The Grapes of Wrath

The Rise and Fall of the Mercedes Altena Empire
By Rhombus Friedman
Originally Printed in The New York Guardian Thymes Sunday Reader (Apocrypha Edition) [Date Suppressed]

"Are you saying we should make their sacrifices meaningless? The world will have, must have, a pure Noir; of that you can be certain.
Altena Mercedes, in her last known public interview, [Date Suppressed]

And with two strokes of a pen, the inspirational, heroic, and highly controversial story of the Grand Retour Wine and Spritzer Corporation (GRWSC) came to a tragic end, like so many others before it.

Corporate buyouts are business as usual in this day and age, but this was not the case last Wednesday in Brussels. In front of a huge international media presence, Rene Graipaul, CEO of Consolidated Beverages LLC (CBLLC), would accomplish what his company had dreamed of doing for the last two years: it would buy the house that Altena built.

The packed meeting room was virtually silent as the final documents were signed. Outside, a small group of broken, yet devoted protestors and GRWSC employees, dressed in black, chanted a mournful dirge. One held a simple sign that summed up the feelings of the entire group: "NOIR LIVES."

Later, in a surprise move, Graipul gave a brief address to them from his office window. "Although we all weep for the great loss you have endured," he said, "rest assured that today is the start of a new and brighter future for you all. We value each and every one of our consumer and labour resources and will treat you with all the respect you deserve."

The next day, all the GRWSC employees were fired.

David had faced Goliath, and he had been bought out.

How did it come to this?

The story of Noir is really the story of one woman, the brilliant, eccentric businesswoman known to the world as Altena. Now, in a Guardian exclusive, the true story of Noir can finally be told.

The Troubled Green Fields

Established by Alfonso Guiligano of Spain back in 1404, Grand Retour Wineries quickly established a reputation for high-quality alcoholic beverages and woollen socks (the latter produced until 1976). According to historian Jacque Granitesteinersteinway, Guiligano pitched his product as "a return to the good old days of 1227," and used time-worn, traditional techniques to make his drinks by hand. Despite the fact that those techniques would not become "time-worn" for at least 400 years, the pitch worked, and the wine flowed like water.

Over the centuries, the company slowly prospered, and, by 1788, had obtained almost a total lock on the European market, with contracts with the Spanish, French, and British monarchies.

But time was against the Guiliganos. Leadership in the company was hereditary, and a string of incompetent descendents threatened its prosperity during the late 1800s. In 1864, Voldo "The Stupid" Guiligano sold off the company's British assets to an upstart developer, one Helmut Goering. Goering, using modern production techniques, made huge inroads into Luxembourg, Spain, and Germany, building the foundation of what would become Consolidated Beverages.

In 1897, notes Granitesteinersteinway, Valashko Guiligano made the incredibly stupid decision to try and upstage Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Decorating the company grounds with over one million easily- removed diamond-studded statues, he invited all of Europe to "the greatest show on earth." With a full marching band, some 5000 guests, millions in food and drink, 37 live elephants, a live-fire military exercise as evening entertainment, and, of course, gallons of wine, it was easily the most extravagant party in human history.

But it was also a complete disaster. 5000 guests walked in, grabbed between 3500–6678.14 pound-sterling worth of food, drink, and statuary, and then walked out to the Jubilee. Worse, the marching band so frightened the elephants that they ran right into the pikes and catapults of the visiting Vatican Guard. "Not since Alexander the Great," writes Granitesteinersteinway, "had Europe witnessed such a terrifying clash. The earth trembled. The sky filled with men, elephants, and tubas. Walls tumbled to the ground."

And the Vatican was furious. Pope John-Paul-Meridith-Shaw-Markleby-Wilde the XI denounced the event as "a scandalous exercise in debauchery, excess, and ballistics," and excommunicated Valashko. Sales plummeted, and Valashko committed suicide. His successor, Adrienne "The Knife" Guiligano, salvaged some of the company's sales through her "Drink Grand or Die" campaign, but the damage was already done. By 1954, an Ipso-Facto-Reid poll revealed that less than 10% of Europeans drank Grand Retour products. Significantly, 99.99% of all respondents who used to drink them said they had switched to Soldat Knights, the flagship product of Consolidated Beverages LLC.

The Black Hands Close In

According to Soldats Ahoy!: The Official Biography of the World's Favourite Drink, the company started negotiations for a friendly takeover of GRWSC in May 1964. New evidence discovered by corporate watchdog Michelle Mure suggests otherwise.

According to Mure, CBLLC wanted total European, and global, control of the consumer beverage and woollen sock market, and the Grand Retour was the one thing standing in its way. They made no less than seven offers on the company from 1967–2005, but the staunchly traditional Guiligano family refused them all. Frustrated, CBLLC turned vicious. Knowing that the last surviving Guiligano, Verthandi Montorossa, was running for the French Presidency, they started a massive smear campaign to break the will of the Guiligano family. Devastated by attack ads like "Verthandi Sucks," "Verthandi: First Vichy France, Now Doujinshi France," and "No More Random Crossovers," she quickly took to the bottle. Unfortunately, the bottle happened to be the company's wine storage facility. Encouraged by CBLLC operatives, she threw a wild, week-long drinking party for her employees.

