Chapter 15 – Testoterone, Tears and Tasting

The third presentation of the day is meant to be a short update by Ed of the “transatlantic situation” as he describes it.

‘We all know how important the Canadian and American markets are for French wines and how crucial it is that Villa should be able to start selling over there again,’ he says.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Two of my colleagues snap out of their pleasant doze and lean forward, paying rapt attention to Ed’s every word. Both of them used to look after the plum American market in previous jobs. Soon after I joined the company, they approached me in turn, to assess my interest in the States. Once reassured my aspirations didn’t extend further west than Wales, they both told me they’d been promised – one by Ed, one by André – they’d be in charge of North America, as soon as Villa’s got its hands free over there. They’re aware of their respective ambitions but both think they’ve got the upper hand.

Ed has returned to the impotent predicator pose: legs apart, elbows close to the body, and feet and hands splayed open in perfect symmetry. ‘As much as I’d like to report progress in the case we’re embroiled in, I regret to admit we’ve entered a lull. Our latest offer has been communicated to the other party and they have three months to consider it, three months during which there’s nothing we can or should do, according to our lawyers.’

Marcel twitches. All eyes are on him.

‘This is not good enough, Monsieur de Waast.’ He stresses every syllable. ‘We can’t wait another three months for the resolution of this…of that…’ Words fail him.

Ed purses his lips. ‘What do you suggest, Monsieur Villa? I’m only following our lawyers’ recommendations.’

Marcel bangs his fist on the table and shouts ‘You need to blow up the lawyers’ arse!’

Image by John R Perry from Pixabay

A hush descends. Each of us chooses a fixture of the room to stare at, in order to avoid looking at Marcel.

Ed remains silent for a minute, his palms flickering open and close as if operated by a dying battery.

‘I would have thought it made sense to listen to our lawyers’ advice, considering how much we pay them,’ he says.

Marcel’s face turns puce. He’s jabbing the desk so hard, I’m worried he’s going to hurt himself. ‘It’s because we pay them too much that they do fuck all. If we continue throwing money at them and not demanding results, they’ll string us along forever. That’s why you need to blow up their arse.’

He throws himself back into his chair and runs both hands through his hair. After a few seconds, he takes a glance at his mobile, snorts in exasperation and picks up his comb to restore order to his mane. He checks his reflection once more in his phone, and after another snort, leaves the room.

Ed looks perplexed, maybe wondering how he’s going to carry out Marcel’s very specific instructions. ‘Right, well, let’s move on to our friends from the marketing department and their big box,’ he says with a sigh.

Nobody laughs.

André walks back in, followed by Serge. André makes for the seat he occupied earlier on. He sits down, looks up at Serge who’s pulling the chair next to me, frowns and signals to him. Serge shrugs and goes to sit next to him, grinning at me in an apologetic way.

Bruno mumbles under his breath, ‘Woof, woof!’

The marketing presentation starts. The manager and his sidekick present the results of various consumer tests, which validate Villa wines’ recent labels changes and reassure us that, once on shelf, our wines will leap in shoppers’ baskets and Villa will swipe the floor with the competition.

‘We need to get more listings though,’ he says. ‘Our numeric distribution is low and this isn’t something marketing can do much about. It’s the job of the sales team. It’s your job, gentlemen.’

He turns to me. ‘And lady, sorry.’

 A diffuse testosterone fuelled hostility creeps up around the room. Bruno’s jaw is jutting forward and he’s massaging his left wrist as if he’s about to throw a punch.

It’s now the turn of Caroline, the youngest marketing team member to present. She joined the company in the summer, fresh out of business school.

She picks up a dozen bottles out of their cardboard case, and lines them with great care on the desk. Her hands shake a little.

‘Some of you have commented that the paper we use for the labels of our Collection range doesn’t reflect the quality of the wines,’ she says. ‘We’ve also had complaints from some clients about labels tearing. I checked the original specifications and it appears we’re not using the stock recommended by the designer. I am not sure how this can have happened but we aim to rectify the situation as soon as possible.’

