The Italian Sister (The Wine Lover’s Daughter, Book 1)
Standing at her father’s grave in California, Sofia Laverne mourns his untimely death. Henry had not only been a loving parent but Sofia’s best friend and mentor. Imagine her shock and grief when she finds out her father had lived a double-life, that she has a ten-year younger sister and inherited a vineyard in Tuscany. Torn between anger about his betrayal, grief for her loss, and hopeful anticipation, Sofia packs her bags and takes off for Italy to meet fourteen-year old Julietta. Arriving in the small hill town of Vignaverde, she is greeted by olive groves, neat rows of grape vines, and picturesque houses. Some of the inhabitants of this beautiful estate are, unfortunately, less welcoming and resent her intrusion into the family business. Soon, strange occurrences begin to frighten Sofia. When a suspicious accident lands her in the hospital, Sofia fears for her life.
Part family drama, part romantic suspense, The Italian Sister takes us on a wild journey from California to Tuscany and provides glimpses into the exciting world of winemaking.
The Italian Sister
Tears rose to Sofia’s eyes and her heart clenched as she looked down at the urn next to the small mound of dirt that would soon cover it. She was still unable to comprehend her father’s sudden death. He was so vivid in her mind. She saw his tall, somewhat square figure lumbering across the yard of their home in Santa Monica, his longish light-brown hair, streaked with gray, fluttering in the breeze. She still felt his arm around her and smelled his aftershave, a light citrus fragrance.
Another image that lingered in her mind was the way he held a wineglass toward the light, checking out the color of the wine, then slowly turning the glass and letting the red liquid swirl around. Because wine had been Henry Laverne’s passion; the growing and making of wine, its history, and everything connected to it. He’d written about wine in several trade magazines and had published books about the history of wine and winemaking. In spite of his passion, Henry had been a very moderate drinker, but he savored each drop, whether it had been a vibrant Pinot Noir, a tangy Sangiovese or a fruity Merlot.
And now, all that was left of him were ashes and bones. That and memories, photos, books, and articles he’d written. Henry hadn’t just been her father, but her mentor and closest friend. Usually, she called him by his first name, only occasionally had she referred to him as “Dad.” Aunt Emma, Henry’s sister, who’d raised Sofia after her mother’s death, always called him Henry and so Sofia picked up the habit from childhood. He became “Dad” whenever Sofia commented on one of his odd ways, usually with a rolling of the eyes. Because Henry had been somewhat eccentric.
He had degrees in microbiology and biochemistry and had tinkered with making and blending wine already as a student. He’d told Sofia a few stories of his first experiments with grapes and other types of fruit. While other boys were watching TV or playing video games, Henry and a friend made wine in the old shack behind his parents’ house. Sofia remembered the photo of him as a youngster. Even then he’d been tall and sturdy, with wild hair and a handsome face.
Sofia inherited his enthusiasm for the art of winemaking. As a child, she’d sometimes watched him for hours at their former home along the Russian River. She still remembered the earthy smell of the cellars and the beautiful oak barrels. After her mother’s tragic death from a drug overdose—Sofia had been twelve years old—Henry and Sofia moved to Santa Monica to live with Emma. In their new home, the cellar with the wine barrels and the steel tanks had been replaced by an office where Henry studied and wrote about winemaking. He also taught winemaking at different colleges. In the fall, he would travel to Tuscany where he worked with Italian wine aficionados on some joint project, the exact nature of which Sofia never really understood. A few times, when she was still a child, he’d taken her along on a trip to Italy and they’d visited Florence, Siena, and the surrounding areas.
Letting her eyes wander over the well-kept grounds of the cemetery, its clean gravestones, the mausoleum in the background, and the flowers and bushes, Sofia found some solace in the fact that her father would rest in good company. Famous people were buried here. One of the gravestones belonged to the German author, Heinrich Mann, the brother of Thomas Mann, whom her father had greatly admired.
Only a few people were standing around the grave before the official memorial service in the cemetery’s chapel. Emma, Henry’s sister, stood next to Sofia with her arm around her niece’s waist. John Wagner, her father’s lawyer, and his wife were there as well as Henry’s parents, Lydia and Bernard Laverne, and on the other side of the grave a few close friends of the family had gathered.
