Wine-sodden and wrong

2008-06-04 00:00

A novel in four vintages, this is a book with a fine bouquet underscored with traces of bitter-sweet notes. More plainly, it is the tragic story of a workaholic turned alcoholic, as he is subjected to the whims of the whores of fate.

Author Paul Torday’s device works cleverly as the novel begins at the end and works its way through to the beginning of the story, which is the last vintage. (This is easier to understand if you read the book.)

The hapless Wilberforce grew on me and knowing the results of the choices he had made, I found myself yelling at him (between gulps of Chardonnay): “Don’t do it Wilberforce! Rather stay sober and be miserable!”

We meet Wilberforce as an oxidised, broken man on the verge of bankruptcy and insanity. His passion for wine has eclipsed his life. His health, mind and finances are fermenting fast, as he embarks on graceful orgies of wine gluttony. In chapter one, Wilberforce goes out to an exclusive upper-class restaurant. There he orders three bottles of wine — two of which are the delectable Château Pétrus 1982 at £3 000 a bottle — and becomes thoroughly hammered. He is ejected from the eatery and returns home in a haze with alcohol poisoning playing nasty tricks on his mind and havoc with his body.

Wilberforce has lost the plot completely and the reader begins to wonder how an intelligent, upper-class English gent has ended up one green grape away from the gutter.

As the plot unravels we learn that Wilberforce has lost the love of his life, the sweet Catherine, in tragic circumstances. Before he met her and stole her heart from her robustly rich fiancé, Wil was a hard-working, successful computer programmer who built up a sought-after company. He did not like wine and seldom drank at all. But this life has yielded little joy for Wilberforce. He cuts a pathetic figure — lonely, lacking social skills and with no sense of joie de vivre.

That is until he meets Francis Black, heir to the neglected Caerlyon Hall, and owner of a massive and well-stocked wine cellar. Wilberforce and Francis develop a bond and as their friendship develops, so too does Wilberforce’s heady love for wine.

A whole new world unfurls as his taste buds begin to break into symphony at the taste of fine wines, and he sells his business, inherits the wine cellar and begins his slow stagger to permanent inebriation.

Clever twists in the narrative and shocking surprises make this a book to be savoured and delighted in.

Stephanie Saville

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