Death of a Wine Snob

A Short Story, Part 1

Author’s Note — I have not been posting to this blog for some time, for various reasons. To remedy that, I will be posting a couple of short stories I have written. They are rather long reads, so I will break them down into segments that can be read in five to ten minutes and post a segment a couple times each week.

The first story is a murder mystery involving the violent death of a wine critic. The story is set in my hometown, Newberg, Oregon, which is situated in the heart of Oregon’s wine country.

Death of Wine Snob

By Eli Ring

The scene was taped off and secured when I rolled up. I parked down the street, pulled some latex gloves from the crime scene kit in my car, got out, and walked up to the house. A patrolman checked me in and I found the watch supervisor, Sargent Steve Ward, waiting inside the door.

I caught a familiar whiff of blood and human waste that accented the air as I went in and found myself comparing it to memories of dozens of other crime scenes I had been to over the years, to gauge what I was facing. 

“It looks like a homicide,“ said Steve.

“We have a name for the victim?”

“It’s a guy named Peter Joseph. You need to see it for yourself. I called the techs and the state medical examiner. This one’s a doozy.”

 “Peter Joseph?” I said. “I know him. I went to school with his mother.”

“You went to school with everyone’s mother,” said Steve, and then he pointed toward the back of the house with a thumb and said, “In there.”

As I followed him down a short hallway, to the living room, he said, “Since you know his Mom, you can do the notification?”

“She died,” I said. “Cancer, five or six years ago. I think his brother lives in Seattle. I’ll call him.”

 The victim was on his back in front of a blood-splattered stone fireplace.

“Well that’s interesting,” I said.

“Not something you see every day,” said Steve.

“Not necessarily murder. He could have fallen on his face while he was taking a swig from the bottle.”

“Well sure,” said Steve wryly. “Not necessarily murder, if you overlook the bullet wound in the middle of his forehead and the pool of blood under his noggin.”

“There is that,” I said as I paced around the corpse, being careful not to mess up any evidence.

I pulled on the latex gloves and squatted down next to the corpse. It was Peter Joseph alright. There was a bullet wound in his forehead. Dark blood matted the blond hair on the back of his head and had spread in a pool under him soaking into the rug. His blue eyes were open. They were clouded and carried a surprised look. He was a tall man in his thirties, wearing a green and yellow University of Oregon football jersey, skinny blue jeans, and no shoes or socks.

The oddest thing about the body though was the wine bottle that had been shoved into his mouth and deep into the back of his throat forcing his mouth to open wide and his head to tilt back. Wine had dribbled down his face, adding to the pool of gore under his head and staining the football jersey. I bent down and read the label on the bottle—Timber Ridge Winery, Pinot Noir, 2018.

“Somebody was sure pissed at him,” I said.

“People around here take wine seriously,” said Steve.

“You must be thinking what I am thinking. “

“I don’t know,” said Steve. “I am just a patrol Sergeant. I will leave you to it, Detective.”

He left the way we had come in.

I called the Chief on my cell and told him I would need some manpower. He gave me instructions and I called my sometime assistant, Julie Truman, a rookie patrol officer who was occasionally assigned to help me. I told her she was on temporary duty with me for the investigation and that her day off was canceled, and I told her where to meet me. I spent a little time making notes and thinking about what I knew about the victim. I didn’t know him well but I knew he was a sommelier for a local resort hotel and he wrote about wine in a column for the local newspaper. Why would someone kill him? Maybe a robbery that went bad?

     Julie Truman arrived twenty minutes later. She was big for a woman. Nearly six feet tall and solid. She had attractive features with brown eyes and black hair pulled back and arranged in a bun, a style she had picked up during a stint as an MP in the Army. The other thing she had picked up as an MP was a taste for mixing it up with suspects when needed. She had been with the department for nine or ten months and had already gained a reputation for competence and intelligence.

“What the hell?” she said as she stepped up to where I was hunkered over the body and caught sight of it.

“This guy is Peter Joseph,” I said. “He worked at the hotel as a sommelier and wrote for the newspaper.”

“What’s a sommelier?” she said.

“That’s the person in a restaurant that helps you order wine. His job is to beguile wine snobs into handing over their wealth for overpriced fermented grape juice.”

“Eric, you hang out in better eating establishments than I do because they have never offered me a wine menu at Burgerville.”

I ignored her crack and continued, “He also writes a column for the paper where he reviews wines grown here in the area. From what I’ve heard, he had a pretty good following and wielded some influence in the local wine-growing community.”

She said, “Huh… I wonder if he gave someone’s wine a bad review and it came back on him?”

“A fine theory. I was thinking the same thing. I am going to go talk to Boyd Schantz, at the paper and see what he thinks after I get the crime scene guys going. I want you to get a statement from the woman who found the body and then grab a patrolman and canvass the neighborhood to see if anyone heard or saw anything.”

“I am on it,” she said and headed for the door.

The crime scene techs arrived thirty minutes later. I used the time to snoop around the place. The house was nice, but not too big. The living room, where the body lay, was tastefully furnished and neat. A single wine glass, with a splash of what was probably red wine in it, sat on the coffee table. The house had three small bedrooms and two baths. One of the bedrooms served as an office, where he probably did his writing. An explosion of paper and books covered every flat surface. I poked around the papers but didn’t find anything promising.

His kitchen was well-equipped with expensive-looking appliances and what looked to me like professional-grade cookware and utensils, although I am a poor judge. I opened a few kitchen cabinets. They were stocked with china and glassware. One cabinet held stemware, probably wine glasses, of different sizes and shapes. I went through all the drawers but didn’t find anything interesting.

The door to the pantry in the kitchen stood open. It had been converted for wine storage, with racks built-in, floor to ceiling. He had quite a collection of wines, some with names even I recognized as local wineries. The door had a heavy deadbolt. I wondered why.

Inside the door was a rack holding a thick ledger. I pulled it out and thumbed through the pages. Peter apparently logged the wines he bought and stored, including details such as the price and where he bought it. When he had opened the wines, he had noted the date and made notes about his impressions. He probably kept a similar log at the hotel where he worked for their cellar. The ledger answered one question. Some of the wines listed were expensive—hundreds, even more than a thousand dollars a bottle. One notable bottle was listed as Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1951 which he had purchased at an auction in San Francisco, with a price tag of $35,000. No wonder he kept the pantry locked.

When the techs arrived, I pestered them with instructions on what to photograph and at what angles, what to fingerprint, and how I wanted evidence handled. They started getting irritable with me for telling them how to do their jobs, so I left them to it and headed for the car. Truman and a patrol officer were walking down the street doing the canvas. I pulled up next to them and told her about the wine log and the bottle of Penfolds, and told her to do an inventory when she got a chance.

Link to Part 2

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