I’d heard good things about Red Sparrow’s new Grand Reserve Barrel Select Pinot Noir. It’d knocked French, Italian, Argentinian, and American Pinots out of the park at the most recent World Wine Awards. For a Canadian wine, this was a huge deal. “This is the best Pinot I’ve tasted in the last decade,” wrote one of the judges. “Red Sparrow’s Okanagan winery, which, in recent years, has been plagued by wildfire, has come back with a bang, producing a beautifully complex wine. As soon as it hits the shelves, don’t buy a bottle — buy a case.”
But for those who wanted a case — or even a bottle — there was one problem: Red Sparrow was a tiny producer, which meant their supply was limited. Each bottle was priced at an exorbitant $350, placing them out of reach of most wine-lovers.
The Vancouver wine store where I worked, The Wine Emporium, didn’t even try to place an order. We stocked only low- to medium-range wines, the most expensive being a $150 bottle of Burgundy. But that didn’t stop me from trying to get my hands on the elusive Red Sparrow. I called wine stores across British Columbia, and contacted restaurants to see if they were pouring it, but my efforts proved fruitless. And like many Pinot lovers, I felt as though I was missing out on a milestone. Even while drinking other highly sought-after wines, all I could think about was Red Sparrow’s Grand Reserve, which only made me want it more.
Then one day, I got a lead on a Red Sparrow tasting when a woman walked up to the till and set down a bottle of Cab.
“Any plans for the weekend?” I asked, scanning the bottle.
“None tonight,” she replied, “but tomorrow I’m going to a tasting.”
“The Wild BC Grill.”
I slid the Cab into a paper bag. “Intriguing. What’s the event?”
She smiled and pulled her debit card out of her wallet. “A promotion for the five BC wineries that placed at the World Wine Awards.” She looked around as if people might be listening, then whispered, “And Red Sparrow’s pouring their new Pinot.”
“Whoa! I gotta get in on that.”
The woman laughed. “It’s media-only.”
I flashed a warm smile and leaned forward on the counter. “Listen, I didn’t catch your name.”
“I’m Ed. Now, Mila, about this tasting — you wouldn’t want any company, would you?”
She held up her left hand. A gold band shone on her ring finger.
“There must be some way to get in.”
“Not unless you’re a journalist or work for a wine magazine.”
“Which publication do you work for?”
She tapped her card against the debit machine and picked up the bottle. “Gotta run,” she said, then walked out of the store. But as the door swung shut, I got an idea — a brilliant one.
* * *
On my break, I sat in front of the store’s computer, looking at The Wild BC Grill’s contact page. A copy of the Wine Collector, a high-end New York-based magazine renowned for its excellent global reportage, lay on the desk in front of me.
I dialed and took a deep breath.
“Wild BC Grill. Allan Wikkers speaking.”
“My name’s Ed Cortez. I’d like to reserve a media pass for tomorrow’s BC wines event.”
“Of course. Who’re you with?”
“The Wine Collector.”
“Oh, great. You must know James Stanley, then.”
“James Stanley — the editor and publisher of the Wine Collector.”
I flipped to the magazine’s masthead, which displayed a photo of James Stanley. I’d seen his picture dozens of times while reading the magazine, but somehow his name had slipped my mind. He had a head of white hair, a bulbous nose, and a narrow face, and wore his signature bow tie.
“Oh, James,” I said. “We go way back.”
“Who’d you say you were again?”
I gulped. “Ed Cortez.”
A keyboard clacked on the other end of the line. “I don’t see any mention of you on the Wine Collector’s masthead.”
“I’m their BC stringer,” I said, hoping my prepared line would work.
“Didn’t know they had someone covering BC exclusively.”
“They’re starting to focus more on the province. I’ve been contributing for a year.”
Finally, Allan said, “All right, I’ve got a pass set aside for you. It’ll be waiting at the door. The event starts at 5 p.m. tomorrow.”
“Much appreciated,” I said, putting down the phone.
I raised my hands victoriously. “Yes! I’m in!”