The party devastated the company. Over half the company's wine stocks were consumed, making its third quarter deliveries impossible to fill. Angry customers denounced the company and cancelled their contracts, costing GRWI some US$23.2 million in lost revenue. The huge mass of hung-over, smelly, incontinent workers left over from the party caused property values to plummet into the negatives, a first in the history of real estate. Worst of all, Verthandi, while zoned out on a potent combination of cocaine, dinner crackers, and a bottle of vintage 1404 wine (stolen from the company museum), had accidentally signed an order authorizing the purchase of Switzerland. This put the company in an impossible situation. With bankruptcy looming, things looked bleak.

Enter the Mother

CBLLC was all set to buy the company for a song when, in a shocking turn of events, Verthandi was found dead. According to investigators, she had slipped on a puddle of her own vomit, fell down the side of a mountain, and cracked her head against a stone wall. Fortunately, she was so bombed out of her mind at the time she was insensitive to all forms of physical pain. Unfortunately, the blow to her head had scrambled most of her remaining common sense. She choked to death on a rose bush.

Company trustee Silvio Berlusconi, in a stroke of genius, immediately tracked down and drafted a distant relative to the Guiligano family, one Mercedes Altena. This provoked a furious, if brief, protest from the Board of Trustees, who questioned the appropriateness of having a near-stranger take over one of the most staunchly traditionalist companies in Europe. After a discussion with Altena's Vice-President of Human Resources, one Hokuto Chloe, the entire board approved Altena's appointment unanimously. (On an unrelated note, the entire Board died of severe metal poisoning several seconds later.)

Having graduated from both Harvard and Oxford Universities with an MBA and a Doctorate in Megalomania, Altena was well equipped to bring GRWSC out of its hole. But she had a tremendous challenge ahead of her: offended customers, decaying infrastructure, and a horde of hung-over squatters.

Her first 100 days in office are a textbook case of visionary leadership. She had Chloe cull all but the most intelligent persons from the executive, cutting it from 10 000 to 50 employees. Using the resulting revenue (and fertilizer), she developed and used revolutionary agricultural techniques ("varying degrees of water and light," as she coyly put it in a press conference) to restore the company's grape fields to peak capacity in under a year.

Next, she approached the Spanish and French governments and asked that the grounds surrounding the Guiligano manor be designated a free-economic zone, similar to the maquiladoras established in Mexico. After a tense negotiation session (in which Chloe stared at them silently for three hours straight), the two governments granted her request, and also (in an unexpected show of generosity) gave her complete diplomatic immunity. In fact, both governments agreed to commit several divisions of troops to defend the grounds (in a document inexplicably titled "Keep that Purple- Haired Psycho Away from Us").

Altena's strategy for the drunken labourers has obtained near legendary status, with Microsoft Overlord Wilhelm Gates the V going on record as saying, "Why didn't I think of that?" She sobered up the workers and offered them free housing on the condition they work for her at penny- pinching wages. After a short, sanguinary negotiation session with union representatives, they agreed to work for free.

Having previously worked as an advisor to numerous Fortune-500 companies, Altena knew the importance of a strong corporate culture. In a move still protested by many human rights activists, she immersed her employees in her company's ideology 24/7. Its classic Twin Maiden logo was plastered on every wall, textbook, and plate. Its mission statement was reworked as a semi-religious mantra, and drilled into every worker. The workers even lived in the traditional style of the villagers that once paid tribute to the Guiligano family centuries ago; this had the added benefit of making the village into The Village, Western Europe's hottest tourist attraction.

Altena even brought a bit of industry into her staunchly agrarian company, although not in the way most would expect. Tapping a previously undiscovered volcanic vent underneath company land, she had designed and built a 10 MW geothermal plant. Profits on electricity sales to France and Spain were fat indeed, as were added investment dollars from nations utilizing the Kyoto Protocol Clean Development Mechanism.

All these efforts helped GRWSC start its slow climb out of financial ruin. But in just three short months, Altena would use a single word to catapult it into the financial legend:

Noir.

Noirmania

Altena hired Milton Sachs of the World Bank to conduct a global analysis of consumer trends. Although it still had a loyal following amongst the over- eighty-wino population, GRWSC needed to find a new, more lucrative market niche if it was to succeed.

Sach's analysis shook the world. Big business, he discovered, had completely ignored the huge numbers of abOut-Twenty-And-Kinda-Ugly persons worldwide, which he dubbed the "otaku" sector. Media savvy, post-modern, and anime-addicted, these persons had the refined tastes needed to appreciate a good wine, but virtually no money to spend on it.

