A blog tradition — the five Halloween wine tales from the middle of the decade.
These posts didn’t always get the traffic they deserved, but what does Google know about good writing, terrific parody, and making fun of the Winestream Media?
Besides, who else would be brave (or silly) enough to combine these characters with cheap wine and Halloween?
• A Halloween wine tale 2017: Dr. Who
• A Halloween wine tale 2016: Kolchak: The Wine Stalker
• A Halloween wine tale 2015: I am Legend
• A Halloween wine tale 2014: Frankenstein
• A Halloween wine tale 2013: Dracula
Photo courtesy of Alisa Hemmesch, using a Creative Commons license
This year’s annual Halloween post: A terrifying tale about cheap wine and the Parker Monster. Call it Kolchak: The Wine Stalker
Chicago has always been a working class town, a shot and a beer kind of place. So there were some raised eyebrows when people started drinking wine in the Windy City, but hey, what’s the difference between wine and beer? Just another way to enjoy the same vice.
That’s why no one paid much attention when Lee Simcoe opened his wine shop in Rogers Park just before 9 a.m. on a cool October morning and found all of his cheap wine smashed, the broken bottles and the spilled wine in a jagged mess. Kids, he thought, vandals – and that’s the last thought he ever had. Simcoe started toward the back of a the store to get a mop, but stopped. His throat was tight, and he started coughing, like there was something he couldn’t swallow. And the coughing turned to gasping, and he couldn’t get any air. And then the gasping turned to choking, and he clutched his throat and dropped dead.
Vincenzo walked out of his office, looked over the Independent News Service newsroom. “Carl, do you have that story, the one I sent you to City Hall to cover yesterday?”
“Oh yeah, Tony, it’s right here,” and I started rifling through one of the piles of papers on my desk.
“Of course he doesn’t have it,” said Updyke, sitting at the next desk and where everything was arranged more neatly than anyone thought possible. “He didn’t go to City Hall. He was in Rogers Park at that liquor store murder.”
“Tony, I’m telling you, we’ve got something there. How does a normal, healthy, 35-year-old man strangle to death in an empty liquor store? With no marks on his throat?”
“What we don’t have is that City Hall story, eh Carl?” Vincenzo’s face did that thing it does just before he starts the “New York wants us to cover that story and you didn’t do it and now I have to call New York” lecture. Since I had heard it before, there was no reason to listen again.
“I’ll go down to City Hall now, Tony, right away,” and I grabbed my hat, camera, and tape recorder and started easing out of the office. “Have that story after lunch. Or later this afternoon. Or early this evening.”
As the office door closed behind me, I heard a loud, wailing, “Carl….”
I did start toward City Hall, but then the call came over the police scanner, full of static and panic. “Wine bar in Lincoln Park.. officers down…officers down… respond more units…”
When I got there, the SWAT team had established a perimeter, the sharpshooters were on the roof tops, and the cops were wearing gas masks. But that was nothing compared to the half dozen officers in blue uniforms lying dead in the doorway of the wine bar, and all of them looked like they had strangled to death.
I ducked under the police line and started snapping pictures. That’s when a beefy hand grabbed the camera and a muffled voice said, “I thought we had revoked your press credentials, Kolchak.”
“Now why would you want to do that, Capt. Quill? You know all I want to do is to cover a story.”
Quill was wearing a gas mask, too. “Kolchak, get back behind the perimeter. This is a restricted area.” Two of Chicago’s finest grabbed me by the elbows. “I can take a hint, Captain,” and scurried back to my car, parked near where a detective was interviewing witnesses.
I switched on the recorder. “Let me get this straight,” said the cop, looking at his notes. “You’re in the wine bar, doing a Wine 101 class, when the bottles start breaking and exploding? For no reason? And these were inexpensive bottles? Ten dollars or so?”
A woman in her early 20s was crying. “Yes,” she said, sobbing. “It was super awful. And then Dr. Kopin, who was holding the class, started gasping for breath, clutching his throat. And we just ran out as fast as we could, just in time to see the cops do the same thing when they ran in. The same super horrible thing as Dr. Kopin.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “The cops just started choking? For no apparent reason? All of them?” She nodded yes, stifling a sob, and then broke down completely.
A beefy hand grabbed my recorder. “Kolchak, I thought I told you this was a restricted area,” said Quill, and the two cops grabbed me by the elbows again.
Everyone told me one person in Chicago knew more about cheap wine than anyone else, the guy with the brown hat. I finally found him in a bar near Wrigley Field, nursing an Old Style.
