I got the job – again – the following Thursday, after two long hours of what felt like a police interrogation about every single detail of my work history to date, and at a lesser salary than the one agreed in Bordeaux. My trust in my new boss decreased in proportion to the cut he’d imposed on me.
Rachel’s voice brings me back to reality. Four months after my interview with Ed, her good news will reassure him I’m the right person for the job. It may even be a fresh start for the two of us.
‘Could you check something for me?’ she asks.
‘I’d be delighted.’ I press the palm of my hand against the cool wall in front of me, trying to keep my voice level and my excitement down.
‘Ninety-five customers have complained about your Red Vin de Pays over the last two days. Eight weeks before Christmas, this is the last thing I need.’
‘Ninety-five!’ I lean against the wall, hugging myself with my free arm.
Rachel ignores my interruption. ‘Comments range from “taste of rotten fruit” to “smells of tar” and “disgusting”.’
My throat tightens. My stellar future has vanished in a puff of foul smoke.
‘Chris? Can you hear me?’
I force myself to swallow. ‘Do you have a lot number?’
‘Two: L07246 and L07248.’
I fish a pen from my pocket and scribble the last three digits of each lot number over the smudge on my hand. ‘Quite recent,’ I say.
‘The third and the fifth of September.’
The first batch of the offending wine was bottled on the day I joined Villa.
‘They must come from the same tank.’
‘Should I care?’ asks Rachel.
‘Sorry, just thinking aloud.’ I rub my forehead. ‘I’m in Narbonne right now. I’m going to retrieve samples of these two bottling runs and get them tasted. Then I’ll check the analysis-’
‘You have one hour,’ she says. ‘My customers are buying this wine and drinking it as we speak. I won’t take the risk of more of them being dissatisfied with our brand.’
I feel a nervous giggle coming up. If Rachel’s customers are glugging red wine at nine o’clock in the morning, the quality of their tipple may be the least of their worries.
The laughter catches in my throat as I absorb the magnitude of the disaster. The Super-Market’s Red Vin de Pays sells hundreds of thousands of bottles per year. Its loyal followers would recognise it with their eyes closed and earplugs up their noses. Unless we identify and sort out the problem in record time, a quality issue on this line will damage our relationship with The Super-Market beyond repair. I can forget the Bordeaux deal. We may even lose our existing business with them. Everyone will blame me, and Ed will be first in line.
What do I tell Andy? I’ve invested so much time and effort in his visit. I spent the last two months building up his image of Villa and trying to convince him we are a quality producer despite our size. I’m not keen to undo all my good work by telling him what’s going on but The Super-Market takes priority. Our meeting will be disrupted and I need to give him a reason why.
Should I tell him my cat has run away? I don’t have a cat. That my car has been broken into? It’s at the airport, my neighbour wouldn’t know. I need to think of something to do with home, something which will give me an excuse to come and go. A gas leak? An explosion? An earthquake? Too big. Why is it I can’t think of anything when I need a good convincing lie? I return to the tasting table, taking very small steps.
‘Everything all right?’ asks Serge.
I face him, keeping my back to Andy, and I mouth silently ‘The Super-Market’s Vin de Pays Red.’
I pull a face and point at my nose to indicate a bad smell.
He grimaces and returns to his tasting notes, gnawing what’s left of his thumbnail.
I turn towards Andy. He looks up from his pad, his mouth full of wine. He swirls it around and stares at me like a terrier that’s got a whiff of carrion. He spits but instead of writing down his tasting note he asks, ‘What did you say?’
‘There’s been a burst pipe at my place. The water came right through my bedroom and into the flat downstairs. Thank God I’d left the keys with my neighbour. She says it’s a complete mess: chunks of plaster and soggy paper everywhere.’
I’m warming to my story. It’s not even a complete lie: my ceiling fell through because of a burst pipe five years ago. I remember the musty smell that pervaded the flat until the decorators came. I point at the numbers on my hand, ‘I need to call my cleaner and the insurance company straight away. I’ll be a couple of minutes.’
I scribble “volume” on my hand to remind myself to check how many bottles were produced, how many were shipped and when.