Leaning back in my chair, I took a moment to review my lie. If I ran into Mila, I’d tell her what I’d told Allan: I’m the Wine Collector’s BC stringer. This was believable enough because BC’s wine industry is too small for the magazine to staff a permanent writer, which would explain why I was also working at a wine store. And if she asked why I hadn’t heard about the event when we spoke, I’d tell her I got the assignment after she’d left.
Red Sparrow’s Pinot was so close I could almost taste it. All I needed to do was pick out a nice shirt, a pair of shoes, and a smart tie — something a wine writer would wear.
* * *
My cab pulled up outside The Wild BC Grill in the heart of downtown Vancouver. The restaurant was situated in a brick building with vines growing up its exterior, which stood out from the surrounding glass towers. I hopped out, adjusted my tie, made sure my white dress shirt was neatly tucked into my pants, and walked up to the restaurant entrance. My brogues were freshly polished and felt good on my feet. I was dressed to the nines, feeling fine, and ready to taste some Pinot.
But at the front door, a wave of nervousness washed over me. One wrong line will blow my cover, I thought. And if my boss finds out, I’ll lose my job. The prospect of working anywhere other than The Wine Emporium, where I’d been employed since I was 20, sent a shiver down my spine. Now, five years later, I was risking it all for a glass of wine. “C’mon, you’re gonna be fine,” I told myself. “You know wine and you work in the field. You can do this!” I took a deep breath, pulled open the door, and approached the host sitting behind the front desk.
“Ed Cortez. The Wine Collector,” I said.
“Oh, we spoke on the phone. I’m Allan Wikkers.”
“Thanks for getting me a pass on such short notice.”
“No problem at all.” Allan handed me a lanyard and name tag that read, “Ed Cortez, Writer, Wine Collector.” Then he handed me an event brochure. “Enjoy the wine.”
I hung the lanyard around my neck. “That’s the plan.”
Pulling a pen and a small notebook out of my back pocket, I completed my wine writer persona. Then I stepped past Allan into the restaurant’s private events room. The space was large and open, and five tasting booths were set up in a horseshoe formation. A jazz trio played in a corner, creating a warm, friendly atmosphere. At the back of the room, a hallway led to the restaurant kitchen.
The room buzzed with conversation. About twenty well-dressed people drifted between booths, sampling wines, snapping pictures, and chatting. A videographer holding a large TV camera filmed the scene. Waiters in white shirts and black aprons kept an hors d’oeuvres table well-stocked. A Vancouver Sun reporter walked past me and faded into the crowd, followed by a CBC journalist, their name tags clearly visible. Luckily, Mila was nowhere to be seen.
The brochure listed the five BC wineries in attendance: Priori, Yellow Owl, Sagebrush, Feather Valley, and most importantly, Red Sparrow. A half-dozen journalists stood around Red Sparrow’s pouring station, so I decided to visit the less-crowded booths first.
I began with Yellow Owl. The pourer, who had a perfect smile and a wine glass tattoo on her arm, poured an ounce of Pinot Noir into a tasting glass. As she slid it toward me, I reached for the stem and her hand brushed against mine.
“Thanks, Juniper,” I said, glancing at her name tag.
“No problem, Ed,” she replied, quickly looking me up and down.
Smiling, I buried my nose in the glass and inhaled deeply. The wine smelled of fresh cranberries and raspberries, and the alcohol was strong but not overpowering. Next, I held the glass up to my white shirt sleeve and examined the Pinot’s beautiful plum color. I swirled the wine in the glass and examined its legs. Finally, I took a sip.
Cherry and vanilla were balanced against earthy mushroom and moss notes. The tannins were even, but the acidity was too bright. I spat the sample into the spit bucket, and the cherry notes faded and the back palate softened. It wasn’t the best Pinot I’d ever tasted, but it certainly wasn’t bad.
“What d’you think?” asked Juniper.
“I’d hate to judge on first impressions.”
Juniper laughed and poured another small sample into my glass. I drank, swirled the wine around my mouth, analyzed the flavors, and then spat. Again, it was good, but the second tasting didn’t change my opinion.
I tasted Yellow Owl’s other offerings, including their Cab and Merlot. None of them were anything to write home about, but at $20 a bottle, they were good value and far better than a lot of the overpriced wines I’ve tasted.