“It’s not safe to drink cheap wine these days, Kolchak. A guy could choke to death.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “No one chokes to death from drinking wine.”
“Let me tell you a story, Kolchak. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. Let’s say younger people want to drink whatever kind of wine they want, without being told by critics or scores what to drink. Sweet red wine. Rose. Cava and Prosecco. And let’s say the wine business is set up to make them drink wine that has scores and reviews by critics and isn’t cheap, and the dark forces who run the wine business don’t want to change that.
“Very dark forces, Kolchak. Companies worth billions of dollars who have had their way for decades and who keep getting bigger and richer. And let’s say they created something, a yeast-like creature, that can react with the sugar in a wine bottle and blow it up. Or can get inside a person’s lungs, turn oxygen into CO2, and choke them to death. Then you’d have the Parker Monster.”
“That’s crazy. Why would anyone want to do that? Kill customers?”
“That’s the wine business, Kolchak. Constitutionally protected. What difference do one or two customers make in the long run?”
The restaurant was dark, had been closed for hours. I was sitting near the bar, and a trail of bottles, all cheap wine, stretched from the door to where I was sitting – Gascon white blends, Spanish roses, Sicilian nero d’avolas, some $5 Chiantis, and lots of cava.
I waited. Reassured myself that the control was in my lap. And then bottles started fizzing. Rumbling. Bubbling, Bursting. And then they were exploding like dominoes falling, all the time getting closer to me so quickly that I was frozen with fear. My hand wouldn’t, couldn’t, touch the button on the control. My throat started getting tight. I was gasping. Puffing. Wheezing.
One last try, one last burst of whatever strength I had left. I felt the button with my thumb. Jammed it as hard as I could.
The lights, hundreds of them, came on, reflecting off the restaurant’s mirrored walls, blinding the room. I could breathe a little more easily, and as the warm got warmer, I could take a short breath. And when the room became uncomfortably warm, I took two quick breaths, and when it was summer time hot, the glare of the lights so intense I couldn’t look and the sweat beading on my forehead, I took my first normal breath since the bottles started exploding.
Because heat, of course, kills yeast.
I left the lights on for 10 minutes. I wasn’t taking any chances.
Vincenzo didn’t run the story – something about this being even more bizarre than my usual. Which, he said, was saying something.
The guy with the brown hat disappeared. Guess he wasn’t taking any chances, either. And people stopped choking when they drank cheap wine. The cops chalked it up to a gas leak. But I know – and you know – what happened. So the next time you’re enjoying a $10 Spanish tempranillo, and your throat feels tight, turn up the heat. Why take any chances?
A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to star Darren McGavin and those who turned a silly TV show into something that was often much more than that. At its best, “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” was part newspaper comedy and horror movie camp while capturing the confusion of the 1970s perfectly. In an era of Nixon, Watergate, Vietnam, and oil shocks, a reporter running around in a seersucker suit chasing monsters made perfect sense.
The days were always shorter this time of year, thought Van Helsing, but they seemed to be getting even shorter — and darker. He shivered.
“It’s the damnedest thing,” said Jonathan Harker. “About Lucy, my fiancee?” Van Helsing nodded, took a sip of his brandy. “Lately, she has been drinking 15 percent, overoaked California chardonnays. And even some of those wretched zinfandels,” and he shuddered as he said it.
“That is damned odd,” said Van Helsing. He had known Lucy for years, and she had rarely spent more than $10 a bottle, and always for Old World wines, lighter and with character instead of alcohol. She had even introduced him to Gascon wine. Suddenly, Van Helsing understood why Harker was so worried. “How can I help, old chap?”
“Would you talk to her? She just brushes me off, calls me an old fuddy duddy who likes wines that suck.”
Lucy was in the library, a bottle of 15.2 percent California pinot noir open on the table. A pile of wine magazines was on the floor. Her face was pale.
“My dear, you don’t look well,” said Van Helsing. Lucy ignored him, all her attention focused on the glass of wine, dark and brooding. “Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know,” she said, fighting back tears. “Lately, I’ve felt so strange. I don’t sleep. I dream about Parker 98s — and I don’t even know what that is. I have this urge, all the time, to buy the most expensive wine I can find, even if I don’t like it.” She broke down, started sobbing. Van Helsing sat next to her, took her hands in his. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked.
“It’s serious, I know that,” he said, trying to fit the pieces together in his mind. “When did this start, my dear?”
“I’m not sure. I went to a party a couple of weeks ago, and one of the guests was a Count Cabacula, from Napa Valley. All my friends were impressed. He knew so much about wine.”
