UK Vintage 2018 Report #4 – June

Time for a quick check in on my vines now and how they’re doing in the blisteringly warm June sunshine.  Temperatures throughout the month have been at record breaking levels, with many days hovering in the high 20’s, and nights staying in double figures.

The main activity this month has been trimming back the increasing level of vigour and growth, allowing the remaining vines to focus their energy, which will help the clusters to continue developing.

UK June Chard

Whilst the Chardonnay is progressing OK, my Ortega is looking like it is going to be somewhat lacklustre this year, and there’s limited clusters coming through for whatever reason.  It’s been growing vigorously enough, but does get a lot of attention from mites, hence the blotchy leaves in the picture below.

UK June Ortega

The lack of potential Ortega grapes is well offset by my MVN3 which is getting itself ready to deliver a huge crop, so it’s a shame that I still don’t know which variety it is.  These vines were planted one year ahead of my Chardonnay and Ortega vines and so has a little more maturity to it, which may be helping.

UK June MVN3

Whilst allowing the lack of natural water to stress the vines just enough to promote growth, occasional watering is taking place so as not to dry them out completely.  Temperatures are set to hit 30° C this weekend, and the uninterrupted sunshine is set to continue as far as current forecasts go.

Summer is well and truly here!

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Q&A with Peter Stafford-Bow, author of Corkscrew

I recently reviewed and recommended Corkscrew, the debut novel by Peter Stafford-Bow.  To delve a little further in to how the novel came about I caught up with Peter for a chat.

Corkscrew Sleeve

Vinesight: Hi Peter, thanks for taking the time to chat with Vinesight.  They say that everyone has one book in them.  What made you want to write yours?

Peter Stafford-Bow: Writing a novel occurred to me around four years ago. I was working in South Africa and had a lot on time on my hands, especially at weekends.  I made a few notes, then after a few months started writing in earnest.

The literary inspiration didn’t come from the world of wine but from the Flashman Papers, a series of novels by George Macdonald Fraser set in the Victorian era featuring a caddish cavalry officer. Written in the seventies they’re rather out of style now, but they got me thinking about the parallels between modern multi-nationals and the mercenary activities of organisations like the East India Company.

I was also struck by how little fiction has been written about the wine trade, rather than books set in some sunny spot in Provence. Apart from Rex Pickett’s Sideways and Tony Aspler’s detective series, there’s not much.

VS: Ah, yes, the inevitable mention of Sideways.  Did the success of that novel influence you at all or was it not really a concern?

PSB: Corkscrew is such a different book to Sideways that I wasn’t concerned about it occupying the same space.  Sideways is a character-driven, mid-life crisis comedy, whereas Corkscrew is a pacey, satirical thriller about big business, hung around a picaresque, coming-of-age story.

VS: I enjoyed the ‘parallel universe’ aspect of the book, Gatesave supermarket, Pink Priest wine etc.  I thought the Minstrels organisation was genius.

PSB: Given the behaviour of supermarket executives it seemed prudent to use made-up names for the corporate entities, whether retailers or wine companies.  I wanted to write a book that would appeal to non-wine enthusiasts and wine geeks alike.

The Minstrels of Wine is the richest part of the story from an ‘in-house joke’ perspective. I wanted them to be a mixture of the Masters of Wine, an Oxbridge college and the Knights Templar so there are plenty of historical and wine references in there.

VS: A lot of the book sound both plausible yet absurd at the same time, examples being a dull sales conference interrupted by a herd of cows, or international shipments of wine full of illegal immigrants.  As the book is loosely based on your career, what’s the balance between fact and fiction?

PSB: Oh, it’s more than 50% true, for sure, and the retail conference is inspired by stories of a certain UK retailer in the 1990s who presented ‘wooden spoon’ awards to humiliate suppliers that had displeased them. Anyone involved in international wine logistics knows that ‘hitch-hikers’ are a common occurrence.

VS: Did you achieve your career success at the same rate as Felix, starting at the bottom, smashing your targets, and generally being in the right place at the right time?

PSB: Corkscrew is definitely not an autobiography, I’d be in prison or dead for sure! Felix’s ascent is extraordinarily rapid which wasn’t the case for me at all! Like all careers, you need a combination of hard work, skill and timing, and I definitely subscribe to the theory that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. The world of wine buying is not back-stabbing at all, quite the opposite in my experience, so that’s a vile slander on my part.

