In California wine country, the town of Cypress Cove may seem peaceful. But someone’s about to pop their cork…
After losing her job as a photojournalist, Penny Lively is trying to get her life back in focus. Inheriting the family winery from her late aunt may be the fresh start she needs. Thankfully she’s got her niece Hayley and her handsome winery manager Connor to help. But the person in need of more urgent assistance is Antonia Martinelli, the owner of the neighboring winery, who has her own barrel full of problems. Someone’s spoiling her wine, and with the upcoming Autumn Festival, she needs Penny’s nose for clues to sniff out the culprit.
But Penny’s search for answers sours after the body of a staff member is found in a grape crusher. Since Hayley was the last to see him alive, she’s the prime suspect in the case. Now Penny must hurry to find the real killer before Hayley withers on the vine…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A SIMPLE house rule, ignored once, and I end up with a dead body on my hands. Actually more than one, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The rule is, never answer the front door. I learned growing up it was usually a tourist. The house, with its stone walls and copper roof aged to a green patina, drew visitors toting cameras. While my aunt loved guests at the winery, she protected our privacy at home, and had planted screen trees years ago. Now, I don’t get many visitors, and I like it that way. The house is invisible from the street, flanked by my vineyards, rows of lush green soldiers standing tall and straight, shoulder to shoulder. Visitors have to manage the drive through my grape barricade. The occasional knock on the door first thing Saturday morning means someone has gone the distance. More often than not it’s an attempt to sell me something, usually magazine subscriptions or membership to a church that doesn’t let you drink.
I don’t have time for magazines, and I wouldn’t join a church that doesn’t let me drink. After all, I own a winery. Until recently the knocking went unanswered. My niece Hayley, new to the household, didn’t know the rules.
“Antonia Martinelli’s here.” She lifted her eyebrows and disappeared down the hall.
Terrific. I’d rather buy magazines.
Antonia’s a distant relative, my aunt Monique’s cousin. They’d been close and, toward the end, Antonia had made it easier for my aunt and ultimately easier for me. I was grateful to her, although, to be honest, she’d never been one of my favorite people. When I was young she’d sneak up and grab us for playing in her vineyards. Used to spook the hell out of me.
The tap of her cane down the hall announced her arrival before Antonia stepped into the room. Her silver hair was swept up. It glinted in the morning sun as she stepped over Nanook, my malamute. As she passed by the faintest scent of lavender tickled my nose. She stopped at the armchair that held my gray tabby, Petite Syrah.
“Move.” Antonia pointed the cane toward the floor.
Syrah opened her green eyes, rolled to the edge of the seat and, with a surprisingly loud thump, landed on the ground and walked to the door with as much dignity as she could muster.
“Penelope, that cat is overweight, and why would you let it up on the furniture? I hope I don’t get cat hair all over me.”
Good. Maybe she wouldn’t sit and I could get back to my quiet Saturday morning. Too bad I had on my standard weekend sweatsuit. White. Antonia’s ability to reduce me to the awkward teen I’d once been wasn’t helped by my resembling the Michelin tire man. I stayed seated on the couch, gathered my own dignity, and turned to face her.
“Hi, Antonia. Want coffee?”
She looked at the clock on my desk, then at her wristwatch, as if to confirm the time. “No. I had mine hours ago.”
She eyed the photos on the side table and picked up the one closest to her. It was a black and white of her and my aunt as teens in the vineyards. Knee-deep in grapes, they smiled into the camera.
“I remember when this was taken. We were so young then.” She set the picture down and turned to me. “I can see Monique in you. You’ve got the blonde hair and you’ve inherited your aunt’s good skin, but you’ve aged.”
Gee, thanks. “I haven’t lived here for twenty years.”
“What are you now, forty?”
“No. I’m still in my midthirties.” Okay, late thirties.
She eyed my legs, curled up under me. “You get your height from Monique too. Enjoy it while you can. Soon you’ll start to shrink.”
Wow. The church folk were looking pretty good right about now.
“Your aunt would be glad you’ve decided to keep the winery. Glad you decided to quit the city and come home.”
“Me too.” Six months earlier I hadn’t been so sure. Antonia didn’t need to know my return to Cypress Cove was prompted by my getting fired.
Antonia was once again focused on the picture and seemed lost in thought. She’d always looked the same to me, with her silver hair and black dresses. What could she want? She’d never come by before, not since I’d been back.
Something was different. She’d always exuded confidence, but now she sat with her foot tapping, and she twisted a ring on her finger. There was a slight tremble in her hands as she folded and pressed them to her lap.
She looked away. “You’re probably wondering why I’m here. The truth is, I need a favor.”
Okay, this was a switch. Antonia never needed anything from anybody.
“Someone is sabotaging the wines at Martinelli. I want you to help me find out who it is.” She got up and walked to the window. “Don’t suggest I talk with my children. The damage is being done by someone with access to the barrels.” She reached out to hold on to the windowsill. “It could very well be one of them.”
While I searched for an appropriate response, Antonia turned to face me. “First time I’ve ever seen you speechless. Say something, for heaven’s sake.”
I took a second. “What makes you think someone is sabotaging you?”
“Martinelli Winery doesn’t make the kind of mistakes I’m finding. Last year there were a couple of bad barrels. This year there are dozens.”
I relaxed and leaned back on the couch. “Wait a minute, Antonia. I’ve only been back at the winery for a short time, but I grew up in this business. Some years are just better than others.”