When I come back after reporting the issue to the quality control department, Andy and Serge are debating the wisdom of adding a few grams of residual sugar to a blend of Grenache, Chardonnay and Marsanne. They look as if they’ve known each other for years.
Serge tells Andy about the comparative tasting of New World Chardonnays we organised two weeks ago. I nod with as much enthusiasm as I can muster.
‘The analysis revealed a wide range of sugar contents,’ he says.
Ten minutes. I check my mobile is still working.
‘Jacob’s Creek came in at two point seven grams of sugar per litre and Gallo’s Turning Leaf at a whopping eight.’
I force my face into a knowledgeable smile. ‘It confirms big wine brands are getting sweeter.’
What can have gone wrong with the damn wine? I look at the clock. Twenty minutes have gone.
We try different sugar levels with our blend. Andy settles on four grams.
Over an hour passes without any news from the quality control department. How long does it take to collect a couple of bottles from the samples library and try them? When my phone vibrates, I pick up without waiting for it to ring.
‘Chris?’ It’s Jean Jacques. ‘I’ve tried the wines The Super-Market is complaining about. They comply with our quality standards.’
People do not complain without reason. If ninety-five people have taken the trouble to return a bottle to their local store, twice as many will have poured theirs down the sink, vowing never to buy the same wine again. Something is wrong with that wine.
Jean Jacques is a trained oenologist though. He tastes every day of the week. His judgement is reliable.
I turn to Andy and Serge. ‘May I abandon you for a few minutes?’
The reek of sour wine and the acrid prickle of disinfectant make me wrinkle my nose as I open the door of the lab. The quality charter signed by Marguerite Villa hangs by the door under her framed portrait. This photo was taken at least thirty years ago. I remember seeing it on a visit to the winery with Papa. My eyes fill with tears. Nobody is there to hold my hand today. I take a deep breath and walk in.
On the floor, open polystyrene and cardboard boxes contain samples of wines Villa may purchase from local co-operatives or individual growers. They’re waiting for their turn to be undressed, poked, prodded and maybe given the nod. I shiver and look away. I can’t stand the noise polystyrene makes.
The roar from the bottling hall invades the room each time the door opens. Operators bring in new bottles at regular intervals: six at the beginning of each bottling, and six every hour. They’re logged, tasted and analysed straight away. Should the results not fall within the expected parameters , the bottling line will be stopped and the stock produced since the last analysis quarantined and maybe destroyed.
With all five lines working, churning out seven thousand bottles each per hour, men in dark overalls carrying heavy crates come and go through the laboratory in a scene reminiscent of a Daft Punk video. I skip across in a zigzag, apologising to moving piles of cardboard boxes held by white-knuckled hands, and trying not to collide with anybody or anything.
People in white coats with a Villa logo on the breast pocket sit among the bustle, lifting long pipettes, swirling liquids in test tubes and recording their findings in large heavy tomes or typing them on the wine stained keyboards dotted around the room.
I crane my neck to try and find Jean Jacques among the white coats. I spot him in a corner of the room surrounded by bottles of The Super-Market’s Vin de Pays. I join him and nod a silent greeting to his assistant, the older of the two women I met while waiting for my interview in Bordeaux. She nods back but her eyes don’t meet mine. She holds a purple-stained glass upside down between her index and her middle finger and she has the vinous red line halfway up her nose, which indicates how far she pushed it into the glass.
Jean Jacques selects a fresh tasting glass from the wooden rack in front of us. He smells it and checks its cleanliness against the light before picking up one of the bottles and pouring. He has large damp patches under his armpits.
I reach for the half full glass with trembling fingers. Papa used to say, ‘Wine tasting isn’t an exact science.’ Not a thought I need to dwell on now.
The dark ruby red colour shines against the stark white background. Purple hints dance on the surface. The contrast makes my mouth water. I turn towards the window and peer through the liquid. It’s clear without any deposits.
I swirl the wine around and take a deep sniff. I look up, flare my nostrils and plunge my nose into the glass again to confirm my first impression.
‘This wine smells of shit!’
My outburst echoes around the lab. Heads turn in our direction.
I hold my glass out to Jean Jacques. ‘What do you call that smell?’ My voice sounds loud and angry to my own ears.
He takes a step back and leans against the bench. His hands are pushed as deep as they will go in his white overcoat’s pockets.
