Felix Hart, Head of Wine for a major supermarket chain, is detained by mysterious interrogators who force him to reveal the secrets behind his rapid rise to senior executive, laying bare his cheerfully casual approach to life and relentless pursuit of sensual pleasure.
Felix’s story begins when he is given the alarming news he has made his girlfriend pregnant. Her aristocratic parents take a dim view, leading to a hair-raising encounter with her shotgun-wielding father and drunken mother. Felix’s school promptly expel him, though a sympathetic schoolmaster gives him a stimulating South African folk medicine as a leaving present. Felix is forced to take a job in a London off-licence, where he discovers an aptitude for salesmanship and wine appreciation.
Felix accidentally poisons his bullying boss with an under-cooked kebab but escapes blame and proves adept at running the shop himself. He is rewarded with his own branch, located in a Home Counties village, and is obliged to move in with the stoned squatters occupying the flat above.
Felix’s sales prowess and accidental dispatch of a bungling armed robber bring him to the attention of head office. Invited to meet the wine-buying team, he dazzles them with his passion for wine. He inadvertently spikes the drink of the incumbent Assistant Wine Buyer, who disgraces himself and creates a vacancy which Felix is only too happy to fill.
Felix innocently collaborates with a Bulgarian winery who persuade him to import a load of cheap Pinot Grigio. The wine turns out to have questionable provenance but, despite a close shave with the suspicious Department of Agriculture, it’s a huge sales success. Felix is headhunted by Gatesave, a ruthless supermarket chain run by profane and bullying managers.
Felix meets Sandra, a gorgeous executive from Paris-Blois Brands, a French luxury goods conglomerate. She feeds him information which leads to the firing of a corrupt colleague, resulting in his promotion.
To retain his new rank, Felix is ordered to enrol for the gruelling yet prestigious Minstrels of Wine qualification, which entails attending weekly tasting lectures at an arcane educational institution.
Meanwhile, he meets Jeremy Spott-Hythe, a posh nudist who makes superlative Kentish sparkling wine from grapes trodden by local unemployed youths. Felix spots a sales and PR opportunity for Gatesave, and the wine is a huge success.
Felix is dispatched to South Africa to procure profitable new wines. He also has a private side-mission, to locate further stocks of the mysterious but indispensable stimulant gifted by his old schoolmaster, which he has nearly exhausted.
In the Cape winelands Felix meets Wikus van Blerk, a brilliant but irascible winemaker, and Njongo, his Kalashnikov-wielding sidekick. Felix is desperate to buy van Blerk’s wines and, after proving himself a worthy drinking companion, they journey deep into the South African interior.
After Felix survives a near-ravishing by a randy ostrich and a mauling by a leopard, van Blerk agrees to introduce him to the mysterious Madame Joubert, manufacturer of the stimulant he desires. Mme Joubert assembles a batch but, in lieu of payment, insists that Felix sing light opera and service her physical needs. To his alarm, she turns out to have a foot in both gender pools, though Felix conjures a narrow escape, with his stash, through the opportunist use of a lit candle.
The African trip culminates in a party at the ranch of van Blerk’s biggest customer, a rich eco-hotelier. But van Blerk becomes enraged when their host unveils a gas barbeque, considering it a sin against nature, and instructs Njongo to explode it with gunfire, causing Felix to be blown, naked, into the pool. Van Blerk agrees to make Felix the main customer for his wines.
At Gatesave’s media event the following week, the assembled journalists declare van Blerk’s wines the best listing of the year, a triumph for Felix.
Felix and his fellow prospective Minstrels of Wine assemble for their final tasting exam, a marathon wine identification challenge before the thousand-strong Minstrels fraternity. No spitting is permitted and most candidates are soon in trouble but Felix has imbibed a dose of his recently replenished stimulant, enhancing his sensory performance and enabling him to complete the tasting, alongside just four others.
The exam’s second part obliges each candidate to perform a classical music recital accompanied by a full orchestra. Succumbing to advanced inebriation, more of the initiates crash out. Felix surreptitiously swallows another sachet of his stimulant and, despite nearly overdosing, receives a standing ovation for his bare-chested rendition of Druschetzky’s Timpani Concerto.