Antonia moved over to the French doors and looked out at the grapes, full and ripe in the autumn sun. “You aren’t listening. One barrel is fine, another ruined. One is excellent, the next rancid. It’s random. It’s deliberate.”
I saw her point. Problems happened to an entire crop, not random barrels.
“You need to go to the police.”
“I don’t want the publicity. It’s bad enough people think our standards are slipping. If my customers suspect we won’t be able to deliver our orders, they’ll start pulling deliveries. I want you to help me.” She paused. “Monique would want it too.”
It wasn’t fair for her to use my aunt as leverage, although I had to agree with her. Martinelli Winery was a mainstay of the wine industry in this part of California.
“Even if I agreed, why me?”
“I can’t. If my family or employees are responsible they’re already watching me. No one will notice you, a neighbor and fellow vintner. Frankly, you’re the best choice I had.”
“I won’t let that go to my head. What would you want me to do?”
“Listen. Watch. Find out who the culprit is and tell me.” Antonia looked at my desk, completely free of papers or work, and even I could see the light layer of dust. My camera and closed laptop were the only items on its surface. “Actually, I’m surprised you aren’t more curious. After all, didn’t you do that type of thing at the paper?”
I nodded. “Investigative photojournalism.”
“There. You see? You must like prying. You should be used to watching people. Asking questions.”
It’s true. I’d worked for the San Francisco Press and been paid to do what I do best: stick my nose into other people’s business.
That ended six months ago, when my editor wanted to digitally add spectators to a photo I took at a riot. I refused, assuming we were in the business of accurately reporting the news. I guess I was pretty vocal about it and, in the end, my boss and I reached an agreement. He agreed I could refuse to alter my work, and I agreed I was fired.
I rode my indignation right out of there and into every other paper for miles around. It didn’t take long to realize computer software had changed photojournalism forever. Selling papers was more important than accuracy. Beyond that, I’d been labeled as rigid and inflexible, somebody difficult to work with.
Antonia waited patiently for an answer, which wasn’t like her. It was strange the wines were in the barrels before the problems turned up. It didn’t make sense. I’d begun to pick at the puzzle, trying to make the pieces fit.
Okay, I admit it. I’m nosy, I’m intrusive and, yes, I was curious. “Before I agree to help you, is there anything else you can tell me?”
Antonia took a deep breath. “About six months ago I began to notice little items missing around the main winery. Things out of place, paperwork moved, that kind of thing. At first I didn’t think much about it. Then about a month ago, someone broke into the winery office.”
“Did they take anything of value?”
“A few hundred dollars and the account ledger, but that was it. Then last week a noise woke me around midnight. It came from the attic. I put on my robe and went out into the hall, but by the time I got to the stairway the house was quiet again. When I went up there the following morning, things weren’t as I’d left them, but it was impossible to tell if anything was missing.”
“Do you think it has something to do with the ruined wine?”
“I don’t know.” The hand that held the cane trembled slightly, but her voice was strong and her gaze steady. “Martinelli Winery is the legacy of my family. If someone’s trying to hurt it, or its reputation, I will stop them.”
I believed her. If I didn’t help her, she’d pursue it without me.
“Okay, let’s see what we can find out. On our own.” I stood and looked at her.
“Excellent, Penelope.” Antonia breathed deeply. Her shoulders relaxed. “Where do we start?”
“Please call me Penny.”
“You’ve been Penelope to me your entire life. I’m too old to start calling you something else.”
Right. “Who has access to the house, the winery?”
“I’ve thought of that. You know Marvin.”
“Yes. He’s often at the house, usually in the library and kitchen.”
I was surprised. “The kitchen? He eats with the family?”
Antonia sniffed. “Of course not. He’s allowed to come to the kitchen and have the cook fix him a tray to take back to his apartment. Certainly on most days he comes to the house for one reason or another.”
She turned to look out the window. “I believe you know Todd. He’s in charge of the tasting room. Then there are my three children. Do you remember them?”
“Not really. I went to public schools.”
“True, they were gone most of the time. Francesca is a few years older than you, and then there’s my son, Stephen.”
“Stephen must be about my age, but I don’t know if I’d recognize him. I remember Chantal, though.” Chantal was Antonia’s youngest, and she’d stolen a boyfriend from every girl in town, including me.
“Why would they do something to hurt the winery?”
Antonia stamped her cane. Even with a rubber tip, that was going to leave a mark. “That’s what I want you to find out.”
Good point. “Okay, that’s five people. Does anyone else have access to both the winery office and the house?”
“Of course. Two of my children are married and I also have servants and part-time help at the winery.”
“Let’s start with the servants. Do they live in?”
“No.” She turned to face the window and I had to strain to hear her next words. “No one but the family. And Marvin.”
“So, if we assume the same person ransacked both the winery office and the attic—a big assumption, I understand—then for the moment we can focus our efforts on the people with access to the house at night.” I looked at her. “Are you sure you don’t want to tell the police about this?”
“Penelope, we’ve just established that someone intimately involved in the winery is trying to destroy it. Best case, it appears one of my employees is responsible. Going to the police, and the publicity that would ensue, is the very last thing I want.”
There were steps in the hall and Hayley came through the doorway. “I’m heading to the office and wanted to say good-bye.”
Antonia looked up from across the room, her brows creased. “Did you hear our conversation?”
“This is Hayley’s home, Antonia. She’s a grown woman and I won’t allow you to speak to her that way.”
I looked at Antonia and realized I was no longer intimidated by her. “I didn’t ask you here. You came on your own. If you no longer want my help, then that’s fine too.”
