Rachel greets us with a smile as we come out of the lift, enquiring after André and Jean Jacques’s flight and pecking me on the cheek. A French supermarket buyer, in similar circumstances, would be much sterner. André’s face breaks into a smirk and his shoulders drop. French people often misread British politeness for weakness and confuse good manners with hypocrisy. I bet he thinks he’s amongst friends and ‘young Rachel’, as he calls her, will give us an easy ride. My heart sinks.
We follow Rachel through a maze of open plan offices. She’s wearing the same grey check trousers as the last few times we met. I wonder idly if she owns another pair. She explains that because none of the goldfish bowl-like rooms dedicated to suppliers’ meetings is available, her boss will meet us, and the director of logistics, in his office. She makes it sound like an honour. I see it as ominous.
Around us, dozens of conversations, whirring computers and the purr of the air conditioning blend into an indistinct hum. The smell of coffee dominates, signalling the beginning of a new working day. Curious faces follow our progress as we walk through various buying departments, easy to identify by the samples occupying every available space. One plump lady is surrounded by chocolate bars in all sizes and colours. I want her job, any job but mine. I wish I could sneak into one of these cubicles and hide there for the rest of the day.
Two tall young men with open faces, bad haircuts and worse suits stand up when we reach our destination. They belong to that unique Northern British type, which combines good looks, if you like your men tall and rugged, with a complete lack of style: a disastrous waste from a French perspective.
The office is spartan with little touches that hint at the seniority of its occupier. The computer screen on the desk is larger than those we passed on the way, the chairs are wider and somehow more inviting and the desk, table and cupboards more Habitat than Ikea.
Rachel and I introduce our respective colleagues and we exchange business cards except for Jean Jacques who hasn’t brought any. André beams at his young counterparts.
‘Bonjour James,’ he says to Rachel’s boss. He pumps his hand with manly enthusiasm, sits down and crosses his hands behind his head. I hope Rachel and her colleagues don’t know about body language, or don’t care. This posture signals self confidence and a sense of superiority.
Jean Jacques nods in the direction of our hosts, shuffles aside towards a chair and grab the back of it as if he were about to collapse. We position ourselves around the table, Brits on one side and French on the other. Rachel offers us a choice of tea or coffee and disappears to get our orders from the nearest vending machine.
We settle in with steaming Styrofoam cups in front of us.
‘The number of customer complaints on The Super-Market’s red now stands at three hundred and two,’ says Rachel first in English and then in French. ‘I have asked for this meeting to establish the cause of the problem.’ She doesn’t say she’s been trying to find out for more than two weeks, but the hint is unmistakeable.
She follows the checklist in front of her with her finger. Her nails are bitten to the quick. ‘I also want to run over what you have put in place to get rid of the faulty wine and replace it with fresh supplies,’ she continues. She points to the logistics director. ‘You have to ensure our logistics team is aware of what you’re doing for the whole process to run smoothly.’
‘I’d like to know what you’re planning to change to ensure the problem doesn’t happen again,’ says James. Rachel translates for Jean Jacques and André’s benefit and waits for our answer.
André sits up tall, placing both hands on the table in front of him. I cringe, fearing he may stand up to deliver one of his speeches. Thank God, he stays in his seat.
‘I, first of all, want to thank you for your warm welcome,’ he says and waits for Rachel to translate. He’s using his official voice, well-modulated and stretching the endings of every word for several seconds. I look down at the tips of my boots. Unaware of my embarrassment, he continues. ‘I know how busy you are, and I am grateful you should be making time today to see representatives from a small wine supplier.’
‘Villa is everything but a small wine supplier. You rank amongst The Super-Market’s largest and you’re the top one when it comes to French wine,’ Rachel says. ‘Our time is indeed precious, but this is a priority.’ She raises her voice a fraction at the end of the sentence and leans over the table, her fingertips gripping the edge. What I hear is, ‘Stop wasting our time, own up and show us the colour of your money.’
