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Book One: Chapter 37

Monday 14th November

Jet-lagged baby ahoy. We get about 2-hours sleep and I spend day at work with match-sticks keeping my eyelids up.

Tuesday 15th November

In the evening, a Bordeaux 1961 horizontal that is a little disappointing.

Another sleepless night. This time I do not attempt to placate Lily, but accept that she is wide awake, even if it is 3.00am. So I take her into the living room to see what nightime TV has to offer. What it has to offer insomniacs of this country is a Thai film about a transexual volleyball team (I am not making this up) and in fact both Lily and I quite enjoy The Iron Ladies, which I eventually discover is the second highest grossing Thai movie of all time.

Thursday 17th November

Lily's still in Tokyo's time zone. The baby-moniter grizzles to life at 4.00am: Quatermass awaking in the back room ready to commence her reign of terror, which is fine, just not at some ungodly hour in the morning. At 5.15am I decide to appease the sleepless tot with soothing lullabies, for tonight there is no transexual movie for us to engross ourselves in.

At 7.00am a taxi picks me up for I am returning to Italy, on business this time rather than pleasure. The stoic driver seems to have formed some life-long vendetta against me for ordering a taxi so early and takes a circular route via the Cotswolds to Gatwick Airport; utters barely a word, just grunts every three miles or so like a reticent Neandethal.

I am already knackered, so I sleep on the flight, shut my eyes in England and open them in Italy. I am travelling light, that is to say, two items of underwear unceremoniously shoved into my laptop bag along with a file of documents and a Savacentre bag for my toothbrush and razor. I exit Florentine customs with minimum fuss only to find my escort in absentia. A quick call on the mobile and I discover that she is caught in traffic, but she arrives in five minutes in one of those flat-packed Smart cars that comes with IKEA instructions in the glove compartment.

What I had not realised was that the winery is 200 light-years away in Veneto, which effectively adds a five-hour drive to our destination plus a five-hour shlep back. It is dusk by the time we arrive at the winery (I will not mention the name, not wise to mix business and website) for an intense meeting with the bullish proprietor who dispenses with formalities and dives straight into hardtalk. The temperature is about minus ten, so when he invites us to a dinner involving hot food. Well, it would be stupid to decline. Naturally, since this is Italy the cuisine is nothing less than exquisite and the conversation most interesting since he has close connections with the Bordelais, a sage upon all matters fermented.

We head home around 10.00pm and having been up for 18-hours I soon find my eyelids closing, but not until I have ensured that we are heading back in the right direction. I do not want to end up in Budapest. I wake up three-hours later to find us somewhere between Bologna and Florence, two-lanes asphyxiated by heavy traffic with belligerent juggernauts hogging and swerving across both lanes to add a little spice and danger. It is like a real-live version of Grand Theft Auto and the thought of dying in a Matchbox car keeps me awake, hands gripping the door-handle a little tighter than usual. We eventually arrive back a the hotel around 2.30am, located in the old town of Florence. I am tempted to collapse supine in my suit, but I am wearing the Paul Smith and therefore use my final kilojoules of energy to disrobe before slumberland envelops my body (for about 4-hours.)

Friday 18th November

Wake up at 7.00am after four hours of sleep and drift into the bathroom for a wake-up shower. I find that there are no fluffy towels upon exiting the cubicle dripping wet, so I mop myself with the pillow-cases pretending to be towels. I survey the room, a student's digs with chipped furniture and the atmosphere of a Russian Gulag, but still I only needed a bed for four hours and it was comfortable enough.

In the morning I drive down towards Montalcino, the breathtaking scenery falling way to reveal yet more breathtaking scenery. I have a meeting with Lissini whose canine accompanies us around the fermentation tanks, squatting patiently whilst we discuss the 2005 vintage before escorting us back outside. We then drive up for lunch in the most idyllic restaurant with stunning views over Montalcino (see above). I order some delicious pici pasta that proved such a carbohydrate revelation a month ago, this time with some rustic porcini: simple but scumptuous.

