“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?
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”.
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.