God I remembered to switch the ringer off. Who the hell would be calling me right now?

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

# 98) EXPLAIN THE PRIMARY 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 fermentation (or ML) is a secondary fermentation that converts harsh 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 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 fan of Chardonnay—hated it from the first sip of well-watered-down Napa Chard my 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.  

Hopefully 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 before moving on, anxious to finish in time.

#99) HOW IS SAIGNÉE EMPLOYED TO MAKE ROSE, 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 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 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. Probably some telemarketer wanting to hook me with a fake “free cruise” offer. Ignoring it, I launch into my answer. Only eleven minutes to finish.

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 in response to the furtive rustling growing around the room—the thud of backpacks and squeak of writing tables being lowered. I hunker down and keep writing, the last word practically a scrawl as I try to ignore the dark shapes of students starting to file down the aisle.

Last question.

#100) NAME FOUR WAYS TO DETERMINE OPTIMAL FRUIT MATURITY. 

I smile at the fleeting image of Dad walking beside me along the vineyard rows as we taste the grapes, the berries breaking open between my teeth 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

A few minutes later 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!

I finish with two minutes left on the clock, and give the exam a quick scan to be sure I didn’t miss anything.

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

A warm flush of shock trickles through me: I just finished college.

Holy crap!

A huge grin blossoms across my face and I shove the pencil into my backpack, then grab the exam booklet and file out of the row to join the line of students shuffling towards the front of the room.

With a little 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, marking the end of four long years training to be a winemaker like my mother. At the side exit, the heavy door swings open and I’m immediately blinded by the bright sunlight, a glaring contrast to the thin fluorescent glow of the lecture hall. Shrugging off the flannel, I pause to enjoy the tingling sensation of the late May sun on my bare arms. I’m rummaging in the front pocket for my sunglasses when my phone starts buzzing. AGAIN.

Irritation sends my eyes rolling back in my head, and with a snort 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 the bag, but the message on the screen stops me short.

(4) Missed calls from Martin Sandcastle.

I feel 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 on the side of the path where I’m supposed to meet Carlee after her Econ final, drop my bag and press the screen to return the call.

Martin answers on the first ring.

“Taylor,” he says in a rush, his voice 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, just 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—”

Martin’s voice cuts me off.

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

*  *  *