09 March 2024

What the Hell, Let's Make Wine: On "Noble Rot" in Murder, Neat

I'm told this entry winds up our collective series going behind Murder, Neat. I've enjoyed these backgrounders as much as I've enjoyed reading the anthology. Pick up a copy, and you'll see what I mean. Murder, Neat is also perfect for birthdays, spring solstices, allergy season, or any occasion you've got going on.

* * *

Given my name, you won't be surprised to hear I'm of French heritage. As best we know the history, the Mangeots did okay over there--until the Revolution. Ah, well. C'est la guerre

Having old France in my blood, you also wouldn't be surprised to hear I enjoy wine. I'll go so far as to claim I've accumulated minor wine knowledge. I said minor, so don't quiz me. One nugget explained to me on a vineyard tour way back was a winemaking technique with a particularly catchy name: noble rot.

What a word combination. Noble plus rot catches the eye, dances on the tongue, sparks the imagination. It's that juxtaposition, noble to rot, a lofty start and steep descent as if inevitable. Poetry? Depends on your tastes. In real life, the term is more like good marketing. 

What's known today as noble rot started out in Hungary or Germany, depending on the account. To oversimplify, the vintner inoculates their ripening grapes with a fungus. Happy little fungi from the same family as makes penicillin, bleu cheese, and athlete's foot. Then, the vintner walks away. It's not until a late harvest and a chill in the air that picking time arrives. By then, the fungi turns the grapes into super-intense raisins. Those raisins are the secret behind some of the finest sweet wines on this planet. Tokay, Sauternes, Riesling. 

That's the high-gloss version, but let's be honest. The method surely sprung from desperation. Rewind however many centuries, and surely a German or Hungarian vintner schlub dilly-dallied at harvest time. It got to be October, and the wind bode a frost, and wolves howled from the foothills, and the vintner's family shoved him outside to get the grapes picked. The vintner sidled to the vines and discovered that a nasty fungal situation had spread something fierce, and the vintner said, "What the hell, let's make wine."

Rot done well. For art. I'd wanted to write about all that. For a while, actually.

Opportunity came when Sleuthsayers decided on an anthology. The call was for stories with a bar somehow a core element. My fellow Sleuthsayers' submissions would include amazing stories using saloons and dives and well-drawn noir tones. So I went another direction. I played with other types of bars and landed on a wine bar. I might've been sitting at my basement wine bar at the time. 

Anyway, a submission. I kept brainstorming wine things and soon landed back on that brewing noble rot concept. All I needed next was a story. About a state of rotting. Nobly. And for that, folks, let me welcome you to Nashville.

We Mangeots aren't alone in moving along when fortunes take a turn. Middle Tennessee boasts a near-inexhaustible supply of ex-rockers settled here after their chart-topping runs ended. That isn't a critique. The ex-rocker colony makes large and welcome civic contributions, and they invest in stuff. Stuff like wineries. And rich winery owners have tasting rooms.  

Rockers moving here makes sense from their lens. Nashville has long had country chart-only stars, and the city culture protects their privacy. A faded rocker can run to the grocery with no hassles. Nashville has a cheaper cost of living (or used to), no state income tax, a bevy of top studios and historic venues, and a chance to plug into a peer group with similar life experiences and creative bents. 

These rockers haven't lost their talent. The voice might be going, the hand a beat slow sometimes, but the creativity and musicianship are still there. It's excellent that they hang around the music scene. One might say noble, in its way. Noble, but also fair game. After all, these headliners used to embody sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now, they're on YouTube cooking their favorite recipes and aging with their audiences. Not always comfortably, which is the core idea behind my story "Noble Rot."

To smash-summarize the premise, a 90s grunge guitarist moved to Nashville after both his fame and edge waned. He's in that nostalgia-act phase, a short set at festivals guy. He doesn't care that his career is on life support. He only wants to make wine. His agent, though, isn't done with music yet. To grasp for relevance, it's time to embrace a Great American Songbook cover album. The plot centers around the agent's pitch, with the inevitable complications and moral choices. Plus a hit of gonzo, if I did it right.

You might've also been wondering about Tennessee wine-making beyond huckleberry. Few grape varietals thrive consistently in the mid-South. Too humid, the climate too ideal for--hang on for it--fungal diseases. 

Grapes do grow, over thirty varietals, and many more tons get shipped in. Noble rot wine can happen here, given the right winemaker and the right microclimate. That's what Nashville is for those aging rockers, a microclimate where some of them put out the best music of their lives. And that's what "Noble Rot" is about, microclimates and life choices, the inevitable fade of great things and the fight against it, that eternal hope for beauty in life's next act. 

* * *


  1. I must start thinking of old age as a kind of noble rot!

    1. That's a good way to look at it, for sure.

  2. Bob, how interesting! I live in wine country, up in Canada - we call it the Golden Horseshoe. Under the Niagara Escarpment. Climate similar to the claret wine regions of France. I found your noble rot fascinating! Will look for your story - my books have finally arrived.

  3. There are actually a few vineyards in South Dakota... Which is hard to believe, considering the brutal climate.

    1. I believe it. It's all about the specific location.

  4. Elizabeth Dearborn09 March, 2024 14:43

    My husband's late grandfather lived on a farm in Dunkirk, N.Y. He grew Concord grapes & sold them to Manischewitz for wine. His daughter inherited the place & sold the vines to another farmer who dug them up & replanted them at his own place. The daughter put in winter wheat because it is supposedly more profitable.

    1. Wheat sounds more predictable. Couldn't tell you on the profit.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>