Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Humbert drove over the hill marvelling at the amount of gorse still adorning the slopes. "Chris' homemade pizza must have been good for it" he mused.
He drove through the suburbs of Moera and Petone thinking that they were much better when Ford, Todd Motors and Gear Meat co still operated there. He missed the smell of hot oil and blood.

Porirua hadn't changed much. The suburban crescents merged seamlessly into the crappy semi-industrial estates only separated by scrappy 'parks' liberally covered in dog shit. "Fuck" he thought "give me Nuova Lazio any day". He cruised around looking for Bella Vista Crescent. There wasn't a gps in the cheap courier van but Humbert knew the way city planners thought. Bella Vista - 'Beautiful View'. He looked around and up at the hills. There it was. The "beautiful view". Kenepuru Hospital and before that Porirua Lunatic Asylum where all the loonies were incarcerated. In today's enlightened times it was no longer known as this and the loonies were no longer incarcerated (they were living on the streets instead). Typical of the city planners. Bastards.
 He took a reference sighting off the hospital and back down to the snaking crescents. There it was Bella Vista Crescent with used tyre shops, garages, panel beaters, scrap metal merchants and ... a low corrugated iron shed set back from the road. There was a small sign at the roadside which said "GIW LTD" nothing more.

Humbert parked the van on the street. He knew that it was unlikely to be there or if it was to still have its wheels on when he got back to it but that wasn't his most immediate problem. GIW was.
He checked his internal clock. 9.30 hours. No, that was Shanghai. 13.30 hours. Fifty five and a half hours to go.

The approach to the shed was via a poorly maintained driveway. Rain and heavy vehicles had ground out the shoddy repair work  done with cement and bitumen. Bastards" Humbert thought "Just like the Nuova Lazio Mall car park.". Humbert stepped around the deepest puddles and quietly made his way to a side door. He stopped and listened. What was that? He had heard a soft ticking. He listened again. Yes, there it was - the sound of a large engine cooling. A 3.5 litre Ti-VCT V6. "Might come in handy" he thought as he carefully opened the door and stepped inside.

The shed was larger inside than it seemed from outside. It was set up like a warehouse but without much planning. There were cartons and bottles everywhere set out chaotically. At one end was a small industrial labelling and bottling line. The equipment looked to be about 40 years old. There was a man tinkering with part of it. He was replacing what looked like a star wheel.
"Yo" called Humbert.
The man dropped a spanner which rang out on the concrete floor.
"Who the fuck are you" the man said belligerently. Belligerence. Humbert liked belligerence.
"25 Pinetree Falling Grove ring a bell with you?" Humbert asked. He watched the man closely, saw his eyes slide to the right and downwards as he answered "No. Should it?"
"What's all this " asked Humbert, kicking and empty brown carton out of the way. He noticed the wording stencilled on the side in black ink "RBW Chardonnay 2009".
"Mind your own fuck..." the words he uttered were cut short as Humbert grabbed him by the throat with his right hand. The hand kept free for action and emergencies. His left hand held a brown paper bag containing toothpaste, a toothbrush, a razor and now 4 pairs of underpants.
"Don't lie to me mister I know what you're up to." said Humbert "remember the little issue of the Hawkes Bay Syrah that had only ever seen Hawkes Bay when the bottles were delivered from Waipara?"

The man looked again at Humbert, memory awakening and he tried to get away but Humbert's grip, strengthened by a lifetime of opening bottles and holding glasses didn't lessen.
" Maybe we can work something out" he gasped "I could use a partner. How about we go 60:40?"

He'd chosen the wrong man to try and bribe. Humbert let him go and as he fell to the floor kneed him in the goolies. "That's for the Syrah" he said "and this is for the Chardonnay".

Humbert grabbed the man by the collar and hauled him up and in one fluid motion threw him across the conveyer that led to the automatic corking machine. He could see what the man had been tinkering with. The safety cage was faulty and the guard had been removed. Humbert punched the start button with his right palm and the machine whirred into life and the conveyer began to move.
The man stirred and looked about wildly but couldn't move as Humbert pinned him down with a large forearm. As his head lined up below the automatic corker Humbert looked into his eyes and said "think yourself lucky punk that this isn't a screwcap machine" as the corks, propelled by a CO2 gun fired down into the man's mouth. As the man's shoulders jammed the safety gate the conveyer stopped but the machine kept working, firing cork after cork until the man was silent.
"Job done" said Humbert as he slapped the stop button on the machine.