Antonia raised her brow and paused. “Very well. You can discuss the issue here, but please remember it’s a private matter.”
No kidding. I rolled my eyes at Hayley.
Antonia moved toward Hayley. “I’ll walk to the office with you. I want to ask Connor when he plans on bringing in the rest of the harvest. Perhaps we can coordinate the temporary workers so neither of us gets behind.”
Connor was the reason for any success my winery enjoyed. He’d had offers to manage other wineries, but stayed with my aunt because she gave him complete control of the vineyards, which is how it should be. He decided all of the day-to-day operations, from hiring the seasonal help to actually turning the grapes into wine. Connor came with an added bonus: he was great with tourists and visitors. I’d offered him the same arrangement when I’d returned to the winery and was grateful every day that he’d accepted.
“I can tell you when we’re going to harvest,” Hayley said.
“That’s right. I forgot you’re the assistant manager now. You can learn a lot from Connor. I want to talk to him about a couple of other things as well.”
Antonia turned to me. “He’s a fine man, about as good as they come.”
“I know that. That’s why he’s my manager.”
Antonia waved her hand. “I don’t mean his skills as a manager. I mean as a man. He’d make a great catch for any single woman. Especially one recently back in town and not getting any younger.”
Antonia playing matchmaker? “Thanks. Especially for the not-getting-any-younger comment, but I’m not interested.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Penelope Lively. If you had any sense, you’d see Connor is about as good as they come. You’d do well to snatch him up and get him off the market before someone else does.”
Running the winery was hectic enough without dating my manager. We got along great. That was enough.
“He’s all yours, Antonia.” I got a small but satisfying glimpse as the pink in her cheeks deepened.
“Don’t listen to me, then. You never did.” She moved toward the door. “I’ll be off. We should talk again before the festival.”
The Autumn Festival was two days of wine, food and judging the local wineries’ best selections. For the first time, the smaller wineries were invited to participate.
“Your first year to compete. Are you ready?”
“We’ve been ready for weeks.” I smiled.
“Your aunt would be proud.”
I nodded, not trusting my voice. Hayley and Antonia walked down the back steps to the winery office.
The sun had come out early and burned away the coastal fog that settled almost every night. The day was bright and clear. I opened the window, leaned out and breathed in the morning air. Sugar in the grapes is highest in the fall, and the vineyards fill the valley with a spicy, sweet fragrance.
I ran my hand over Petite Syrah, curled once again in her armchair, silver-gray fur luxurious in the morning sun.
“She doesn’t think you belong on the furniture.”
Syrah pushed against my hand. I rubbed between her ears and stared out over the vineyards. If Martinelli Winery was in trouble, the entire central coast winery business would suffer, including our own humble efforts.
I picked up my camera. I’d always been fascinated with photography. If it was on film it was indisputable. At least it had been. Photo “enhancing” was done every day and without public knowledge. I was right to refuse to alter my work, but that didn’t help with the loss of my career.
I was back at the winery, but I still found comfort in the same place I always found it: behind a camera lens. Now, though, the focus was landscape photography. Nobody asked me to alter my work and there was never a lack of subject matter. Grape leaves wore their autumn finery, the russets, yellows and purples as beautiful in their own way as any maple or elm. Those who believe California doesn’t have seasonal color have never lived on a winery.
Syrah followed as I stepped out though the French doors and onto the back deck. She curled up and resumed her nap in the sun’s warmth.
The arbor was heavy with pale yellow roses, the last of the season. I took a few shots and walked down the back steps to look out over the fields. Sunlight glimmered through the vines and warmed my face. The chaos of life in the city seemed far away. If ever there was a place free from malice, sheltered from the evils of the world, surely it was here.
Of course, I’d been wrong before.
I WALKED back into the sunroom, took a seat at the desk and downloaded the photos onto my computer. When I finished, I walked down to the winery and spent the next hour taking one last look at the barrels. Weeks before, we’d rolled them outside and washed them, rinsing them with water and citric acid. Every barrel needed to be inspected for cracks and defects. Nothing scientific. You stick your head in each one and look around.
Hayley walked up beside me. “Thanks for defending me earlier, but I didn’t hear the conversation. What’s up with Antonia?”
“Trouble at her winery. The vintages have been bad and she thinks maybe it’s being done on purpose.”
Hayley nodded. “There’s been talk their wines have been off lately. I’ve noticed it. The last time I had a Martinelli Chardonnay it was great, but the bottle before that wasn’t drinkable. You think Marvin is slipping?”
“I can’t believe that. He’s impossible and has a mean streak, but he’s extremely good at what he does.”
“So if Marvin isn’t losing his touch, could someone be doing it on purpose?”
“That’s exactly what Antonia thinks. She asked me to help figure it out.”
“Ha! A chance to be nosy. I’m sure you’re dreading that.” Hayley knew me too well. Busybody, meddler, snoop. I’d been called these and worse.
“If you don’t have anything else to do, you can help me soak these barrels.”
All the barrels, old and new, are “soaked up,” which is simply filling them with water to swell the wood. This tightens the staves and ensures the barrels are leak-free.
“Let me grab the hose.”
“The new ones come in tomorrow.” I’d ordered some additional barrels of French oak. Like most wineries, we used both American and French oak. The American oak imparted a stronger bite to the finish of the wine. I liked it, although many people finished with just the French oak, which left the wine smoother and more buttery.
When we were finished I looked at my watch. “It’s lunchtime. Want to grab a bite?”