After running through Yellow Owl’s lineup, I congratulated Juniper on their range of wines.
“Come back later,” she said. “It’s lonely over here. Red Sparrow’s hogging all the attention.”
“If you’re pouring, I’ll be back.”
I made my way to Feather Valley’s booth, where I tried their Merlot and Pinot Noir, neither of which possessed award-winning qualities. Still, they were fine. But that’s all they were — fine.
“Can you tell me a little about your vinification process?” I asked.
The pourer replied with a long-winded story that would’ve bored even the most patient listener, and I instantly regretted asking the question. As he droned on, I jotted the words acid, tannins, alcohol, taste, aroma, colour, and finish in my notebook. Next to each word, I put a random number from 1 to 10 so it would appear like I was rating the wine.
After he finished explaining, the pourer peeked at my notes and said, “What d’you think?”
“Well, in my opinion, the Merlot’s too acidic, and the Pinot’s alcohol is a tad overpowering.”
The pourer’s face drooped. Right away, I felt uncomfortable playing the harsh critic. “But those are my only criticisms,” I said. “They’re certainly great and I’m sure they’ll only taste better with time. I give them both a 90 out of 100.”
The pourer’s eyes widened and a smile spread across his face. In the wine world, a 90-plus score on the 100-point scale is reserved for the cream of the crop, not Feather Valley’s subpar offerings. Still, I felt better seeing him cheer up.
“You’re very kind,” he said. He pointed at my name tag. “And if you don’t mind my saying, it’s an honor to meet someone from such a wonderful magazine.”
“Well, thank you,” I said, brimming with pride.
“How long have you been with the Wine Collector?”
“About two years.”
“And are you writing a review?”
I hadn’t even thought about what I was supposed to be writing, so I improvised. “Sure am. It’ll focus on the five wineries here and BC’s recent wine-making history.”
“Can’t wait to read it.”
The respect I was getting as a wine writer filled me with confidence. My nervousness had evaporated, and I felt comfortable playing the character I’d invented the day before.
Next, I went to Priori’s booth and sampled their Pinot Gris and Syrah, which were great. I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up a bottle of either one, and it was clear why Priori had done so well at the World Wine Awards.
Jotting some gibberish in my notebook, I congratulated the pourer. But as I was leaving, he said, “Do I know you from somewhere?”
My stomach flipped. “Don’t think so.”
“I’ve definitely seen you before.”
“Sorry … I’m, uh … I’m not sure what to say.”
“The Wine Emporium!” he blurted. “That’s where I’ve seen you! What’re you doing with the Wine Collector?”
“I’m their BC stringer.”
“I thought Collector’s West Coast writer worked out of Oregon.”
“She does. But they wanted so many stories about BC, her travel costs got too high. I’ve been their stringer here for three years.”
Relieved I hadn’t been found out, I shook the pourer’s hand, then walked to Sagebrush’s booth. There, the rep poured me a sample of Riesling. Riesling grapes do well in BC, and Sagebrush’s wine was a testament to that.
“Beautiful peach and apricot notes,” I said. “Just lovely.”
Next, she poured me an ounce of thin-looking Pinot Noir.
“Interesting viscosity,” I said, raising the glass to my nose. When I breathed in, I picked up truffle, raspberry, and plum aromas. “Mmm. Fantastic!”
I took a sip and it was balanced and bright. The tannins weren’t too mellow, the acidity was well-positioned, and after swallowing, the plum notes lingered nicely on my tongue. I told the pourer as much.
“Thank you,” she replied, beaming. She pointed at my name tag. “We’re lucky tonight.”
“I’m glad to be here,” I said, my ego inflated.
“Well, actually, I meant we’re lucky to have two people here from the Wine Collector.”
“Yeah, James Stanley’s here.”
Terror ran down my spine.
“How about a taste of Cab?”
I scanned the room for a place to hide. “Think I’ve had enough.”
Without responding, I ducked into the hallway. From a safe vantage point, I scanned the crowd. Sure enough, James Stanley stood at Priori’s booth, his signature bow tie unmistakable. He was with a woman I recognized: Mila. She was dressed stylishly and held a large purse over her shoulder.
