Acrid wine spurted across the polished red gum bench top.
Ruined. Ten years in the cellar for nothing.
It was the morning of the showcase. I always presented the finest wine. Awards decked winery.
I was the fourth generation to run this property, and ran it with more pride than anyone else in the region could muster.
My label commanded respect in cellars around the world. Amongst the distinguished.
But now this. This was the wine. I'd been talking about it. Building expectation. Table 13 would take the Bentelle name beyond fathomable reviews. A top shelf all of its own.
'Reduced to vinegar!' I screamed.
I couldn't afford to open another bottle for testing. It was an extremely limited supply.
I couldn't afford not to.
What had gone wrong?
'Greca!' I yelled. My cellar manager should know.
No response. I'd find out myself.
I hesitated at the top. No one knew I hated the cellar. Feared it. A grown man shouldn't.
The memory was forcing. I knew I was stronger.
Descending the steps quickly would help.
The problem was, being the most prestigious wine in my collection, it was stored at the farthest reach of the cellar, in a temperature controlled safe.
I swivelled the keys to one that had only been used once before. I had trusted Greca with it, to bring me the sample bottle I'd set aside for testing.
Ten years of patience reduced to cider. Hope dessicated.
My hands shook. The key wasn't necessary. The door swung. Empty rack after rack. Greca had swindled me.
This was an equal blow to the rancid wine. I'd trusted Greca with my empire. The man was flawless. Now I knew he'd been flawless in his deception. His patience had proved deeply more persistent than mine. I couldn't help talking near the end. I knew Greca hadn't talked a syllable about his anticipations.
And I had delivered a perfect performance for him. Placed the keys in his hand myself. It was too much to grasp. His character was too deep for this. He knew me better than my wife, though I never let on.
I sat on the earthen floor. My ribs cramped tight around my lungs. In my weakness, the memory threatened to gain ground.
It was the smell that triggered its shooting starkness.
There I was, a small boy, crouched, smelling a new smell. It wasn't like Mama's warm kitchen, or the smokey lounge, or even the overripe grapes that hung limp that droughted year.
No, it was the smell of death, faint as it was, before it met young, innocent eyes, in the depth of that dim cellar.
I looked up to see along the side column, that very same scene again.
I crawled to that place. Greca lay there, his blood seeping. That was the smell, returned from decades past.
'Greca?' I sobbed, 'I'm so sorry, Greca. I thought you robbed me.'
I couldn't tell if the pain in his eyes emanated from his wound or my confession.
'Carlo,' Greca's voice staggered, 'You're not entirely wrong.'
'What do you mean?'
'There's someone I want you to meet.'
Greca rested for some time. I feared he wouldn't finish.
'Who, Greca? I'll do anything.'
'He's my best friend. He'll take care of you,' he struggled through.
'Come off it. I thought I was your best friend.' Tears covered my vision
'Only in this world, mate. This guy, he's sweeter than any wine you make,' Greca laughed. 'He makes better wine than you from plain water.'
He was talking crazy from the pain.
'Well, we gotta get you out of here, so you can introduce me yourself,' I said.
'It's too late for that.' Greca's eyes were glazing. 'I've got to confess, mate. I took your safe wine. You started talking about it.'
'I don't care about the wine.'
'I replaced it,' he went on, 'with that series that vinegarised last season. I never threw them out.'
'I don't care, Greca.'
'I anticipated this. Your table 13's are on the bottom shelf.'
'I don't want you dieing over wine.'
'I won't be if you meet my best friend.'
Greca pushed a book in my hand. I didn't realise he'd been holding it. His throat gurgled.
'I promise, Greca.'
I cradled him, sobbing.
I clenched tightly his final gift to me.
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