Humbert looked about the shed. There were hundreds of cartons of the RBW wine and as many more of the same wine relabelled as Te Awanga Chardonnay. There were also hundreds of cases of other non identifiable wines along with boxes of labels. He sorted through these noticing labels for well known and well respected Hawkes Bay Chardonnays from the 2012 vintage. "I guess he was going to relabel the RBW wine with these" he thought.

Behind a pallet of flattened cartons he noticed 5 sealed cases of wine. Morton Estate Coniglio 2010. Wow! This was serious wine, one of the best and at least $80 a bottle. Humbert wondered why this was here. He grabbed a bottle. Cork, not screwcap. "Never mind" he thought and grabbed a large knife from the tool bench. He swung it at the neck of the bottle knocking the top off in a clean 'sabrage' stroke. Pouring some out to clean away any glass splinters he then took a swig. Then another. "Creamy, lovely tropical fruit. good oak balance - lovely" he said to himself and took another big mouthful.
"This is the real McCoy, old Richard will love this" he thought and loaded the five cases (less one bottle ) into the Ford Explorer that was parked by the loading bay. As he was doing this his boot struck a bottle that was on the floor. It went spinning out into the warehouse. Humbert watched it and as it came to a stop he saw what it was. Lemonade. Schweppes lemonade. A memory stirred. Northland 1976. A vertical tasting of Chateau Margaux with vintages from 1966 through to 1974. Chateau Margaux one of the world's greatest wines and now costing up to $1000 a bottle.

The tasting was ruined though because someone poured lemonade into the wines. Schweppes lemonade. Richard. Bastard.

 Humbert looked at the wine in the Explorer. He then looked back at the wines on the warehouse floor and came to a decision. He selected 5 dozen of the RBW cleanskins and took out the corks. He poured about 50 mls out of each one and topped up with lemonade from a crateful of bottles he found. Shoving aside the guy with a mouth full of corks he loaded up the corking machine with 60 corks from a box labelled "2012 Hawkes Bay"  and sent the cleanskin bottles through to be re-corked. He next rummaged through boxes and found some newly printed labels and capsules. "Te Mata Elston Chardonnay 2012" Perfect. And about $40 a bottle. He sent the re-corked bottles through. As they collected at the end of the conveyer he packed them into some 'Te Mata' cartons he had found and loaded them into the Explorer.

Humbert raised the roller door and drove out of the shed. He left the door open and splashed his way down the drive. The courier van was gone and he knew that the shed would soon be picked clean like bones in the desert. He drove in to Porirua town centre and found a local and international courier company.
Using the credit cards that he'd taken from the guy in the shed he processed the paperwork for two shipments. One of 59 bottles addressed to Trixie at a San Francisco address. He'd pick these up later.
The other 60 bottles he addressed to 25 Falling Pinetree Grove, Nuova Lazio. The old guy would like it.

Humbert drove to the airport, leaving the Ford Explorer in the long-term carpark. He used his open ticket for the next flight to LAX which was about 5 hours later. Stretching out in the departure lounge he thought about the last couple of days and was happy. Problem fixed. Job done.

It was 7pm - 1900 hours. Forty eight and a half hours under the deadline. He smiled to himself. He hated those last minute deadline scenarios.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Humbert woke early the next morning. "Five am" he thought "I'd better wake the others."
As he made his way to the kitchen he almost stumbled over a hunched shape at the computer in the study next to where he had been sleeping. It was Richard and he seemed to be talking to himself.
"But, Angry Jesus, Bill said not to buy that supermarket rubbish" said Richard.
"C'mon, what can it hurt. Just a few bottles to keep you going. You know you like it" said Richard again.
"The the Humbert guy the the won't the the like it though" said Richard yet again in another voice.
Humbert was worried. Very worried.
Sixty six hours to go and Richard might not make it.

Putting a cheery face on he said "Morning big guy. We better get on to business. Any chance of a cup of tea? Irish breakfast with soy milk for me"
Richard seemed to shake himself out of reverie and excused himself to go the the bathroom.
A half an hour later he joined Shelley and Humbert at the breakfast table. He noticed a three quater full bottle of Chardonnay by the back door and grabbed it and took a big swig wondering why Humbert tried to stop him. "Ah. Good. Hair of the dog" he said, smacking his lips " I wonder why we didn't finish that last night".
"We did" said Humbert.