VS: Alongside the main wine buying side of the story there is the parent plot of Felix getting involved with the mafia and causing an international incident. Did you ever consider having the book simply working up to, and culminating in the final Minstrel exam?

PSB: Corkscrew definitely needed to be more than ‘Confessions of a Wine Merchant’. It would have been like Ian Fleming just writing about the budget approval process at the Ministry of Defence.

VS: Haha, indeed.  I was also very amused to read that there is an even more raucous version of the book in existence?

PSB: The ‘NSFW’ version.  I’m sure there are a few still lurking in independent London bookshops and wine merchants – essentially they’re a lot more sweary, which my publisher felt might offend certain markets.

VS: Just as Sideways had its Pinot Noir, do you think the same will happen to Asti Spumante now that Felix has brokered the largest ever deal?

PSB: Oh, undoubtedly! I’ve long felt that Asti Spumante has been unfairly eclipsed by Prosecco, which is usually a rather dull drink.

VS: You’ve just recorded the audio book for Corkscrew and the book is finally being properly published.  What’s next?

PSB: The sequel is currently with my agent. I’m very excited about it – it picks up where Corkscrew finishes and I think it’s an even better novel. The Minstrels of Wine play a large part, as do Paris-Blois International, and there’s plenty of hair-raising peril in French chateaux.  A 10-part Netflix adaptation of Corkscrew would be good too.

VS: One last question: What’s your desert island wine and why?

PSB: It would have to be Sherry. I’m cheating, of course, because that allows me everything from a bone-dry Manzanilla (perfect on the beach) to a luscious PX (to pair with all the mangoes and coconuts lying around).

VS: Peter, thanks very much for your time.

PSB: Cheers!

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Book Review: Corkscrew by Peter Stafford-Bow

The success of Sideways can be a double edged sword when it comes to wine literature.  Do you try to tread in the same footsteps and risk comparison, or are you able to create something with its own identity?

Corkscrew (or Corkscrew – the highly improbable, but occasionally true, tale of a professional wine buyer to give it its full title), the debut novel by Peter Stafford-Bow firmly falls in to the latter camp. Doing the rounds as something of a self-published cult novel within the wine fraternity since 2016, the book has deservedly been picked up by publisher Thistle and makes its official bookshelf debut in July.

Corkscrew Sleeve

I grabbed the chance to have a good thumb through an advance copy and am extremely glad that I did.  Usually I’d steer away from calling a book ‘a real page turner’ as that’s surely the point of any half-decent book but, despite two very active children, I was able to finish Corkscrew in 4 sessions over a long weekend.  It’s a real page turner.

Billed as ‘part thriller, part self-help manual and part drinking companion’, the satirical story follows university dropout Felix Hart as he navigates his accidental foray in to the wine world, working his way up from part time assistant at a local wine merchant to becoming Head of Wine (Ale, Spirits and Salted Snacks) for a major supermarket chain.

His meteoric rise is punctuated by jealous colleagues unable to rise to the challenge or move with the times, a tremendous dollop of luck, and mind altering substances applied at pertinent points.  Felix is the archetypal loveable rogue – I was reminded throughout of Edmund Blackadder, cutting corners and creating devious plans, but always coming out on top.

Very firmly putting the ‘screw’ in to the book title, whilst largely rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way, Felix does have a knack with the ladies who usually get more than just the wine that they order.  The novel jumps from being a blend of Sideways and The Wolf of Wall Street, to Sideways meets 50 Shades of Grey at various points.  Even James Bond would consider getting out of the spying game and in to the wine trade as a way to better attract the ladies.

The book has a wonderful British sense of humour about it and I’d dearly like to quote some of my favourite lines but they’re simply too rude for repeating in the open, so I’ll give you a flavour with one of the less extreme examples.  Instead of a situation being so quiet you could hear a pin drop, we hear “it was so quiet you could have heard a spider wanking in the store room”.  Maybe not to everyone’s taste, but they pepper the book with brightness.

I even laughed out loud reading the acknowledgements section (you’re not supposed to do that, right?) and the fact that this version of the book was actually tamed down from an original NSFW version!  How I’d love to have a read of that.

