"So you're in the wine trade? Wow, that must be interesting! So you go abroad a lot to all kinds of interesting places and taste loads of wine?" Well, actually it's not quite like that... "But I bet you have a fantastic time - I wish I had your job."
Everyone in the wine trade is used to this kind of response from someone on first hearing what your job is, and their preconceptions are accurate some of the time, but things are never quite what they seem. I have been abroad a fair bit, but rather than playing the role of the great white hunter (equipped with glass and notebook instead of pith helmet and rifle) going out there determined to bring 'em back alive, I've more often than not been as the guest of various wine importers who have invited a bunch of their customers to come out and look round their portfolio of producers. It's basically a freebie, designed to offer me (the customer for their wines) the chance to see where and how they are made, to meet the winemaker and generally be wined and dined by the producer, the ultimate aim being to encourage me to sell loads of their wines when I get back to England. "Sounds great!" I hear you say. Yes, it is, but there are one or two things that you ought to know...
Now, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I've always enjoyed these trips, so if there's anyone out there who's prepared to take me out somewhere, my message to them is please invite me immediately and don't be put off by a little light heartedness in the account that follows!
So. you all meet at the airportâ€”a group of five to ten assorted wine trade people with two representatives from the importer who will be acting as your hosts and driving you to the wineries. All great so far. Everyone rather jolly on the flight. "Isn't the wine on board appalling?" and so forth. On landing, two hire cars are picked up and we attempt to squeeze ourselves in five to a car with all our luggage. "Don't worry, it's not far to the first winery," we're told. "We'll be there in no time." We chat amicably as we are driven along to our first destination, where we're due to arrive at 10.00 am (we caught the early flight out of London). But just as we think we're approaching, the driver starts muttering under his breath. On enquiry, we discover that he "could swear it was round here somewhere," and it becomes clear that we are lost. The car is stopped, maps consulted (all in car helping, which adds to the growing confusion). A local is spotted walking along on the horizon. We race up to him in the car and when we enquire, in very shaky local language, where the place might be, he shakes his head and tells us he's never heard of it. Out comes the mobile and after a call or two we do get there eventually, about an hour and a half late. Our host (the export manager) is all smiles and shows us around the winery with great pride, telling us all about the unique way in which they make their wine. We see their stainless steel fermenting tanks and a lot of oak barrels which they use to age their wine and are then invited up to the tasting room where the winemaker gives us a tasting of his range. He's friendly, but a bit distracted because he gets asked to do this all the time and he'd much rather be getting on with making the wine than talking about it with yet another bunch of foreigners.
It's now 1.00 pm, but we're not due to have lunch until we get to the next winery (where we should be by now) so we say our thanks and, in good spirits(!), climb back into the cars. The same thing happens on the journey, although we are somewhat more jovial and less concerned when we get lost this time. At about 3.00 pm we finally arrive at the second winery, eager for a spot of lunch and a glass or two of wine. But first, off we go to have a look at the stainless steel tanks and the barrelsâ€”and this time there's a tour of the vineyards as well. We sit down to a tasting and lunch (combined to save time) at 5.00 pm. We are all hungry and dying for a drink, and tuck in with gusto to a huge five-course meal. At 6.30 pm, it's off to the next winery, second to last on our schedule for the day. As we're running late, the drivers decide to take the motorway but miss the correct exit and overshoot by 80 kilometres, so we finally arrive at 8.30 pm. We look at the stainless steel fermentation tanks - "totally unique to the winery" - and the barrels - "very special" - but as we are late and it's getting dark, the trip round the vineyards is cancelled and we go straight into dinner (our last stop for the day now re-scheduled for the next day). Feeling rather tired we tuck in seriously, topping ourselves up yet again with more wine and more food. When we get woken up by the driver telling us that we have finally reached the hotel (at 11.00 pm), someone discovers that the bar is open late...
The next morning we meet for breakfast feeling a little subdued. Our drivers inform us that everything is sorted out and that we will need to leave as soon as possible to make up the time we lost the day before, so breakfast is a hurried affair. As we get back into the cars someone remarks that there really isn't enough space in them for five people and wonders whether it wouldn't have been better to hire a minibus. The windows are kept open. The mood is somewhat low key. When we get lost we don't rush to look at the map or suggest asking a local, but immediately suggest that the driver uses his mobile to get the export manager to meet us and lead us in. We don't feel very well, but no doubt everything will be OK when we get to the winery and taste some wine...
The day continues in much the same vein as the previous one, except that there is a lot more sleeping in the car, a certain smell in the air, as well as requests to keep the window open and complaints about the lack of room. We see numerous stainless steel tanks - "state-of-the-art" - and even more oak barrels- "brand new, these" - and a bottling plant that looks strangely like any other. We murmur appreciatively to our hosts, too exhausted to do much more. Looking at each other, we notice that our clothes have become oddly crumpled and stained with small spots of wine. We are definitely feeling somewhat the worse for wear.
And so it continues for the next three days, which go by in a strange kind of haze, at the end of which time we find ourselves back at the airport in England in a terrible state, all saying goodbye and, "We really must do it again some time."
Yes, I do work in the wine trade. Yes, it is great fun. But, as I said, there is a but...!