Vinexpo 2003: Thursday 24th June

Today marks the conclusion of my sojourn to Bordeaux and any dietary regimen over the past twelve months has been rendered pointless under shoals of Pauillac oysters, flagstones of foie gras and a trough of sweetbreads, all conspiring to reduce my life-expectancy by one day per calorie (which effectively means I have got until next Wednesday.) My metabolism has become inured to such gustatory over-indulgences although by now I hanker for beans on toast...well perhaps with a sprinkling of black truffle on top of course.

I awake early to catch my final croissants of the week and I detect the melancholy of our host, the congenial Mme Lopez. She has experienced Vinexpo with us, helped us survive the scorching heat, filled our bellies each morning, offered to chauffeur us to the exhibition and proposed adoption should we tire of our maternal mothers. My final croissant is extra-special and extra-flaky. Perhaps she will leave her kitchen table sprinkled with croissant as a memento of our time together? I give her a slightly melted box of chocolates as an appreciation of her hospitality and we bid farewell.

Today is relatively free but first I have to pop into the exhibition to give an identical box of slightly melted chocolates to my Beaujolais colleague, who appears to have shed pounds in weight over the last few days thanks to a combination of torrid heat and stress. I habitually avoid the final day for there is an downbeat air of clearing up after a party as well as Joe Publique being allowed in and filling their supermarket trolleys with abandoned samples of cheap, warm booze. But this year the hall seems curiously quiet. Perhaps the weather has persuaded them to remain at the beach?

With spare daylight hours to hand, I decide to drive down to Sauternes; a region that I regretfully have not visited for a couple of years and indeed, I had forgotten how blissfully peaceful and picturesque it can be on a sultry June afternoon. The undulating hills are freckled with snoozing hamlets nesting in an unashamedly rustic atmosphere, more akin to Burgundy than Bordeaux. It is perhaps a sign of the differing fortunes between Medoc and Sauternes, for whilst the former is awash with unprecedented affluence and stratospheric wine prices; the Sauternais still struggle to sell their golden essence, despite the incredible effort made to eke drops of nectar from botrytis-affected berries. I make a brief foray past the one exception to that rule, Chateau dYquem, standing imperiously atop the elevation.

I find my way back to Bordeaux in good time and prepare myself for the evening. The temperature has cooled considerably although my dress-shirt still threatens asphyxiation and the tuxedo renders me incapable of utilizing all four limbs at once. I uphold the male tradition of posing in the mirror to admire my semblance to 007 and up to the neck I could possibly pass. However from there on up, the lack of air makes me look like a frightened blow-fish.

Neal at La Fete de la Fleur

We depart at 7pm sharp with my host and a fellow American importer who is recounting his dinner at Chateau Latour the previous evening, where Frederic Engerer served vintages that would make most men weep at foot of Dionysus. My invitation must have got lost in the post. We arrive back on the esplanade in the village of Pauillac amongst bejeweled women and identikit 007s. Maybe Bond is is actually here undercover, stalking a S.P.E.C.T.R.E. assassin dispatched from the New World? Most of the male invitees seem to have had their suits personally fitted by Giorgio Armani, whereas mine was hired from Debenhams last week.

Baronesse Philippine de Rothschild was never likely to throw a subtle, restrained affair and La Fete de la Fleur is habitually used as an opportunity for a bit of flair and flamboyance, perhaps a scintilla of unbridled hedonism. She must be in her element, holding court over such a lavish party for 1,500 guests and as we enter the verdant grounds, I walk up the gravel path flanked by waiters laden with silver platters of champagne every five metres. I could take a sip of each one and be legless before reaching the end, where the good and the great are being inducted into the Commanderie de Bordeaux. The scene resembles an American graduation ceremony with the inductees attired in garish velvet robes awaiting their call. They take centre-stage whilst their achievements are read out aloud on the PA. Perhaps I might be enthronized one day? Then again, after reading this Vinexpo report I have probably been vetoed for life.

I exchange pleasantries with the embarrassingly small number of people I know, small talk about the hot weather, the heat, the humidity and well, not much else. Finally we are summoned into a monumental glass pavilion erected specially for the occasion, boasting a central stage and a dance floor for everyone to make shapes, an endless ocean of circular tables adorned with candelabra and enough cutlery to give whoever is doing the washing up, a job for life. Even the lavatories are a step up from Glastonbury '93. You are certainly less likely to contract the ebola virus in these salubrious cubicles. They even have toilet paper!

The atmosphere is electric with rabid speculation about the identity of the special guests. There is the ambassador of the USA amongst his entourage of bodyguards (one assumes the American boycott of Bordeaux wines is unmentionable this evening.) There are assorted French politicians though I am clueless as to whom any of them are. No, I am more interested in the glitterati of actors and musicians, eager to catch sight of a purported Hugh Grant (not true), J. Lo (not true), Gerard Depardieu (true) and Catherine Deneuve (true).

Then of course, there are the winemakers and proprietors. I have a brief conflab with Charles Chevalier of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and my stalker Anthony Barton bedecked in white suit (very Bond circa Roger Moore). Michael Broadbent walks past me and I spot Serena Sutcliffe's golden mane from the other end of the pavilion. Philippine has done a splendid job. The setting is just about perfect and everything is working like clockwork, including the 400 waiters and 50 sommeliers decanting the wines. Rumour turn out to be true. After a wonderful Chateau Margaux 1996, all 1,500 guests are served with the legendary Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982. The drinks bill is going to be monstrous.

You can tell that the evening is building to its crescendo. Philippine makes an impassioned speech informing us what a nice wine Mouton Rothschild is, we see a short promotional film and then Placido Domingo enters the stage to belt out specially composed song, which roughly translates as "We all love Mouton, yes we do." He attempts some crowd participation, which fails to ignite the masses, most of whom are too busy downing the Mouton 1982. Whilst the tenor is reaching its climax, a skyscraping ten-foot high cake is erected in the centre, tier by tier, capped with a giant sheep's head. Is this some pagan ritual. Is it connected with the dead mouse at Meriganc airport?. As if sensory overload is not already threatened, the night sky is lit up with pyrotechnics that shroud the vineyards in multi-coloured hues. It is all too much, indeed I am having flashbacks to Glastonbury 1993 and so I decide to inebriate myself via Chateau Coutet 1989. A funky jazz band continues the party atmosphere and I notice Placido having a quick jive on the dance floor before being waltzed away into the night.

It's getting late and it is time to bid farewell. We say au revoir to our friends and arrive at their abode at 3.00am. I have 2 hours sleep, then catch the 6:50am flight back to Gatwick and arrive ten minutes late into work. I still have the adrenalin rush from the night before but by midday it is running out and fatigue sets in. The La Fete de la Fleur was a success and rounded off a memorable week at Vinexpo 2003. Now I must remember to book the hotel next week for Vinexpo 2005.