After the breakfast dishes had been cleared and Richard had been cajoled into cleaning his teeth the three of them reviewed the situation.
The wine had been made by RBW and sold as cleanskins to GIW who had relabelled as a different wine. This must have been done at a small processing place, address unknown.
"We need to track down the courier driver. Where's that delivery docket Rich?" Said Humbert.
Richard handed over the docket and Humbert found a contact number which he rang.
"Hello. Humbert here. I need the address from a pick-up and delivery you made two days ago. It was delivered to Falling Pine Tree Grove, Nuova Lazio. I need to know  the originating address. The docket number is ...."
"Listen Mac.." Said the courier driver.
"Humbert" said Humbert.
"Listen Humbert" said the driver "I don't give out that sort of information so scram".
Humbert thought for a moment after the connection was closed. Belligerent. Humbert liked belligerent. This was going to be good. "Shelley" he said "call that driver again on your phone. Say that you have a very important pick up and that you'll pay handsomely for it. Tell him it's urgent."

After Shelley had made the call they waited. Humbert prepared by finding some packing tape, an old zip up bag with some kind of large musical instrument in it which he tossed in a corner and put these by the back door by the now half-full bottle. They were ready. When the courier driver came to the door Shelley invited him in. He did so warily, eying Richard who was still in his baggy pyjamas but didn't notice Humbert who came behind him, quickly bound his arms with packing tape and sat him at the table.
"Hi buddy. Remember me? You might know me as Mac" said Humbert. He poured a glass from the bottle that had been by the door which by this time they all had declared it 'Robert's Brew'. Forcing it down the driver's throat he asked again for the address of  GIW. The driver, at first shaking his head quickly came up with the information when Humbert poured another glass. Bella Vista Crescent, Porirua.  That was a camel and a packed lunch away. Humbert would need a vehicle. A vehicle that wouldn't arouse suspicion. The courier van.

After taping the driver's mouth and securely zipping him into the big bag, Humbert prepared to leave.
"I'll be of now" he said "don't ' worry, it'll soon be sorted. I'll call you when it's done. Give me six hours and then feed these to the driver" he said, handing over some tablets "these will erase his memory and make him feel good at the same time. Drop him off at the Nuova Lazio mall. Oh, give him a can of spray paint to give him something to do. It'll also keep those mall cops on their toes".

With that Humbert was off in the courier van.


 Fifty seven hours to go.

Saturday, October 26, 2013


The 9am San Francisco direct to Wellington flight was fortuitous. Humbert easily made it to SFO 90 minutes before take-off. Trixie hadn’t been a problem. She was pregnant. She wasn’t much of a waitress. But, she was in the wine business. She understood. Peeling off 50’s from a roll of notes he paid for his ticket, showed his battered passport and was about to make his way to the gates.

“Uh, Mr Humbert?” asked the Air New Zealand attendant at the counter.

“Yeah” said Humbert “just call me Humbert “

“OK Humbert. We can give you a free upgrade to business class if you want?

“Thanks, I’ll take it” said Humbert, pocketing the ticket and leaving with a wink to the attractive 30-something attendant. He wasn’t fussed whether he had  the more comfortable seat in the class two above the ‘steerage’ ticket he’d bought or not. He didn’t sleep on planes anyway, preferring to read (Late nineteenth century Scandinavian playwrights was his current reading, especially those that wrote about women’s issues. He was reading Ibsen’s A Doll’s House which is critical attitude toward 19th century marriage norms).

But business class would provide a superior offering of wine with his meals.

The flight was uneventful and at this early time of the morning there were no drunken businessmen making asses of themselves. He drank a glass of Kim Crawford Small Parcels Gisborne Chardonnay 2012 with his starter and a glass of Carrick 2011 Central Otago Pinot Noir with his main. The food choices tasted the same – plastic and with that peculiar microwave character. The wines were good. Humbert knew that if tasted on ground they would be better. High altitude in a pressurised atmosphere distorted the flavour characteristics of wine. He wondered about that.

The plane landed at 6pm the day after he’d started. The flight was just on fourteen hours and there was a 19 hour time difference. It had been 19 hours ‘real time’ since Richard had called. Seventy seven hours to go.

