Behind: “What Settles After the Stars”

IMG_0953One fated French night in 1700 or thereabouts, so the story goes, Dom Pierre Pérignon was stalking his Hautevillers cellar, turning his bottles, and the great monk decided then was as good a time as any to have a taste. And what he tasted went down crisp and bright and bubbly, the first modern champagne. and he cried out, his voice echoing through the chalk caverns, “Brothers, come quickly! I am drinking the stars!”

A great story, if total hokum. Yep, it never happened, but you kind of wish it did, and man, the legend sure sells bottles. Most importantly, a bit of license doesn’t mean champagne caves aren’t magical places. In white-noise silence meters below the region’s great houses, racks of the stuff sit in the near-dark and sleeps itself into being. Whispers get channeled crystal-clear through the tunnels. There’s a feeling of method and mysticism at work–and that the strange and wonderful are possible down there.

That was my first inspiration for “Stars.” Last year I was touring the tunnels below Reims and figured, hey, if other folks can uncork that hype into a good story, so could I. But as champagne needs a second fermentation, so did my idea. Good moments and magically creepy places alone do not stories make. Eventually I had it: if champagne was stars, and if stars can be born, then stars can die. What would be left in the aftermath? Ash, darkness, cold. And memories, for those still condemned to live on anyway. Somebody not quite coming to grips that the party was over.

Enter our POV Carl Haplinger.

Poor Carl thinks he’s cursed. Before our tale begins he has made his wine-writing bones accidentally, as a freelancer who offhandedly suggested champagne’s mystique is just that—mystique. Hype. Hokum. Not for the savvy buyer. The French are not amused. Enterprising Carl stokes the controversy and his bankroll by going full-on acerbic, with a turn-of-phrase that makes him a must-read columnist. In time he’s got the French up in arms and the ghosts of Pérignon and his Benedictines out for revenge from beyond the grave. You and I are likely to call hokum on that last part too, but as the story opens, there’s no telling Carl otherwise. He’s out of non-dead monk explanations why he’s lost his sense of taste.

Burned-out taste buds. For Carl, that’s a bland existence and doom for his wine reviews and monthly column. A fine dual prison sentence to inflict upon a semi-disingenuous wine writer.  So off I went to explore Carl stuck in the early stages of post-fame.

And it stank. Sure, all early drafts do, but rewriting it simply put air freshener over the stink. It took putting it aside for months to sort through the reasons—I’d written Carl’s premise (wine writer has lost taste) and not his story. His descent into tragic hero. I’d run afoul of another dead icon likely not above cursing the foolhardy—Ernest Hemingway, who said that a writer can leave out known story elements…but only if they’re known. Good advice, clean and true and well-lit. My not knowing Carl well enough doomed him worse than any pissed-off Benedictine.

An easy fix! all I had to do was chronicle Carl’s life-and-times, completely rewrite the first 80%, spend lunches inventing his ascerbic writing style and highlights, change the POV from third to first-person, add the whole Volpeque angle, and switch the setting from Epernay to Reims. Yeah, easy.

For all that, “Stars” got a lot right from its first draft, stink notwithstanding. I worried throughout the story risked highfalutinism and general hoity-toityness. Like a wine snob, a story focused on tasting adjectives and this or that aspect of terroir could fairly be criticized as arch. Fortunately, I have ignorance on my side. Most of what I know about sparkling wine can be summarized like so: it tastes wonderful going down and leaves a distinctive behind-the-brow headache in the morning. Carl’s voice and his making light of the very situation helped puncture the snootiness balloon and steer him (I hope) where a story belongs: the human angle of a guy’s life turned inside-out. We’ve all lost things hardwon; we’ve all had chapters of our lives close behind us for keeps. Carl taps into that universal, even if hundred-buck a bottle wine doesn’t.

IMG_0962I’m proud of “Stars” and for how Carl’s journey took hold and ended itself in a most unexpected way. Seriously, I jolted in my chair when the story told me its truth. Finding that kind of magic down in the tunnels is what kept me working at “Stars” until it was blended and aged and ready to serve.

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