Issue #22 January 2021
Agatha Christie is regarded as one of the greatest mystery writers of all time, having created 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. She died on the twelfth day of this month in 1976.
In the spirit of never being afraid to try something different, I thought it might be fun (while likely personally embarrassing) to honour Dame Agatha by embedding this month’s three wine profiles within a short, old-fashioned murder mystery. That is, a wine murder mystery.
So, throw on a sweater, (it’s a little chilly down here in the cellar) and have your usual seat around the old oak tasting table as I bring you, Death by Rioja.
Welcome back to the cellar.
Death by Rioja
“Whatever could be keeping him? I sent Featherswain down to the cellar for an ’89 Rioja, must be over an hour ago at least. He may be almost my age but he damn well should be back by now,” puzzled the 75-year-old curmudgeon at the head of the large, polished, Mahogany table. In his agitation, he fussed with a blood-stained, bandage around his right index finger.
I was a few place settings away alongside my Aunt Edwina. She being the sole reason I was at this gathering, as every second Saturday I am not only her nephew but her driver. And this evening she had pressed her host, to have me join her at the table. The host by the way was her wealthy, widowed brother Seymour. The uncle we didn’t talk about. Although Aunt Edwina was in her 82nd year, her quick mind was at least a couple of decades younger.
“Seymour, did someone finally attack you? Your hand is bandaged up and is that dried blood on your chin?”
“Oh shut it. Can’t a man have a shaving accident without the likes of you putting it on the front page?”
“At any rate Seymour, hadn’t we better find out what is pre-occupying poor Featherswain? How long could it possibly take to get down to your cavern of bottles and back? Or maybe he’s doing a little sampling of some of your prized vintages?”
“Perish the thought Edwina. You truly are my evil sister.”
“I’m your only sister.”
“What a shame….,” said Seymour. “Anyhow, he went down just before you all arrived. Strange.”
And at that moment I went from being nephew and driver, to amateur investigator.
“Dear brother, our nephew Douglas here, will be happy to foot it down to the cellar and if not motivate dear Featherswain, at least bring back that ’89 Rioja you’ve tantalized us with. I do love a Rioja almost as much as I love depleting your cellar.”
The others at the table who had been apparently tantalized were Uncle Seymour’s long-time accountant, a Mr. Bartholomew (they all called him Barth), and a mousy, quiet as paint couple from the manor house down the road; the Fitzpatricks, Elaine and Blaine.
My aunt had told me I’d get more conversation from a plant than from the Fitzpatricks; that in an entire evening, they wouldn’t speak more than a couple sentences between them. She said that was precisely the reason Seymour tolerated them.
“He doesn’t want talkers around, he wants listeners!,” she’d said.
So off I went from the dining room; dispatched to the cellar leaving the others to a delicious red from Italy, between bites of beef tenderloin.
Luciano Arduini Bacan Rosso Veronese 2016
750 mL bottle VINTAGES#: 10126
Down the wood-panelled hallway I walked tentatively, for no other reason than I didn’t really know where I was going. Even though this was my uncle’s home I had only been here once when I was young. He was the recluse of the family; only keeping company with Edwina, his accountant and the Fitzpatricks.
I passed by the third large portrait and there just as Uncle Seymour had said, was an ornate door handle secured to what looked like more panelling. I turned it.
A latch clicked and I pulled open the panel. It was the door to a descending, winding, iron staircase. As I negotiated the steps, I called out to Mr. Featherswain. A light illuminated my way down. I heard no response; only something telling me I’d be a lot more comfortable back upstairs with the others.
“Barth, wrestle that white from Elaine if you will and pass it down here. I’ve been dying to give it a go. It’s apparently a beautiful Sauv Blanc from New Zealand. Featherswain grew up there. I must say, some days I wish he’d go back.”
Edwina bristled. “Seymour, I’d hate to think what poor Featherswain says about you. Honestly!… Before you pass it his way, I’ll have that white please Barth.”