We then head back north for long drive towards Rufina where the winemaker tells me that Jamie Oliver had visited the previous day. In fact he is about the third person to tell me that. I am literally following in the footsteps of the omnipresent chef. Are Sainsbury's planning to colonize Northern Italy? I snaffle some freshly pressed olive oil from the winery and we head back to the airport.

My flight is at 18.10.
At 17.40 we are still marooned in a Florentine traffic jam and my colleague is beginning to panic (though she weaves through the log-jam with considerable aplomb.) I feel agitated, I definitely do not want to miss this flight so when we pull up at he car-park I refrain from giving a long valedictory speech and leap out the Smart car to sprint over towards check-in. I deploy my most pained expression of despair, ready to show the check-in girl a photo of Lily and cry "But I have to see my baby.". Fortunately I make it through just in time and much relieved, my brief business trip comes to an end and in a way, I love Tuscany even more.

Saturday 19th November

Knackered. I chill out for the most of the day but rather unwisely invite my brother to dinner, not that I do not want to see him, but just that I am mentally unprepared. It all goes horribly wrong: Lily stubbornly refused her afternoon nap, I get way-laid by estate agents and I end up throwing together a sea bass with saffron sauce in a complete panic. The flat is just too small for socializing: we need to move.

Sunday 20th November

Round to Michiko's for her son Alastair's first birthday. It is Arctic outside so we wrap Lily in umpteen layers of clothing turning her into colourful ball of baby that you could roll down a hill, though we resist temptation. We call at birthday boy's abode where we meet similarly aged couples with crawling/dribbling accoutrements, plonk Lily amidst the tots so she can network, whilst I make a b-line for the homecooked scones in the backroom (I could easily scoff the whole plate in seconds.) The party gets me thinking about Lily's first year celebration in January, whether we should hire the Dorchester or The Ivy, if Basement Jaxx will be free to DJ that night, if Jamie Oliver is free to do the catering, or failing that, possibly Ian Beale?

Tuesday 22nd November

Linden Wilkie's nigh-on perfect tasting of 1945 and 1955 clarets. There is plenty of wine left at the end, so I finish off the bottle of ethereal Leoville Las-Cases 1945 in one expensive gulp. On the way back I listen to Madge's Confessions on a Dancefloor and consider whether it would make a suitable album of the month? I do owe it to her, since I syphoned off some of her Yquem '21 at Mirabelle four or five years ago, but then again, I have bought practically every one of her records over the last two decades so we must be about equal.

Thursday 24nd November

I notice on HRH Jancis' site that she is backing her ex-flatmate Jilly Goulden to win "I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here". Hmm...she may know a thing or two about wine, but is obviously a complete novice when it comes to reality TV because Jilly has no chance of winning. One must gorge for days at the trough of reality TV, spend hours of digesting Heat magazine and lifeless spin-off shows on ITV3, before you can predict who will triumph on reality TV. But anyhow, I e-mail Jancis welcoming her to the reality TV fold, though receive a reply from Robinson HQ five minutes later denying that she is watching it for entertainment purposes.

Hey, but you and me know that if the new edition of the "Oxford Companion to Wine" is delayed, it is because Jancis Robinson MW, OBE is watching the 24-hour live feed of "Big Brother" on E4.

Saturday 26th November

This evening we drive down to the "Garden of England", well Maidstone to be exact, for a dinner courtesy of David Pearce, whose far more au fait with New World wines than I (he wrote a book on Aussie wines and has another one due soon.) I turn off at the wrong junction down the M20 and end up in some God-foresaken estate where "hoodies" plan terrorist tactics on street corners. It is a maze of identical cul-de-sacs that see me driving in ever-decreasing circles, to the point where the hoodies must think I am some police surveillance car, one with a snoozing baby in the rear.

A quick call to David's puts us on the right track and we soon arrive at our destination. This is the first time that Lily has escorted us out to a dinner party and we are praying that she takes to our freshly purchased travel cot. Hopefully she will not notice that it was the cheapest model that Mothercare have to offer and after a short grizzle she settles into her temporary abode so that her parents can get bladdered downstairs.

