Year 2009: Chapter 4

Sunday 16th August

This morning we all drive to Leigh-on-Sea for a professional family photo. I mooted this a couple months ago, primarily because I would rather have it done now, whilst I still have a full head of hair blemished by only a few wisps of grey, rather than when I am fat and bald, with my daughters sporting sceptic nose piecings, Maori tattoos and a bun in the oven. I understand that some may regard this as premature since they are two and four years old, but before you know it, they will be petulant teenagers who will find the idea of a family photo as repugnant.

The motley crew consist of mum and dad; Tomoko, Lily, Daisy and myself, Simon and his partner Paul, Tom and his wife Sam, plus youngest brother John. Alas, Frank the stupid dog, the tropical fish, the cats and Hammer the tortoise are excluded, but I am sure mum is considering a separate shoot for the menagerie of pets at some later date. The studio is located in the Victoria Shopping Centre, a carbuncle that I lambasted in this very diary back in 2004. The good news is that since then, it has had a complete make-over including a swish new roof, so that one is not swept away by a hurricane as one enters Argos. The bad news is that Argos appears to be the only retail outlet occupying the mall. Everything else seems to be bordered up and the words "white" and "elephant" echo around the empty cavern. It's kind of sad really. There once were a clutch of intriguing shops when I was a kid, but it represents the provincial high street atrophied by the Internet.

Apart from Argos, Paul's Photographic studio is practically the only other tenant. He must be doing well, for we have to wait 20-minutes for the previous shoot to finish, so in the meantime I ask Tomoko whether she would like to pose for a soft-focus lingerie shot to hang in our hallway? She declines, so maybe I might do one instead with my privates covered by a make that a magnum...of Latour.

Eventually, we are summoned downstairs to the basement studio, dominated by a large white sheet of paper that Lily and Daisy run around in. Now, the Martin family is not the most tactile in the world, so as Paul requests my parents to maintain more bodily contact than has been achieved in the last twenty years, they squirm with embarrassment whilst their brood guffaws in the background. We pose in various combinations, myself trying not to be too self-conscious because that always makes me look crap in photos. This is the great problem I face: my wife and kids are naturally photogenic, especially Lily and Daisy. The camera just loves them as you can see for yourself. But I always looks shite, far, far worse than I do in real life and even that is pretty bad (and detiorating according to my better half.)

Lily starts getting tired halfway through the shoot and starts moaning, but she looks damn cute in her mini chignon and retro-sixties dress from Carnaby Street. Hopefully, her momentary sunnier disposition has been captured by the lens. Simon and Paul's poses are done in private, so God knows what they were up to, although I will be keeping my eye out in Attitude magazine.

We all return chez parents for a barbecue, which the weather countenances and I cook mum's homemade hamburgers that have a nasty habit of disintegrating on the grill. Tastes nice though. Then it is a drive home back round the M25 and a wait for several days before we can view the images on the Internet and choose which one we would like blown up into a canvas that covers one side of the living room. I think after this, Paul will be thanking the Lord for Photoshop.

Monday 17th August

Head into London to visit my accountant. It sounds stupid, but I am slightly scared of him, not because of his personality, but because I am useless at accounts. They baffle me, and I always feel a sense of shame whenever I make a mistake. Afterwards I meet a couple of chaps who interview me for a Podcast as part of the build-up for the Louis-Roederer Wine Writing Awards. I probably talk shite as usual, but they are quite congenial and laid-back, which puts me at ease as I answer their questions. I return home mid-afternoon to continue writing and organise my forthcoming trips to Germany and Bordeaux. To be honest, I am itching for the tasting season to kick-off, notwithstanding the wife is getting bored of me hanging around the house in my stressed out state of mind.

