Chapter 10

Friday 19th March

Leave work sharp at 5.30pm and head down to the Institute of Engineers for a CECWINE Domaine Leroy tasting. I only have about thirty-minutes to taste the wines and therefore keep my coat on as I scribble down the notes. Having gulped down a little D'Yquem 1998 I hurry home, take a quick shower and then drive down to Southend with the Scissor Sisters at full-blast, briefly greet my parents and then walk round to Vicky's flat for a "Sex in the City" farewell party with my harem of distraught SJP apostles. Erika flies in from Geneva, lands one-hour before it is due to start and manages to miss only the first 5 minutes. Vik is making Sex in the City cocktails, which seem to hammering home even before I arrive. The final episode is fitting finale to the exploits of these cosmopolitan icons and the tears flow when Carrie walks away into the sunset accompanied by one of our favourite house tracks of all time (Source featuring Candi Staton's "You've Got the Love".) Chat into the early hours of the morning, get home around 2am.

Tuesday 23rd March

A disastrous day off work. I switch on the home computer to edit an article on La Tour Haut-Brion when I start receiving foreboding error messages: "COMPUTER UNSTABLE", "SERIOUS ERROR WARNING", "THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH" and so forth. I foolishly reinstall Microsoft XP and I soon realise that I am out of my shallow technological depth as the whole thing stubbornly refuses to do anything once I switch it back on. Credit to Dell, whose customer support is A1 and some anonymous technician spends two hours with their hapless dunce, opening pages and programs that I never knew existed. At one point I wonder whether I am prising open "The Matrix" and I'll suddenly be given the option to swallow different coloured pills. Eventually the computer is out of intensive-care although a day's work has been lost.

Thursday 25th March

In the evening I meet a friend in the wine trade for cocktails/dinner at Hakkasan, a restaurant that is less hip than its clientel wish to think it is: wall-to-wall footballers wives and gregarious besuited twenty-somethings intoxicated by affluence and serendipity, flaunting their cash in front of their mates. The food is delicious though the dishes so extortionately priced that I make a mental note never to come here on my own financial means. The tables nestle tightly together and we are sandwiched between a group of nouveau riche Russians and girl whose beauty is inversely proportional to her personality. Both parties are smoking as if cigarettes will be banned at midnight and some prim, anorexic bimbo to our left smokes her way through the dim sum (which reminds me of a Japanese ex-manager who once smoked two Marlboro whilst eating a fillet steak lunching at Corney & Barrow.)

We manage to consume a decent amount of wine, including a stunning Cos d'Estournel 1989 after which my early-warning system switches on and urges me to quit whilst my faculties are still functioning. However when I return from the toilets, a bottle of Ata Rangi has appeared. I struggle through the kiwi Pinot Noir and accompany my friend outside to hail a taxi. As customary, whenever you need a taxi one fails to appear and when one does stop, my drunken friend who I shall call "G&T" collapses into a heap of Prada that frightens the driver away. Finally I manage to find a reluctant cabbie, check my friend can get safely home and then soon find one myself.

Saturday 27th March

Another gloomy day. God has hardly graced the British Isles with a solitary ray of sunshine in 2004. We spend the afternoon in Croydon shopping for new trainers. It is a generally known fact that if you are looking to be served by a slovenly, petulant, self-obsessed, acned, misanthropic teenager who despises existence itself, then you go to a sports shop. Don't get me wrong, I like hip-hop, but not when it impedes my conversing with a shop-assistant who has taken pity on me after half-an-hour standing forlornly with a pair of Adidas in the vain hope of being served. Three days later she returns from the stockroom, snarls: "We ain't got it..." and then disappears to bitch about her friends and customers.

Tonight we drink a delicious bottle of Torbreck "Juveniles" 2002 to accompany my steak and then I serendipitously discover a Brazilian film "Central Station" on BBC4, a brilliant poignant road-movie that sends me to Bedfordshire distraught but philosophical about life. I consider posting every UK sports shop assistant to a favela for one year to show them that they they are not the epicentre of the world and that if they were working in the Sao Paulo branch rather than Croydon, they would have been shot dead about five hours ago.