Wellington is a small city by world standards and in no time Humbert had taken a bus into the city, a train to the Hutt Valley and hitched his way to Nuova Lazio. It was 7.30 pm. The clock was ticking.

“Who’s there?” the at first unrecognisable and shaky voice called out as Humbert hammered on the door.

“Humbert” said Humbert.

“Wow, great come in quickly” said Richard, grabbing Humbert by the sleeve and hauling him in while at the same time, out of Shelley’s line of sight, kicking the ginger cat outside. “That was quick. Where’s your bag?”

Humbert winked and showed Richard and Shelley his small paper bag he carried in his left hand. He preferred to carry things in his left hand. This kept his right hand free in case of emergencies. “I’ve got all I need here. Toothpaste, toothbrush, razor and 5 pairs of underpants. I would normally have a wine-bottle opener but in New Zealand good wine should come in screw cap bottles”.  He noticed that Richard winced and noticed further that he hadn’t shaved for two days and had a tremor in his right hand,. His drinking hand. Humbert thought he’d arrived just in time.

 While dinner was being prepared he sprinted down the road, (refusing the offer of Richard’s car as he wasn’t a good driver) to the nearest wine shop. Again he felt that he was just in time as this guy was obviously going out of business. There was a Countdown supermarket about to open across the road. Humbert scanned the shelf in the Chardonnay section. This looked bad. There were unwooded Chardonnays ‘lightly-oaked’ Chardonnays, Australian/NZ blended Chardonnays and Marlborough Chardonnays. Disaster. When he was just about to leave he spied treasure. In the bargain bin by the counter he saw three blue capsules. On closer inspection his hopes were realised when he saw the three bottles of Pegasus Bay Riesling 2010. They were $20 each. Humbert knew this wine and that $20 was a bargain. He bought them, peeling off three $20 notes from the bundle of NZ cash he had. Humbert carried at all times small bundles of important overseas currency. He sprinted back to Falling Pine Tree Grove as dinner was laid on the table. “Here, this should carry you over for the next few days” he said handing Richard the bottles. “Riesling. Stunning Riesling. Keep away from those supermarkets.”

After the delicious Italian-inspired meal with a Nuova Lazio variation (pasta and roast potatoes) they got down to the serious business.

“Show me” said Humbert.

Richard gingerly handed over the now empty bottle of Chardonnay along with the cork. Humbert set them on the table, shoved aside a large space-wasting musical instrument in order to get better light and studied the labels front and back. You can tell a lot from a label or you should be able to. This was different. The front label described the wine inside as Te Awanga Reserve Chardonnay from the 2012 vintage. The back label described the wine as being typical Hawkes Bay Chardonnay with peaches, apricots balanced by nice oak flavours and with a pleasant leesy finish. It also described the 2012 vintage as being excellent for white wines from the region. The cork said 2009 Eiffelton with a small sheep emblem and the initials RBW. A small light of recognition went on in Humbert’s mind but he kept that quiet and asked for a new bottle. With great solemnity and with trembling hands Richard produced a bottle and opened it. He poured a glass – “Whoa, whoa “Humbert shouted “not a bloody bucketful, I just want a taste”.

“Sorry” said Richard “Old habits you know” at which Humbert expected a wry joke about his schooldays when taught by nuns, brothers and priests but nothing came. This was serious. Very serious.

Humbert peered at the wine. “”What the fuck!” he said and jumped but realised what he had seen was just the old guy looking through the glass from the other side. “Don’t do that” he said and continued with his investigation. The wine was pale, very pale with no hints of gold that you’d expect from barrel fermentation and maturation. He sniffed. And sneezed. He sniffed again. No, no brettanomyces just some over sulphuring. He tasted. Green fruit, undeveloped flavour components, low alcohol, ageing quickly. Pisswater. This was not a Hawkes Bay Chardonnay. Bastards.

“You were right to call me Rich. This is not what you paid for. We’ll sort this out” said Humbert and he asked for the courier slip, the invoice and any other documentation. Forensic accounting was old hat to Humbert. Lehman Brothers and Bearn Stearns were still fresh in his mind. His uncovering of the dirty little deals had been of great satisfaction to him and the earnings from the investigation had enabled him to travel freely, unencumbered by daily work responsibilities.

