Extract: Brut Force by Peter Stafford-BowBy Phoebe French
Extract blurb: Felix Hart is summoned to a meeting with Sandra, a glamorous, ruthless fine wine account manager, and Boulle, her hateful boss. The two executives have a task for our hero, whether he likes it or not…
A flunky appeared beside me and set down a glass, a great bulbous thing holding a small measure of red wine. I wriggled to the edge of my seat and grasped the stem, giving the wine a swirl. As I poked my nose into the bowl, I was greeted by a luscious fog of plum and leather. It was a Pinot Noir, a good one, fuller bodied than the Coteaux Champenois I’d polished off over lunch. I took a sip. Gorgeous. Not particularly mature, still brooding, but perfumed and poised. Top class Burgundy.
“That’s a very fine wine,” I said.
“It’s the finest. The finest wine of all,” snapped Boulle.
“If you say so.”
Boulle placed a bottle on the table, the label facing me. Domaine Henri-Leroy. My eyes widened. I returned to the glass and took another sip.
“I do say so,” said Boulle. “And so do three hundred years of history. And the world’s greatest sommeliers, wine merchants, journalists…”
I finished the glass. “Well, you can add me to their number. It’s jolly good. Is there any more?”
A reasonable request but, rather rudely, no-one responded.
“As I told you last night,” said Sandra, “there’s a competitive Pinot Noir tasting planned in London, in which Domaine Henri-Leroy is obliged to participate. It is a mischievous initiative, of course, designed to embarrass us.”
“Why must people do this?” said Boulle, rubbing his hand over his forehead. “Disrespect history in this way, set vignerons against one other, disrupt the harmony of the world?”
I didn’t have a good answer for that, so I remained silent. I stretched for the open bottle, which turned out to have been placed just out of my reach, possibly deliberately. Boulle scowled then waved his hand, and the flunky crept over to refill my glass with another tiny measure.
“The tasting is the idea of Sir Francis Walsham and Lord Flashman,” continued Sandra, “and will take place at Basildon House, in the centre of London. The tasting will pit six French Pinot Noirs, all Burgundies, against six Pinots from other countries. Sir Francis Walsham has picked the French wines, Lord Flashman will pick the non-French. They have placed a wager as to whether the wines of Burgundy will triumph over those from outside France.”
“What’s the stake?” I swallowed the wine. It was absolutely marvellous. I turned and waved my glass at the flunky, who grimaced and tiptoed over.
“It is a gentleman’s bet,” said Sandra.
“Probably to choose who buggers who in the bathroom of the House of Lords,” muttered Boulle.
“Yes, Walsham and Flashman have nothing at stake, except their pride. But we, as you know, have a lot at stake. The news of the competition will be announced tomorrow, it is to be called The Judgement of Basildon, after the venue. We expect significant press interest, not just from the wine trade but the wider media too. They do like to take a pop at the French.”
“Why don’t you just refuse to take part? Say it’s beneath you.”
“We will be seen as cowards!” Boulle slammed a copy of American Goblet on the table and stalked off to the far end of the room. A small yellow post-it had been stuck, helpfully, next to one of the headlines.
Henri-Leroy: A tarnished lily?
“The allegation, Felix, is that we are more concerned with the profit margins of Domaine Henri-Leroy than with the quality of the wine. We did initially dismiss the request, flat refused to take part. But the world’s highest profile wine journalists are already aware of the tasting and it became clear we would be traduced throughout the world of wine if we failed to participate. The editor of American Goblet stated he would refuse to review our wine in next year’s vintage guide if we pulled out. The Russians and Chinese use American Goblet as their bible and we can’t afford not to be in it.”
“Oh dear,” I commiserated. My glass was empty and I waggled it behind my head, hoping the flunky was paying attention.
“We do not, however, intend to lose this competition. It would deal a huge blow to the pre-eminence of Burgundy and damage the reputation of Domaine Henri-Leroy. We will not permit this to happen to our most profitable wine.”
“You said you wanted me to be a judge?” I peered at the tiny smear of wine that had been deposited in my glass and turned to the flunky. “Could you pour me a grown-up’s measure please? I’m here to study Domaine Henri-Leroy in intense, forensic detail. How can I do that if you’re only prepared to lightly paint the bottom of my glass?”
Sandra sighed and gestured at my goblet, which was filled, with excruciating slowness, to a slightly higher level. I downed the wine and replaced it on the table, flicked the rim and nodded to the flunky once more, who shuddered with irritation.
“There will be twenty tasting judges, a mixture of winemakers, journalists and merchants,” said Sandra. “The attendee list and the methodology for the tasting are secret but Walsham has poor IT security and it was quite straightforward to gain possession of the plans and the names of the judges.”
This was starting to sound like less of a wine tasting and more of a conspiracy. I’ve never been a fan of conspiracies, at least not when I’m on the bottom rung of one.
“Our initial plan was to approach enough of the attendees and persuade them of the benefits of voting for the status quo. We’re confident our wine is the best, of course, but it would be reckless to leave things to chance.”
I wondered what toolkit of persuasion Sandra and her boss had in mind. Money? Sex? Blackmail? I had no problem with the first two, but the reminder of blackmail lowered my spirits slightly…
About Brut Force
Brut Force is the sequel to Corkscrew: the highly improbable, but occasionally true, tale of a professional wine buyer – a picaresque, satirical tale drawing on the author’s early years working as an international wine buyer for some of the world’s largest retailers.
In Brut Force, Felix Hart, a wine buyer at the top of his game, finds himself compromised by a ruthless, multinational drinks corporation.
Forced to participate in a high-profile, corrupt wine tasting, Hart is drawn into a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse, pursued by blackmailers, assassins and organic wine fanatics.
The action moves from the Byzantine intrigue of the Minstrels of Wine to France’s most glamorous chateaux, Hart relying on his quick wits, fine palate and a touch of muscle to stay ahead of his enemies. But he meets his match in Lily Tremaine, a beautiful and passionate sommelier, who disrupts his easy, pleasure-seeking life and turns his world upside down.
Brut Force (£9.99, Acorn Independent Press) and Corkscrew (£10.99, Thistle Publishing) are available to order in bookshops and on Amazon here.
Peter Stafford-Bow is a novelist and wine consultant, based in London. He is a noted public speaker, wine educator and a regular on the literary festival circuit. He has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize for Corkscrew with the winner due to be announced in May 2019.