The other aspect of the book that worked for me is the parallel world that it operates in, with Felix working at Gatesave (the curious offspring of real supermarkets Gateway and Kwik Save), and selling ‘Pink Priest’, a clear nod to ‘Blue Nun’.

The parallels and characters form the crux of many well-constructed farces which you can enjoy without any wine knowledge at all but, if you do have some, you’ll pick up on the even deeper in-jokes.

The best of these is how the ‘Masters of Wine’ institute has been replaced by the ‘Minstrels of Wine’.  Taking its cue from the extremely feared MW entrance exam, becoming a Minstrel expands the scope in to something bordering on the private institution seen in Eyes Wide Shut.

Blindfolded hopefuls are led to tables containing 180 samples of wine for the “legendary all-night combined tasting and classical music recital in front of the thousand strong chamber”.

In a complete reversal of reality, you actually get disqualified if you spit the wines, and vomiting also results in an immediate fail, but there’s bonus points available if your tasting note rhymes.  Those that pass the tasting can then move on to performing a classical piece of music for the judges.

If the lead-up and exam itself is a huge climax, there’s still a further story to immerse yourself in including the mafia, firearms, illegal narcotics and international diplomatic relations!

This is a well-paced book that weaves from sub-plot to sub-plot effortlessly, making it extremely moreish and easy to return to.  Fully recommended, I give it 5 stars out of 5.

Corkscrew by Peter Stafford-Bow is available from all good booksellers (and probably a few rubbish ones too) from July 12th.  You may also like to read my chat with the author here.

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How The Other Half Live: The UK Government Wine Cellar

Gov Fund SignPhoto Credit: Jon Manel

A well-appointed off licence is a godsend to most of us and there’s no reason to assume that the Government feel any differently.

Just around the corner from Buckingham Palace, across Hyde Park, is Lancaster House; the home of the British Government’s wine store.  Established in 1908 with the express intent of enabling our ministers to lubricate their diplomatic machinations, over the years this 60 square foot private cellar evolved in to a store of very fine wine.  Naturally people began to wonder what indulgent vintages the elite were getting to imbibe, fully cementing a ‘them vs. us’ mentality.

A 2010 edict by the Secretary of State demanded that a full overhaul of the process be taken ensuring that these tax-payer funded purchases became fully self-funded.  In these times of austerity where “we’re all in it together” it was a welcome move.

The current Government now offers complete transparency as to how their wine cellar runs (Google ‘government hospitality’ to see the full report) and each year they produce a document giving a full run down of the operation.  Firmly ousting the notion of a fine wine gravy-train for the elected, it makes an interesting read.

Well and truly clearing their closet out, a mass sell-off of ‘significant’ bottles was held in 2012 raising the £44k that nearly fully covered the £49k cost of the stocks required for the following year.  These annual sales continue, the most recent of which ensured that officials would no longer be tucking in to such gems as Mouton Rothschild or Margaux 1990.

Gov UK CellarPhoto Credit: Jon Manel

The cellar and ongoing purchases are now guided by a team of Masters of Wine (MWs) to ensure that quality is maintained whilst adhering to the funds available.  The average purchase price of a bottle last year was £14.

Consumption year on year is down which also helps to stretch the budget.  In the fiscal year 2015/16 some 3,730 bottles were drunk vs. just 3,261 last year.  When you weigh up that these bottles will grace the table of more than 200 diplomatic events each year, this divvies up at around 16 bottles per engagement.  Some of us may have got through as many in the recent Bank Holiday weekend.

Bottles are graded either A, B or C dependent on what their intended use will be.  The top category, those listed as A1, are fit only for banquets attended by Kings and Queens.  The majority will be drinking grade C wines: Chilean Merlots and house clarets from merchant Berry Bros & Rudd for the reds and the Bacchus grape from English producer Chapel Down for the white.  Patriotically English wine now accounts for 49% of new wine purchases.

There’s still a handful of exciting bottles tucked away for special occasions and the total stock is estimated to be worth something like £804k, comprising some 33k bottles.  Whilst we can applaud the everyday activity we can only dream about the extremes.  How about the 1970 Petrus Bordeaux (£2k a bottle), 1962 Chateau Margaux (£450) or their last magnum of the 1964 Krug Champagne (£1,900) for lunch?

That’s still quite some collection.

This article was originally published in the June 2018 edition of The Ocelot.  For more of my articles, please click here.