Passport to Crime
The Good Winemaker
by Beatrix M. Kramlovsky
Translated from the German by Jennifer Busch
I can’t stand filth. I never could. That’s what won over my second mother-in-law: She was a lonely warrior at this dust-ridden easterly front before Otto brought me home. Villages, especially spots like mine here—simmering in isolation from decades in the shadow of the iron curtain, bloated with the knowledge of their own unimportance—are only ever idyllic in the eyes of tipsy townies. The place I grew up was just the same; I know all about life trapped inside a bubble. It’s all changed since the Wall came down. Now the wine’s a premium product and we’re a holiday destination for joggers, bikers, and jet-setting city drinkers. Not bad for us. Of course, we’re a bit put out by the cheap competition across the border, but at least our men have stopped traveling over to the knocking shops in formation. That was a little humiliating for everyone, and it gave our priest the devil of a time writing his sermons.
Speaking of priests, I do like ours. He was a great help when Karl passed, and with Otto, well, he even managed to make me out as something of a saint. I won’t hear a bad word about the church. What would a village be without a man of the cloth to bless the festivals and keep up the old rituals? Know every little secret and be ready and waiting to hear about weaknesses? Besides, the reverend can hold his drink.
* * *
When I married into this backwater fifteen years ago I was young and ambitious, with dreams of perfectly tended vineyards and stylish wine bars. My then father-in-law wasn’t such a bad winemaker; at any rate, he could see that his son was the black sheep of the family so he supported me wholeheartedly. But I was a newcomer, a stranger save for marriage, and that makes for a bumpy start. So I charmed him with my pretence at naivety. (Despite learning everything from scratch I’m still a proper oenologist.) I was the first woman in the village who didn’t play second fiddle to a man: It was I who made decisions on the estate, I who men listened to. And I who had the whole village breathing down her neck. When it came to my first major wine fair my father-in-law helped out. Well, Karl was busy with his art project, some idiotic cork sculpture. The wine might have been a far cry from what I’d intended, but it was still good enough to stop the digs from the neighbors. The first hesitant attempts at shoptalk even started around then. I have a gift, a feel for wine, and you either have that or you don’t. I’ve an instinct for other things too.
Our village lies on a northwest slope, in the shadiest area beneath the forest, because all the sunny spots belong to the wine. But our Kellergasse is really something special, the way the wine cellars peep out from the hillside all the way down the lane. It’s a community all of its own. The foundations were laid three hundred and fifty years ago, after the Swedes had blasted through and the many dead were dumped in their shallow graves. Back then, they’d make the most of natural ditches and gullies to build their cellars, then drive passes into the hills either side. But our village is a bit different: Where others neatly hollowed out working and drinking spaces, then put walls with windows and doors at the front and little domed roofs on top, our ancestors added baroque-style porches complete with columns and stone benches. And that’s not all: Two beautifully paved paths lead halfway up the hillside to where brightly painted old arbours frame a square with an ancient oak. Now that sounds suspiciously romantic, as if it were designed to make cash registers ring. But this is where the village eats, drinks, and is merry. It’s where we invite merchants to taste our wines, where we celebrate harvest festival. In advent, when Siberian winds frost the land, we sell Glühwein and Christmas trinkets here. The in-crowd from Vienna discovered us a few years ago; by now, though, some of us would find it all good and proper if they just handed over their money and disappeared.
Karl always hoped he’d be discovered by a city type someday. The very idea! It was me they discovered: my wine and my cuisine. My specialties, so to say. Oh, and my schwammerl! Mushrooms cooked par excellence. I do a spot of foraging myself and buy the rest from those pensioners who travel specially over to the Waldviertel to pick their patches clean. Not many different species grow here in the Weinviertel because it’s too dry, but that’s good for the grapes. And every time a new mushroom season begins I think of my first tragedy. Good food is a way to do great wines justice, I’ve always thought. Their aromas only really start to unwind, their characteristics develop, when they’re paired properly. It’s the same with paintings: The right light and frame make all the difference. A good winemaker, like a good chef, is an artist. They need to be in awe of their raw materials. And I am. That’s what annoyed me so much about Karl.
It wasn’t as if Karl were good for nothing. His hands weren’t too precious to get dirty, his back not too weak to train vines. But Karl, the supposed artist, trampled my art underfoot. Looked down on it. Techie for the green stuff, that’s what he called me. As far as I’m concerned, that shows contempt for creation. He didn’t want children either. Not in this world, Susi, he said. All right, in which one, then? We’ve only got this one. But you couldn’t talk to him. Everything was always grey-black until—blood pressure regardless—he’d drunk enough to give his own little world a rosy glow.
While I was bringing in my fourth grape harvest I thought about leaving him. But it was so beautiful here. And the vines were doing so well. And I’d put so much effort into the new vineyards, and the in-laws were so kind, helping out where they could. When you’ve really worked to make a place home, you don’t give it up so easily.
That winter we argued without cease: Peace and goodwill didn’t interrupt our Christmas. But I celebrated the New Year with my first taste of Otto, outside in the courtyard.
In summer, it all came to a head. I knew we’d have a rare vintage on our hands—and that God was on my side.
Right to the very end Karl was clueless and belligerent, but happy in his own way. He loved my schwammerl so I put special effort into that last supper. My in-laws enjoyed it too, along with the grape juice I’d pressed freshly for them. I use sage to tease the best out of young inky cap mushrooms and Karl ate two big portions, despite his blood pressure. I served it to him with our Zweigelt; it’s not quite there yet but I do try. My real talent lies with Grüner Veltliner, but the Zweigelt was the right pairing for the mushrooms. Karl was content. He was working on a land-art project at the time, heaving wood and stone around and scattering it all in artsy heaps. If you ask me, my work on the land is decidedly more artistic.
It all happened that night. Karl was drinking, of course—I’d put the bottle where he could reach it and I went on at him to leave it, so he started knocking it back out of spite. (Being a good judge of character is always useful.) Obviously, that didn’t stop the nausea; in fact, it provided such an obvious reason for it that no one even thought of poisoning. I rang the in-laws and they laid into him: How could he let himself go like this? Always spewing his guts all over the place? I waited until he collapsed before I called the doctor. And then, well, it still took awhile. In hospital they pumped our stomachs as well as his, but we were right as rain, symptom-free. I mean, inky cap mushrooms are just fine as long as you keep alcohol out of the equation. But try telling that to a weak, angry addict! Police and doctors spoke of a tragic chain of events, a tragedy. Ah, that wine! An innocent killer. My in-laws were horribly em-barrassed about “alcoholic” appearing on Karl’s death certificate. After all, good winemakers know the difference between having a tipple for work and constant boozing.
The priest gave Karl an excellent send-off. Then came my best season: I won my first international award and Karl’s father retired, leaving me the vineyard. What a dear. They both understood about Otto. After all, I did wait a year before making it public—enough time to keep the mudslingers happy without actually damaging my reputation. Otto was a real pleasure, a treat to keep me going. A connoisseur, an expert. And infertile.
Copyright © 2023 The Good Winemaker by Beatrix M. Kramlovsky