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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Book Review: Vertical – Passion and Pinot on the Oregon Wine Trail – Rex Pickett

There can’t be many people interested in wine that haven’t seen or aren’t familiar with the 2004 film ‘Sideways’.  Starring Paul Giamatti (Miles) and Thomas Haden Church (Jack) as old college friends who go through US wine country ahead of Jack’s impending marriage, the film (and book that it was based on) was a love-note to the Pinot Noir grape and managed to change real-life perceptions of the variety whilst forcing negative light on Merlot.

What’s perhaps less known is original author Rex Pickett penned a sequel to Sideways; Vertical, which was originally self-published way back in 2010.  Following some ‘pruning and adjustments’ to the content and with a bit more funding behind it, the book is now about to be re-launched to a wider audience.

Vertical

In a strange blending of art imitating life imitating art, the previously downtrodden character of Miles (a depiction of Pickett) is now the successful author of a book called Shameless.  This novel, which is clearly the same as the real-life Sideways, was then made in to a successful film (in both the book and real life).  Miles is now scouting for ideas for his new book (which has technically already been written as the book Vertical).

Vertical follows Miles as he heads off to a speaking engagement at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon and, roping along Jack for support, they are also joined by Miles’ ailing mother Phyllis and her carer Joy.

From the detail and attention that has gone in to such things as the passing scenery, the driving routes they take, and even which way the wind is blowing, it feels that Pickett is writing first-hand about his own trip to Oregon off the back of the success of the real Sideways. Rather than read it as a first-hand Pickett narrative, given how much Giamatti and Haden Church absorbed and became the characters of Miles and Jack in the Sideways film, I chose to read the book with their voices in my head, rather than treat them as simply the Martin and Jake characters who star in the Shameless film.

I read the first half of the book, almost in one go, whilst the sun was streaming in through a window.  Such was the beautifully composed narrative I was immediately transported to the blue skies of wine country, ready to jettison my life and head off on such a wine adventure myself.  Even at 10am in the morning I was thirsty reading it.

I’m always wary of any book that carries a back-page review that says ‘laugh-out-loud funny’, but there were several moments throughout their road trip I did indeed laugh out loud.  Clearly imagining the chilled-out Haden Church delivery of Jack, one whole story arc is a joy to read.  I won’t spoil the details, but suffice to say I’m now well aware of what priapism is!

I’d also be willing to get the Kickstarter fund going to make the movie, just to see the moment that the brake comes off of Phyllis’ wheelchair on a vineyard terrace and she goes tumbling down through the steeply sloped vines whilst Miles, Jack and Joy chase after her.  Or where Miles gets dropped in to a pool of his despised Merlot!

The comedic situations in the book mean that you’ll enjoy it even with no prior wine knowledge, but there’s plenty of references here for those in the know, even if a few do seem a little superfluously thrown in (e.g. “I didn’t know very much….relying heavily on Jancis Robinson’s brilliant encyclopedia on the subject, The Oxford Companion to Wine”).

There’s certainly enough detail for you to make your own wine pilgrimage to match that of the book which, after reading it, is exactly what you’ll be wanting to do.

A great read, and well recommended.

With thanks to Loose Gravel Press for providing the review copy of this book.

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