Thursday 20th August

A-levels results out today! It seems as if every 18-year old scored an A-grade this year and as usual, the Minister of Education is wheeled out with a smug expression smeared across his face, congratulating the students of 2009, promulgating the results that reflect how hard this year's alumni worked.
So what are you saying?
Last year's crop did not revise enough?
Or the year before that/
Given that the grades have risen inexorably for the last 27-years, he is basically labelling everyone who sat exams as slackers and of less intellect that this year's natural born geniuses. I mean, given the current recession, why don't employers fire their entire staff and hire the new batch of Einstein's who were awarded four A-levels in Media Studies, Drama, Social Studies and Psychology? They would have us out of this slump in no time, surely?

Friday 21st August

I am going stir crazy, chained to my Mac 24/7. As much as I should exploit the summer desert of tastings to unwind, to contemplate on matters other than fermented, I always end up busier than ever, catching up on the backlog that accumulates during the first six months. Then fool that I am, I end up booking September for trips abroad, this year to Germany to taste the 2008 Grosses Gewachs, to Bordeaux for a seminar and then Bordeaux again to research more of Pomerol. Any day that I am not abroad in September I seem to have a tasting booked. When am I going to get time to write, to relax, to be me?

I have spent all week writing and my brain is going fuzzy, so at five o'clock I down tools and head into London on a rare boys night out with Pip and his university pals, who I have not seen for five or six years. We meet on one of those boats moored off the Embankment, the first time I have boarded one. It is quite pleasurable sipping my pint of beer, looking out over the rolling Thames, although the gentle tilt of the vessel makes you feel twice as pissed as you really are. Was that me swaying, or HMS Booze?

We frequent a couple of pubs and although the beer is flat, the conversation is anything but so, mostly dwelling on the trials and tribulations of fatherhood since our group is neatly divided either side of the parent fence. I fear that the outpouring of parental woe: the constant fatigue, the testing of patience, how to punish your child without the guilt, the ubiquity of poo, may have all contributed to a postponement of procreation. As much as we reassure them that a baby's smile makes it all worthwhile, one can never eradicate our wan faces, the dark circles around the eyes and the fact that we have half as much energy. In essence, the fathers of our group are a corporeal form of contraception.

Since none of us have eaten and given that most of our party are of Indian descent, we search in vain for a decent Indian restaurant, which is nigh impossible in this tourist-driven part of London. We eventually end up at The Strand, a young waiter with a pointy beard imploring us to enter and making all sorts of promises, free beers and the like, if only we would kindly wait upstairs for a table. Five minutes and five pints of Cobra later, we are perched upstairs waiting for a table and are forced to exert a little pressure when none comes available. The waiter promises that he never reneges on a deal, though somehow I think that is untrue. Eventually we are ushered downstairs and the curry is acceptable if not remarkable. Of course, my friends know Indian cuisine inside-out, so I feel like a complete bumpkin when I succumb to my default chicken korma. I really need to be more adventurous. It's like going to The Fat Duck and ordering beans on toast.

Saturday 22nd August

Cook a Thai green curry for the first time in ages. The last time was when I invited Tomoko to my bachelor pad in West Norwood, most likely our second or thirst date, when I was wary of her being Japanese and she was wary that I was warming up a Thai curry that had been prepared for a friend who had failed to materialize the previous evening. I was slopping up leftovers. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was at that precise moment she considered dumping me and in hindsight, she says she made the worst decision of her life. Too bad. But the curry was nice though.

Sunday 23rd August

Joel at bbq 2009

Joel comes round to pick up the cotbed. Joel, as you may remember, is the techno wizard that helped me with this website in its original incarnation and he has lost none of his technological prowess. In fact, I think Joel might be an Apple application himself. I've just mentally downloaded him and there he sits, chewing on one of Tomoko's homemade spare ribs. We discuss various things, the Internet, Joel's impending fatherhood, how to put together a Milano cotbed.

Tuesday 25th August

Germany! Wir kommen! The land of Lederhosen, frothy beer, shiny indestructible Mercedes and an ill-advised penchant for the musical oeuvre known as David Hasselhoff.

I wake up on the sofa at the witching hour, 4.35am. The mobile phone alarm allows me grace of a 10-minute snooze but then I have to get out of my sleeping bag, eat my compulsory Frosties, clean my now tartar free teeth, panic about losing my passport and leave the house in time for my ungodly hour flight to Frankfurt, home of the Frankfurter.