“It’s later than I thought, and I still need to load the truck. I’ll grab something later. See you in a bit.”
I returned to the house. The front door opened and footsteps sounded as Connor made his way down the hall. He had an apartment above the winery office but took his meals here.
“So, you talked to Antonia?”
He nodded. “She wanted to know about our inventory control.”
“She didn’t ask you about when you were bringing in the rest of the harvest?”
“Not a word.” Connor poured a cup of coffee and sat down. “It would be a little odd for Antonia to ask about when to harvest. Now that I think about it, it’s odd she’s asking about inventory control. I’m sure they have a system as good as ours over there.”
“I might be able to explain that.” I told Connor of Antonia’s suspicions.
“If she thinks something’s wrong, then there is. No one is better at this business than Antonia.” Connor took a sip of coffee and studied me over the rim of his cup.
“Why would she come here to tell you something’s wrong at Martinelli?”
“Antonia doesn’t want to go to the police. She wanted to talk about it.”
Connor lifted an eyebrow. “Really? Just wanted to talk about it? Just a couple of gals shootin’ the breeze? Odd that Antonia never stopped by before, just to talk.”
I shrugged. “She wants me to help her figure out the problem, but quietly, especially since it’s probably someone connected to the winery.”
“Did you think this through?”
“Why, because you think it might be a bad idea?”
“I owe her. She was here for Aunt Monique. I came down as much as possible, but with work it wasn’t as often as I wanted.”
Connor kept his eyes on his cup. “You did what you could, and Monique knew that. Antonia was over all the time. The two of them talked nonstop for hours.”
“So you understand why I want to help her. This is my chance to say thanks.”
“It’s just that if your snooping around doesn’t go well, or she doesn’t like the outcome, you might get caught in the fallout.”
I shook my head. “She knows she may not like the answers, but if I don’t help her she’ll try to find out who’s responsible on her own.”
“That might be a better idea.”
“I already told her I’d help. Anyway, how do you know a good idea until you try it?” Truth is, I’m not very good at picking out the good ideas from the bad. I’ll pretty much try them all.
Connor rubbed his eyes.
“Never mind. Okay, I follow you’re going to help her, and I understand why. Where do you start?”
“Spending time with the logical people.” I ticked off the names on my fingers. “As winery manager Marvin has plenty of opportunity, but I can’t imagine his motive. It only hurts him when quality is off. Same with Todd, but since he’s limited to the tasting room, I don’t know how he fits.” I shrugged my shoulders. “Then there are her three kids.”
Connor nodded. “Rumor is Stephen’s being groomed to take over the winery. We’ll see if that ever happens. I can’t imagine Antonia handing over the reins.”
“You’re probably right. He’s going to be like Prince Charles—in his sixties and still not running the place. Anyway, that leaves her two daughters.”
“Francesca lives in the city, but she’s down here all the time. I understand she bought some land nearby. There were stories about how she got it, but I’ve never heard what really happened.”
“Chantal still lives at home, even though she’s in her thirties. Boy, that Chantal. I remember her, all right. She’s a real piece of work. I haven’t seen her since I moved back. Does she still have that same, you know, figure?”
Connor smiled but avoided my glance. “If I remember correctly.”
He stood, got more coffee and paced around the kitchen, cup in hand.
“Will you come and sit back down?” I looked at him when he didn’t answer. “What?”
“Well, the thing is, if you live here and you’re single, or I guess if you’re a single male . . . Actually forget the single. If you’re a male, sooner or later—”
“Stop, you can’t be serious. You’re not about to tell me you dated her.”
I don’t know why I was surprised or why it mattered. Chantal had rubbed every female in town the wrong way at one time or another, and if the stories were true, had rubbed up against most of the men as well. Not that they complained. Chantal was stunning. She was curvy in that classic Hollywood va-va-voom way, not to mention beautiful and rich. Man, she really ticked me off.
Connor held up his hands. “We went out a couple of times. She wanted to become an item—”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Yeah, Connor, ya think?”
“—but I let her know I just wasn’t interested. She’s kind of a messed-up kid, if you want to know the truth.”
“Oh, please, she’s in her thirties.”
“She hasn’t figured out who she is, apart from the Martinelli family. Then there’s the winery itself. She shouldn’t drink. She’s been in rehab a couple of times and I don’t think she’s ever held a job. She just doesn’t seem to know what she wants to be when she grows up.”
“I guess.” Although the last time I saw her, she looked pretty grown-up to me. Not sure exactly how she could grow up any more. Or where. “She’d better get it together soon.” I shook myself. “Enough of Chantal. Anything else?”
“I know where you can see most of them tonight.”
“Do you remember the Monterey County Wine Growers Association?”
“Sure. MCWGA. Wasn’t Monique the president?”
Connor nodded. “Now Antonia is. They’re holding annual elections tonight. All the Martinellis will be there, if only because Antonia wants to be president again. She’ll want their votes. Hayley and I are driving over together. You should come too.”
He moved around the kitchen. The sunlight caught his dark blond hair, full and with the hint of a curl. It fell to the edge of his collar. He wore a denim shirt in a sky blue that matched his eyes. He sat back down at the table, the earthy sweetness of grapes on his skin.
I thought about what Antonia said. He was a catch; I just wasn’t up for the chase.
