"Where are we going?" she asked, the wind blowing her short brown hair as she looked around at the gently rolling countryside flashing by.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was bright, the air was dry and the sky was a brilliant blue in stark contrast to the several days of rain that had forced them to stay inside. They did not mind being inside. There was more than enough to keep them entertained, but this was supposed to be a vacation and a chance to get out and play. Samantha looked over at Alex and smiled, running her hand through her hair again before settling back against the seat to enjoy the ride.
Alex had risen early and slipped out to run a few errands. She had found him later in the kitchen of their rented suite working on taking a whole chicken apart and adding it to a collection of bowls and dishes that he had arrayed around him while on the floor at his feet was a large picnic basket, already filled with the wine cooler. All he would tell her was they were going on a picnic and she should go and get dressed. He was dressed in a plain yellow t-shirt and jeans. His feet were bare as he moved around the kitchen and she had kissed him before going off to get ready for their outing, already elated by the idea of a day in the country.
"Alex, where are we going?' she asked again as he turned the little roadster off of the main road and onto a side road barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other before crossing over a rickety wooden bridge. Then he accelerated, shifting gears, his attention wholly on his driving, despite the teasing grin on his face that showed he had heard her and had no intention of answering her, at least not yet.
"You are as bad as Monique, you know that?" he said as they rounded a corner. "She always has to know where we are going and what is around the next corner before she gets there. It drives me crazy. Why not just sit back and be surprised?"
"I don't do surprised," Samantha grumbled. "That is why she and I get along so well."
"Fine. We are going on a picnic and doing a little business as well. But the business should be quick. The picnic, I think, not so quick. Unless you have a hot date you haven't told me about."
Samantha swatted his right leg and sat back to admire the view. There were farms on either side of the road now. She had to admit that it really was pretty country. Very unlike Provence, Burgundy or the other regions she had seen in the two years she had spent in France. Today she was not in France, nor had she been in France for several weeks. Alex had come to the Salon on a rainy Tuesday to tell her he needed to go to the United States and asking her to come with him. She had hesitated. There was still so much work to do and Monique was unable to do much of it herself anymore. In the end, both Monique and Alex had convinced her that the trip would be good for her and Alex had added a side trip to visit her parents as a treat which resulted in her not talking to him for half the flight. Virginia was completely different to her. She had gone to France and in return, she had ended up seeing her own country. She was still completely amazed at how far she had come in the last two years, and how far she still had to go. Learning the business beside Monique, even with the help of the rest of the staff left her exhausted most evenings which left her struggling to learn the man most responsible for her transformation.
The car started to slow as Alex geared down, getting in line behind a couple of cars making a slow right turn into a gravel driveway that wound up the side of a hill covered with vines, grass and a few trees.
"So this is where you get Remy's wine?" she said, suddenly putting it together.
"Actually, no. Remy's wine comes from a winery a little more to the south, but they suggested I look here and set up the invitation."
"Is that what you were doing yesterday?"
"No, I did that a couple of weeks ago."
Samantha looked at him sideways as he turned into the driveway, following the other cars up the winding road knowing that pressing Alex would not get her any closer to finding out what he had been doing yesterday. The cars ahead of them were kicking up dust and obscuring the view of some of the vines as they passed storage buildings and equipment along the side of the road.
"What are we hoping to get?" she asked, this time generally curious.
"Remy likes a dozen or so cases of each of the varietals, depending on quantity. That generally gives him enough to serve and mark up steeply. The last deal was 24 cases of each varietal, and if I remember correctly, it was about fifteen hundred bottles. Trivial by what he gets locally but it is good for premium labeling and he likes that and so do the wineries."
"How do you get it to him?"
"We have a shipper in DC that handles all that good stuff from vineyards on the East Coast and a separate firm in San Francisco that handles the West Coast. We keep talking about buying them out and doing it ourselves, but so far it hasn't been cost effective for us to take over and they help us with some of the international wines making sure that all the taxes are paid and the bottles get there without damage," Alex said as he pulled into the parking lot and turned off the engine. "Ready?"
"Ready," Samantha said getting out of the car.
Alex and Samantha walked the short distance to main building. It was not large. On the inside there was a bar along one wall and a large picture window looking out over a long view of the valley and the winding road they had just driven up. Alex walked over to the bar while Samantha walked over to look out the window. The view was stellar. Below the deck was a small lawn surrounded by trellised vines that seemed to cover the hills around the building.
"Pretty isn't it?" said a man coming up behind her a few minutes later.
"It is," Samantha said, turning.
"Russell Wilson," he said, passing her a glass of red wine.
"Samantha Bowers," she said, smiling and taking the glass as Alex came up behind him.
"Shall we go and see if we can find Jim?" Russell asked, and led them down a small narrow flight of stairs near the door.
"Russell is the winemaker, Jim Gregory owns the vineyard," Alex said to Samantha as they passed through a door marked 'wine cellar' at the bottom of the stairs.
"Jim and Henri were talking a couple of months ago and Jim got really animated about the deal Henri had with you. I guess the samples we sent over were acceptable?" Russell asked as they walked along a small hallway. On either side were alcoves stacked floor to ceiling with oak wine barrels.
"Are all of those full?" Samantha asked, looking around her.
"Yup, a couple of thousand cases in each alcove," said a soft-spoken voice to their left. A man was hunched over a barrel adjusting a bung. "Try this," he said, passing each of them a glass with a bit of red wine in the bottom.