Bruno abandons his menacing pose and crosses his hands in his lap. The tension abates, even though the virtual gauntlet the marketing manager threw is still lying there, not forgotten.

André is whispering in Serge’s ear, seemingly oblivious to what’s going on.

Caroline continues, ‘I thought I’d take this opportunity to explore alternative paper types. I’ve dressed bottles with different samples to give you a better idea of the finished look. They are numbered one to twelve.’ She pats her creations gently, as if encouraging them to face their audience and takes a step back, still looking at her handiwork. ‘I’m not sure what’s best,’ she says. ‘Should I circulate them or would you rather come over here and tell me which ones you prefer?’

‘Have you considered the technical feasibility of your little project, Mademoiselle…’ André leaves the sentence unfinished. Pretending not to remember her name is his way to let her know how unimportant she is.

She steps into the intended trap with a wide smile. ‘Call me Caroline.’

André doesn’t even look at her. ‘I’d rather not,’ he says, his lips curled up in disgust.

Caroline’s boss stands up.  ‘Monsieur Lange, we’re at the exploratory stage with this project,’ he says. ‘Feasibility tests will come later.’

He gestures towards the dummy bottles. ‘Caroline has come up with very interesting suggestions, which, I think, are worth looking at.’

Caroline turns pink with pleasure.

André picks up a pen. Pointing it at her, he says, louder this time, ‘I don’t know how much this young lady is paid to play with pretty labels but I hope it isn’t much.’ His voice slows down to the consistency of poisonous treacle. ‘Let me explain to you how it works, Mademoiselle: in order to keep our costs down, we need the bottling line to go as fast as possible. This means we can only use paper up to a certain thickness. When the specifications from your fancy designers exceed it, we ask our printers for a thinner alternative.’

Caroline is rooted to the spot. She’s biting her bottom lip and her eyes are welling up. I can tell she’s trying not to blink to stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks. Serge’s eyes are flickering. He’s on production’ side but doesn’t condone André’s brutal methods. The rest of the room is silent. Even though the victim is blameless, she’s paying for her boss’ earlier provocation.

Realising nobody else will help, the export marketing manager rallies up.  ‘Monsieur Lange, I’m lost for words.  We’re only trying to do our job. What do you recommend as the best way forward?’

‘I’ll get one of my guys to look at the paper stock we’re using, and to send you an alternative.’ He throws in the air the pen he brandished during his tirade and catches it in mid-air with a satisfied smile.

While Caroline puts her bottles back in their box with trembling hands, Ed coughs in his hand and suggests, ‘Shall we repair to the tasting room? We’re behind schedule but it may be a good idea to have a change of scenery.’

We all troop next door but for André who’s dialling a number on his mobile, legs extended in front of him as if he didn’t have a care in the world. When she passes his chair, Caroline gives him a wide berth as if she’s scared he may lunge at her. I see the shadow of a smile on his lips. Once we’re out of the room, a few people pat her on the back, mumbling words of encouragement.

I ask Philippe to tell Serge I’ll be five minutes late and catch up with Caroline.

‘Are you alright?’ I ask.

Her eyes well up again and she shakes her head without a word.

‘Come with me.’ I grab her elbow and make for the coffee machine downstairs. ‘What do you take normally?’

‘Espresso, no sugar.’

I go for a double espresso with sugar.

‘André is a bully,’ I say, handing her the steaming cup. ‘If Villa had a Human Resources department, this wouldn’t happen. The way you have been treated is unacceptable. I can’t believe your boss didn’t say anything.’

‘He’s a nice guy.’

‘That’s the problem. You need a mean streak to deal with André.’

She takes a sip of her coffee and pulls a face.

I pat her arm. ‘Go on, it tastes disgusting but it will help you survive the tasting. Otherwise, the alcohol will go straight to your head and you’ll end up crying in your Cabernet.’ I pour her a large glass of water.  ‘Drink this as well, otherwise the coffee will mess up your taste buds.’