Connor caught my eye and smiled. I looked away and caught a reflection of myself in the glass door. Right. I’m sure the reason we weren’t together was because I wasn’t up for the chase. My sweatsuit had wine stains from the barrels and highlighted my ten extra pounds. My hair was doing the frizz thing from the spray of the water. I tried to smooth it. Yeah, much better. I’m sure he found me irresistible.
I avoided his gaze. The invitation to the festival sat on the table and I picked it up.
The Cypress Cove Vintners Association
In Conjunction with Martinelli Winery
Invite Penelope Lively
Owner of Joyeux Winery
To Participate in the Twenty-fourth
Annual Autumn Festival
Penelope again. Antonia must have dictated the invitations.
“Antonia asked if we were ready for this.” I slid the invite across the table.
“What did you tell her?”
“We’ve been ready for weeks.”
“We’ve been ready for years.”
Connor had been at this winery, working with my aunt, since he’d graduated from UC Davis with a degree in viniculture.
“You know this invitation belongs to you more than me,” I said. “It’s your victory. Not mine. Congratulations.”
“This is for all of us. Hayley too.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Taking on more responsibility all the time. I really don’t need to watch her anymore. She took care of most of the details for the festival.”
Connor filled me in on the wines we were entering into the competition until Hayley bounded up the outside steps and joined us in the kitchen.
“The last of the cases are loaded on the truck and ready to go.” She ran her hands through her hair. “Marvin’s going to wish he’d kept his mouth shut.”
Marvin had remarked the smaller wineries shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the festival tasting. Ever since, Hayley had been anxious for the time when Martinelli and Joyeux could compete taste to taste.
“I need to get over to Martinelli Winery,” Hayley said.
Connor stood and stretched. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll come with you.” He walked down the path, back to the winery office.
Hayley came over to stand next to me. Moments later she nudged me in the ribs. “Nice view.”
AFTER Hayley and Connor left, I grabbed my camera and a pair of scissors. Nanook followed me outside and flopped down in the shade.
I tried to spend a part of every day in the garden. Things grew so fast in the mild climate I needed to come out most days just to keep up. I snapped shots of the garden with the winery in the background. This time of year the sunflowers managed to take over the garden, much to the delight of the birds. I cut several bunches for the house, leaving a few on the flat stones. Rabbits loved the seeds and I had more than enough.
After I finished in the garden, I went through my prints and postcards for various shots to sell at the festival. They were good publicity for Joyeux Winery and a nice reminder for visitors of their time here.
The seasons of the year were clear in the images. Early spring leaves, freshly unfolded green against the bluest of skies; summer shots, where the terrain of golden hills shimmered like waves in the background; autumn, the perfect time on a winery, when the fiery orange and deep purple grape leaves challenged seasonal colors anywhere. The winter shots, done in black and white to heighten the starkness of the barren branches, showed none of the life that would burst forth when the cycle began anew.
The doorbell rang just as I finished. What good was living in the middle of nowhere if people still managed to show up unannounced?
I might have ignored it but Todd Ryan from Martinelli Winery stood there. He spotted me and waved through the glass. I opened the door.
“Hi there.” I moved to let him in. “I thought I’d see you tonight at the Wine Growers Association, but here you are.”
In his late twenties, Todd wore his usual outfit: a white, long-sleeved cotton shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. He had his Stetson on and brown curls were tucked behind his ears. He had a nice smile. “I was driving by and thought I’d stop in. Hope you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not.” I didn’t really know Todd and couldn’t imagine what he wanted. “Coffee?”
“Thanks, but no. I don’t want to take up a lot of your time.” He took off his hat, turning it in his hands.
“It’s no problem.” The curiosity was getting to me. “What’s up?”
Todd smiled. “I’m getting married soon—”
“I heard that. Congratulations.”
“Thanks. The thing is, Joanne, that’s my fiancée, really loves your landscapes. She feels you’re the best photographer in town. We know you don’t do events, but if you’re willing to be our photographer . . .”
I looked at him. “Are you sure? It’s your big day. You don’t want to take any chances.”
“Believe me, we’d be honored. Um, we don’t have a lot of money . . .”
I waved my hand. “I wouldn’t charge you. I’m more than willing to try if you’re willing to take the risk.”
“That would be really great.” Todd smiled. “I didn’t think there was this much to getting married. Joanne and I want something small and there’s still a lot going on.”
“When’s the date?”
“Ten weeks, December twenty-first. It’s a good time of the year. Before Christmas and after all the tourists go home.”
If Todd was in charge of the Martinelli tasting room, he’d have access to every area of the winery. “So, you’ve been in charge of the tasting room for what, a year now?”
“Not quite. I started last November.”
“How do you like it?”
“I enjoy the work, and Antonia’s great.”
“Really?” I tilted my head as though this surprised me, which, in a way, it did.
“She’s not bad. Not like the way she comes across. As long as you do your job, she leaves you alone.” He studied the brim of his hat and continued. “It’s more than that. She goes out of her way if she knows you’re interested in learning. I have my degree and want to run my own winery someday. Still, there’s so much to the actual process of making wine. If it weren’t for Antonia, I don’t know if I’d be learning much at all.”
“Marvin isn’t the best teacher?”
Todd grimaced. “He thinks if he explains something his job’s in danger. No chance of that from me. Not for a long time. And Stephen . . .”
“That’s right. I forgot Antonia’s son is starting to take on more responsibility. How’s it going?”
“Okay, I guess. My time is spent in the tasting room, but I know he’s made some changes. They upgraded some of the equipment. He tries to keep up with Marvin and Antonia when they discuss the winery. Stephen seems so easygoing and they’re both such strong people. I think he’s caught in the middle. Lately, there has been more pressure. I know there’s been some trouble with the consistency of the wines, and Antonia is relying on Marvin more than ever.”