Our hosts cooking is exemplary, the wine sublime (Bass Phillips Pinot Noir) or leave me nonplussed (Torbreck Runrig). We stagger upstairs at one o'clock, my body-clock all out of synch what with the strict timetable a baby impinges upon parents and I am snoring by the time Tomoko has brushed her teeth.

Sunday 27th November

Oh dear, bit of a hangover. My head begins to pound like German hardcore techno, which means I can automatically write off the next three of four days since my migraines are Ming the merciless.

Monday 28th November

A packet of Anadin Max later and my head is still imploding. What the hell have I done to deserve this? Still, this does not prevent me from buying two CD's, Dangerdoom to stay cutting-edge and the Pet Shop Boys immaculate 1989 album Introspective with deluxe package and extra CD of remixes.

Tuesday 29th November

Taylor's Port vertical with Linden. I might as well write-off every Tuesday for some vinous extravaganza, even my daughter barely recognizes me, although I think she uses her primordial olfactory senses to sniff the alcohol on my breath and identify her father.

Thursday 1st December

Open advent calender that my mum buys religiously every year. In addition she has knitted a new friend for Lily, this time recognizable as an elephant, albeit one with a rather phallic trunk. However, the knitted creature of indeterminate taxonomic origin remains her best friend, along with the Homechoice remote control, whose reinforced metal casing bears her teeth marks of affection.

Friday 2nd December

Lunch with a friend from the trade with whom I find it impossible to end up like Oliver Reed. We discuss business over a pheasant and trotter pie, drink a gorgeous Puligny 1993 from Domaine Leflaive (amongst others) before continuing with the port (Quinta de Vargellas 1984.) I end up talking to some guy whose monotonous voice is utterly incomprehensible and so I just nod my head whenever appropriate. When I eventually return home, I am not strictly compus mentus and I am sent immediately to the dog-house, currently located on the sofa. Fortunately Lily is too young to witness her father's depraved state, so probably best to get it out of my system before she is old enough to call the NSPCC.

Saturday 3rd December

I awake, or should I say regain consciousness, cocooned in my smelly sleeping-bag. I am in trouble, My wife has not just sent me to Coventry, but to the destitute suburbs of Coventry where not even the stray dogs acknowledge my existence. She gives me the look of death whilst reluctantly cooking up some scrambled eggs whilst I piece together the events of the previous night's alcoholic escapade. Did I bath Lily? If so, then I have been to that clinic in Arnie's "Total Recall" and had it erased from my memory (which makes me think, shouldn't Paul Verhoevens film been entitled "Partial Recall"?). I enquire to Tomoko, who simply magnifies her Mephistophelian glare and turns up the silence. Oh, I hate being in trouble, it is such a waste of your life.

Anyway, I am supposed to have an appointment at the estate agent to sort out my crippling mortgage, but when I turn up on the dot, he fails to materialize. Thanks, whoever you are.

The good thing is that Tomoko and I never fall out for long, a morning at the most. In order to appease my better half I rustle up a heart-warming beef bourgignon and pull out a bottle of Chateau Leoville-Barton 1990 from the cellar (it was tasting worryingly acetic.)

Sunday 4th December

Car journey to the country, more precisely to our default country destination: the Llama reserve in Ashdowne Forest. As before, we have epicurean rather than educational motives, since they do serve a scrumptious cream tea, but our plans are scuppered by the irascible waitress who picks out the last two stale scones which I immediately return, much to her annoyance.

In fact, both Tomoko and I remark that every employee at the Llama Sanctuary has an ill-tempered disposition. Is it a prerequisite for all employees, that they must have the same temperament as the camelids they care for? I can sense the admonishing glare of the middle-aged, Alpaca-clad, gift-shop sales-woman, piqued that we have not parted with money to visit the llamas.

Monday 5th December

Lily's angelic features are currently being threatened by two enormous rabbit-teeth erupting from her upper gums. You may recall Tomoko and I debating whether Lily had reached her maximum cuteness whilst we were holidaying in Tuscany, whether we should make the most of her cherubic nature now, before the "terrible two's" commence. Is it too young to consider radical dental surgery? I leave it be for another few weeks.