“I think they’re starting the ceremony.” Emma’s words woke Sofia from her musing. “Let’s go,” Sofia said. She took Emma’s arm and led her across the lawn to the chapel. She shivered in the cool breeze coming from the ocean. It was June in Santa Monica; fog blanketed the coastline and it smelled musty. It’d been foggy in the mornings for a few weeks, a typical sign of June gloom as it was called by the locals. It would warm up later, once the sun burned away the mist.
Inside the chapel, it was warm. The smell of moist grass was replaced by the sweet scent of jasmine. The ceremony was held by a friend of the family, a young Methodist minister. Henry, Emma, and Sofia had gone to church occasionally on Sundays, more for social reasons than for any kind of strong religious convictions. They’d met their friends there and often joined them for breakfast at one of the coffee shops after church.
The minister gave a short sermon and there was music and a prayer. Sofia, however, couldn’t concentrate on the ceremony. Her mind strayed to the past. She thought of her childhood; when her mother was still alive.
Suffering from bipolar disorder, Cleo had become unpredictable in her moods whenever she went off her medication. Memories of her mother were confusing. There were times she’d been kind and they’d had fun together. But more often than not, Cleo had been distant and absent, both emotionally and physically, when she’d been recovering from bouts of insanity in mental institutions.
During that time, it was mainly her father who gave her the love and attention she needed. During Henry’s stays in Europe, she lived with her aunt Emma in Santa Monica. She loved those vacations. Emma was single and an adventurous woman. They spent the time swimming in the ocean, backpacking and camping in the Santa Monica Mountains. They took trips to Disneyland and the San Diego Animal Park.
Sofia felt an arm on her shoulder. Emma smiled at her through tears. They got up and joined the other mourners. As they walked out of the chapel, Sofia’s eyes fell on a young man standing outside and her heart clenched.
It was James, the man she’d been married to for two short and painful years. She hadn’t seen him inside; he must have arrived late. Tall, slender, and handsome, he was a favorite with women, Sofia remembered with a pang of pain. He was wearing a dark-blue suit, his curly red-brown hair reaching the collar. It was longer than the last time she’d seen him.
After Henry’s heart attack, Sofia had called her former in-laws to give them the news. Although she’d not been in touch with her ex-husband after the divorce, except for legal matters, she’d maintained a loose connection to the family. However, Sofia had not expected that anybody would show up, least of all James. Seeing him triggered a range of mixed feelings. James had been a student of Henry’s in the winemaking program at UC Davis and they’d been friends, although they hadn’t kept in touch after Sofia and James split up. On the one hand, Sofia felt it was kind of James to make an appearance, but at the same time, she wished she didn’t have to face him during this already emotional time.
He walked up to her and they hugged. James murmured his condolences and hugged Emma as well. The situation felt awkward. James seemed uncomfortable and kept looking around. Out of politeness, Sofia invited him to come to lunch with them, which he accepted.
“My parents send their love. They’re sorry they couldn’t make it,” he said to Sofia. Sofia nodded.
“Thanks for coming.” He walked with them to the exit of the cemetery and Sofia told him how to get to the restaurant.
They had lunch at an elegant place down at the boardwalk in Santa Monica. It was a luxury hotel along the ocean where Henry had taken Sofia and Emma for special occasions such as birthdays or other celebrations. Sofia felt he would have appreciated having his farewell lunch there. In a reserved area with a beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean, mourners and guests gathered for lunch. Sofia and Emma were sitting next to John and his wife, and James.
The atmosphere in this beautiful place was more light-hearted than in the chapel. The conversation centered around Henry and his love of wine. James talked about what a great teacher he’d been.
“Everybody loved him,” he said. “And we all enjoyed the private wine tasting parties he had at his house.” James smiled at Sofia, who became sad as she remembered. During those gatherings she’d first met and fallen in love with James. How hopeful she’d been. Why did it all turn sour in the end?