I tried to look surprised. “What’s been going on with the wines?”
He shrugged. “Could be a lot of things. The truth is, it’s not a fun place to work right now.” His hand tightened on his hat, crushing it.
“What makes you say that?”
“There’s a lot of tension. The wines have been disappointing, and now there’s something going on with . . .”
I waited. Sort of. “Todd?”
He put up his hands. “Forget it. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Todd, at least finish what you—”
“No.” He started for the door. “Honestly, forget it. We can talk about the photography later, if you’re still willing.”
“That’s great. See you tonight, Penny.”
He walked down the path. His shoulders were hunched and he walked with his head down. He didn’t look back. What was going on that had him so agitated? Todd had something on his mind, and it wasn’t Marvin. Marvin was a jerk, but that wasn’t anything new.
I shook my head. Antonia was here this morning about troubles on her winery and Todd was here now . . . What had Todd said? There was something going on with . . . what?
I turned from the window. Todd was getting married. Married and probably not earning much money right now. Todd struck me as a nice guy, and it seemed unlikely he’d take money from a competitor to sabotage Martinelli Winery. He also sounded like he enjoyed working for Antonia. Still, if he wanted his own winery, he needed to start a nest egg. Maybe he already had.
* * *
I spent the rest of the afternoon with the winery sales ledger, my largest responsibility. The wine business, like most everything else, was at the mercy of the economy. I would have guessed alcohol was pretty recession-proof. I figured when things were good, people liked to indulge. When things were bad, they liked to indulge even more.
However, wine is a luxury item. Our clients were cutting back on inventory. Hotels were at 50 percent occupancy and restaurants were closing. If your wine didn’t sell fast enough it got struck from the wine list. It took regular calls and visits to see if customers were out of stock or if they needed anything.
Hayley came in through the back door. “I need a handkerchief for my face. There’s a lot of dust from the tractor.”
She tied a bandanna around her throat. This was the busiest time of the year at the winery and I wouldn’t see much of her for the next couple of weeks. She looked a lot like her great-aunt and had a lot of the same traits as Aunt Monique. The same smile, the same streaky blonde hair and the same habit of running her fingers through it.
Aunt Monique started Joyeux Winery in 1982. Joyeux means joyful in French and was my grandparents’ name when they entered Ellis Island. Like so many immigrants of the time, they left the island and entered America with a different name: Lively, in their case.
I was glad my aunt revived the original family name for the winery. Joyful was how I felt every day here in the vineyards. Then I looked down at the ledger and the tension between my brows rose. Before I moved back I never paid much attention to the business end of running the winery. I assumed it did fairly well. Either Aunt Monique didn’t go into this for the money, or I still had a lot to learn.
Hayley looked at me. “You don’t look very happy with the accounts.”
“I don’t care if we get rich doing this, but I’d like to know we can keep a roof over our heads.”
She walked over, her expression worried.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds, but sales are down. I’ve called most of our clients, getting our name back out there. We just haven’t been at the top of their list, probably because we haven’t been in front of them. The response was good, though. Maybe soon we can start using more black than red ink in the books.” I stood and walked to the window. “The reality is we’re going to always remain a smaller winery, with specialty wines, because of the grapes we specialize in.”
My aunt wasn’t interested in producing a lot of one type of varietal, so she made a calculated move. She bought land that ran in a ribbon across the Carmel Valley, on the western side of the Santa Lucia Mountains. The three hundred acres ran west to east and benefited from a perfect soil mix of gravel and loam. The winery sat at just over one thousand feet above the Pacific Ocean, which was nine miles to the west. The result was a much wider variety of grapes than you could normally get to flourish on a winery this size. The western boundary was lower and closest to the cooler air of the Pacific. The Pinot Noir grown there would probably burst with the heat found at the eastern end of the property, while the Cabernet grown on the protected, sun-drenched hillsides to the east wouldn’t ripen on the cooler western boundary.
We produced Zinfandel, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. About twelve thousand cases per year. Certainly on the small side, but respectable.
I turned to Hayley. “Wine Growers meeting tonight.”
“I know. Wouldn’t miss it.” She smiled and gave a small laugh.
“What? Do you know something I don’t?”
“Maybe. I went online to see who was running for office this time around. I figured Antonia would be there and of course she is, but you’ll never guess who’s running against her. Go on, guess.” She laughed and looked even younger than her twenty-seven years.
“Hayley, come on. Just tell me.”
“Okay. I can’t believe it. I don’t know if Antonia knows yet and I want to see her face—”
“Enough already. Who is it?”
“No.” I looked at her. “Her daughter? What is she thinking?”
Hayley threw up her hands. “Can you believe it? It’s really going to rattle Antonia.”
I shook my head. “She must be planning on moving back from the city. She isn’t here often enough to be president. How would she manage this and still live in San Francisco?”
“I think she’s going to try. She has a successful law practice. She can’t be thinking of giving that up.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Why would she take this on? It’s a lot of work and she’s taking on Antonia. Why she would go to the trouble?”
“You don’t know the history. Two years ago Antonia gave Stephen his promotion. Until that time Francesca was really involved in the winery’s future. After that, forget it. Even though Antonia had always said she was leaving it to Stephen, Francesca was furious.”
I nodded. “Antonia told Aunt Monique years ago that if she ever had a son, she’d leave him the winery.”