Humbert looked at the invoice first. ‘Green Isles Wines – Best On-Line Deals’ was the company name. “Mm” he thought “that sounds familiar”. He remembered some dealings a few years back with a fraudster using the company name ‘Glen Innes Wine shop – Best Internet Deals’. “GIW? Mm”.

He next looked at the cork again. Eiffelton. This was near Ashburton in South Canterbury. It was a very pretty area once known for sheep farming, more recently turned over to vegetable cropping for the big processors and most likely now being turned over to the ubiquitous dairy farming. No great reputation for wine though. Too far South. Too cold. Wrong terroir. Grabbing his iPhone 5 he set it to ‘roaming’ in New Zealand and googled RBW wines. Nothing came up at first but when he entered RBW Eiffelton he had a hit. RB was the name of a dairy contractor in Ashburton. He clicked on a ‘website’ for RB which was really just a simple directory listing and found the name and phone number. Ivan Ramsbottom. RB. RBW must have been Ramsbottom Wines.

Humbert dialled. He knew that 10pm was late to ring a farmer but this was serious. Very serious.

“Hello, Ivan here” came a sleepy voice

“Humbert. Bill Humbert” said Humbert “Sorry to bother you so late Ivan but we’ve got a problem and I do mean we”. Humbert liked this guy. He was a good reader of character and he could tell that Ivan Ramsbottom, from the three words he’d said was true blue.

“Problem? What problem? Asked Ramsbottom and Humbert filled him in on what Richard had discovered.

“ Bastards” said Ramsbottom. “I sold the remainder (nearly all of it as it hadn’t sold) of that wine, a 2009 Chardonnay as ‘cleanskins’ to GIW. I told him all about the vintage and the location and confessed that the wine wasn’t much cop and that Ive ripped out the vineyard and gone over to dairy farming. He gave me a dollar a bottle for it and said he’d move it on for a couple of bucks a bottle. Bastard still hasn’t paid me for it. What did your guy pay per bottle?

Humbert looked over to Richard and asked how much indicating the bottle on the table. Richard said “$20 dollars a bottle, marked down from $45 a bottle”.

Humbert told Ramsbottom who said again “Bastards”. He didn’t have any detail for Humbert on GIW except for a post office box number and a freight forwarding contact. Promising to help in any way he could he rung off.

“Nice chap” said Richard “Tell him that I’m happy to come down and give him a free double bass solo concert”.

Humbert looked Richard squarely in the eye and said “sorry old chap but he keeps dairy cows. They can’t be put off their milk. Besides, they are cows. You’re afraid of cows remember”.

Richard mumbled an apology and sloped off to a corner from which soon emanated low rumbling noises. Humbert prepared for bed as it would be an early start tomorrow and there were things to do. Important things. 11pm.

Seventy two hours to go.

Friday, October 25, 2013


The cell phone quietly sang. The song was Paper Doll sung by The Mills Brothers. There was a special reason for this having been chosen but that’s another story. It was an iPhone 5 and had been set at the lowest ring volume but Bill Humbert woke at the first bar. He reached over carefully and pressed the listen button trying not to wake Trixie the pregnant barmaid who was sleeping (finally) softly next to him. Well, she wasn’t that much pregnant

Humbert eased himself out of bed and moved quietly into the living room.

“Hello Big Guy” he said, having noticed the caller ID on the screen.

“Bill, Bill, thank God or any other form of omnipresent being that may or may not rule our lives and incidentally who may or may not exist given that Jasper, the planet we live on may or may not be alone in the universe as a populated planet and who knows how it all began and, and…..” blustered Richard (of RBB) having spilled out these words in a barely understood torrent.

“Slow down Rich. This is a poor time to call me you know”. Said Humbert, knowing that his old pal Richard would get the intended pun and most likely come back with a riposte of sorts but there was silence on the end of the line. Nothing. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

“Rich. Are you there? It’s 4 am here as I’m sure you know” Humbert was being kind. Richard was a music teacher. He was a very good music teacher and pretty good at grammar but simple arithmetic wasn’t one of his strengths. Humbert knew that 4am in his motel unit meant that it was 11am the next day in Nuova Lazio where Richard lived. Humbert had an internal clock that gave him a register of all times in all time zones 24 hours a day. 4am was 4pm the same day in Kiev, 9am in Asuncion, 8am the next day in Tonga….