“All right,” I said to myself, “don’t lose your head. What’s the plan here?”
If I stay and they expose me, I’ll lose my job and dignity. But if I leave, I’ll miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Watching smiling journalists taste Red Sparrow’s Grand Reserve dispelled any idea of my leaving, and I knew the reward was worth the risk.
“Taste the Pinot. Then go,” I said to myself. “And make it quick.”
So, sticking to my initial plan, though with renewed anxiety, I crossed the room to the heart of the action: Red Sparrow’s crowded pouring station.
A crate of Grand Reserve sat beside the booth, and an open bottle, sporting its famous red sparrow label, stood on the table.
Once at the front of the line, I said, “I’ve heard good things about your new Pinot.”
“We love it,” said the pourer. Then she noticed my name tag, lit up, and blurted, “Oh, the Wine Collector.” She poured a generous two ounces into a glass, cutting off the flow with a quick twist of her wrist, then slid the glass toward me.
I glanced over my shoulder: no Stanley. As I shakily picked up the glass, the pourer shot me a look of concern. Keep it together, Ed, I thought. You are a writer for the Wine Collector. Don’t blow your cover!
Luckily, journalists never fawn over other journalists, so those in line paid no attention to me. Still, I felt like a basketball player about to make a shot in the last second of a tied championship game, except I wasn’t a basketball player: I was a fan who’d somehow managed to sneak onto the court. I wanted to sip the wine and slip away, but to keep up appearances, I had to do what the pourer was expecting: perform.
I held up the glass.
“Beautiful color. Lets in a nice amount of light.”
I twirled the wine.
“Perfect viscosity for a Pinot. Full points there.”
I raised the glass to my nose and inhaled.
“I’m picking up cherry and blackberry. I’m also getting some earthy scents. Is that gravel and spice? They really complement the Pinot’s subtle fruit aromas.” I was feeling slightly less nervous with the glass of Red Sparrow in my hand.
I smelled the wine again and drifted into a different world, one that only the best Pinots and Burgundies give me access to, where the rivers run purple with wine and the air smells of fresh-pressed grapes.
The Grand Reserve was shaping up to be everything I’d imagined. There was only one thing left to do: taste it.
“Now, for the moment of truth,” I declared, my heart racing with excitement. Just then, the jazz band paused for a break. Aside from a few conversations, the room fell silent. I closed my eyes and lifted the glass to my lips.
Suddenly, the pourer said, “Hello, Mr. Stanley.”
Terrified, I lowered the glass and looked to my right. There stood Stanley and Mila. The pourer slid two samples across the table. That’s when Mila saw me, and her eyes filled with shock. She whispered into Stanley’s ear.
As my heart raced, I thought about how I’d respond to their imminent confrontation. I should’ve drunk the wine and left, but I froze with fear.
That fear was replaced with confusion when I got a good look at Stanley: his name tag read “James Stanley,” but he had a pointy nose, his hair was more gray than white, and his face was on the wide side. Aside from his bow tie, he looked different from the James Stanley I’d seen on the Wine Collector’s masthead. But when Mila winked at me, I understood why. Then I relaxed.
“All right, Ed,” said fake Stanley, “what d’you say we taste this wine?”
“Let’s do it,” I replied. I spotted Juniper standing at the back of the line and waved her over. “Just a second, James.”
As Juniper approached, I said to Red Sparrow’s pourer, “Can I have a sample for my friend here?”
“Absolutely,” she replied, sliding another bottle out of the case.
The other journalists didn’t look happy, but no one said anything about fake Stanley, Mila, and Juniper cutting the line.
As we waited for the pourer to cork a fresh bottle, Juniper handed me a piece of paper. “I wasn’t sure whether you were gonna come back to the booth.”
I glanced at the paper: a phone number.
“What’re you doing after this?” said Juniper.
“How about grabbing dinner?”
I smiled. “Sounds great.”
The pourer slid a sample across the table to Juniper.
“Here’s to Red Sparrow,” I said, raising my glass.
