Ed’s grumpy and won’t say why. He greets Philippe with a mumble and a half-hearted nod from the door instead of his usual politician-on-the-campaign-trail handshake. Mary has to repeat her offer of tea or coffee twice before he shows any sign of having heard her. Once in the meeting room, he slumps in the first chair he bumps into. He places his mobile next to his laptop and keeps one hand on it, tilting it every few seconds to check the blank screen. When I ask if he’s expecting a call, he denies it. All my attempts to engage him in conversation fail miserably. I am not even sure he’s listening to me.
‘Sainsbury’s promotion is scheduled to start on the third Monday in April. The wine needs to reach the depots between six and ten days before. This doesn’t give us much leeway if the bottle shortage worsens,’ I say.
‘Have you spoken to André Lange about it?’
His eyes are glued to his phone.
‘He’s about the only person I have not spoken to. I don’t think he could help though.’ My serious tone makes him look up.
‘Ed, it’s a global crisis.’
He throws another glimpse at his mobile. He picks up the silent phone and plays a little rap with it on the table.
‘Louis the sixteenth was guillotined first. His wife followed six months later,’ I say.
‘Sorry, could you repeat?’ he asks.
‘Right from the start or only the last sentence?’
‘The last sentence.’
‘His wife followed six months later.’
He frowns. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘I was trying to find out how much attention you’re paying me. The answer is, very little.’
His face turns red. ‘Your attitude now and then verges on the disrespectful. I am your boss.’
I lean over the desk. ‘We have a major crisis on our hand, a big trade event tomorrow and you couldn’t care less.’
‘Don’t you think you’re exaggerating?’
Mary knocks at the door. ‘Sorry to interrupt. Chris, I’ve got Simon Woods on the phone. He says it’s important.’
Simon’s a well-respected wine writer. What can be so urgent?
‘Do you mind?’ I ask Ed.
He raises his hands, palms facing me.
I return to my desk and pick up the phone.
‘Simon, how are you?’
‘Pretty well but I won’t return the question. I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news.’
‘Go on.’ I grasp the phone with both hands for comfort.
‘I have seen a copy of the latest issue of Off Licence News. It will be distributed at France Under One Roof tomorrow.’
I relax my grip on the phone. ‘Are they still going on about The Wine Shop?’
‘It’s more pointed this time. Most of the front page is taken by an article about Villa’s poor handling of The Wine Shop and you’re quoted several times.’
‘Me? I have not spoken to anybody at OLN about The Wine Shop.’
‘Don’t shout at me. Somebody else has given them pretty damning information and the whole thing is woven up quite cleverly with your quotes. Do you want me to send it to you?’
‘Is there anything I can do about it?’ I ask.
‘Nope. But you’d better be prepared. It will be the talk of the show tomorrow.
‘Don’t shoot the messenger. I’m only trying to help.’
‘Sorry, that didn’t come out the way I meant it. I didn’t mean to sound petulant and I’m grateful for the advance warning.’
I lean back in my chair, waiting for Simon’s email to arrive.
‘What’s the matter?’ asks Mary.
The article is headed ‘Villa’s way’. It goes on to pan the new range, quoting anonymously several store managers who are said to despair of having to push such uninspiring wines down the throat of their customers. It speculates about the future of The Wine Shop under Villa’s direction. Jen and I are mentioned as well as an unnamed source, which is referred to as close to The Wine Shop’s top management.
The Circle of Wine Writers’ Christmas party comes back to me as does my brief chat with the guy from OLN. My flippant remarks have been massaged into considered business appraisals of The Wine Shop’s situation.
‘“More” was the answer of Chris Legerot, head of Villa UK, when asked about The Wine Shop’s price tag. Not denying the once vibrant retailer could soon be up for sale, Legerot went on to stress how much of Villa’s money has been poured into The Wine Shop so far.’
‘All I said was, “Quand on aime, on ne compte pas!”’
‘Are you alright?’ Mary asks.
I turn my laptop towards her. ‘Read this.’
‘Oh my God!’ Her hand flies to her mouth. ‘Didn’t you say Arnaud’s poor English was the reason he refused to give interviews?’
‘What do you think? How can you, of all people, believe I could be so stupid?’
She bites her lower lip. ‘If it was a day he really annoyed you?’