Mount Riley Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc 2019
750 mL bottle VINTAGES#: 447425
At the base of the staircase, I stepped into the cool, cavernous space lit by strategically placed pot lights. The walls were lined with floor to ceiling oak shelves that housed what must have been a few thousand wine bottles. There were darkened alcoves and in each, probably hundreds more bottles laying at rest. My eye went to a flashing blue light above a high-tech looking thermostat control with digital temperature and humidity readings.
How that first caught my attention I have no idea, because there in the far corner of the room was Featherswain, I presumed. He was grotesquely bent over, his right cheek mushed against a chest-high tasting table and a frozen grimace on his face. His white shirt had a ghastly, bright red blotch centred between the shoulder blades. Surely it was evidence of a knife or the bullet that had killed him. A shattered bottle of ’89 Rioja lay by his feet. The deep red of the grape had mixed with his congealing, pool of blood. I fumbled with my smartphone and was barely able to get a picture of the dead man before I flew back up the winding staircase in a desperate panic.
When I burst into the dining room, Uncle Seymour was holding court and of course, a glass of wine. “Well, considering that ’89 Rioja has gone missing with Featherswain, join me in a glass of this tasty Gran Reserva from Chile.”
Apaltagua Envero Gran Reserva Carmenère 2015
750 mL bottle VINTAGES#: 481010
If the shocked expression on my face wasn’t enough to get everyone’s attention, what flew out of my mouth did.
“It’s Mr. Featherswain!! He’s in the cellar. He’s dead!”
Uncle Seymour put his glass down. “Good God, he’s not!”
I clunked down my phone on the table for all to see what I had seen. It was then that Elaine said her first words of the night.
“Sydney!! My true heart!. You sweet man. You’ve been taken from me?” And she wailed the loudest of wails.
Blaine turned to his wife. “What are you saying Elaine?”
“Oh my. I think I know what she’s saying,” said Aunt Edwina.
“Holy moly,” said Seymour.
Then between sobs, the unravelling Elaine suddenly plunged her hand into her husband’s near jacket pocket.
“I need your kerchief Blaine.”
She pulled it out quickly before he could stop her. Out of the kerchief rolled a heavy object. It fell loudly onto the Mahogany table in front of everyone. It was a blood-smeared, brass corkscrew with the initials S.F. engraved on it.
“Why that’s Featherswain’s, Sydney Featherswain,” said Seymour. “I gave him the damn thing! He wouldn’t think of opening a bottle without it. Took it everywhere.”
“Fitting that something he loved was used to kill him,” said Blaine Fitzpatrick. He had a satisfied but crazed look on his face as he continued. “But sorry dear, your dearest Sydney had to die. I couldn’t stand living with the lies any longer. Yours and his. I knew of your clandestine meetings with him down in the cellar; your cool, dark love nest. Which is now his tomb.
You see I followed you there one evening when you said you were going to the ladies. And sitting at the top of the staircase, I was tortured by the sounds of bliss rising from the cellar, like the stench of a corked wine.
So tonight, when I told you I had business to attend to and that I would meet you here for dinner, I came here early and waited for your Featherswain in the cellar.”
I couldn’t believe the venom that was spilling out before us. And just as I thought nothing could ever be more bizarre, Elaine’s wails and tears turned to fury. She grabbed the corkscrew and wildly jammed it deep into Blaine’s neck. For a second he sat staring forward sort of frozen. Then he fell face first into the red pepper jelly mold. Dead as that red that started off the night.
I sat back in my chair stunned by what had just unfolded.
I’m not a professional, but it occurred to me that murder often cannot be explained and just as often it doesn’t make sense. But tonight in my Uncle Seymour’s manor, with the tragic story of Featherswain, Elaine and Blaine, murder had a rhyme and it definitely had a reason.
Well that crazy turn of events brings us to the end of our time together for this month. We’ll see you in February. Until then, keep your glass of wine close and your friends even closer.
Oh, and keep your corkscrew under lock and key.
If you’re enjoying my wine meanderings, I’m really glad. And please let me know your thoughts or tell me about any great wine you’ve discovered. Of course, if you know someone who might like to join us in the cellar each month, send me their email or they can contact me at: email@example.com