“Bill, Bill, sorry to bother you mate but something’s happened”

Humbert felt a chill creep up his back and goose bumps came out on his arms and legs. Excusing himself from Richard for a moment he stepped back into the bedroom and pulled the quilt off the bed and wrapped himself in it. Trixie stirred and woke shivering but Humbert wasn’t too concerned. She’d buggered up his wine order after all. He went back into the living room and picked up the phone.

“Tell me” he said, knowing that it was best to keep the sentences short or the nit-picking old schoolteacher would want to correct his grammar.

“You know that Shelley and I like Chardonnay” said Richard which was an understatement. Between them they had reversed the ABC (anything but chardonnay) trend and caused grapegrowers to plant the varietal in all sorts of unlikely places in order to keep up demand.

“Yes. I’ve heard something to that effect” said Humbert while pouring himself a glass of the 2010 Batard -Montrachet Grand Cru from the bottle on the coffee table. Good Chardonnay fruit, lean structure, judicious use of wood. Temperature perfect in the early morning chill. It’d go well with a …..

“Bill. Bill. Are you there? You know that we took your advice and only look out for Hawkes Bay and Gisborne Chardonnays. We don’t go near those Marlborough and other South Island ones except for the top Nelson ones but then we can’t afford those?”

“Good man Rich, keep it up” said Humbert and for some reason the thought of going into the next room and keeping Trixie warm sprung into his mind.

“Well” said Richard, finally calming down a bit” I ordered some Hawkes Bay Chardonnay off the internet last week. It was a 2012 Te Awanga barrel fermented Reserve. I did what you advised and looked up the books . The vintage is great and the location superb for Chardonnay with good fruit but with a nice cutting edge. The barrel ferment is supposed to soften out the acids and give a nice creamy texture from lees contact and the Reserve suggests some barrel ageing, about 10 months or more which adds complexity and nice vanillin characters and….”

“Whoah. Slow down, slow down” said Humbert as he stretched himself out on the couch. The Montrachet warming him nicely as he idly imagined spooning with Trixie and….

“But it wasn’t” said Richard.

“What?” Humbert asked thinking the old guy was losing his marbles “What wasn’t?”

“The wine” blurted Richard “the bloody wine I bought wasn’t a 2012 Cape Kidnappers barrel ferment Reserve. When it arrived I grabbed a bottle and … er, I chilled down a bottle and carefully took off the capsule and pulled the cork out and ….”


“Yes, cork and I noticed that the printing on the cork said ‘2009’. I thought that strange and before pouring anoth … before I poured a glass I checked the cork again. It said ‘2009 Eiffelton’. I didn’t think that was in Hawkes Bay so looked up the school computer in the bedroom….er waited until I got to school the next day and checked out where Eiffelton was. It’s in South Canterbury!”

“Bastards” said Humbert “The dirty bastards. They’re up to their old tricks. Look, don’t open any more of those wines. Carefully put them aside with the carton and the courier ticket and wait to hear from me. I’m on my way” Humbert closed the call and looked up Safari on his iPhone, going to Google to check on the next departures from San Francisco to Wellington.
He knew that there wasn't much time. The old guy would only be able to last out four days before he'd crumble, forget all the good advice and go back to drinking those cheap supermarket 'specials'.

Ninety six hours.

 He had a job to do. Bastards.

(To be continued)

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Bill Humbert sniffed. He sneezed and sniffed again. No doubt about it. Thirty years of Special Services duty taught him the smell of spent cartridges. The SO2 was distinctive. It took him back. Kunduz, November 2001. The ground was littered with cartridge cases some still smoking. The wisps of smoke mingled with the smoke from body parts ripped from comrades who lay amidst the debris. Bastards…..

 Under the sulphur there was something else. Beirut 1983. The Marine Corps hospital. The bandages that swathed Humbert’s body gave off a cheese and plastic smell, not offensive but unnatural, antiseptic…. Brettanomyces? He gingerly sniffed the wine again and yes, there it was. Bretannomyces in unacceptable concentration. “Bastards.”

 The 2011 Oregon Pinot Noir was spoiled. This wasn’t good enough. The bottle had set him back $80 at the corner wine shop but it wasn’t the money that bothered him it was the ruined expectation of delight. Something had to be done. Should he go back and kick the shit out of the clerk who sold him the bottle? No, no point. It wasn’t his fault even though he should know the quality of the wine he sold but the poor prick was only being paid $15 an hour so probably never gets to try anything more expensive than a two buck chuck. No, something had to be done and Humbert knew where.