As usual, something has to go tits oop nanoseconds before departure and this time, it is my foolish booking of the wrong airport car-park. I pay a penalty of forty quid to book the right one. The journey to Heathrow is actually quite pleasant. Even though you are still brushing away the cobwebs of an unnatural early morning reveille, there is something spiritual about the sunrise, the most beautiful event of the day witnessed only by milkman and ravers.

I park the car and meet fellow oenophile David Wainwright at chichi Terminal 5. The flight passes unnoticed as a catch a few deprived zÕs. Arriving in Frankfurt, I discover my suitcase has expanded in the overhead lockers, ergo I am unable to extricate luggage from plane. Bugger. It takes a few minutes of persuading and prodding before it finally releases itself from its cocoon. We drive to Wiesbaden and park in a very hygienic underground car-park barely recognisable from its English kindred since it does not smell of maturing piss.

I am here to taste the Grosses Gewaches 2008s. The chamber is full of tasters seated at long table, a crack team of pourers ready to serve whatever flight you indicate by holding aloft the appropriate number. It runs like clockwork and therefore during the day I am able to appraise around 150 wines without too much trouble, although it entails typing over 7,000 words directly onto my laptop Š knackering in itself.

We take a break for lunch. David and I sit like lemons waiting for someone to serve us and in the meantime we are joined by Jennie Cho Lee MW, who is a fellow member of my enthronization alumni in June, when you may remember, her list of achievements spoke of a superhuman woman...MW, four kids, countless qualifications and so on. Meeting her over lunch, I am sickened to report that she is actually a friendly, quite self-effacing human being who is de facto, a joy to converse with. Despite looking for any kind of blemish, chewing her finger nails or picking her nose, I could not find any fault, not a single one.

I finish tasting around 5.45pm when my palate begins to fatigue and I have completed all the Pfalz Grosses Gewachs. We drive down to the town of Gulthaben via a veritable dirt track that we are forced to take due to a road closure. The miracle of a Blackberry loaded with Google Maps guides us through the backwaters and a series of potholes back onto the correct route.
Technology...where would we be without it?
Lost, I guess.
In the evening we venture into the village of Stromberg, which is deserted like any Continental town post rush-hour. It seems to have a population of around three, including two blackbirds. David and I dine at a restaurant named after its celebrity chef Johan Lafer, who must enjoy a reputation as lofty as his hilltop restaurant given the abundance of photos: Johan with Boris Becker, Johan with Georges Bush etc. We dine at the bistro to keep costs sensible, and though its wine list is pretty miserable, we purloin the more salubrious list from the restaurant and order very fine bottle of Fonsalette 2000. The food is pretty good for the price and the service is top class. It ranks as the finest dinner I have ever had in Germany, which is not saying much given that almost every previous meal has consisted of an over-cooked pork chop wrapped up in several layers of breadcrumb.

Wednesday 26th August

This morning, a visit one of the greatest winemakers in the world, Helmut Donnhoff. It takes about 15 minutes to drive to his modest abode just over from the famous Oberhauser bridge, adjacent to the Oberhauser Brucke vineyard where his famous Eisweins are conjured from some quirk of nature and some quirk of mankind who ventured to discover what happened when you ferment frozen berries. Helmut is about as self-effacing as you can get, his son laid back and a chip off his old man's block. The wines are spectacular, including a rare as hens' teeth gem made by his father in the 1960s (which is, to be brutally honest, more interesting than pleasurable.) From here we drive from the Nahe to the Mosel, with just time for a quick pizza in Bernkasteler...not bad considering every other establishment makes KFC look like The Fat Duck.