Wednesday 7th December

Lunch at the Antipodean-flavored "Providores" restaurant courtesy of the Shari and Garen Staglin of Staglin Family Vineyards. I arrive at noon, Linden Wilkie and Charles Morgan already have taken a pew near the window and discussing the current demise of Wine International magazine, the victim of a publishing company take-over. The way we communicate about wine is a subject I will approach early next year, save to say that the plight of printed matter is no small part due to the lack of imagination of writers, its lack of partisan appraisal since they depend upon advertisers for revenue, the reliance on the same old faces time and time again, a penchant for Parker-bashing and otiose lists of Top 100 Wines To Drink that are a complete waste of time and ink; and their refusal to accept that a new medium for learning about wine exists and is growing increasingly popular: the internet.

Anyway, we enjoy a fine lunch and it always interesting to hear about the world that the Staglins inhabit, a world of palatial Napa Valley ranches, film stars and grand dinners with chefs jetting in from the far corners of America. Yet they remain down-to-earth, have a matter-of-factness about life. Something that I was glad to hear was that having written a preamble to the Staglin article earlier this year concerning "Desperate Housewives", was that Teri Hatcher turned up at one of their charity auctions just the other day. Maybe she read the article? Maybe are star-signs are conjoined and we are destined to be together, myself and Mrs. Superman? Or maybe it was mere coincidence?

Afterwards I catch the tube to a Matthew Jukes' Burgundy tasting to launch his new book or website, I am not sure which. I engage Jukes in conversation for the first time, he seems friendly enough. He appears to have read my diary but not alas the 1,200 pages of information-packed pages on wine. That is the thing you see: you dedicate two years of your life building the greatest website on fine wine and all people pick up on his your mum's pet tortoise and the knitted creatures of indeterminate taxonomic origin.

Thursday 8th December

Oo-er: wine goggles on, it is Farr Vintners Xmas party at their HQ in Battersea. In preparation, I eat a heavy, calorific lunch, ready to absorb the copious amounts of alcohol. Their Xmas party is like any other, except the wine is better quality: Domaine de Chevalier 1989, Dom Perignon 1998, Leoville Barton 1990, Leoville Las-Cases 1985 from magnum and Clos Saint Denis 1997 from Dujac. Whatever, the end result is that by the time we are catching taxis to some West End club, I am already dancing a jig with Bacchus.

I cannot recall the name of the all-night club we end up at, save to say they always seem to be populated by brain-dead girls, Chelsea footballers, have a small dancefloor playing crappy house music from 1997 and serve extortionately priced drinks. Then again, the night is highly enjoyable and it is nice to see various reprobates from the trade whom you see once in a blue moon. I bail out at 1.00a.m. or thereabouts and catch a taxi home with Liz, who I only seem to meet when I am semi-conscious on booze. Oh well, thank you Farr, a great night.

Friday 9th December

Wake up on the sofa (again.) My hangover is "contained" though I sprinkle some Anadin Extra on my cornflakes in the morning. In fact, I think I might still be inebriated when I perform my morning duties of feeding Lily her bottle and changing her nappy. Fortunately I seem to complete my tasks without wrapping the nappy on her head or trying to shove the teat up her left nostril.

Saturday 10th December

Chill out day. I cannot cope with these heavy Festive nights of flowing fermented grape juice: it destroys four days of my life. Long gone are the days when I would paint the town red six nights of seven nights a week (FACT: according to my 1993 diary, I spent a total of 17 days indoors. Now I probably do not go out 17 nights in a year.)

In the afternoon I take Lily for an afternoon stroll in West Norwood and stumble upon a French market that has sprung up down the High Street. I have lived in West Norwood for six years and today is the first time that the place has come to life: not only the French market, but the redevelopment going on, the sprucing up of the gardens outside the cemetery, just the general ambiance of the place. West Norwood: it is where it is all happening (at least today.)