Long ago in the fabled kingdom of Vinosia, there lived a wise and powerful wizard named Merlot, advisor and confidant to the beloved ruler of Vinosia, King Chardonnay the Fifth. Merlot sat at the king’s right side, at court, in chapel, or at table, for the king trusted and loved Merlot as he would his own brother. Under the guidance of Chardonnay and Merlot, the kingdom of Vinosia prospered.
The people of Vinosia were truly blessed. Their country was fair and fertile beyond belief. The gently rolling hills of Vinosia were covered everywhere with vineyards, where grew an incredible variety of grapes, from the lowly Champagne types to the dark, luscious Cabernets and Pinot Noirs.
From the rich bounty of the annual Vinosian harvest there came a succession of fine wines unequaled in all of Christendom. Wine was the main export of this small but bountiful kingdom. Indeed, the entire economy of Vinosia depended upon the export of its wines.
Almost every Vinosian citizen was employed in the making of wine. The men and women planted and tended the vineyards, and harvested the lush fruit in the fall. The young girls of Vinosia crushed the juicy grapes beneath their fair feet in giant vats. The young boys were charged with capturing the sweet juice as it flowed from the spigots, carrying it in jugs to the fermenting vats.
Everyone assisted in the bottling of the wine, which was followed by a festival that lasted for days. Much wine was consumed, and merriment flowed like wine itself. Many a young man and maid were betrothed during this happy time. The king himself attended the festival every year, personally blessing each and every one of his loyal subjects, who adored him and his wife, the beautiful Queen Moselle.
For decades, the people of Vinosia prospered under the benevolent leadership of their king and his trusted advisor. Life in Vinosia was indeed idyllic. But trouble was brewing on the horizon.
In the neighboring land of Chebeaujolais, to the east of Vinosia, there lived an evil sorcerer named Rhinepest. Many decades in the past, before this sorcerer had succumbed to the dark side of his nature, Rhinepest had been Merlot’s teacher. In the intervening years, Merlot had come to be regarded as a more powerful wizard than Rhinepest, and this knowledge ate at Rhinepest’s liver like a worm. In time he decided that could not bear Merlot’s existence any longer. Rhinepest devised a fiendish plan to eliminate his rival once and for all.
The evil sorcerer retreated into the gloom of his high castle tower and shut himself up in his alchemist’s laboratory. For the length of an entire lunar cycle he wove spells diabolical and cruel, until at last he had conjured up the evil thing he’d seen in a dark vision.
One stormy night when the banshees screamed and the werewolves howled in the forest primeval, Rhinepest held aloft a glass retort in which there swirled the ghostly images of pestilence and disease. The sorcerer stepped out onto his balcony and faced the kingdom of Vinosia, many leagues away, and commanded the wind to do his bidding.
The wind obeyed the powerful sorcerer, shifting direction. When the storm was blowing due west, the Sorcerer pulled the stopper from the retort and loosed the terrible mists that swirled inside. The ghostly forms in the retort rose to the mouth of the glass bottle and were quickly drawn into the wind, hell-bent for Vinosia. Rhinepest made a fearful incantation.
“Go, my minions. Seek ye the fabled vineyards of Vinosia. Eat into the very core of every vine. Poison the soil, and turn every bottle of Vinosia’s finest vintage into sour vinegar. Make my revenge complete. Let Merlot know from whence came this fearful plague.”
The poisonous spell hit Vinosia like an unannounced visit from one’s mother-in-law, decimating the vineyards and ruining all the wine in the casks and bottles. The people of Vinosia were hurled into instant despair. And in a dream, Merlot saw the evil specter of Rhinepest laughing at him, so that there was no doubt as to the origin of the disaster.
The King and Merlot conferred day and night with the royal vinologists, but they were powerless to help. Even Merlot’s most powerful incantations had no effect on the terrible plague that was devastating the beloved vineyards of Vinosia.
Finally Merlot said to the King, “My lord, there is nothing to be done here. I must journey to the East and meet Rhinepest head on. Only by defeating him in a sorcerer’s duel can your kingdom be saved.”
The king agreed to Merlot’s plan, but insisted that he be allowed to come along. But Merlot, a lean fellow, who moved with the speed of a gazelle, did not relish the thought of traveling with his somewhat portly monarch.
“No, my liege, it is a hard and perilous journey that only a Mage such as myself could ever hope to survive.”
But the king was not to be denied, and the following evening when the citizens of Vinosia tossed and turned in their beds, their heads full of dark dreams, King Chardonnay and Merlot, disguised as wandering monks, sat out on their quest, heading due east toward the dark and foreboding mountains on the far horizon.
After several days they crossed the border into Chebeaujolais, something that Merlot would have known even in the dark. The kingdom of Chebeaujolais produced wines of very poor quality, and it was rumored that Rhinepest cast a spell on the wine to make it palatable. Merlot and the king were appalled at the sight and smell of inferior vineyards.
After traveling several days, begging for food now and then as wandering monks were expected to do, they came within sight of Rhinepest’s dread, dark tower. The tower was surrounded by a high stone wall, and guarded by a regiment of demonic soldiers that struck terror into the hearts of Merlot and his king.