Ernie Loosen

We meet the irrepressible Ernie Loosen (pictured) for a tour of his vineyards. I found it amusing, perhaps a stroke of unintentional genius that they elected a complete madman as the unofficial ambassador for German wine and Ernie is full of unreportable anecdotes, four-letter expletives and his hair looks as if it has not been washed since 1973 (the year that fashion stopped interminably in the Mosel). The tour is illuminating and I make a mental note never to work the vineyard of Erdener Pralat since they are on a vertical incline. After a comprehensive tasting of his 2008s, we join him for dinner in the evening with friends including Mike and Claudi Wirsing from Pyramid Valley in Wairapa who I met in 2008, for the customary blind tasting marathon that lasts until two in the morning, early for Ernie, although he is virtually falling asleep at the table by the end of a surfeit of delights that includes La Mouline 1988, Vina Real 1973 and a stunning 1979 Wehelener Auslese made by his father. I walk back from his abode to the hotel, just 20 minutes away, under a starlit sky talking about the unimaginable dimensions of the universe with David. Given the vats of wine imbibed this evening, I am surprised and rather pleased that I appear to have drunk myself sober by the time head meets pillow.

Thursday 27th August

Awake at Hotel Pfeiffer. It takes a few seconds to realise that this is not 1973 thanks to the furnishings, but I am pleased to see that the menagerie of marsupial skulls has not been moved since my last visit. Our first appointment is with the delightful Katherina Prum, where we taste her 2008s up on the terrace that overlooks the Mosel River and the backdrop of vines clinging on to the slate soils for the dear life. If Katherina ever became sick of vines, then she had better move far away from here. Our tasting is rudely interrupted by a pair of killer wasps that Katherina attacks with a fly swat. I worry that the escapee wasp has buzzed away back to the hive to call for reinforcements, so I taste Prums Ausleses a little quicker, lest they return and I am stung to death by the swarm (of course I would offer Katherina as a sacrifice first, after all, she is the one that retaliated, not I.)

Willi in vineyard

(Willi Schaeffer in the vines.)

Following this we visit the most congenial winemaker in the world (and that is official by the way) Willi Schaeffer. It is convenient that he makes some of the greatest white wines known to man. Frau Schaeffer offers us a light lunch of smoked salmon after tasting his wines and then we taste more wines in his living room, where I notice that two Robert Parker books are conspicuously placed by the dining table. I bet it is replaced by Jancis's Oxford Encyclopaedia of Wine whenever she visits...all winemakers try to appease their critic so. Willi pops down to his cellar and furnishes us with a Graacher Hermansholle Riesling Ausles 1971, which is so magnificent I just want to cry.

Then we visit Klaus-Peter Keller, the respected winemaker in the ludicrously titled town of Florsheim-Dalsheim. I taste a vast number of wines, including those of his 10-year old son, Felix. He obviously takes winemaking very seriously and I worry that he should be squashing newts and fostering strange thoughts about girls, like your average young boy. I duly appraise his wines. I consider telling him that they are bloody awful...he can always return to winemaking in his twenties and strike me off his Christmas card list for ruining his childhood. He will thank me one day, when he looks back upon his adolescence spent drunk in nightclubs rather than vexing over the fermentation of his Grauburgunder. I refrain. The wines are actually perfectly acceptable, although I don't trot out the usual superlatives just because of his age, but keep him guessing. When he becomes the most feted winemaker in Germany, he will thank me.

We then drive up to Rudesheim, which is one step up from Hades. By that, I mean that the whole picturesque town is afflicted by tacky tourist shops, a complete absence of anywhere decent to eat and a conviction that the pages of the calendar ceased turning around 1973, just like the Mosel. We book into the hotel and dine downstairs where groups of German OAP dance to classics such as My Way, I Just Called To Say I Love You and of course, Edelweiss, played by four "musicians" who look as if they drew the short straws in the kitchen earlier that day. There is a mid-1980s synthesizer pre-programmed with a fistful of appegios, a clarinet player who cannot stop smiling and a lead singer who looks as if he just attended his mother's funeral.
But the audience laps it up!
It must be all the beer being served by das buxom Madchen in traditional German dress. I order the three Wurst special to maintain the Germanic theme of the evening and consider donning my lederhosen...tonight would be the night. I refrain in case it puts David off his reconstituted gruel.

