A Day in the Life... (October 6, 2016)
There are some experiences in life that are so bizarre that they are indelibly carved into one's memory years after they happened – in all their sordid details.
The year was 1989. The occasion, Vinexpo in Bordeaux – at that time the world's largest international wine exposition.
This biennial event is held over four days in June and is usually blessed with fine weather. Except 1989 when it was blisteringly hot. So hot, dogs were sticking to the sidewalks.
There was no air-conditioning in the kilometer-long exhibition hall then and temperatures of 47 Celsius were recorded on the upper level of the booths. The corks were rising in the wine bottles as the alcohol expanded and attendees were drinking more water than wine. The Australian contingent left en masse.
I have this one defining image from Vinexpo 1989 – the great Soave producer Roberto Anselmi with trousers rolled up to the knees, dangling his feet in the fountain with bags of ice and bottles of his wine floating in the water.
I was staying at the Terminus Hotel in the city centre away from the exhibition park by the lake. The hotel had no air conditioning and I was forced to open all the windows.
Now Vinexpo coincides with Fête de la Musique when local musicians perform at all hours of the day and night. Loudly.
I couldn't sleep because of the noise and I complained to a colleague from a western liquor board. We had both been invited to a black-tie dinner at Château Mouton-Rothschild that night and he suggested I bunk in with him where he was staying: the Relais de Margaux, a 4-star hotel in the Médoc. His room had single beds and it was air-conditioned.
I accepted gratefully.
I changed into my tuxedo and took a cab from the Terminus Hotel to the smaller local station from which a private train would transport the 200 guests to the château in Pauillac. But the cab driver didn't understand my French and he took me to a station that was boarded up and abandoned. The train was due to leave in fifteen minutes from a station that I had ascertained from a passerby was "pas loin d'ici."
It was like a furnace out there and there were no taxis in sight. So I began to run. Sweat was pouring off me in buckets. I had five minutes to make the train and I was a good half mile from the station. I arrived just as the train was about to pull away from the platform. I jumped aboard. Every pore of my body gave up its fluids. The leather of my shoes was sodden. My lapels were steaming like a horse that had been ridden hard and put away wet. Two glasses of champagne helped to cool me down and by the time we arrived in Pauillac I was merely as hot as the rest of the gathering.
At the dinner I was seated next to the late Philippine de Rothschild. She had chosen to serve Mouton-Rothschild 1939 in magnum as the centrepiece wine.
Now 1939 was my birth year – not a great year for wine but, I can safely say a good one for me. I asked my hostess if she would sign the label for me as a memento of a great meal and she graciously she did so.
I carried the empty magnum lovingly back to the Relais de Margaux and promptly soaked off the label in the bidet. To dry it I took wads of toilet paper, careful not to smudge Philippine's signature.
We got into our beds and my colleague turned off the light. The next thing I heard was the striking of a match.
"What are you doing?" I called out into the darkness.
"Having a smoke," he replied. "I always smoke before I go to sleep."
"In the dark?"
"I'd rather you didn't."
"OK," he said, obligingly.
He blew out the match and as soon as his head hit the pillow he began to snore with window-rattling intensity. I tried putting the pillow over my head but it did no good. So I got up and tried to make myself a bed in the bath. But that was uncomfortable. So I moved under the sink making sure that I was well out of the path in case the sleeping volcano decided to make a nocturnal pit stop. My ear was next to the pipes and when anybody else in the hotel that night flushed the toilet or turned on a tap I was jolted into wakefulness by a noise even more devastating than my colleague's snoring.
Eventually, I returned to my bed and fell asleep in the early hours of the morning.
When I awoke my neighbour was already up.
"How did you sleep?" he asked me.
"As well as might be expected," I replied. "And you?"
"Great," he said, "but this morning when I went to the can, I couldn't find any toilet paper so I had to use a god-damned wine label."