A chill went through Van Helsing, and the pieces started falling into place. “Count Cabacula, you say?”
“Yes, a very charming man. He’s new to this country, and was saying how much he liked it. So many young women who didn’t know about California wine. He’s even coming here tonight. He wanted to meet Jonathan’s sister, Mina.”
Van Helsing stood up quickly, trying to hold back the terror sweeping over him. “Lucy, did Count Cabacula mention something called scores?”
“Yes he did. How did you know? He said they were the best way to learn about wine.”
“Lucy, I want you to find Jonathan and Mina and get as far away from the estate as possible. Go to France. Cabacula still has enemies there. But please, for God’s sake, hurry. We don’t have much time.”
“What about Count Cabacula?”
“I’ll give him your regrets. He and I have unfinished business.”
There was a full moon. Van Helsing was in the drawing room, waiting, when he heard a voice cackling behind him. “So we meet again, my old friend.”
Van Helsing turned. Cabacula was standing in the window, holding a copy of the Wine Spectator’s buying guide. “A present for Lucy and Mina,” he said, and then laughed, and the sound filled the room. Van Helsing choked back a scream, fought to keep his composure.
“No more, Cabacula,” he said. “Your evil and twisted ways end here.”
“And how will you stop me, Van Helsing? Your puny weapons, those reviews that describe wines but don’t judge them, those critics who aren’t part of the Winestream Media? All are useless against me.”
“Not anymore,” said Van Helsing, pulling a book out of his overcoat. The book’s cover, with the brown hat and green bottle, glistened in the moonlight. Cabacula saw it, shrieked, drew back. “No, not that. Not that accursed thing.”
Van Helsing held the book in his right hand, arm outstretched, cover facing the count, moving toward Cabacula. “And this isn’t the only weapon we have now,” he said as the count kept backing away, fear spreading across his face, until he was trapped against the wall. “We have wine drinkers, lots of them, who drink what they want — sweet red wine, even — and don’t care about the other.”
“No, I don’t believe it,” said Cabacula, and he howled, such a dreadful wail that Van Helsing hesitated for a moment and Cabacula almost got to the window and freedom. But Van Helsing wasn’t going to miss his chance, not after the years of wasted opportunities. He blocked the count, pushed the book closer to his face, and Cabacula howled again, slumping against the floor.
Van Helsing worked quickly, taking a bottle out of another pocket. He unscrewed it and put the bottle, a $10 Sicilian nero d’avola, to Cabacula’s mouth and forced the liquid down his throat. The count gagged, tried to spit it out, but Van Helsing was the stronger one now, and the count swallowed the wine.
“You know something? That’s nice,” said Cabacula, “kind of earthy and interesting. Guess that shows what I know about wine.” And then he died, his body shriveling into nothing, and the wine poured onto the floor where the body had been.
Van Helsing took a deep breath, closed his eyes. “I just hope you stay dead, you damned fiend,” he said, and wondered: Could his quest finally be over?
A tip o’ the Curmudgeon’s fedora to Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Hammer Films for giving me something terrific to steal. The photo is courtesy of Hammer Films, using a Creative Commons license.
The Wine Curmudgeon does not do Halloween and wine; it’s more than a little forced, all those vampire and pumpkin wines that will go on sale at two-thirds off next week. But since that doesn ?t stop the rest of the wine world from indulging, a few thoughts about what’s out there:
? One more time: The WineOh.tv site rounds up every possible Halloween-style wine, from Bogle’s Phantom to something called Evil Chardonnay (I will leave the jokes to the audience). I shouldn’t be too hard on this post, despite the cliches and the same list of wines that appear in these sorts of things year after year. That’s because it includes a regional wine from Kentucky, Bone Dry Red. Which practically redeems the post.
? No more puns, please: David Dixon, at a regional Texas newspaper website, spares no sensibilities in what he calls his fourth annual Scary Wine column. He dusts off the vampire fangs. And digs up a veritable coffin-load of ghoulish grape elixirs. These are wines, he writes, that will cast a spell on your gruesome gathering. I know, I know. I need to calm down about this. At least he didn’t pair wine with caramel corn.
? Halloween wine labels: I suppose that’s OK, given that the About.com piece suggests putting them on wine you’d drink at any time of year, using a couple of specialty retailers. Though the recipe for Blood Red Sangria did make me gnash my teeth. What color is sangria the rest of the year, Not Blood Red? I know, I know. Take it easy. Even the Simpsons don’t do a funny Halloween episode every year.