Sunday 28th March

My nom de plume "Calamity Neal" strikes again as an stressful week descends into pure farce and panic. This was supposed to be a relaxing Sunday, when I would repose to gather my thoughts for my trip to Bordeaux for the 2003 en primeur campaign. But meddling fate had other ideas and plays a cruel joke by having someone steal my wallet in Croydon, replete with all my credit cards that I will depend upon for the next three weeks when I will be jetting round the world. The Artful Dodger strikes again.

I realise that they are missing around 1pm and after a couple of hours of increasingly fraught searching I have no option but to cancel all the cards and jeopardize the crucial few days of tastings in both France and Japan. I wonder whether Broadbent or Parker have experienced similar catastrophes just before they are due to fly somewhere? Probably not. Tomorrow will be hell.

Monday 29th March

Wake up early to check my bags are packed. Rush into work. Tube up the creek. Typical. Run up the stairs to the office. Briefly explain my fiasco to colleagues at work. Switch on computer. Read essential e-mails. Erase 3,000 viruses. Rush to bank. Withdraw all my cash to fund the trip to Bordeaux as the accounts manager is on holiday (this will prove to be a unfortuitous move on my part.) Phone Avis who tell me that I cannot hire a car without a credit card. Feign breakdown on phone. Avis tell me there is a way of booking through the UK travel agent. Run to travel agent. Girl sorts out my car. Change all cash to Euros to pay for car. She gives me the invoice in pounds. Change Euros back to pounds. Pay for car. Run back to office. Check important messages. Hurry to Victoria Station.

Make the train to Gatwick with ninety seconds to spare. Arrive at Gatwick. God gives me a break as British Airways give me a free upgrade, which means fresh prawns and a leatherette seat. Bordeaux: warm and sunny, weather I have not seen for months. Arrive at Avis. Avis refuse me a car because the girl has made an error back in London. Second breakdown of the day. Two options: remonstrate until I get my way or begin weeping for sympathy. Opt for molten fury. Make it obvious to the Avis girl that strolling from one chateau to another is rather inconvenient and make it clear that on no condition will I leave the airport without wheels. Phone travel agent who arranged Avis car. The jobsworth refuses to permit me a car and apologises for girls error in promising one. Enter Basil Fawlty mode. Get angry but limit expletives. One hour later: spot Marcus who is hiring a car from Hertz. May have to bung a lift with him so explain my calamity. French Avis girl has hope in her heavily mascaraed eyes. Avis give me a car without a credit card, possibly the first and last time this will ever be achieved. Relief.

Walk briskly to car and hurtle out of Merignac airport. Perpetual traffic jam on the Aquitaine Bridge. Cross bridge after 30 stationary minutes listening to some crappy French radio. Drive as fast as a 1.2 litre Clio will allow me to Pomerol. Find Denis Durantou at L'Eglise-Clinet, miraculously just five minutes late. Denis is in good form, his wine is superb. Denis refuses to allow someone in to taste his wines as he is wearing too much cologne. Denis sniffs me like a Bassett hound to check that I am odourless. I am safe. Thank Denis for tasting. Denis reminds me to send him a copy of the Joyzipper CD (I think he will be the only vigneron to do that this week, but you never know.) Drive to hotel in Saint Emilion. Discard clothes. Quick shower, barely enough to wet my skin. Check TV channels. No porn. Meet colleague from negotiant. Dinner in Saint Emilion. Bed at 11pm. Survived (just.)

Tuesday 30th March

I wake up early. Saint Emilion is beautiful on a crisp dewy spring morning and my window overlooks the small church over by Clos-Fourtet. My first appointment is with JP Moueix to taste their wines and I know that their office is on the bank of the river, but I lose my way and end up in a swarming market in the centre of Libourne surrounded by shoppers laden with leeks and rounds of brie, all reluctant to let me pass. After vainly searching for an hour I admit defeat as my next meeting is at Chateau Ausone.