The next moment, however, it became clear to her what had gone wrong. In honor of Henry, Sofia and Emma had ordered wine for everybody. The restaurant was known for its delicious food and fine wines and one of the reasons Henry had frequented it was their wine menu. The waiter came to their table, showed them the bottle, and asked who would like to taste the wine. Sofia motioned at James. “He’s a vintner and winemaker and probably the expert at this table.” She wanted to say something nice to him, since he’d come all the way for the funeral.
James smiled back at her and gave a demonstration of wine tasting. Everybody watched him as the waiter poured the Pinot Noir and James tilted the glass, swirled the wine, sniffed it, and took a sip. Sofia felt he exaggerated the whole procedure but John and his wife observed him fascinated. James closed his eyes, seemingly savoring the taste, then opened them and stared at the waiter. “Too young; too cold.”
Sofia was shocked. Even if it were true, it wasn’t the right place and time for such a criticism. The waiter looked stunned and offered to bring them another bottle.
“May I try?” Sofia said. James glared at her but nodded and handed her the glass. Sofia tried the wine without making a big production. As far as she could tell the temperature was fine and she liked the taste. Not wanting to offend James outright but trying to keep the waiter from bringing a new bottle, she put down her glass and smiled. “I have to admit I love it. I may not be a connoisseur but to me the wine tastes fine.”
She turned to the waiter. “Why don’t you let the other people try it as well? We’ll vote on it.”
“I don’t mind bringing a new bottle,” the waiter said in a flustered tone.
“Let’s all try it,” John offered. Everybody got a glass and tried the wine. John shrugged. “It tastes perfect to me, but what do I know?”
Emma and John’s wife, Jeanie, took small sips and nodded approvingly and so did Henry’s parents.
“I’m afraid you’re overruled, James,” John said. “Your taste buds are just too refined for everyday wine drinkers like us.”
James made a face and shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
“If you want to order something else, James, go ahead. I didn’t mean to force you to drink this one if you don’t like it,” Sofia tried to appease him.
“I’m fine with this one. It’s not up to my standards. After all, you asked for my opinion. But it’s okay.”
After everybody had their glass filled and plates of food began to arrive, the little episode was soon forgotten by the other guests. The near fiasco, however, reminded Sofia why their marriage hadn’t worked out. She remembered how often James had made her feel inadequate.
Of course, Sofia hadn’t had much experience in the winemaking business when she first met James, who was six years her senior. Her knowledge had been mainly theoretical. She’d taken a few classes and learned from her father. In the beginning of their marriage, she mainly worked in the office of the vineyard, which belonged to James’s family. When her in-laws and owners of the business were semi-retired, James took over control of the vineyard. Sofia wanted to learn as much as possible about the actual work with wine but James didn’t encourage or support her. She was responsible for the office and that was the way he liked it.
However, as she became more independent and knowledgeable, she began to make some suggestions of how to improve the daily work at the vineyard. Unfortunately, she soon realized James was not about to give up control over the way the business was run. It belonged to his family and Sofia had always been made to feel like an outsider. It had hurt her deeply.
And then James’s affairs with other women began. No, Sofia didn’t regret not being married to him anymore. James almost managed to kill her love of vineyards and the art of winemaking. After the divorce and after she’d moved back to Santa Monica to live with her father, it was mainly Henry who’d encouraged her to study the subject in more depth. He helped her get a job with a reputable wine, food and travel magazine, where she was the junior editor for the wine section and wrote articles for their blog.
The rest of lunch passed amiably although James’s feathers had been ruffled and he was quiet and almost morose during the meal. Shortly before dessert, he left because he had to drive back to northern California.
Relieved that he was gone, Sofia was able to enjoy her cup of coffee and strawberry cake and relax among her friends and family.
After lunch, Emma and Sofia drove Henry’s parents to the airport. They lived in a retirement community in Brattleboro, Vermont, and had come out for the funeral. Sofia hadn’t seen much of her grandparents since Bernard and Lydia lived across the country. They encouraged her to keep in touch.
“Don’t become a stranger,” Lydia said with tears in her eyes as she kissed Sofia and Emma good-bye. “We have a guest room. You’re always welcome.”