‘Amylic, like Beaujolais: overripe strawberries, blackcurrant with a hint of smoke and some tarry notes. Complex for a Vin de Pays.’ He looks me in the eye.
The familiar vocabulary makes me doubt the evidence of my nose. I take another sniff and recoil from the stink. How can Jean Jacques’s perception be so different from mine?
‘Jean Jacques, promise me one thing.’
He mumbles something.
‘Never, ever buy me any perfume. Because if this wine smells of ripe strawberries to you, then I…well, let’s leave it at that.’
He doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t even smile.
The bitter smells of the laboratory catch in my throat. I wait for the wave of nausea to pass.
I need a second opinion.
I turn to Jean Jacques’ assistant.
‘Could you please run to the tasting room and ask Serge to join us? He’s turned his phone off but I need him to taste this wine.’
She glances at Jean Jacques who nods in agreement. She leaves the room and I pick up my mobile. I dial, staring straight at Jean Jacques.
‘Mary, Chris here. Sorry to bother you. Yes, the weather’s glorious down here. Listen, could you please pop into the nearest The Super-Market and pick up a bottle of the red we do for them? Make sure the lot number reads L07246 or L07248. Actually, get a bottle of each. No, get two of each. Open one of each lot number, in the car park if you can, taste them and call me back. It’s urgent.’
‘Your assistant isn’t a qualified taster,’ Jean Jacques says.
‘That’s why I want her opinion.’
The first bars of Mambo Number Five erupt from my pocket before I have time to pick up.
‘Chris, I said one hour.’ Rachel’s voice shreds my eardrum.
‘I’m sorry Rachel. It’s taken longer than anticipated to get the samples. We’re just about to taste them.’
‘Call me when you have.’ She hangs up.
I hate lying, but I need time. I look at Jean Jacques. ‘We have twenty minutes, half an hour at the most. You say this wine meets our standards, I say it’s faulty, probably reduced. What do I tell Rachel?’
‘Forget the analysis. This wine stinks!
‘No need to raise your voice,’ he says.
My phone vibrates. It can’t be Rachel again. I check the display: Serge. Relief floods over me.
‘Are you psychic?’ I ask. ‘I’ve just sent someone to fetch you.’
‘Chris, I can’t get involved.’
‘Are you worried about leaving Andy alone? You’ll be gone for five minutes max.’
‘Trust me,’ Serge says.
‘I need your help.’ I sound pathetic.
My throat tightens. I can take anything from Jean Jacques but Serge is an ally, almost a friend. He can’t let me down. I try to snort but what comes out sounds more like a whimper.
‘What am I to tell Rachel? I’m not allowed to comment on the condition of the wine without an oenologist’s or the quality control department’s say-so. You know that.’
Jean Jacques saunters away.
‘Can you wait until André comes back from Paris?’ Serge asks.
‘What’s this got to do with him?’
‘He’s the boss.’ Serge sounds shocked. I’d forgotten he’s very much André’s creature, nurtured and bullied by him over the last ten years.
‘How does his position qualify him to assess the integrity of a wine?’
‘He takes all the important decisions here.’
‘This is ridiculous.’ I try a more conciliatory tone. ‘André will have to agree the damages we’ll pay to The Super-Market but that’s far down the line. Right now, we have a customer who wants to know how serious her problem is.’
‘He’ll be back tomorrow lunchtime,’ Serge says.
‘You must be joking. Rachel hasn’t tasted the wine yet because her office is miles away from the nearest store. The minute she does, she’ll go ballistic.’
Serge’s suggestion throws me. I don’t relish the prospect of interrupting the winery’s big boss trip to Paris. He’s hardly spoken to me since I joined the company. I have no choice though. Between Rachel’s wrath and André’s annoyance, I choose the latter.
I retreat to Serge’s office. Calling André from Serge’s number will ensure he answers the phone.
‘Monsieur Lange, Chris Legerot speaking.’
I hear a sudden intake of breath. I must be calling at a bad time.
‘Mademoiselle Legerot, what a surprise!’ The voice at the other end of the phone is mellifluous. ‘Is Serge looking after our visitor on his own?’ André likes it to be known that nothing escapes him.