Friday 28th August

A good night's rest. I feel I have cleansed my soul of last night's overdose of Teutonic entertainment. I was half expecting myself to wake up speaking German with a disturbing penchant for David Hasselhoff. After a quick Fruhstuck, we head out of Rudesheimer for an appointment at Weingut Johannishof and then to Hochheim to visit Weingut Domdechant Werner'Sches. Proprietor Dr. Frank Werner is perhaps just a little mad, but an old sage when it comes to German wine having spent decades in the business. Despite his age, a youthful 77, the wizened gentleman has seen it all and understands all the challenges and opportunities facing the industry. We have a light lunch over the road, a simple pork escalope with creamy chanterelle sauce and it represents the apex of German cuisine (thus far.) We then head back to Frankfurt airport for a little debriefing over a frothy cappuccino. It has certainly been an enlightening trip with some mind-boggling stunning wines, many of which retail for a fraction of most of what I taste in Bordeaux. But it has not convinced of the musical worth of David Hasselhoff.

Saturday 29th August

Tomoko's friends affectionately known as "The Ealing Couple" round of a barbecue, our 455th of the summer. I like them, both Japanese and obsessed with music erring towards the 1960s. He looks a little like one of those Japanese rockers who used to mime to Hound Dog down in Harajuku every Sunday, although he is actually a successful sales manager for a communications company. However he does inform me that the previous evening's sales meeting dwelt upon the weighty subject of: Prince: genius or not? I play football with Lily and Daisy, enjoy the balmy evening since the nights are closing in. Somehow, I don't think either daughter will be playing for Manchester United, although DaisyÕs aggressiveness in hacking Lily down by the apple tree may make her a useful defender.

Sunday 30th August

Bloody hell it's cold. What is this? A little amuse-bouche for winter? My body cannot cope with the wild swing in temperature and I have a small headache. In the evening, I watch six consecutive episodes of "The Office" and revel in its ineluctable genius. Alas, I cannot sleep, partly because my mind is complaining about the fact I have another ridiculously early rise tomorrow morning. Why do I do it? Can I not book a flight that leaves at any time of the day apart from an hour before sunrise?

Monday 31st August

Off to Bordeaux (again) where I am conducting a seminar upon the role of wine critics. As I drive comatose through thick fog around the treacherous M25 at 5.30 in the morning, I begin questioning my workaholic ethic, an ethic that ensures that I imperil my life on a motorway where visibility is remisicent of "The Others". I am sure I spot Nicole Kidman at the window of a spooky house smothered in mist.

I snooze on the plane and then head off up to Chateau La Pointe to interview the manager of the estate that is amidst wholesale renovation. Hubert de Bouard from Chateau Angelus joins us in the chai that is strewn with detritus a mere three weeks before the harvest is due to start. Hopefully they will remove the spirit levels and rubble before the fill it with 2009. I taste the last decade of the chateau's wines, a brief lunch and then back to my hotel. In the evening that is uncomfortably humid and sticky, I meet consultant Olivier Dauga for dinner at the wonderful Bordeaux Brasserie that serves the most delicious freshwater oysters and fermier poulet. Simple; but mouth-watering.
Why cannot we have similar cuisine in the UK?
What is our equivalent?

We do not drink Bordeaux and instead, Olivier shows me some interesting Ukrainian wines that he is assisting...the potential is there...but not quite yet. Olivier and his wife give me a lift home in their station wagon. I have a migraine on the horizon and fortunately one of the bartenders lent me an aspirin that can fight it out with my mal a la tete whilst I sleep. Hopefully that migraine will go by morning.

Tuesday 1st September

Wake up with residues of a headache but I can cope. This morning: my seminar for a dozen-plus winemakers explaining how I arrived at my present vocation, my philosophy towards wine-tasting and scoring and whatever else anyone would like to discuss. I think I am talking I talking sense?...or am I gabbling? I intermittently survey my audience. Is he falling asleep? Was that a yawn? Is she thinking about where to buy a baguette on the way home? Am I paranoid? Do I need to pick up a baguette on the way home? How does Obama do this in front of a million people outside the White House? I make a mental note never to run for President: I would start gabbling during my inauguration.