Sofia and Emma promised to visit them soon.
A few days later, Sofia and Emma were sitting in John Wagner’s office in a small business complex on Fourth Street in Santa Monica. Sofia had been there a couple of times as a child with her father. She still remembered the piles of papers and folders stacked on the lawyer’s desk and not much seemed to have changed since that time.
“How can you find anything in this mess?” Emma asked with a chuckle as John shuffled through the folders on the desk, opening and closing them.
“Ah,” he said, lifting an eyebrow. “You’d be surprised. This is an organized mess.” He picked up another folder and opened it. “See, here it is,” he said with a quick smile. He began to sort through some papers.
Sofia didn’t know how old John Wagner was but she figured he was about her father’s age, in his fifties. He was of medium height, somewhat overweight, and had gray curly hair and a reddish face, which Sofia felt pointed to high blood pressure. How ironic, she thought. John was much more of a heart attack candidate than her father had been and yet it had been her father who had died from it. A feeling of sadness flooded her. Taking a few deep breaths, she suppressed the tears that gathered in her eyes.
“Well, then,” John said and cleared his throat. “This should be fairly straight forward, at least most of it.” He gave Sofia and Emma a quick, measuring look. “I assume you know that Henry made a living trust, which means this should go through the legal process fairly quickly, since there won’t be any probate.” He brushed his hand through his hair.
“Yes, Henry mentioned a living trust but that was quite a while ago,” Emma said. “I don’t know the details though.”
John glanced at them. “He didn’t mention the fact that he updated the trust recently?”
“No,” Emma said. “Not that I know of.” She glanced at Sofia. “Did he mention anything to you?”
Sofia shook her head. “No, nothing.”
“Oh, boy.” John’s forehead got even more crinkled. He took off his reading glasses, rubbed his eyes, then faced them with a worried look. “Does that mean you know nothing about the property in Tuscany?”
Sofia and Emma stared at each other, then back at John. “Property in Tuscany?” Emma said stunned.
John nodded, then shook his head. “Henry promised he would tell you. We talked about it several times and again just a few days before … well, I guess he didn’t get around to it. Oh, dear.”
“What?” Sofia’s heart picked up speed. “What’s going on?”
“Darn it, Henry,” John said as if talking to himself. Then he sat straight. “I guess it’s up to me now to inform you.” He fidgeted on his chair and glanced at the two women then lowered his gaze.
“Well, this news may surprise or rather shock you. But you have to believe me; Henry was going to tell you. At least that was his intention when I last talked to him.” John shuffled through his papers again.
“Come on, John, don’t drag it out like this,” Emma said. “It couldn’t be that bad, could it?”
“Okay, here it is.” He faced Sofia. “Many years ago, when your mother was still alive, Henry went to Tuscany a lot, as you may still remember.”
“He studied Italian winemaking methods and did some business there, which you know as well,” John continued.
“Yes, but that’s not the shocking news, is it?” Emma prodded.
John looked down at a piece of paper. “No. Anyway, Henry spent a lot of time at one particular vineyard near a town called Vignaverde. He got to know the owners quite well. It was an extended family business. At the time, the vineyard had financial problems and Henry helped them out and invested some of his own money in the business and became part owner.” John glanced at them again.
“He owned part of a vineyard in Tuscany?” Sofia couldn’t believe what she heard. “But … I never knew about this.” She looked at Emma, but Emma shook her head.
“No, that’s news to me, too. What in heaven?”
“Well, there’s more to this story,” John said. “And the ‘more’ is the reason Henry didn’t tell you, although I encouraged him many times to finally be honest with his family.” John cleared his throat. “While he was there, he fell in love with a woman, the daughter of the owner. According to Henry, it was at a time there were a lot of problems in his marriage.” John glanced at Sofia. “You know the mental problems your mother had put a real strain on their relationship. I’m sure you’re aware of this.” John hesitated.
Sofia stared at him. “Yes,” she whispered.
“The relationship with the woman didn’t last but it had consequences. Luisa Santucci, that’s the woman’s name, became pregnant and had a baby, a girl. Her name is Julietta.”