‘All is well with Direct Wines but I have a problem with another customer.’
‘Nothing to do with my winery?’ he asks with the emphasis on “my”.
I explain the issue.
‘Is it the one we switched from corks to screw caps?’
I confirm it is.
‘Get Jean Jacques to check a library sample. I can’t do much from Paris. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.’
I grip the armrest of the chair with my free hand and close my eyes. ‘Jean Jacques tasted the wine five minutes ago but he says there’s nothing wrong with it. I tasted it and I disagree. I need to call Rachel but I don’t know what to say.’
‘I know you’ve been working in the industry for a long time Chris, but I didn’t know you trained as an oenologist.’
My nose lacks an official piece of paper to have an opinion.
‘This wine stinks.’
‘Watch your language. How many bottles did we produce?’ A note of warning has crept in his voice.
‘Fifty-two thousand over two days.’
‘Have we shipped the lot?’
‘The Super-Market sells eight hundred thousand bottles per year. Fifty-two thousand bottles only represent three to four weeks sales.’
André falls silent.
‘I’m here. Let me call Jean Jacques.’
‘What do I tell Rachel?’
‘I’ll try to fly back earlier than planned. In the meantime, keep your Rachel waiting and don’t rush to conclusions.’
Up to one in ten natural corks taints the wine it’s supposed to protect, more so at the cheap end of the market. One alternative is plastic closures, which can be difficult to squeeze back in the bottle. Many buyers, including Rachel, are moving their entry level lines to screw caps as a more consumer-friendly option.
Screw caps however are more airtight than corks, which means the quantity of sulphur dioxide injected into the wine prior to bottling needs to be adjusted down. If not, the excess will, over a few weeks, combine with the oxygen in the wine to give off the reductive character I picked up earlier.
I am rushing to conclusions.
I pick up the phone again to call “my” Rachel. It weighs a ton.
‘Rachel? Chris speaking.’
‘That was a long tasting. I’ve been waiting for you to call for almost an hour.’
I make it thirty minutes but there’s no point contradicting her.
‘Rachel, we have an issue with your wine. It conforms to our quality standards but we’d like to run further analyses to understand what’s prompting the customer complaints. Could you give us until tomorrow?’
‘You must be joking. All I’m asking you is to tell me if I can keep your wine on our shelves? You tasted it. You should know.’
‘I’m not a qualified taster.’ I move the phone away from my ear.
‘What do you mean? You’ve got your Diploma.’
The Wine and Spirit Education Trust runs courses and awards vocational qualifications which are the benchmark of the industry. The highest one, the Diploma, combines academic product knowledge with tasting skills.
‘It doesn’t make me an oenologist.’
‘Don’t go all French on me. What about Serge? He’s an oenologist.’
‘He’s in Bordeaux.’
The lie slipped out so easily, it must be a case of practice makes perfect. I need to keep Serge out of this mess for the time being anyway. He can “return from Bordeaux” later to assess the wine and restore the company’s image in Rachel’s mind.
‘Are there no other oenologists in Narbonne?’ she asks.
How can I pretend a large winery such as Villa’s operates without an oenologist on site? I say nothing.
‘Chris, what’s going on?’
‘I don’t know, Rachel’ For once, I’m telling the truth. ‘I need more time.’
‘Do you have any idea what is at stake?’ she asks. ‘If I go for a full product withdrawal I’ll lose margin and turnover but I’ll lose customers if I sell them a dodgy wine.’
Now is not the time to quip it’s a “lose-lose” situation. Why does my sense of humour always kick in at the worst possible moment?
Rachel continues. ‘I’ll get some samples and taste them myself. Call me tomorrow if that’s the best you can do but I’m very disappointed. I expected better from you.’
I put the phone down. My cheeks are burning.
I look at my watch. I left the Direct Wines tasting over an hour ago. God only knows what Andy’s thinking. I want to curl up in a corner of Serge’s office with my eyes closed and my hands on my ears. Instead I drag myself out of the chair and return to the tasting room.
 Reduction is the opposite of oxidation. It happens when sulphur dioxide turns into the foul-smelling hydrogen sulphide. A reduced wine is harmless but its stench makes it unpleasant to drink.