I wish I had had more time to prepare. What with my German trip last week, I had very little time to prepare my oration that lasts for most of the day, but I think it goes O.K. judging by the response and the lack of yawns. At least my headache has abated, loitering in the wings rather than exiting the building. Afterwards I am whisked back to the airport, snooze on the plane despite the mile-high kindergarten of bawling babies and crash out when I get home as I am bloody knackered. Well, for about half an hour...then I am working again.

Oh. Paul the photographer phones. He lost half the photos from the other weekend. Faulty microchip or something.

Wednesday 2nd September

Writing all day. The next three weeks are completely the hell can I find any time to write? I need a PA, but Tomoko is tied up with the kids and I have no money to hire someone. I spend most of the afternoon trying to arrange my flight to Margaret River in November, all to no avail. I spend about three centuries on the phone to Singapore Airlines trying to speak to a human being. The entire airline company probably consists of their website and two part-time housewives manning the phones in a Warsaw suburb.

In the evening, I serve up Tomoko's homemade hamburgers (recipe her family secret passed down from generation to generation over 1,000 years.) Tomorrow: Lily's big day.
BIG school!

Thursday 3rd September

Lily goes to school

Lily's first day at "big school". She is dressed in her dark green school uniform: Clarks shoes, green cardigan branded with school logo, pleated charcoal grey dress and hair tied back in a neat pony-tail. It adds about a year to her age. She is a little girl, not my little baby. It is a 10-mintue walk to her school. She has a skip in her step...she cannot wait. Satchel in hand, PE bag slung over her shoulder, she is fully-equipped for academia that will last until Oxford or Cambridge University (I am undecided which one yet.)

I meet a few mums escorting their own loved ones to big school. I think the parents are more nervous and traumatised than their offspring. I deliver Lily to Ms. Prescott's classroom and she is holding hands with her best friend, "Big Daisy". Ms. Prescott looks as if she has prepared for the new school year by chilling out on the Costa del Sol for a fortnight judging by her sun-tanned features. Lily enters the classroom and I peer through the window, watch her deposit her satchel in her personalized drawer and then squat down with a dozen classmates.
Along with other parents, we will probably stare through the window for the entire morning until time for collection.

I walk back home tinged with sadness, but with an equal measure of vicarious thrill. There is no time to dwell upon it as I have a port and Madeira tasting in London, followed by Berry Brothers 2008 redux. Having tasted through sixty plus wines, I get back home just as Lily is going to bed. I ask how her first day turned out? She does not seem any more intelligent than this morning. I might have to have a word with Ms. Prescott and see if it is possible to fit in two hours of intense trigonometry tomorrow morning, with a few Latin phrases for good measure.

Friday 4th September

Take Lily in for her second day of school. Just another 2,000 to go. I wonder if Ms. Prescott has prepared that trigonometry exam? After dropping her off, Lily in pig-tails rather than a pony-tail, I head into town for a tasting of Olivier BernsteinÕs 2007s and lunch up in Berry Brothers salubrious directorÕs room, then venture to a Languedoc Roussillon tasting near Oxford Circus (ruined by the fire alarm deafening us every two minutes) and finally back home to watch the Big Brother final. I am probably the only person watching.

Saturday 5th September

Tomoko drives to Waitrose, another faultless performance until she has to park the car, whereupon she evacuates and then I park the car into an empty space. As long as my wife goes shopping when the car park is completely empty, she will be fine. In the afternoon, I write up my German 2008 report because at the moment I can count the minutes that I have the time to write on one hand. Behind me, Daisy is practicing her ballet dancing to a Mozart string quartet whilst Lily is plastering the dining table with Sleeping Beauty stickers, that have proliferated around the entire house over the last year (including my laptop, much to my embarrassment at a couple of important tastings.)

In the evening, it is enchilada time with a bottle of gutsy Tempranillo, an interesting documentary on Beatlemania and a debriefing over Lily first two days of academia (discounting nursery school.)