 “Brettannomyces” Humbert mused as he rode the Greyhound from Seattle along Route 99W to Willamette, “volatile phenols and fatty acids are the key molecules responsible for the olfactory defects in wines affected by brettanomyces, the key molecules being 4-ethyl-phenol, isovaleric acid and 4-ethyl-guiacol.one. The ratio of the disgusting 4-ethyl phenol to the comparatively pleasant smelling 4-ethyl guaiacol varies substantially from wine to wine from as little as 3:1 to over 40:1. In the latter case the wine smells like Band-Aid. Hospitals. Bastards.”

 Humbert knew that red wines, due to barrel ageing are susceptible to brettanomyces if poor winemaking and cellar management come into play. The ‘good’ wine yeast saccharomyces normally overrides development of brettanomyces but if too much oxygen is allowed during primary fermentation (unlikely given the amount of CO2 generated) or more likely during barrel maturation then brettanomyces is stimulated. Lazy winemakers who fail to adequately top up barrels during this stage run the risk of brettannomyces developing. Worse, winemakers who syphon off amounts of wine from barrel to use for cellar tastings without topping up leave too much room in the barrel so that the aerobic conditions allow the ‘bad’ yeast to flourish. In such cases, before bottling the criminal winemakers add extra Sulphur to try and slow the process and to mask the spoilage. Spent cartridges? SO2. Bastards.

 The bus slowing pulled Humbert out of his reverie. They had passed through Oregon City and as arranged were stopping at the intersection of Routes 5 and 206. The Greyhound headed off to Woodburn. Humbert shouldered his pack and headed off by foot up the Chehalem Valley. In the early morning air there was a smell of violets and heather intermingling with wood smoke and cooking. Humbert’s belly rumbled and he remembered he hadn’t eaten since the evening before when he boarded the bus. The Tilapia slider washed down with the creamy Mondavi Reserve Chardonnay was a pleasant but distant memory. “It’ll have to wait” he thought “there’s business to be done”.

 After an hour and a half trek along a gently climbing dusty road which was bordered by sprawling vineyards Humbert saw what he was looking for. Cheetim Cellars. The large and imposing frontage of the winery announced grandeur, expense and confidence. The front door was locked. Humbert made his way around the side of the building. The grandeur, once out of sight of the visitor car park out front disappeared and he could see that the frontage was like a Hollywood film set with ramshackle, poorly maintained sheds behind. All doors were closed but Humbert gripping the corner of a piece of corrugated iron that the largest shed was made of and, with power developed from many years opening wine bottles, peeled the iron back to allow him entrance. Humbert peered about, wrinkling his nose at the various odours. Normally he loved being inside wineries. The fruity smells mingling with toasty oak and pleasant yeasty aromas usually made him hungry but here all he could small was vinegar, mustiness and….Band-Aid. There were no lights on but the many holes in the roof allowed the mid-morning sun to penetrate. The shafts of sunlight illuminated tanks, barrels and winemaking equipment. He stopped as he heard a sound. It was coming from above somewhere. He remembered that in the Takht-e-Sulamein mountain passes to triangulate a position you stood slightly side on so that direct sound and reflected sound would converge thus eliminating false echoes. He stood still. He turned, looking up and saw boots at the top of a ladder which leant against a huge wooden vat. Humbert climbed quietly. Reaching the top, just below the boots he said loudly “Humbert. Bill Humbert”. The man at the top of the ladder jumped in fright and almost lost balance. Grabbing the rungs of the ladder he dropped the bag he had been holding and as it fell past Humbert he could smell it. Spent cartridges. SO2. Bastard.

The man was worried. Humbert sincerely hoped he wouldn’t pee himself given that he was on the ladder directly below. He decided to cut to the chase, no preliminaries needed.
 “You the winemaker here?” he asked while taking a strong grip of the ladder with his left hand allowing his right hand to be free.
“Yes, what’s it to you?” answered the man who seemed to be recovering himself and was adopting a belligerent attitude, just what Humbert liked.
 “You make the 2011 Pinot Noir?” Humbert asked.
 “My best wine” smirked the winemaker as he edged himself higher up the ladder.
 “What’s this wine in the vat here” asked Humbert.
“My new creation, a fortified wine” answered the winemaker.
 “This here a butt?” asked Humbert even though he knew the answer.
 “I guess so” said the winemaker.
“Have you got a name for the wine-style yet” asked Humbert.
 “No, any suggestions” sneered the winemaker.
 “You familiar with George Plantagenet, First Duke of Clarence?” asked Humbert.
 “What about it?” said the winemaker, sounding confused.
 “Well from now on you can call this wine Malmsey” said Humbert as he grabbed the guy’s boots and lifted him up and over the edge of the vat.