Hayley nodded and walked toward the back door. “Ironic, isn’t it? Sometimes powerful women can be the most sexist of all. It’s like they break through the glass ceiling and then repair it behind them. Francesca’s determined to be a part of the winery community, even without her mother’s help. I don’t like Francesca, but I can see why she’d be angry at Antonia.”
“You don’t like Francesca? Why? You like everybody.”
Hayley stepped outside, talking over her shoulder. “I’ll let you make up your own mind tonight.”
What People are Saying About This
"One Foot in the Grape has the bouquet of fine wine (and mysteries): piquant, heady, and satisfyingly surprising."—Carolyn Hart, New York Times bestselling author of Don’t Go Home
"One Foot In The Grape is a barrel full of textured plot twists, robust characters, and sparkling suspense. O'Neil has written a mystery of the highest reserve. It left me thirsty for more, and I can't wait for her to pour me another." -Jenn McKinlay, New York Times bestselling author of Dark Chocolate Demise
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Carlene Oneil's books are a fun read they mysteries take place in the wine country - if you would like the 3rd book in paperback and not nook you can find it on Amazon - love this series hope there are more to come
Dollycas's Thoughts Penelope (Penny) Lively has inherited the family winery and after a little dust-up at her last job it is perfect timing. Her cousin Hayley has the degree in Viticulture and Connor manages the day to day tasks of the vineyard. Penny focuses on the business side of things. As a photojournalist she has a keen eye and takes some wonderful pictures that she sells as prints as postcards. Her keen eye is just what is needed to help Antonia Martinelli. The Martinelli winery and Penny's winery border each other. Antonia asks Penny to help her find out who is sabotaging their wine. With the Autumn Festival just days away, she desperately needs to cork up that issue right way. Penny agrees to help but before she has a chance to do anything one of the Martineeli staff is literally crushed and her cousin Hayley is the prime suspect. This was an impressive debut for this series. I would have thought competing wineries would be more cutthroat but in this story the neighboring wineries work closely together. Not only does Penny try to help Antonia, they work together planning the festival and even seem to share temporary help. The victim was someone very well liked with a bright future. Penny was not only investigating to save her cousin but to find the killer of someone she respected. The characters in this story were very interesting. Penny, Hayley and Connor are solid, relatable characters that will allow the series to succeed. The Martinelli family is quite a bunch. Antonia is ready to pass the winery on to her family, specifically to her son, but she isn't sure he is ready. Her oldest daughter, a lawyer, has a huge chip on her shoulder and thinks the winery should be hers. The youngest daughter has a set of problems all her own. This was a great supporting cast. I hope we see them again in future stories. The plot of the story is a unique one with some clever and surprising twists, although it did go a little bit awry at that start. It was the little clues that I almost wrote off that pulled this whole mystery together. I was on the right track but it turned out to be much more than I ever imagined. The author has left Penny holding back a very important tidbit and I wonder how long it will be before it is revealed to everyone. This has me anxious to read the next installment, Ripe For Murder, out on March 1. I was late to the party for this book. That won't be the case with the next one.
After reading the second book first, I went back to read book number one. I found this one to be as enjoyable, fast paced and as fun to read as the second one in the series. The characters are interesting and make you appreciate your own family more. Antonia Martinelli once again asks Penny Lively to help her find out who is sabotaging her winery. While Penny is looking for the root of the sabotages, murder crushes the wine festival and alters the family dynamics of a famous winery. It took me to the end to discover the murderer, when will you get it?
Learned lots about wine and wine making. Beautiful area of the country. Figured out who did it and why half-way into the book without trying. Enjoyed the book but don't think I'll read anymore.
A Grape Debut It’s confession time. Even though I grew up in the heart of the Sonoma/Napa wine country, I do not like wine. Go figure, right? But when I met author Charlene O’Neal at Bouchercon last November, I knew I had to give her new series a try. Having just finished One Foot in the Grape, I can say that you are in for a grape ride when you pick it up. Penny Lively has returned to the coastal town of Cyprus Cove, California, to run the winery she has inherited from the great-aunt who raised her. She is handling the business side of things while her niece, Hayley, and her winery manager, Connor, are handling growing the grapes and the wines themselves. Trouble arrives in the form of Antonia Martinelli, a distant relative who runs the largest winery in the area. Someone has been sabotaging the wines that Martinelli Winery produces, however, and Antonia is afraid if the culprit isn’t caught the damage will ruin the family name. Despite Antonia’s difficult and prickly reputation, Penny agrees to investigate only to find a dead body before she can gather any clues. Is the murder connected to the sabotage? Can Penny find the killer without any harm coming to her? Let’s just start by getting my complaint out of the way, okay? The days of the week and the timeline seemed to be all over the place in the first few chapters. It felt like the days of the early events in the story changed, and not everything was blended into the revision correctly. However, as the book progressed, that issue went away, and it never had any impact on the story. And the story here is great. There are many viable suspects with great motives, and the twists and turns kept me guessing until the very end, yet everything made sense. A few scenes had me turning pages as fast as I could to find out how Penny would escape the danger she was facing. I always like it when the suspects are strong because it makes the conflict feel real and it keeps me confused. The suspects here were awesome. I could feel the tension in a few of the early scenes, and once the murder happens, that tension continued to build. The rest of the characters were fine as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing them developed more in future books. In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing more of Penny’s family tree explained in future books as well. I’m a bit curious about family relationships based on what little we do learn here. However, none of that background is needed to enjoy this book, and I actually appreciate the fact that the author didn’t slow down the story for a back story data dump. I’m sure we will get the answers in future books. And I will be back for future books. Overall, One Foot in the Grape is a strong debut that promises many more fun mysteries to come. NOTE: I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