Sunday 6th September

Family outing to Byron Burger restaurant, bespoke burgers at outrageous prices but hey, we promised Lily a special dinner to congratulate her starting school (personally, I would have given her some quadratic equations to work out, but Tomoko vetoed the idea.) Afterwards, we spend hours searching fruitlessly for a bloody hairband in school regulation colours. You see them everywhere and then when you want one, they are either sold out or come attached with some stupid decoration, like an over-sized pink fairy and a giant bow like Madonna around Like A Virgin, accoutrements that would inevitably lead to Lily's first detention.

Monday 7th September

Take Lily to school. My mum comes to pick her up at lunchtime and twenty minutes after they were due to return, the secretary calls home to verify that her grandmother is in fact, her grandmother, and not some psychopath. I entertain the notion of denying any knowledge of this imposter, just to see what would happen, but that might upset mum and lead to jail.

Tomoko and I set off for London. I have some Spanish and Piemontese wines to taste, she has some window shopping to do. Things start to go awry when the Central Line seizes up and leaves us squashed like sweating sardines on the tube to Bank. A riot almost ensues at Tottenham Court Road when nobody can get in or out of the sauna that passes as London's transport system. By the time we arrive at Bank, I am sweating like a pig and could use a shower, whilst Tomoko is rudely reminded why we moved out of the capital city.

Tonight it is the Louis-Roederer Wine Writing Awards for which I have been shortlisted in the online writing category for my work on The glitterati of wine writing queues for security checks as the venue is the mezzanine at the top of the giant Gherkin building, in other words, the foreskin of London's glass and chrome phallus. When we arrive upstairs amongst the milling guests, we find that it is almost as crammed as the tube on the Central fact, I am thinking that some of those commuters have mistakenly ended up here and are working out how to get home. After admiring the spectacular view across London, nibbling as many canapes as possible, necking a few flutes of champagne and chatting to Tom Cannavan, we file upstairs for the ceremony. I have to admit, I was expecting us to be seated at table for some Oscar-like ceremony hosted by Brad Pitt, but instead I perch on the side with Tim Atkin and await the results.

Do I win?
Nah. I knew that an hour ago when I spotted that Nathalie MacClean had flown in from Canada. You wouldn't fly 3,000 miles not to hear your name read out, would you? Tomoko is infuriated with the fact I am afraid that she will put her Cristal 2002 and start haranguing poor Nats for an injustice equivalent to Mouton being classified a Second Growth.
Feeling rather crestfallen, we depart post haste and return home. Do I feel cheated? Yeah, I do, but hey, at least the sponsors got their international writer as a winner. That's all I will say.

Tuesday 8th September

The third awakening at an unnatural hour of the morning in two weeks, this time to head back down to Bordeaux, Pomerol to be exact. I snooze on the train and then spota flustered Margaret Rand, who DID deservedly win a Louis-Roederer Award last night, panicking to get on the plane in time. In her posh voice, she tells me that her alarm failed to alarm this morning. We discuss the events of the previous evening, gossip intensely as we taxi down the runway and then I catch up on some deprived z's.

Johan and Catherine

(Johan snaps Catherine Pere-Verge at Le Gay.)

Brinda picks me up and we drive over to Chateau Le Gay for a vertical tasting with the proprietor, Madame Catherine Pere-Verge, whose family founded the famous glass manufacturer Cristal d'Arques. Her reputation precedes her, friendly but instantly discernable as a woman who knows exactly what she wants and I tread carefully as I interview her for my book. She mentions Michel Rolland quite a few times. I taste vertical of Le Gay, Montviel and La Violette and then head down to Chateau L'Eglise-Clinet to interview and taste with Denis Durantou. This our second tete-a-tete in recent months, the first derailed by an earlier meeting where Denis was a little over-enthused about his Cabernet Franc and imbibed a drop too much This time he is in great form, relating in detail the background of the estate and his philosophies towards wine, before proffering a delicious bottle of 1988 that goes down and absolute treat. In the evening: a private dinner with an old friend, where we are joined by the scallywag of Saint Julien, Bruno Borie of Ducru Beaucaillou. We discuss the beautiful Julie who won best looking girl of primeur in 2009: I think he intends to hold on to his crown by recruiting more eye candy for next primeur. The evening flows along with bottles of Ducru '55 and '34 and towards the end, one of the guests politely informs me that she has a cold.