Humbert climbed to the top and perched on the edge of the vat quietly watching as the winemaker floundered gasping for breath as the foul wine filled his lungs made worse by the recent sulphuring which cut
down on the available oxygen. When all was still Humbert climbed down.

 Job done.

Monday, October 14, 2013


I got a Nelson de Mille novel out of the library. It is titled Wildfire and is yet another of de Mille's wanks about his alter-ego saving the world etc.etc.
I knew what to expect but I was bored. De Mille's characters are 'smart-ass' and make 'wise-cracks' all the time. Cue boorish and pain-in-the-ass. John Corey, one of his characters drinks 'man drinks' like Budweiser and neat scotch but thinks that wine is for pansies. I guess he appeals to sales managers, long distance sales reps, van delivery drivers and shoolteachers - those who want to fantasise themselves into positions of power and rebellion.

Richard is reading all of the Lee Child's Jack Reacher books at present. Reacher is not 'smart-ass' nor is he boorish which largely is why most of his readership is women (and old male schoolteachers). There are things that Reacher does however that gets close like never changing his underpants and thinking that it is manly to drink copious amounts of strong black coffee. Oh, and not drinking wine.

Imagine Reacher or a similar type of character who is a vinophile:

Bill Humbert watched the guy walk past the window. He'd seen him twice before. First as he stepped off the Greyhound bus at Union Station. It had been one o'clock. June. Bill knew the time exactly as one o'clock, June, was the ideal time for a Prosecco aperitif. Simple. The guy was dressed like a businessman but there were some giveaway clues that suggested otherwise. The cuff of his shirt on the right arm had smear marks. These weren't ordinary smear marks as Humbert could tell. They looked like the accidental splashings from a bar. A copper-topped bar where the wiping cloth doesn't completely clear the spilled Chardonnay. Humbert remembered such a bar...
Humbert drew the glass of red wine closer to him. He looked at the colour that was highlighted by the late afternoon sun coming through the window (now not obstructed by the guy outside)and reflected on the shiny zinc table he was sitting at. Syrah. Rosemount Balmoral Syrah 2004. It was good and worth the argument with the pregnant barmaid who tried to pour a pint of Guinness for him when He'd asked for it. Silly cow. He knew that it needed to sit for another 55 seconds to allow optimum breathing before he took a sip but there was that guy. The guy had been walking Eastwards which took him from Humbert's right to left. Humbert knew that the entrance door was on the right side of the windows - facing in. He had calculated that the window frontage was about 40 foot long. The guy was moving quickly. Too quickly. Humbert knew that it would take him less than 20 paces to the door and then, after looking around another 15 paces to where he was sitting. 20 seconds tops. Not enough time for the wine to breathe properly. Humbert wasn't angry, just peeved. Peevishness he thought was an old English word created in a time of gentility and manners. Certainly not appropriate for today's rudeness and brashness. He watched the reflection of the guy approaching. He could see it in the top third of the glass which contrary to expectations was highly polished. He was ready. The guy came to the table, bumping it slightly and spilling some of the Syrah on to the table. The droplets glimmered like a ruby eye set in a Balinese statue. "Good life left in it" thought Humbert " 15 years more with adequate cellaring". "Remember me?" asked the guy. Humbert looked at him thinking "Not much life left in him, certainly not 15 years". The guy said he was the barman in the winebar down by Union and that Humbert had stiffed him on the tip. Humbert remembered the Chardonnay he'd ordered. It was supposed to be a barrel fermented oak-aged Napa Valley 2011. What was given however probably only saw a barrel when it was poured at waist level by this portly barman. "here's a tip" said Humbert and drove the point of his elbow into this guy's belly. The guy crumpled and fell to the floor by the table. Humbert stood up, drained the glass (nice fruit - plums, blackberries and nice American oak) and motioned to the pregnant barmaid. "Thanks" he said and pointing to the writhing figure on the floor "He's paying. Don't expect a tip"