My grandfather’s misanthropy was positively Vesuvian in its relentless intensity and in this parish I have often cited the embittered and inappropriate advice he dispensed to his young charge, usually couched in maxims of sempiternal memorability.
They tuck you up, your nan and grandad — or they did me, anyway, because I grew up with them — and I remember one night, when I was still young enough to be innocent of the way life would go, after tenderly rolling me in the blankets as ‘snug as a bug in a rug’ and hoping for my dreams to be sweet, Grandad paused by the door with his finger on the light switch: “Be careful what you wish for,” he warned me, “because you won’t get it.”
Then he turned off the lamp, closed the door and left the child to contemplate that future of unfulfilment in the darkness.
I thought about my grandfather’s prophecy this week, an abbreviated one for me, owing to a little mini-breaking jaunt to the Rhône Valley where I went wine-tasting with a handful of hand-picked friends. At 9.30am on Monday morning, when, according to my usual stockbroking rota, I would normally be in the breakdown area on my first double-handed head-clutcher of the week, I found myself instead pulling up to a winery. It was 500 metres up in the forested hills, buttered with October’s first sunshine and the Mistral was whistling past on its way to the Mediterranean, taking all airy impurities with it.
The setting could only have been improved by the arrival of the Swedish bikini team but failing that, a row of whites, reds and rosés lined up on a trestle table served almost as well. For the trip’s maiden tasting, my palate was fresh, my pencil sharpened and my notebook open on a pristine page, ready to be sprayed with the piercing aperçus that shall undoubtedly dazzle a suburban dinner party some time soon.
I affect the air of a man who can afford these wines and habitually drinks them. I subdue the shudder that convulses me when I look at the price list and silently mouth, “f***ing hell” to my fellow epicures. For a brief moment, I suspend Weltschmerz and climb into the spirit of things like a bee into a peony.
Problems in a French vineyard on a Monday morning in October are not comparable to those on a dealing room in the City a thousand miles north. The first day of 4Q normally finds me sitting here like an unlit fag, looking at my revenue target for the full year and realising, after three quarters, I’m only twenty-five percent of the way there, seventy-five percent certain of not making it and ninety-five percent convinced I will be sacked in January.
Days are spent fishing for business, getting no bites and wondering what underwater hecatomb has made angling so futile. For the wine-maker, showcasing her range to what she naively assumes are big-hitters from the trade, the concerns are of a different dimension and seem almost enviable. Our visit coincided with the last day of the vendanges. Earlier that morning, she had been to pick the fruit from a parcel on the edge of the woods and found wild boar had also decided the grapes were ripe the night before and scoffed the lot. I almost envied her predicament. Even swine are sybaritic in France. That’s what counts as trouble in paradise.
All round us lay clear evidence of substantial investment in the vines, the landscape, the cellar, the property. This project was definitely a labour of love. Whoever owned this place had obviously thrown a lot of money at it and, unlike The House the Locals Know As the Pained Trader’s Folly, much of it seemed to have stuck.
Our hostess explained how this had been a knocky-down ruin with trees growing through the roof when it was first bought and she described the loving restoration which her father had overseen, as I took painstaking notes on the exact assemblage of the 2016 premium red wine blend and enquired about the optimal date for drinking, for all the world as if I intended to buy some.
Outside, on the slopes, sun-hatted workers brought in the harvest cheerfully and we watched the grape bunches being tossed and sorted, and I was momentarily so overcome by oenophilia I wanted to climb into the giant oak vats to ferment with them.
Of course, it would have been inappropriate to pry into quite how much expense had been incurred creating this winey wonderland but it was clear the proprietor was no third-rate stockbroker in a second-hand suit for whom orders are rare as golden eagles. This bloke had made a few francs.
A couple of general enquiries, though, and a crafty gander at the business card suggested a well-known if not quite household name from the business world. Jealousy, mostly sexual but occasionally pecuniary, has been the force that through the green fuse drives the flower in this life and I felt it keenly here.
The terroir of the multi-millionaire who indulges his dreams and buys a wine estate as a plaything is oak and vine, sun and rock. The terroir of the turd-polishing sales-trader, mortgaged to the hilt, is tube and bar, desk and strip-lighting. The way it’s going, I could be back there next year, but as a picker not a punter.
And I wonder to myself whether, in the formative years of the vigneron, his grand-père ever swaddled him in bedclothes and told him to be careful what he wished for because he would not get it?
And furthermore, if so, what the hell was it he’d wanted which he had not got, and which would make all this — here a dramatic, sweeping gesture with the outstretched arms, encompassing the vines, the panorame, the carefully manicured lawns etc. — seem like a poor substitute?
More simply: if this was second, what came first?