“Good lord, man, how in the world are we going to get past Rhinepest’s hellish soldiers? If we try to walk in there we’ll be slaughtered like sheep!”
But Merlot only smiled, delving into his traveling bag. He came up with two small, stoppered bottles, handing one to the king.
“This is the elixir of invisibility. When the moon begins to rise, when my powers are at their zenith, we will drink the elixir and become as transparent as panes of glass. Then we’ll slip past Rhinepest’s guard and make our way to the very top of his tower, where I will vanquish him once and for all.”
The king was much relieved to hear this. He and Merlot rested in the shade of a willow tree and ate a meager meal of stale bread and moldy cheese, washed down with an inferior vintage of Chebeaujolais. The king was especially vexed at being forced to drink such swill.
“My God, man, this wine isn’t fit for a dog. I’ve had better horse piss.”
Merlot was inclined to agree. He took the bladder of wine from the king, uttered a quick incantation over it and handed it back to the king, who sniffed it and reluctantly tasted it again.
“It’s still not as good as the poorest vintage of Vinosia, but at least it doesn’t make me gag.”
Merlot silently reflected that the king would complain if he was hung with a new rope. He made himself comfortable against the trunk of the tree and dozed off.
Before long the moon had risen and Merlot had awoken from his nap. He bade the king to drink the elixir, and he did the same. In a matter of minutes both men were completely invisible.
“Merlot,” the king said, distressed, “Our clothes are still visible!”
“Yes, your majesty. The elixir acts only on living beings. We have to shed our clothes.”
The king was not too happy about this, but reluctantly complied. Invisible and buck-naked, the two Vinosians walked quietly through the gate of Rhinepest’s citadel, under the very eyes of his drooling soldiers. Within minutes they found themselves in the upper reaches of the sorcerer’s tower.
By how the elixir was starting to wear off. In the shadows they were still invisible, but in the light of the torches that illuminated the tower corridors they could be seen, dimly. This made the king quite anxious.
“We’ve got to hurry, man, or these ghouls will be able to see us. And then we’re buzzard meat, Merlot.”
“Don’t fret, your majesty. We are nearly there. A few more yards and we’ll be in Rhinepest’s sanctum sanctorum, where I will annihilate him with a powerful spell.”
Sure enough, they soon reached the evil sorcerer’s lair. The heavy oaken door was locked from within.
“The door is locked, your majesty. That can mean only one thing. Rhinepest is inside, and most likely alone. A few minutes more and the deed is done, and Rhinepest’s curse will be lifted from Vinosia.”
Merlot made weirding gestures over the lock, and it sprung open. Quiet as death, he and the king slipped inside Rhinepest’s lair, closing the door silently behind them. They were dismayed to find the room empty.
“Merlot, the bastard’s not here!”
Merlot grimaced at the king’s obtuse remark, Rhinepest’s absence being fairly obvious. He pondered the meaning of the locked door, but only for a moment. Out of the deep shadows of Rhinepest’s cavernous chamber there stepped a half dozen of his ghoulish warriors, who seized the now visible Vinosians.
“Bloody hell, Merlot, we’re buggered!”
It did appear so, and this assessment was confirmed when Rhinepest himself stepped out of the shadows, triumphant. He looked with amusement upon the increasingly visible forms of his naked enemies.
“Well, Merlot, still as skinny as a beanpole, I see. And Chardonnay, you’ve been no stranger to the table." Rhinepest chuckled evilly.
“But where are my manners,” he asked, rhetorically. “You must be tired after your long journey. And thirsty.”
Quick as lightning, Rhinepest reached inside his black cloak and withdrew a jade flask. To his infinite horror, Merlot recognized the flask, but there was nothing he could do. The hellish warriors released Merlot and the king, stepping out of harm’s way.
Rhinepest hurled the flask at them, which shattered at their feet. A dense cloud of purple smoke instantly enveloped them. Merlot and the king watched in horror as the room around them appeared to grow quickly in size. Only Merlot realized that they were in fact shrinking.
Laughing maniacally, Rhinepest, now a giant, approached them. He leaned over and carefully grabbed his two enemies, who were now the size of peas. Going to a nearby table upon which sat a half empty bottle of wine, he dumped his two shrunken enemies on the palm of one hand, grabbed the bottle and uncorked it with his teeth. He held the tiny kicking men over the neck of the bottle, close to his smirking face.
“Well, Merlot, my old apprentice, it seems that I still have much to teach you. I can’t believe you were so foolish as to walk into my trap, naked as two jaybirds. Do you have any last words before I dispose of you?”
“You haven’t won yet, Rhinepest,” Merlot sputtered in rage. “Your arrogance will be the death of you.”
“Perhaps,” Rhinepest replied, “But you won’t be around to see it, Merlot.”
Rhinepest dropped the two men through the bottle neck, their screams echoing tinnily like those of miniature mice. He laughed to see his victims plunge into a veritable sea of wine, then leaned close to give Merlot a parting shot.