Now a full Minstrel of Wine, Felix is promoted further by Gatesave. On a visit to the town of Asti he agrees to purchase a huge quantity of sparkling wine at an absurdly low price from a suspiciously obsequious winery owner.
Felix returns to the UK for the annual Gatesave Supplier Conference, a dystopian rally where suppliers are ritually humiliated on stage. In the middle of the event an enraged Welsh farmer herds his cattle into the hall in revenge for losing business. In the resulting stampede, a cow leaps upon the stage and tramples Gatesave’s Commercial Director to death.
Felix recognises that this will trigger a management reshuffle and that his cheap Italian sparkling wine deal might facilitate his promotion to Head of Wine.
The first consignment of Felix’s Italian bubbly arrives and he is obliged to inspect it for labelling irregularities. He and Wodin, his flatmate, visit the container depot, where they discover several dozen Somali refugees and a large quantity of drugs hidden within the wine shipment.
Felix realises that informing the authorities will lead to the impounding of his wine, the collapse of his deal and, probably, the end of his career, so he and Wodin hatch a plan to smuggle the Somalis out of the depot in a tour bus. Thanks to an episode involving strong marijuana and a German porn video, they bluff their way past the guards and are obliged to hide the refugees in their maisonette squat until the dust has settled.
It becomes clear that Felix’s Italian supplier is a mafia front and the cheap wine merely cover for smuggling people and drugs into the UK. Undeterred, Felix and his flatmates sell the drugs to Father Turk, a London gangster, barely escaping with their lives, and use the proceeds to cater for the refugees and upgrade their wine cellar.
The presence of 42 refugees causes logistical problems in the flat, not least the blockage of their single lavatory. Fistule, another of Felix’s flatmates, is a keen home composter and teams up with one of the refugees, an engineer, to build an outside pit latrine, thus solving the plumbing issue.
The mafia soon deduce that Felix has intercepted their contraband. The chief hood and his sidekick confront him outside his home late one night but Felix tricks them into walking across the composting pit, where they are drowned in the foul quagmire.
Felix needs to find a new home for the refugees. He can’t risk alerting the authorities, so he and his friends hold a wine-fuelled brainstorming session. They decide to pass off the Muslim Somalis as Israeli students of agriculture enrolling for a foreign internship programme and to billet them with the credulous Jeremy Spott-Hythe, who urgently needs workers to pick grapes for his new Kentish ice-wine.
Their plan soon unravels. An anti-Zionist group finds out about the ‘Israeli students’, calls the press and demonstrates outside the vineyard, triggering a Christmas Eve PR crisis for Felix and Gatesave. Felix rushes to the scene to find the demonstrators in a stand-off with the Spott-Hythes. The media are asking questions and a pregnant refugee has gone into labour. The oblivious Somalis assemble to pray on the hillside, fatally undermining Felix’s absurd cover-story, and the chaos increases with the entrance of Felix’s flat-mates, an Israeli diplomat, a large contingent of police and a pair of mischievous alpacas.
The situation appears irrevocable but Felix calls the crowd to order and, with his friend Tariq, improvises a story, claiming that he and his friends are undercover human-rights activists who have rescued the Somalis from a life of Middle Eastern servitude. Tariq supplies the police with forged papers supporting the Somalis’ claim for asylum, and the crowd hails Felix as a humanitarian hero.
The pregnant refugee gives birth in the winery stables and the crowd gather to celebrate the birth and present gifts to the mother, lit by the searchlight of a police helicopter hovering overhead. The resulting PR triumph leads to Felix’s promotion to Head of Wine.
Felix’s mysterious interrogators reveal themselves to be colleagues of Sandra’s at Paris-Blois Brands, the multi-national luxury goods conglomerate. They now have enough compromising information on Felix to blackmail him, thus setting him up for his next set of adventures…
Peter Stafford-Bow, 43, is a wine and supermarket executive based in London. He has twenty years’ experience in the international wine trade and has worked for some of the largest retail chains in the world, in the UK and abroad. Stafford-Bow dropped out of university to pursue a career in wine, initially running wine shops in London before becoming a supermarket buyer, a role which sent him to every major wine-producing country in the world. After periods living in Hong Kong and Cape Town, Stafford-Bow returned to the UK to pursue a literary career. He lives in Kensal Rise with his p...
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