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.
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.