"Tannins," Alex said. "Young. Not a lot of structure. Fruity."
"What he said," Samantha said. "I don't know a lot about wines yet. Fashion is more my speed."
"It is going to be a good one," Russell said. "Maybe one of our best, but not for a few more years.
"I'm Jim Gregory," Jim said, stepping out from behind the barrels and Russell did the introductions.
"I have to tell you Alex, Henri really made the deal sound sweet. Whoever heard of a Frenchmen serving wine from Virginia?"
"As I pointed out to Henri, there is demand in England for wines from Virginia. Originally they were smuggled in by ex-patriots but several from around Charlottesville have become quite popular. Henri does not make enough to cover all his markets now, so we thought a more boutique showing would be a better way to go and if you can make it in Paris, you can make it anywhere right?"
"Henri is not running a boutique vineyard anyway. We are considerably smaller but have just as many accolades as he does," Jim said.
"I know. I did my research. I understand you don't even enter competitions anymore."
"No, they got to be too much of an effort," Russell added. We got distracted from the main purpose which is making great wine."
"Gentlemen, I know we can find a market for your wine and then you will have another accolade to add to your collection." Alex said, toasting them.
Samantha was wandering around the cellar looking at the barrels and trying to decipher some of the things written on them. Behind her there were giant steel vats three stories tall and in front of her, at the end of the hall was what looked like a store room with boxes stacked floor to ceiling. She could only imagine how much money was tied up in the barrels and cases.
"What's so funny?" Alex said, catching her chuckle.
"I was just thinking of something Rachel said. She wanted Monique to automate her inventory control and yet here I am, surrounded by millions of dollars of wine and they track it by magic marker and sticky tape."
Jim and Russell both laughed at her comments.
"You're right. Other than the crushing and bottling process, very little of this is automated and we do keep track with magic marker and sticky tape, although it is tracked in a database in the office. When you get right down to it, wine making is a very manual process. It is all about the nose and the mix and you cannot automate that."
"Very much like haute couture," Samantha said.
"Very much like it," Jim said nodding. "So Alex, what do we need to do to make a deal?"
Alex smiled and looked around the room. "I would say we have to sign the paperwork and then we can turn it over to the shippers. Unless there were changes you wanted to make in the agreement?"
"No, no, the agreement is fine and the price is more than acceptable. Why don't we go up to the office and we can put our signatures on the forms and with luck the first load will beat you home."
"Oh, I am sure it will. I am going west from here. I won't be back in Paris for another month. By then the second load should be on its way. Which reminds me, would you be interested in discussing a deal for England too?"
Jim just laughed as the four of them ascended the stairs.
"This is beautiful," Samantha said as she rested against Alex, who had one arm wrapped around her, sitting on a blanket on the lawn in front of the winery. A lone hawk was circling high in the sky, and the remains of their picnic lunch were spread out around them, the better part of a second bottle of Jim's wine resting in the shade of a tree to their left.
Alex and Jim had signed the paperwork and Alex had presented Jim with a couple of bottles of a Grand Cru Remy had sent with him to seal the deal. In turn, Jim gave him a case of some reds and a couple of cold whites. Alex and Samantha had then retired to the lawn to relax, enjoy their lunch and the rest of their free day.
"Think Remy will have success with the wines?" she asked as she took a small sip from her glass, enjoying the fruity floral liquid as it slid over her tongue.
"He already has. Jim sent him a few cases a couple of months ago mixed in with Henri's order and Remy sold all of them in a matter of days. He wants to sell this white at the bistro in Nice and has standing orders for the reds already from what he told me. If Jim can meet even half of what Remy needs, he would never have to sell another bottle in the US. Of course he will but the demand is pretty high at the moment from Remy alone."
"You stumble on some of the oddest arrangements, you know that?" she said, tipping her head back and getting a kiss from Alex as he drew lazy circles across her abdomen.
"Just helping out a friend," he said.
"Alex, how much do you get out of this?"
"I don't have to pay for dinner."
"No, I'm serious. I know you are part owner in the Salon..."
"Silent partner," he said, correcting her.
"Silent my ass. Monique told me all about it."
"I told you when we met that I dabble darling," Alex said smiling down at her.
"Yes, dabble. Yet you seem to have access to a large amount of money."
Alex shrugged and sipped his own wine, considering his answer before he said, "I have a number of friends that I have helped succeed and I have taken the return on my investment in non-traditional ways. In some cases, like the Salon, non-traditional does not work. Monique is a wonderful designer, but I just do not look good in silk blouses, so she pays me horrendous amounts to keep her technology running, which I am qualified to do and thus pays me back the small advance I made her. In the meantime, when I find things that she could use, like the buildings in Nice and Venice, I let her know about it. Sometimes we close the deal, sometimes we let it drop. Sometimes someone else needs it and we transfer the ownership. We have done well. Monique is the one with the money love, I am just a broker." Alex swirled his wine before taking another large sip and swallowing it.
"Well, I am sorry I called you pig."
"I'm not. If you hadn't backed into me, we would not be sitting here enjoying the sunshine. You would have succeeded in making Rachel happy or at least satisfied. I don't think you can make that woman happy. You would be in your office in New York or the streets of Milan right now looking for the next big thing and I would be wherever I needed to be. Although most likely I would be here. Tomorrow I would be on a plane for Las Vegas instead of Des Moines."
"I really don't want to," Samantha said.
"Your mother would not forgive you if you don't introduce me to her. I can handle your father."