The reconstruction work is still in progress and there is a precipitous, perilous unprotected drop as you swing into the courtyard. Alain Vauthier welcomes me and I taste his vino in the chai. They are delish. He gives me an information pack and an Ausone OWC panel that I duly ask him to sign. Briefly stop at an intimate tasting at Chateau La Tour Figeac because I must taste Clos Saint Martin, one of my favourite wines. I leave after ten minutes and head across the road to Cheval Blanc. Hmmm, not quite as good as I expected. Drive over to Clos L'Eglise to meet proprietor Hélène Garcin-Cathiard, the Aphrodite of Bordeaux. She is the kind of woman you would love to take home to your mother, but she is out of my league. And married. And displays no desire to forsake Bordeaux for Brixton. I taste her portfolio on wines, which now include a clutch of interesting Argentinian malbecs and I will research and write about them later.

I whoof down some quiche then drive over to the UGC tastings at La Pointe for the Pomerols. Very inconsistent: too many weak, astringent wines and Beauséjour Bécot for the Saint Emilions that are a little better but still blighted by a clutch of disjointed wines with astringent finishes.

I then hurtle across from the right to the left bank and attend the Pauillac tasting at Branaire-Ducru, which is less crowded than I expected. These places are great for people-watching and guessing where everyone comes from. Obese bearded guy sporting a large white cowboy hat...must be south US of A. Demi-monde with mini rah-rah skirt, stilettos and a strata of cheap cosmetics: Eastern Europe or Essex. Hackett jackets with chinos, brogues and accents loaned direct from boarding school: UK. Two piece navy velvet suit, tan and long swept back slightly greasy hair: French.

Anyway, rumours are that Cos d'Estournel is one of the wines of the vintage means that I have to arrange an impromptu appointment and be there in ten minutes. I manage to sneak in with a group of UK wine-merchants and I am glad I made the effort as this is a great wine. After this I head up to Haut-Marbuzet, an estate intrigues me. I enter with a couple of American honeymooners oblivious to the en primeur shenanigans. How nice it must be to simply tour at leisure. I have about 12 minutes to fit in a tasting at the Margaux UGC at Giscours, which I miraculously achieve.

I have thirty minutes back at the hotel to remove the tannins from my crimson teeth, take a quick shower and check for free porn. This is what I love about France: they assume that you want porn 24 hours a day unless you decide to opt out. I opt out and watch a snippet of a program that involves reuniting love-lorn ex's to see if they will reignite their passion (the girl is left weeping having been spurned by her arrogant ex-boyfriend.) In the evening I enjoy an extravagant dinner with colleagues including a group of Americans who always thank me for standing alongside them against Iraq. Don't thank me...I just watched it on breakfast TV. I steal the show by nailing the Haut-Brion Blanc 1996 blind - cue round of applause. I guess the vintage of the second wine, 1970, but not the estate, guessing Lynch-Bages but it is Ducru. The Haut-Brion 1962 is pure perfection at the end: classic, understated Bordeaux. I depart just before midnight feeling fatigued.

Wednesday 31st March

This morning is devoted to the First Growths and after a couple of croissants and a black coffee its up for a nine o'clock appointment at Mouton-Rothschild. I arrive with a minute to spare although they are Ethelred the Unready, so I loiter in reception next to Michael Schuster MW, whilst David Peppercorn MW strides in attired in what appears to be his Sherlock Holmes outfit. Perhaps I should enquire whether he has found any clues about the 2003 vintage? My lips remain sealed and just admire his untrammeled Britishness.