Mila, fake Stanley, Juniper, and I clinked glasses. For the second time, I raised the glass to my mouth and closed my eyes, anticipating the taste of the Red Sparrow. But as the wine was about to hit my lips, someone tore the glass from my hand.
I opened my eyes. Allan dumped the contents of Stanley’s and my glasses into the spit bucket.
“What’re you doing?” I said.
“Ending your little charade,” said a voice behind me. I spun around to see a man with a bulbous nose, narrow face, white hair, and a bow tie, carrying a sling bag over his shoulder.
My heart skipped and my stomach sank to the toes of my brogues. The man glaring at us was the real James Stanley, whose face I’d seen on the Wine Collector’s masthead.
Allan handed our empty glasses to the pourer and pointed at Mila, fake Stanley, and me. “These are the people I was telling you about, Mr. Stanley.”
The line of journalists, previously unimpressed by our presence, now crowded around us. Real Stanley looked at our name tags, then turned to the crowd. “These three are impostors!”
Hearing the commotion, the rest of the attendees closed in. Many aimed their smartphone cameras. In the back of the crowd, the TV camera operator pointed her camera at us.
The smart thing to do would have been to push through the crowd and run to the exit. But I was so close to tasting the Red Sparrow. I’d smelled it, I’d examined its color and viscosity, and it’d almost hit my lips. I wasn’t going to give up that close to the finish line. So, I did the only thing I could: rebuke real Stanley, hoping Allan would kick him out. That way, I could taste the Grand Reserve in peace.
I forced a laugh. “What’re you talking about?”
“You have no affiliation with the Wine Collector and I’m James Stanley!”
Mila shifted nervously and fake Stanley froze.
“This again?” I said. Then I addressed the crowd. “This man isn’t who he claims to be. Two months ago, I caught him pretending to be The New York Times’ wine critic!”
“I did no such thing!”
“How can you stand there and spout such obvious lies?” I glanced at fake Stanley. “D’you have anything to say to this fake?”
“Now that I think about it,” said fake Stanley, “this is the guy we saw in San Francisco pretending to work for Decanter. Do you remember that, Mila?”
“How could I forget?” she replied.
“I … I can’t believe this,” said real Stanley.
“Whether you can or not, you need to leave,” I said. “Allan, would you escort him out?”
Allan wiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. His eyes darted between us. Finally, he said to real Stanley, “Time to go.”
Just as Allan was about to lead him out, real Stanley smiled and held up his index finger. “Actually, I think I’ll be staying.”
He reached into his sling bag, pulled out a copy of the Wine Collector, opened it to the masthead, and handed it to Allan.
Allan looked at the photo. It was clearly real Stanley in the picture, so Allan turned to fake Stanley and said, “Now you’re gonna have to leave.”
“You three’ll never get into a tasting again,” said real Stanley. “These cameras will make sure of that.”
Though I was acting with a semblance of confidence, I was terrified. But I wasn’t going to give up on the Red Sparrow.
“Look at them standing there like deer in headlights,” said real Stanley, ratcheting up our embarrassment. “How sad. How very, very sad.”
“Please, you need to leave now,” said Allan to Mila, fake Stanley, and me.
“I won’t let the real James Stanley be ridiculed by an impostor,” I said. I grabbed the magazine and glanced at it. “Allan, this thing’s clearly fake!”
“That’s pure fiction,” said real Stanley.
“You’re damn right it’s fiction,” I shot back. “How long did it take you to make this?” I knew it was a ludicrous accusation, but it was the only one I could think of.
Real Stanley turned to Allan. “You’re not buying this, are you?”
Allan looked at the four of us, red-faced and breathing heavily. “I don’t know who’s who anymore!”
“Let’s see your IDs,” real Stanley said to fake Stanley and Mila. He turned to me. “Yours, too.”
That’s when I knew my quest had failed. There was no way fake Stanley could prove his innocence, which meant I’d go down with him. But I wasn’t going to admit my guilt in front of a room full of people I respected. So I stepped up to real Stanley.
“You can’t just waltz in here and defame me and Mr. Stanley and expect to get away with it,” I said, puffing out my chest.
Real Stanley leaned toward me until he was inches from my face. “Don’t make me drag you out of here.”