She smiles.

‘Let’s go back,’ I say. ‘We don’t want to miss the tasting.’

As we return to our colleagues, we almost barge into André who’s bounding downstairs two steps at a time, mobile glued to his ear. He ignores my companion but looks me straight in the eyes with such malevolence I shudder.

‘He doesn’t like you, does he?’ asks Caroline.

‘Understatement of the day,’ I say.

Back in the tasting room, I sit on the stool Philippe has kept for me.

‘Is she better?’ he asks.

‘I can’t believe André’s behaviour.’

Philippe shrugs. ‘Nobody ever stands up to him.’

We’re assessing fifteen wines blind, five of each colour. This is the highlight of the day for me but I notice Bruno is nowhere to be seen and another sales manager is yelling in his mobile at the far end of the room, one hand covering his free ear. I ask Serge, ‘Are we waiting for the others before we start?’

Ed answers, ‘Bruno needs to make some urgent calls. He may not be able to join us.’

Serge mutters, ‘Don’t know why I bother.’

He hands over tasting sheets for us to write down our comments and our marks. We’re starting with the Sauvignons. ‘We have a real challenge with this variety,’ explains Serge. ‘The distinctive profile of New Zealand Sauvignons appeals to most consumers, especially in Anglo-Saxon markets, but is difficult to reproduce with French-grown grapes.  In the cooler climate of the Loire, we get acidity and mineral flavours but not enough fruit concentration. In the Languedoc, because of the heat, we sometimes end up with high alcohol flabby wines. I have found growers in Gascony who could supply us with reasonable volumes. I have selected two different styles for this flight, which I have matched with examples from Chile, South Africa and New Zealand.’ 

I look at the five glasses in front of me and lift the first one. The wine is pale yellow with green hints but so are the other four with only minute variations. I plunge my nose deep in the glass and start jotting down notes as I progress from one wine to the next: grassy aromas, citrus fruit, hint of asparagus, ripe gooseberry. I try to be as specific as possible. I don’t taste as often as I’d like to.

A stool is pushed back sharply, distracting me for a moment. That’s quick work, I think, until I glance at the tasting sheet abandoned on the bench.  Only plus and minus signs have been scrawled next to each wine’s number. I look up at Serge. He gives me a resigned shrug.

The rosé flight presents us with a different challenge: Serge asks us to rate the level of residual sugar in various well-known brands and to determine which would be best for our own Syrah rosé. This is as impossible as asking what’s the perfect quantity of sugar for a bowl of strawberries but the exercise is meant to start a debate rather than find instant solutions.

Despite the double espresso, Caroline is beginning to look giddy. Her cheeks are bright red and she’s chatting in a high pitch voice that makes Serge wince.

He whispers to me, ‘The silly cow doesn’t spit. In five minutes, she’ll either bawl her eyes out or she’ll be dancing on the table.’

‘Come on, she’s had a hard time this morning,’ I say.

‘If she keeps on behaving like a twelve-year old, I’ll give her an even harder one. Do you know how long it’s taken me to prepare this tasting? And the flak I’ve had from André, telling me consultation with the export team was a waste of time?’

He bites on what’s left of his thumbnail. He passes over a tasting sheet to me. ‘It’s Caroline’s. Look at this.’

I pick up the piece of paper. The wines are classified from “Yuck” to “Very nice”. If Serge was not so upset, it would be comical.

I plead the younger woman’s case. ‘What do you expect? She’s had zero training.’ Serge isn’t impressed.

We fly through the Cabernet tasting. Serge doesn’t care anymore. André comes back halfway through and asks in a loud voice when lunch will be served. Every now and again, he glances at Serge with a mocking smile as if to say, ‘I told you not to bother.’

I make a special effort to describe every single wine to the best of my abilities. This is my way of supporting Serge. Eventually, after yet another sardonic look from his boss, he comes up to me and asks me to hurry up. I hand over my unfinished notes while André walks off, shaking his head.

Photo by Fa Barboza on Unsplash

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