We enter the tasting room twenty minutes late, which will screw up the rest of my appointments that are crammed into the day. I make my excuses and depart before the others and head up to Lafite-Rothschild, whose tasting room is resplendent with some magnificent Richard Avedon monochrome photos of Eric de Rothschild, Charles Chevalier and most bucolic, moustached looking vendengeur they could find. Worth taking a look should you visit the estate. Then down to Chateau Margaux where I join a party of wunderbar German tasters and then Chateau Latour to meet with Freddy Engerer, whose 2003 is simply awesome.

Bruno Borie

I lunch at Ducru-Beaucaillou and I arrive just in time, hurry into the tasting room adjusting my tie to meet the new proprietor Bruno Borie who took over from his brother last year. However, Bruno is wearing black trainers and a fleece. Pah, I could of worn my Levi anti-fits with my old Stereolab t-shirt! He seems very laid-back, almost startled to have become one of the most important proprietors in Bordeaux and professes a love for shooting and cooking during the lunch.

Far left - myself and Bruno Borie in his back garden

I am sitting opposite a jaw-droppingly beautiful woman: jet-black hair, hypnotic black marble eyes and an audacious, colourful dress whose design I cannot place. She turns out to be Kazakhstani and I sit opposite her at the large dining table that overlooks the magnificent gardens at Ducru. Now please, do not take this the wrong way, but as soon as you sat down, I could not but help notice your scarlet brassiere designed to make men wilt within fifty paces. I double-check: yes, her attire is definitely a sheer as sheer can be and it keeps catching my eye throughout the meal. Still, I learnt a lot about Kazakhstan during the two hours and if women are as aesthetically pleasing as Ms Nabieva then I'll be booking a one-way ticket soon. Possibly with Bruno himself.

Next, down to Chateau Haut-Brion and I manage to take the correct exit off the Rocarde so that I do not end up in Bordeaux's equivalent of Peckham. Whilst tasting in the tower, Jean-Philip Delmas and the Baron Robert de Luxembourg both pay a visit and discuss the vintage with us. After this its down to the Graves UGC tasting at Carbonnieux and then back to the hotel. In the evening I meet colleagues in the UK wine trade in Bordeaux town which is unexpectedly devoid of nightlife. However we venture to a marvellous jazz club where we are greeted by an effortlessly cool dude in his jazz-uniform and pork-pie hat. We dine in the restaurant where the waitress manages to get every order wrong (e.g. "Three expressos please" and we receive four cappucinos. Zut alors!) Leave at 2am watching a band whose lead-singer plays the washboard.

Thursday 1st April

Fly back to Gatwick. Bump into my heavily pregnant cousin Jo in Oxford Street which has ground to a halt. Incredibly busy at work. I am still without credit cards, which is making life especially stressful. I realise that I have haemorraged my bank account by funding my trip to Bordeaux and as a result have not a yen to take to Japan. Oh, and the direct debit from my internet-host bounced and I have three days to pay the money or will be consigned to history. And the electricity company are threatening to cut me off. Apart from that, everything is fine.

Friday 2nd April

I don't think life can get any more stressful. I have no credit cards, the bank are refusing to release any money because they cannot be bothered to process a cheque within 5 working days and I have a mountain of work. Meet my brother in Burgerking to borrow money for Japan and then work until 11pm trying to tie everything up before I depart. When I arrive home, my Visa card is lying on the doormat to rescue me from complete financial oblivion. Celebrate with an Indian.

Saturday 3th April

Begin packing for Japan. Tomoko is already there and seems to be enjoying herself with her family who I will meet for the first time. I have envisaged being suspended over cauldrons of boiling water as her mother tests my mettle. In the afternoon I travel to Southend to meet an old friend, Paul Burgoyne, who I have known since he was 16. A quick Indian (second of the weekend), a discussion about life and the universe and then I return home at 11pm. I flick through the 4,000 channels on Sky to find a fantastic program on VH1 where they reunite 1980's bands. This week it is the turn of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, for me one of the most exciting and under-rated groups ever. I wonder if I still have my "Frankie Says..." t-shirt?

Sunday 4th April

Last entry for a little while. Neal Goes To Tokyo! Sayonara!