I stare at her and my eyes mist over. I put my elbows on the table and my head in my hands.
‘Do something!’ Philippe says to Mary from across the room. She lays a tentative hand on my shoulder.
‘I am sorry. Would you like a cup of tea?’
Mary’s a firm believer in the restorative properties of milky tea whatever the patient’s condition.
‘What’s going on?’
Ed’s standing at the door of the meeting room.
Mary points at my laptop’s screen.
‘Could Villa wines make up half of The Wine Shop’s range?’
Ed’s eyes are shining with excitement.
I sniffle. ‘It was one of Arnaud’s early fantasies. It won’t happen.’
‘Why? Has he gone native?’
‘Ed, French wines account for one bottle in five sold in this country. For The Wine Shop to source every other wine from Villa would be commercial suicide. Even Arnaud understands that now.’
‘Villa doesn’t have to limit itself to French wines. The Wine Shop could be the opportunity for the company to diversify into other countries of origin.’
I point at the article still displayed on my laptop’s screen. ‘Look at how positively our foray into Italian wines has been received.’
Ed reads on. ‘It’s not an encouraging review, is it?’
He frowns. ‘You told me the wines were good.’
‘They’re not bad but they’re not exceptional. And as a symbol of the heavy handed way Villa is running The Wine Shop, they have zero chance of being praised by the critics.’
‘Does The Wine Shop still choose the best wines at the keenest possible prices, as their head buyer tells me?’ Ed reads aloud. ‘The hefty price tag on some of the new lines contradicts this statement. A source close to the retailer’s French managing director tells me margins have crept up in the last six months by up to twenty points and suppliers who refuse to co-operate are replaced with more accommodating ones.’
‘I wonder who the source is,’ I say.
‘Isn’t it you?’ Ed asks. ‘Look, there’s a reference to the QA issue with The Super-Market. How many people at The Wine Shop would know about that?’
I pull the laptop back towards me.
Ed points at the screen and continues reading aloud. ‘Had it not been for its ownership of The Wine Shop, Villa would have been unlikely to grab such a sizeable chunk of business. One can only hope this new venture doesn’t end up in tears. A well-known British supermarket is understood to be reviewing its extensive contract with Villa following a recent quality problem which affected one of their bestselling line.’
He turns to me. ‘Is it true?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say.
I am holding on to the table for support.
We read on in silence.
‘It doesn’t say the information comes from The Wine Shop,’ I say.
Ed’s eyebrows rise. He looks at me, pressing his fingertips against each other as if testing their elasticity.
‘I may have mentioned it to some people next door. It’s all I could think about, last autumn,’ I say, hanging my head in shame.
Ed straightens up. If he was wearing braces, he’d be hooking his thumbs through them. ‘It’s not my style to kick someone when they are down but I’d like you to learn from this regrettable incident. You seem to be unable to keep your mouth shut. Didn’t André Lange’s issue with you revolve around the same problem?’
He gives me a twirl and returns to the meeting room.
‘Send this on to Arnaud and Jen, please,’ I ask Mary before following Ed.
Lords may be a hallowed site for cricket lovers but it’s also developed a serious vinous side-line in the last ten years. The Nursery End Pavilion is a large airy room with plenty of natural light, which offers ideal conditions for tasting wine.
I meet Ed at his swanky Belgravia hotel and we take the tube to St John’s Wood. He’s still fidgeting with his mobile and I assume the call he was expecting still hasn’t come. Philippe’s driven to Lords earlier this morning with a box of leaflets and tasting notes and the bottles our marketing colleagues decided we should show to prospective clients at the last minute.
On the way from the tube station, Ed and I catch up with two girls from Enotria, a large wine agency. I strike up conversation with them, trying to find out if they have seen the latest issue of OLN. They have not or else they are remarkably good actresses.
The room’s buzzing when we walk in. More than a hundred tables line it, representing over sixty exhibitors. The largest agencies command up to five tables each displaying the wines of several of their principals. Swarms of eager salespeople unpack crates of bottles and arrange them on still immaculate tablecloths, chatting and joking with each other as they do so. A large counter near the entrance is crammed with hundreds of clean glasses. Round the corner, at the back of the cloakroom, a long bench displays the best wines of the show, one or two per exhibitor, as chosen by producers and agents. It will be the first port of call for most journalists and wine writers.