Several responses flew across my mind. I could present an aggressive stance, but that could lead to a fight. I could slink out, but that would be an admission of guilt. Neither were ideal and both would be embarrassing, so I decided to go with a third option that would hopefully allow me to leave with my dignity.
“I’m a five-year veteran of this magazine,” I said. “When I walk out of here, so does the Wine Collector’s coverage of this event.” I looked at Mila and fake Stanley. “C’mon, let’s get out of —”
“Wait,” said Allan, “you told me you’ve been with the magazine for one year.”
Oh, no, I thought.
Then Priori’s pourer emerged from the crowd. “You said you’ve been there for two years!”
Feather Valley’s pourer also stepped forward and said, “He told me he’s been there for three!”
“What else did he say?” real Stanley asked Allan and the two pourers.
“That he’s the Wine Collector’s BC stringer,” said Priori’s pourer.
“He told me the same thing,” Allan added.
“Ah-ha!” yelled Stanley. “We don’t have a BC stringer!”
“Lies,” I said. “Pure lies.”
“Ed, you’re out of here,” said Allan. He nodded at fake Stanley and Mila. “Same goes for you two.”
Juniper snatched the piece of paper from my hand.
“Asshole,” she said.
“This mean dinner’s off?”
She glared at me.
Everyone spoke at once, the crowd tightened around us, cameras flashed, and the TV camera operator moved closer.
Allan escorted me to the exit, and a flurry of camera flashes blinded me. The Vancouver Sun reporter rushed up to us and yelled, “Who are you?” Real Stanley pushed fake Stanley out the front door, and Allan nudged me outside. A second later, the door burst open and Mila stepped out, trailed by the group of journalists.
“Quick! This way!” she yelled.
We turned a corner and ran down an alley onto the next street, losing the mob. Then we paused to catch our breath.
Though relieved to be out of The Wild BC Grill, I was embarrassed by my actions and for spoiling my chance with Juniper. But most importantly, I didn’t get to taste what I’d been after. I had gotten so close — millimeters, milliseconds away. Who knows when I’ll get a chance to taste the Grand Reserve Barrel Select again, I thought. Never. That was my one chance.
Breathing heavily, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the photos that would end up online, on the news, in newspapers, or in wine magazines under titles like “The Red Sparrow Incident” or something equally humiliating. Not to mention the smartphone videos and the TV camera footage. I’m gonna be a laughing stock, I thought, feeling sick to my stomach. I’ll never be able to attend a tasting again. And I can kiss The Wine Emporium goodbye. As soon as my boss hears about this, I’m done.
“Jesus, that was intense,” said fake Stanley, interrupting my train of thought.
I marched away, desperate to distance myself from The Wild BC Grill when fake Stanley yelled, “Wait!”
I turned and Mila and fake Stanley rushed up to me.
“That was some Oscar-worthy stuff,” Mila said, taking a deep breath. “You ever give acting a shot?”
I shook my head, not being in the mood for quips.
“I’m Steve, by the way,” said fake Stanley.
“Ed,” I said, shaking his hand. I looked at Mila. “Media-only event, huh?”
She chuckled. For a moment, we stood in silence.
“Listen,” I said, still feeling sick, “it’s good to meet you two, but I gotta get out of here.”
“Hold on,” Mila said. She smiled, reached into her big purse, and pulled out an unopened bottle of Red Sparrow’s Grand Reserve.
My jaw dropped. “How’d you get that?”
“With all that commotion, I couldn’t not take it.”
Steve and I laughed.
“How about we grab some disposable cups, head to the beach, and pour you a healthy drink?” Mila said. “You more than deserve it.”
“Sounds fantastic,” I replied. “Absolutely fantastic.”
We walked toward the beach, discussing the absurdity of the night, and who we really were. Around us, people flocked toward bars and restaurants. Everyone was smiling and excited about the night ahead of them, and I, too, filled with excitement, thinking about the Red Sparrow in my very near future. I knew that when I woke up the next morning, the repercussions and sickening shame of my behavior would hit me like a bag of bricks, but the night, I decided, still held plenty of promise.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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