I fold my hands in my lap, praying André gets the message. On my right, Jean Jacques is sweating in silence, dark circles forming under his armpits. I glance at James. He’s twirling his pen but he looks more bored than angry. André sits back in his chair and lifts his hands in surrender. The politician’s gone. He’s now the kind and wise older man who’s seen it all and genuinely wants to help.
‘You’re all much younger than me, despite your many achievements, and I have a lot more experience than you.’ He bows in the direction of Rachel’s colleagues. ‘Wine is my passion, my life, but it’s a difficult product to assess. Even experts sometimes disagree. What one taster praises, another one dislikes.’ He smiles and pats me on the arm. ‘Last night, Chris chose a Sauvignon Blanc to accompany our dinner, which left Jean Jacques-’
‘We’re not discussing grands crus here or what you had for dinner,’ Rachel interrupts. ‘Our Red Vin de Pays is an entry level product, drunk by people who know little about wine and care even less. They want something clean and fruity. The consignments we’re rejecting are everything but and we want to know why.’
I am holding my breath, hoping André will not ask Rachel which type of coffee she prefers.
‘Rachel, you’re right.’ He pauses for effect. ‘I used the same words as you when discussing your wine with Jean Jacques the other day. You see, Jean Jacques is an artist, a purist. Good is not enough for him, he strives for perfection. And sometimes, he goes too far.’
The artist’s face has turned the colour of a mature Burgundy. He looked up when he heard his name and he now stares at André with the pained expression of a dog who’s been kicked by his adored master. André reaches across me to give his hand a little squeeze.
‘Jean Jacques wanted you and your customers to have the best possible wine at the price. He’s used unstable components, which should be reserved for finer wines. He meant well.’ He looks at us, one by one and I am amazed to see the glint of a tear in his eye.
James throws his pen on the table and clicks his tongue in an irritated way. ‘Sorry, I am no wine expert. Are you telling me the red you have sold us went wrong because you tried to make it too good?’
‘It shows a reduced character, which is typical of some of the finer Syrah-based wines of our region,’ André says.
Rachel pounces, ‘You admit it’s reduced.’
‘There was never any question of it. I told Chris right from the beginning, reduction was bound to be the problem. Of course, we had to perform a series of analyses before we could be sure.’
I am glad my chair is wide and sturdy. I may have fallen off otherwise.
Rachel looks pointedly at her boss and turns to me. ‘Did you send me anything in writing?’
‘Chris hasn’t had the time,’ says André, raising a hand as if granting me absolution. ‘She’s had a busy time with the change of management at The Wine Shop.’
‘I would have expected our issue to take priority over internal matters,’ says Rachel. ‘Can I now assume you’ll email me as soon as you’re back in the office?’ Her tone is icy and her stare unfriendly. Her mass of curly hair seems to have grown bigger around her tired face.
I open my mouth and close it again without uttering a word. It’s pointless to try and defend myself. I am more concerned André has now put me in a position where I’ll have to accept liability on behalf of the company without having had anything in writing from him to cover my back.
‘Now we’re clear as to the cause of the problem, where have we got to with stock replacement?’ Rachel says to an approving glance from James.
‘We brought two orders forward when you alerted us to a possible quality issue,’ I say, trying to sound professional. ‘We’ve been able to replace the defective stock straight away and we only lost sales when the faulty bottles were taken off the shelves and disposed of. From your own tracking system, it looks like the disruption lasted no more than a few days. Do you know how much was destroyed in the end?’
‘It will take several weeks to collate the information. A few stragglers always hold up the system. We’ll invoice you as soon as we get final figures.’
André fails to react. I wait a little. He’s either not understood Rachel or he’s not keen to re-enter the fray.
I take the plunge. ‘Rachel, any chance you could invoice us at the landed cost plus distribution?’ This would save us the excise duty and VAT plus the twenty five percent margin The Super-Market takes on entry level wine.
‘Goods are valued at their full retail price in our internal system once they reach the stores. If I do what you’re asking for, it will show a loss at store level.’