Piles of freshly printed copies of OLN have been arranged around the room and a few exhibitors have picked one up to kill time while waiting for visitors. I blush as I catch the eyes of one of the readers and he lowers his gaze back to the paper, whether by chance or to avoid looking at me, I don’t know.
Ed tugs at my elbow. ‘Move on. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’
He drags me to our stand at the far end of the room. Philippe’s straightening a last bottle as we join him. He’s done a great job and our table looks great but the damning murmur rising out of all those reading a copy of OLN is all I can hear.
Albert Moretti, my other Circle of Wine Writers nemesis, is my first visitor. He grabs my hands without giving me a chance to escape behind the stand and closes his eyes as if for a blessing. ‘Chris, I am so sorry. My heart went out to you when I read that vile article.’
He shakes his head. ‘You’re so brave to be here today.’
I’d like to tell him I’d rather be anywhere else but honesty isn’t an option.
‘Albert,’ I drop my head sideways in the age-old stance of the grieving relative. ‘Thank you so much. Your sympathy means a lot to me.’
His head bobs in time with our double handshake. Onlookers could be mistaken and think we’re about to embark on a bout of country dancing.
I drop my clanger. ‘I am not worried though.’
A flicker of disappointment crosses his face. ‘I have not seen such a direct attack in a trade paper for a long time,’ he says.
‘I agree. It’s incredible how jealous people can get. Mind you, it must be so frustrating for some of our competitors to find Villa’s ownership of The Wine Shop barring their route to market.’
I smile one of the most insincere smiles of my whole life.
Albert insists. ‘To allude to your problem with The Super-Market was below the belt.’ I flinch and he raises a cautionary hand. ‘Don’t worry. I would not dream of sharing what I know with anybody.’
I study his face for a minute but there’s no guilt there. He is convinced all knowledge is power and power is as indispensable to him as the corkscrew he carries in his briefcase.
Andy Tripp’s striding towards me, his face set in a grim frown. Albert takes the hint. He mouths ‘See you later’ and vanishes in the crowd.
I brace myself to welcome Andy when I notice James, Sainsbury’s French wine buyer making his way to our stand from the opposite direction. The lack of interest from visitors at trade fairs is the bane of the exhibitor. It’s especially embarrassing at open plan events such as this when one’s success, or lack thereof, is easy for all to assess. The simultaneous visit of two major buyers however is even worse. Should I accept the offer of one of them to return later, there’s a risk he won’t, only to comment afterwards, ‘You were too busy looking after my competitor when I tried to taste your wines.’
Trying to deal with both at the same time will only lead to two semblances of meeting. Neither party will tell me which of our wines they like best nor will I be able to discuss terms with them.
I turn to Philippe and Ed. ‘I’ll take Direct Wines, you take Sainsbury’s.’
Andy looks like he’s just buried his entire family. He’s cut himself several times when shaving. His shirt collar shows a long streak of dried blood.
I take a deep breath. ‘Andy, how good of you to come and see us.’ My smile stretches so far, it lifts the corners of my eyes.
‘I don’t believe everything I read in the papers but I am not happy with the negative hype around your company. The range we’re developing with you is critical for our next financial year and we can’t risk a mauling such as the one you’re getting with the new wines for The Wine Shop.’
Tim chooses this moment to pass by the stand. He waves at Philippe.
Andy peers at me. ‘Chris?’
‘Sorry, I have just remembered something. I would not worry about the press, Andy. Because Villa owns The Wine Shop, whatever we do there attracts a lot of unhealthy attention.’
Andy doesn’t look convinced. ‘I am going to walk around the room and talk to a few people. We may have to scrap the whole project.’
He looks at me and adds more kindly. ‘Don’t look so shocked. It would only be a last resort. But I can’t take the risk of launching a new range if it damages our reputation. I’ll let you know before close of play today.’
Once he’s gone I take a moment to try and calm down. We have invested a hell of a lot of time and money in this Direct Wines’ project. Wines are blended, labels printed, cases ordered. To pull the plug now would be a disaster. To imagine André Lange’s reaction makes me want to curl up in one of the empty boxes under the table and fall sleep for a very long time.