Emma Golden-55, divorced, unemployed-has just signed a contract with a publisher to write a book about Oregon wines. A recovering alcoholic, Emma wrote about wine before it got the best of her. She takes on this project because she needs the advance. A friend, Melody Wyatt, invites Emma to mind her wine country bed and breakfast inn, the Westerly, while Melody and her husband Dan vacation in the South Pacific. This assignment is a hot button for Emma since it returns her to the scene of so many memories, but Melody offers Emma generous compensation for her efforts and reminds her that she will be able to conduct her book research while on-site.
Practically the first person Emma encounters after settling in at the B&B is her verbally abusive ex-husband Dwight McCourt. She discovers she still harbors unresolved feelings for him. Other characters crowd onto the scene, all wanting to be included in the upcoming wine book. Most prominent is Ted Maxell, a bombastic and unpopular newcomer to Oregon and owner of the showy Cougar Crossing Winery. Ted invites Emma to a gathering at his winery, where the story quickly turns sideways. By the end of the evening, Ted is found floating in a vat of fermenting pinot noir, his trousers bunched around his ankles.
As one of the party discovering the body, Emma’s curiosity is piqued by the lurid circumstances of Ted’s death. Among the people she already knows who hate him are the Westerly’s cook Angelina (Angel) Lopez, ex-husband Dwight, Ted’s son Axel and Axel’s fiancée, Zephyr (Angel’s daughter). And that, she finds as her book research progresses, is the short list. Axel is arrested for his father’s murder, but Emma and her new sidekick, local newspaper reporter Rob Grimes, know the authorities have the wrong man-especially after Emma discovers Axel’s sister Tiffany dead, and what appears to be an overdose is instead a result of someone tampering with Tiffany’s allergy medication.
Emma is invested in the murder from the start because fears that her grouchy ex-husband murdered Ted over a property line dispute. She becomes more involved when Tiffany’s death turns out to be murder. Tiffany had been desperate to talk to Emma. She said she knew who killed her father. Emma feels she let Tiffany down. More suspects surface including the stranger Emma overheard arguing with Ted the night he died; vineyard owner Nestor Pullman, whose daughter was raped by Ted; Ted’s pregnant widow Tara Maxell; Tara’s rumored lover Josh Spears; and Ted’s ex-wife Pamela, who has moved to the area seemingly to torment the murder victim.
Each of the suspects had motive to kill Ted. But nobody had a grudge against Tiffany-or did they? Through his contact with local authorities, reporter Grimes feeds information to Emma that adds detail and dimension to the crimes. Meanwhile, her own research leads Emma to the truth-that Ted and his daughter harbored secrets horrible enough to provide motive for both their murders.