André is nodding like a rear window shelf toy dog. It’s as if he didn’t care how much the whole problem will cost Villa and can’t believe how unrealistic my request is.
‘Where have you got to with picking up the rest of the faulty stock from the depots?’ asks the logistics director.
‘It’s all in hand. We have appointed a haulier who already works for you to ensure minimum disruption. We were given the exact volume per regional depot last week and I expect the collection to happen this week or the next depending on their schedule.’
I fail to mention I am waiting for André to authorise the advance payment to the haulier. Nothing will happen until he does.
‘The earlier, the better,’ says Rachel. ‘We’re getting close to Christmas and our staff is getting busy.’
‘I see no reason why there should be any delay. Do you Mr Lange?’ I ask, thinking of the payment authorisation which has been waiting for his signature for a week.
‘I trust you with the details of the operation,’ he says, very much the debonair manager.
The logistics director turns towards Rachel and her boss. ‘It looks like we’re all sorted. If you don’t mind, I have another meeting to go to.’
The other two nod their agreement. After gathering an armful of paper and his empty cup, he shakes hands with us and leaves the room.
James looks at his notes. ‘Quality problems happen even in the best run organisations. What I need to know is what you have put in place to ensure we don’t have a repeat incident in a few months’ time.’
I turn to André.
‘Our bottling site in Narbonne operates under stringent procedures,’ he says. ‘I can assure you such an incident is the exception rather than the norm.’ He wipes a fleck of dust from his jacket lapel with a satisfied smile.
Rachel is becoming agitated again, but James remains unflustered. He speaks again, slowly, as if he were addressing a child.
‘I have every confidence in the professionalism of your people and the excellence of your organisation. But a problem has happened, which will have a detrimental impact on the trust consumers have in The Super-Market’s own label products. It will also have financial implications for your company. How will you make sure it doesn’t happen again?’
André is on the spot. He squirms in his chair as if it has become too hot for comfort.
‘We taste the wines at reception, after the last filtration before bottling and after bottling. Since reduction is an evolutionary process, we’ll add a final tasting before shipping.’ A tasting is less reliable but cheaper than a full set of analysis.
Rachel asks, ‘How can you be sure to pick up an aromatic deviation? When I first reported the problem to Chris, she told me you could not come to a definite conclusion based on tasting alone, and that she needed further analysis.’
Another rope to hang me with has just landed on the table with a slap. Yet I feel a surge of schadenfreude. I want to shout, ‘Go girl!’ to Rachel.
André turns to Jean Jacques, the fall guy du jour.
‘We keep our library samples at low temperatures. When Jean Jacques tasted the wine you complained about, it was too cold for him to pick it up the reductive character. We’ll bring the wines to room temperature before tasting them.’
Rachel looks unconvinced.
‘Are you telling me temperature impacts on the perception of reduction? I’m not convinced.’ She turns to her boss. ‘Are you happy with this or should we ask for additional analysis?’
His eyes have been trained for a few minutes on the screen of his Blackberry. He’s drumming his fingers on the table. Something must have cropped up, which takes precedence over us. He puts his phone down and looks at us as if he’d never seen us before.
‘It will be fine,’ he says, sounding unsure of what he’s agreeing to. Rachel looks aghast but there’s nothing she can do. The deal is sealed. James and André look pleased with the outcome of the meeting. They shake each other’s hands and ours with gusto. Rachel turns to me and I give her a tiny shrug. We have both been betrayed.
Jean Jacques looks like a man who’s had a double dose of enema but hasn’t been told where to find the loo. I feel sorry for him.
‘Are you alright?’ I ask him when André trots off to go and wash his hands,
‘I’m fine. It’s cold in here.’ He wraps his arms around himself.
‘I’m sorry Monsieur Lange blamed the whole thing on you. It’s unfair.’
He stares at me.
‘I’d do anything for Monsieur Lange,’ he says.
I stare back, wondering if there’s a psychological condition, maybe related to the Stockholm syndrome, where victims of bullying end up worshiping their abuser.
I turn on my mobile: I have eight missed calls, seven of them from Arnaud.