I already feel a tickle in my throat by the time we are driving back to the Bonsai Hotel, past a innumerable hookers plying their trade and conspicuously affected by the recession, judging by the lack of carnal activity.

Wednesday 9th September

Bugger, I can feel a cold in my throat but it is being kept at bay by the Indian summer Bordeaux is presently enjoying, the mercury reaching 33 degrees Celsius by noon. I have noticed that the Bonsai, rechristened Ballardins hotel has improved silently: flakier croissants and the swimming pool no longer sporting a film of algae. Sure, the decor is still chipped and long overdue a lick of paint, but the receptionist is polite and helpful and there is free hardcore porn from midnight, although it is somewhat ruined by the porn star's inability to stifle giggles and expressions of mirth as they adopt another preposterous position. I wonder whether I should complain to the receptionist...see if we can get porn with a more serious tenor?

More visits and tasting today, first at Chateau Siaurac in Lalande-a-Pomerol (primarily to cover Vray-Croix-de-Gay.) During my visit, Stephan Derenencourt arrives in his Audi, the vehicle of choice for any self-respecting, outrageously successful consultant. We taste some berries in the vineyard, he chews the pips and spits them out and in my Yosser Hughes voice I think: "I could do that". Now that I have lost the Louis-Roederer award for writing, perhaps it was a sign that I should seek an alternative vocation?

After a very impassioned visit, we drive to Chateau Gazin for a tasting and to interview proprietor Nicolas de Baillencourt who I long ago had promised to visit to reappraise his wines and investigate for myself the improvements that have been made. After the tasting, we lunch nearby where we continue to debate controversial INAO rules governing place of vinification (I will not go into it here) and then a short visit to Chateau Beauregard for the requisite vertical and interview. I must have about three days of dictation to transcribe already, but it is all good stuff.

In the evening, a private dinner with another merchant friend where we are unexpectedly joined by Jean-Luc Thunevin and his wife. A delicious poolside barbecue ensues, wines served blind (although with the sultry heat, it his Thunevin's No.1 Blanc de Valandraud that slips down the throat easiest.) By the time I depart, I must be half-man, half-steak.

Thursday 10th September

Today is mostly spent interviewing Dany Rolland, wife of Michel, tasting the wines of Le Bon Pasteur back to 1978 and admiring the way she smokes a cigarillo. Perhaps that is what seduced the omnipotent oenologist all those years ago? It is amazing how French women are naturally born with the art of smoking, a dying art these days. Such a shame it gives you cancer.
I rest afterwards to keep my festering cold at bay and in the evening, enjoy a lovely pizza at L'Atmosphere in St. Germaine du Puch. For reasons best known to themselves, the restaurant insists upon playing annoying early 1990s handbag house to their clientele, whose average age must be around fifty, at a volume where you could legitimately stand up and start making shapes. Plus the service is worse than abysmal, our affable, square-jawed waiter obviously afflicted by a serious case of amnesia, ergo we have to ask two or three times for everything. These are minor irritations in context of undeniable quality of pizza.

Friday 11th September

A great afternoon at the lesser known Pomerol property of Chateau Certan-de-May, who I think have made some exceptional wines in the last few years. You can tell that they do not receive many visitors as there is no tasting room and we perch around proprietor Mon. Barreau's desk appraising the last five vintages. Afterwards we go for a quick lunch in Saint Emilion at Envers du Decor out the back. Alain Vauthier of Ausone walks past and says hello.
Shouldn't he be out in the vineyard nibbling berries?
I guess it is Friday afternoon. I fly back home to Blighty, manage to pen a book review on the train home to Guildford and inevitable the cold manifests into something more debilitating, mistimed malady intent upon ruining my Domaine de Chevalier vertical in Paris on Monday.