“I hope you enjoy your final resting place, Merlot. It’s a very good vintage, by the way.” Rhinepest laughed. “I’ll be back soon to see how you’re getting on.”
Inside the bottle, Merlot and the king were gasping for breath, treading wine. Fortunately for them, the surface of the wine was dotted with bits of floating cork. They each grabbed one and so managed to stay afloat.
“Well, Merlot, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into,” the king said.
Merlot scowled at the king, but said nothing. His mind was focused on finding a solution to this somewhat sticky situation, for he had noticed immediately that they were floating in a very rich, full-bodied wine. He was already beginning to feel intoxicated from the fumes.
“Well, mister wizard, can’t you undo Rhinepest’s spell?”
“Yes, your majesty, but it would be suicide to do so now. Instantly restored to our normal size we’d be cut to pieces by the shattering glass of the wine bottle.”
“Then we are truly screwed,” the king sniffed, pessimistically.
But as he sniffed, he began to take notice of the pungent air around them. He kicked his feet underwine to move closer to Merlot.
“My God, Merlot, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That old scoundrel has at least had the good taste to drop us into a bottle of Touriga Nacional.”
He scooped up a handful of wine and tasted it, smiling. “Yes, no doubt about it, Merlot, it’s Nacional all right.” He began to drink with gusto, smacking his lips with pleasure, a habit that Merlot found particularly annoying.
Merlot needed to concentrate if they were to escape a gruesome death. But a moment later the king interrupted his thoughts again.
“Now I’m not so sure. It could be a Touriga Francesca. What do you think, Merlot?”
“What?” The old wizard was distracted and rapidly becoming out of sorts, distressed at the sight of his long white beard stained pink by the aromatic wine. The king made lapping motions with his hand, and to appease him, Merlot took a small sip of the wine, rolling it around on his tongue.
“It’s a Tinta Barroca,” he said. The king was somewhat distressed to hear this.
“Good lord, are you sure, man? I felt quite sure it was one of the Tourigas.”
Merlot frowned at him. “Your majesty, I hate to interrupt your wine tasting, but we must devise a plan of some kind. We’re in a terrible fix here.”
By now the king’s spirits were fortified by half a liter of wine of very high alcohol content. His initial pessimism had turned to alcoholic stupidity.
“Oh, I don’t know, Merlot. It could be worse.”
“Your majesty, Rhinepest has reduced us to the size of insects. We’re alive only because someone made a mess of uncorking this bottle. There is no possible way to escape. With nothing but strong wine to drink we’ll become dehydrated and weak from hunger. Eventually we’ll lose our grips on these bits of cork, and we’ll drown. How could things possibly be worse?”
The king reflected thoughtfully for a moment. “Well, it could be raining.”
Merlot’s eyes went wide as saucers. “Your majesty, that’s it!”
The king slurped wine. “What’s it?”
“I shall conjure up a weather spell, your highness. I’ll create a fierce storm of some kind, a tempest, with violent winds and high, cresting waves.”
The king looked uneasy. “Good God, Merlot, you know how easily I become seasick.” He slurped more wine to assuage his distress, then frowned.
“You know, you may be right. This could be a Tinta after all.”
Merlot looked at the king as if the man had lost his mind. At that moment he resolved to make Rhinepest pay a terrible price for putting him in such a spot.
“But tell me, Merlot, won’t this gale of yours only hasten our drowning?”
“Not a mere gale, my lord, something much stronger. A nor’easter perhaps, a tropical storm, a typhoon, or a hurricane.”
“Hurricane? Merlot, you’ve gone right off your nut. A hurricane would kill us for sure.” He burped loudly.
“I’d lay off that wine if I were you, my lord. If my plan is successful, you will soon need your strength. If I can create a sufficiently violent storm, with waves several inches high, the bottle will tip over and we can escape.”
“So what?” the king said, his words slurring from the wine. “Even if we do get out of this damned bottle, we’ll still be the size of bloody pissants. Probably be eaten by spiders or mice or some damned thing.”
“Never fear, your majesty. Once we’re out, I’ll restore us to full size in no time.”
He tried to focus again. “With a suitably strong hurricane… .” He trailed off, now concentrating with all his might. Absent-mindedly he sampled a bit of wine, something clicking in his subconscious.
“Tinto Cão,” he said, with absolute certainty.
The king frowned, taking another sip. “Dammit, Merlot, I think you’re right.” But Merlot’s superior prowess as a sommelier only made him testy.
“Well then, quit your blathering and get on with it, man! Make your damned storm already before we drown or drink ourselves to death!”
“Of course, my lord, but I must proceed cautiously. There are many ways to approach this problem, but the wrong choice could be disastrous. Ideally I should try to create a rising warm high-pressure front that collides with a descending cold low-pressure front to produce the maximum amount of turbulence, which would then cause… .”
But the king had reached the limit of his patience with Merlot’s indecisiveness. He spit out a mouthful of wine and shouted at his reluctant wizard.
“Oh, for God’s sake, man, any storm in a Port will do!”