After consulting with marketing guru Michelle "Prince" Mishkin, Altena embarked on the most ambitious and wildly successful promotional campaign since Apple Computer's 'Think Different' advertisements. Noting the low incomes of the otaku sector, and the huge success of the Molson Canadian X/Y campaign back in the late 1990s, she marketed three high-quality, low- cost wine coolers, each with a distinctive taste, and gave out free samples at shopping malls and elementary schools worldwide. Customers could vote for the 'Kirika,' 'Mireille,' or 'Don Knotts' cooler online, with the promise that their votes would determine which pair of products would eventually hit the market. She also hired Ryoe Tsukimura to design a pair of mascots (and an accompanying TV series) to promote the competition. (Tsukimura got a little carried away with things, but it still worked.)

Interest in the company soared. Investors went wild over the company's IPO, netting Altena an instant $780.89 million in revenue.

Altena herself became a sensation. She made the cover of The Economist, Newsweek, Time Magazine, and even the prestigious Winos Weekly. Her advice book, The Final Guidance: Your Shot at Better Life, was an Oprah's Book Club selection, and is credited with breaking the publishing slump of 2009. Flowing robes and candelabras were all the rage at Parisian fashion shows. Even her publicity-shy associate, Chloe, had great success promoting her own line of designer cloaks and cutlery.

Noir.com launched on August 7, 2009, and accumulated several million hits within hours. The youth of the world had fallen in love with the maidens of darkness.

The Two Raised Fingers of the Soldats

According to insiders with Consolidated Beverages, the campaign made Graipul furious. Calling upon his supporters in conservative North America, he made stinging and public indictments of the campaign, accusing it of encouraging violence, promiscuity, alcoholism, and bad fan-fiction. His company launched a new campaign targeted at older customers ("Soldat Knights: On Guard for Your Children's Safety"), airing the ads several times an hour on all major television networks. CBLLC also halved the price on its popular Absolut Soldat line of beverages, flooding the market with cheap booze. Last, Graipul himself launched a lawsuit against Altena, claiming that her 'Kirika' and 'Mireille' brand names were blatant rip-offs of CBLLC's 'Kei' and 'Yuri' brands.

Altena responded with grace and deadly efficiency. She kicked the Noir ad campaign into high gear, portraying her company as a family-run David versus a corporate Goliath. Small business owners throughout the world, already threatened with takeover by multinational corporations, rallied to her, and pre-ordered over two million cases of product. She also co-opted the flood of Soldat Knights, daring customers to pit Knight against Noir in a taste test. Hundreds of thousands of such "trials" were held worldwide, with Noir coming out on top every time. Altena even held a "final trial" on the company grounds with a panel of top Hollywood stars; the Pay-Per-View made her millions.

On the legal front, Altena suffered some setbacks when, despite the pointed arguments of her legal representative, Chloe, Judge Vito ruled that 'Kirika' and 'Mireille' were indeed violations of CBLLC copywrite. However, upon appeal, Judge Endor, noted several irregularities in Vito's ruling. First off, the 'Kei' and 'Yuri' products had been out of circulation for over 10 years, and CBLLC had no intention of reviving them. Second, they were tarts. Third, transcripts of the trial revealed that every time Judge Vito said the word "Soldat," a masked man handed him a small sack of money. (The transcripts were also covered in an unidentified red substance and stabbed through with forks, but this was irrelevant to the case.)

Judge Endor ordered an immediate retrial. When CBLLC representatives inexplicably failed to show up in court (and a small pile of dead lawyers was discovered outside the courtroom), Endor threw out the case and ran for his life.

Altena's brilliance had struck again. With the August launch date approaching, GRWSC was poised for a grand return to its glory days of old.

Twilight

Then tragedy struck.

Two disgruntled woman confronted Altena as she was conducting a charity photo shoot in the geothermal plant for Dramatic Nuns Weekly. They accused her of stealing the domain name Noir.com out from under them, and of using their images and life-stories without permission. (By freak coincidence, the women, Mirika Yuuquet and Kiribelle Boomera, were both professional tea drinkers, just like the characters in Tsukimura's production.) Although Altena calmly explained that any resemblance the series had to persons living or dead was purely coincidental, the women would have none of it, and shoved her into the nearby volcanic vent.

Fortunately, she had taken every safety precaution, and built a steel cage over the vent. Unfortunately, the women had also published pictures on the Internet of her and her VP HR in compromising positions for more), and she died of embarrassment.

Chloe, meanwhile, had been killed in a bizarre cutlery accident, when an overly literal-mined employee heard her say, "Stick a fork in me, I'm done."

With the company's leadership in tatters, the company's stock values plunged, and CBLLC bought it for a song.

"It's really all for the best, you know," said Graipul, when interviewed after the signing. "I mean, what they were doing was atrocious. Using violence and sexual innuendo to sell alcohol? Blasphemy!"

As the news conference came to a close, Graipul announced that, in response to popular demand, the company would immediately start production of the Don Knotts cooler, and launch a Saturday morning cartoon show to promote it, entitled "Knotts to This!"

In the crowd, an old man shed a single tear.