Reviewed for Read Your Writes Book Reviews by Kim Penelope (Penny) Lively has returned to Cypress Cove, California after losing her job, to take over her Aunt Monique’s winery, after the woman’s death. Six months in, things are going well, until Antonia Martinelli, a distant relative, Monique’s cousin and owner of the neighboring winery asks her for help in figuring out who is sabotaging her wine. The Autumn Festival and harvest time are near and if Antonia can’t figure out who’s behind the sabotage, Martinelli Winery could be no more. Penny is very witty and thinks fast on her feet. She has a curious nature about her, but she isn't someone who likes to take risks. Generally, she pretty much does things without thinking about the consequences, which of course usually lead to bad things happening. Penny ultimately stumbles upon the body of a well-liked winery employee and feels the need to investigate his murder since her niece was the last person to be seen with the employee. Penny doesn't necessarily go looking for trouble, it just sort of finds her. In looking into and questioning events and people, Penny unknowingly puts her life in danger. The killer is closer than she thinks, but who they are and why they're on a killing spree is a mystery. One Penny has to solve, before it's too late. The climax is surprising, leading to an unexpected twist with an ending I didn’t see coming. Even now, I’m playing back the events wondering exactly how Penny truly figured all of the pieces out. One Foot in the Grape had me at page one. The book is full of murder, adultery, sabotage and of course, wine. Turning cozy mystery books into movies are a big thing now. I can totally see this book making a wonderful movie. The characters are perfect; from Penny, to her niece Hayley, Winery Manager Connor, Chief Lucas and Antonia. Add in the possibility of romance and I'm really a happy girl. I have found a new author and series to love. Told in first person, One Foot in the Grape is the first book in the Cypress Cove Mystery Series from debut author Carlene O’Neil. This is definitely a must read book. **Received a copy from Penguin Berkley Prime Crime for an honest and unbiased opinion.**
One Foot in the Grape is the first book in the A Cypress Cove Mystery series. A wonderful new series, full of mystery and also giving the reader an insight to the wine industry. Penny Lively, after losing her job as a photojournalist has to decided to come back to Cypress Cove to take ownership of the winery she has inherited from her Aunt Monique. The winery has been running under the capable direction of her winery manager, Connor and her niece, Haley. About six months after Penny arrived, the owner of the neighboring winery, Antonia Martinelli pays a visit. Antonia feels that someone is trying to damage the winery's reputation and asks Penny for her help in finding who is doing the sabotage. Antonia feels that it might be someone within the family or her manager. Penny is reluctant at first, knowing how demanding a person Antonia can be, but feels she owes her for having been such a good neighbor to her aunt in her final days. When Todd Ryan, who works in the Martinelli's wine tasting room, comes to ask Penny to take photos at is upcoming wedding, Penny takes the opportunity to ask how things are at the winery. He begins to say how great it is to work there, but then seems hesitant to say much more. That evening, Penny, Haley and Connor go the Martinelli's for a Wine Growers Association meeting. While there she sees the eldest of the children, Francesca, can be as strong and as unnerving as her mother and is upset with her mother who has given her brother control of winery. There is doubt that he is capable of handling the job, even though his mother says he has come up with some great improvements to the winery. Then there is Chantal who hasn't met a man she doesn't want to love and Penny feels she is paying too much attention to Connor. As Penny is getting ready to leave the meeting, where she was elected vice-president, much to chagrin of Francesca, she hears a scream coming from the fermentation building. Upon entering the building she can hear one of the crusher running and when she looks into the crusher she finds the body of Todd. With Haley being the last person, other than the killer to see Todd alive, Penny begins to look into Todd's death to see if it might be related to sabotaging that Antonia feels is going on. With the help of the “town gossips”, Ross Sterling owner/chef of Sterling and Thomas who owns the gift shop, Beauty and Bean, next door, is off to try and learn who and what is behind the attempt to discredit Martinelli Winery. Penny soon learns of Francesca's shading land dealing, the philandering of Francesca's husband Brice and gambling problems of winery manager Marvin Karp, and is Stephen really as talented as people say he is at running the winery. Penny needs to sort through the facts and find the killer so see can see the next grape harvest. I really enjoyed this new series, a wonderful cast of characters, and just the right amount of looking into a winery's operation. Looking forward to the next book to see what is up next in the wine country and if Penny and Connor will be willing to admit that there might be mutual feelings for each other. (less)
ONE FOOT IN THE GRAPE was a good start for the new Cypress Cove Mystery series. Although I’m not a wine drinker (not a drinker at all for that matter), the beauty of vineyards are undeniable. While reading this story, it was easy to picture myself among the rows of ripening grapes, with the sun shining on a quiet, peaceful day. Well, you know, if there hadn’t been a murder. ;-) Author Carlene O’Neil has done a wonderful job on this first book. Well thought out characters, like protagonist Penny Lively, make for an entertaining read. I look forward to watching the growth of these characters in upcoming installments. Brava to the author for a death I haven’t seen in a cozy before . . . a grape crusher! Once the body is found, the mystery continues to ripen as the book draws to a conclusion I didn’t come close to guessing. A robust bouquet of well written mystery, ONE FOOT IN THE GRAPE is sure to be a new favorite among cozy fans.