The wine trade’s very own wine buying super hero Felix Hart is back. Yes, the alter ego of the mysterious, fictitious Peter Stafford-Bow has returned for his third adventure following the success of the debut novel, Corkscrew, and the follow up, Brut Force. Now the story switches to South Africa where Hart has found himself in very hot waters indeed, forced to go undercover to protect himself. Here’s an extract just to get you all excited ahead of its publication on June 1.
Felix Hart, head of wine at Gatesave Supermarkets, has been ordered to South Africa by his superiors following a problematic ethical audit result at one of his suppliers. Felix arrives at the farm in question, Blanchkopf Wine Growers, and soon finds himself on the back foot…
My rendezvous was at a grand old wine farm in the hamlet of Aasvoëlsfontein, on the southern side of Stellenbosch, a visit that in normal circumstances should imply no hardship at all. But these circumstances were far from normal. And the wine farm in question was, of course, none other than Blanchkopf Wine Growers, the proprietor of which was one Mr Blanchkopf: grape grower, winemaker, bulk plonk exporter, rabid dog fancier and, quite possibly, slave owner and kitten strangler to boot.
I pointed out a sign marking the winery entrance and the taxi turned on to an unsurfaced, red dirt road. We bumped along, pale green vineyards in the first flush of spring leaf stretching away either side of the track. In the distance, ahead of us, a growing cloud of dust advertised the approach of a vehicle. The dark centre of the cloud grew as it neared, resolving itself into a tractor towing a trailer. My driver slowed and moved over to allow the vehicle room to pass, the taxi’s wheels whispering as they brushed the grassy verge. But, as the distance between us shrunk to mere yards, it became clear the tractor had no intention of either slowing or compromising its total possession of the road.
Cursing, my driver swerved off the track, vine branches swatting the windscreen and stones clanging against the vehicle’s undercarriage. The tractor roared past, trailer bouncing behind it, spraying the car with grit and enveloping us in a cloud of red dust.
Quite sensibly, we remained stationary until the dust had cleared. Muttering to himself, the driver nosed the car back onto the track and sprayed the windscreen washer, sending rivulets of red mud trickling across the glass, as if we’d just suffered a gore-soaked collision with a careless antelope. After another couple of minutes, we reached the main farm gate. It opened, powered by some unseen hand, and on the other side, leaning against a pickup truck, was Blanchkopf.
“Good morning, Mr Blanchkopf,” I called, as I stepped out of the car. “I must say, one of your farmworkers nearly ran us off the road back there.”
Blanchkopf was a tall, broad man of around sixty, with silver hair and a bushy beard. He wore tight khaki shorts and a grey shirt, festooned with pockets. He considered my outstretched hand for a second, then grasped it, very firmly, and shook it.
“My wife. She was probably in a hurry.”
“She certainly was.”
“Get in the bakkie, we’ll take a tour,” he said, gesturing to the pickup.
Clearly, the niceties had been concluded, so I climbed in. As I pulled the door shut, I heard a commotion from the back seat. A large Rottweiler thrust its head next to mine and barked, savagely, into my ear.
“Jesus Christ!” I shouted, banging my head against the passenger window in an effort to save it from being torn from my neck.
“He is quite friendly so long as you are friendly back,” said Blanchkopf, climbing into the driver’s seat. “Shut up!” he shouted, pushing the dog’s face back. The Rottweiler continued to bark, angrily, from the rear seat.
“Is anyone working in the vineyards today?” I asked.
“Shut up!” shouted Blanchkopf, even louder.
I trusted Blanchkopf was addressing the dog, but I remained silent anyway. He started the pickup and we trundled past the farm buildings towards a steep track leading up the hillside. As we passed the final building, out of the corner of my eye I saw a streak of brown fly from an open doorway. I turned to see a great barrel of a dog running right at the vehicle. It leapt into the air and hurled itself against my door, manic hatred in its eyes. The Rottweiler behind me leapt up and down, barking in excitement, while its unhinged colleague fixed me with a bloodshot eye and raked the window with its teeth, leaving strings of white saliva on the glass.
“Is he friendly too?” I asked, praying the rabid creature hadn’t been taught how to open a car door.
“No, he is not. That’s a Boerboel. He will tear your arms off. Even bit me the other day, the beast. Anyway, keeps the troublemakers away.”
I placed my hand on the interior door handle and held it tightly. The Boerboel had now attached its jaws to the side mirror, which it was slowly tearing from its mounting. Every few seconds, a crimson eye would swivel away from the unfortunate car accessory and fix itself on me, leaving me in no doubt that the creature would rather be tearing a chunk out of something warm-blooded.
“Get off the bakkie, you stupid dog,” shouted Blanchkopf, and stepped on the gas. The mastiff tumbled away from the pickup, tearing the outer casing from the wing mirror as it did so. It bounded after us and threw itself against my door a couple more times but gave up once we’d picked up speed and begun our ascent into the higher vineyards. I uncurled my sweating fingers from the door handle.
After a few minutes, the incline became gentler and then levelled out. Blanchkopf slowed and pulled over at a junction marking the boundary between three vineyards. We climbed out and surveyed the rolling hills below, the vine-lined slopes looking like neatly combed heads of green hair. Behind me, the pickup’s suspension creaked and I saw, to my dismay, that Blanchkopf had left his door open and that the Rottweiler had decided to join us.
“They are spring pruning right now,” said Blanchkopf.
Teams of vineyard workers bobbed up and down along the rows of vines, crouching to snip away last year’s canes before moving on to the next spur. Their dark blue overalls contrasted with the brilliant green leaf, and the constellation of different-coloured bobble hats made the vineyard appear sprinkled with live confetti. Other workers moved like ants between the pickers, collecting the severed canes and delivering them to a trailer parked at the edge of the vineyard.
“A busy worker is a happy worker,” said Blanchkopf.
I became aware of the Rottweiler’s hot breath against my hand. I whipped it away and clasped my palms before me, like a novice monk. The Rottweiler snarled.
“Yes,” I said, wondering how to broach the awkward subject of slavery without upsetting either man or beast. “As you know, there are a couple of outstanding issues arising from our recent audit.”
“The only outstanding issue is the price you are paying,” replied Blanchkopf. “You agreed to give me a fifty percent increase on both the Pinotage and the white blend.”
The Rottweiler took up position in front of me and growled again, its jaws just a foot or so from my crotch.
“I didn’t exactly agree that,” I said, as delicately as possible. “By outstanding issues, I am referring to certain irregularities in your workers’ terms and conditions.”
“What irregularities? There is nothing irregular.”
“Mr Blanchkopf, our audit suggested you may have contravened some of the regulations governing the agriculture sector’s minimum wage.”
The Rottweiler barked and I jumped.
“Shut up!” shouted Blanchkopf.
I took a small step backwards and the Rottweiler took a slightly larger one forward. I was fairly sure I could feel the creature’s breath against my groin.
“And, some of the regulations around loans to employees,” I squeaked.
“Sometimes our workers need a loan to get them to their next pay check. There is nothing wrong in that.”
“The problem, Mr Blanchkopf—”
The Rottweiler suddenly leapt up, placed its front feet against my chest and barked into my face. I staggered backwards.
“Goodness, he’s very friendly,” I croaked, holding a forearm in front of my neck as a sacrificial limb.
“Don’t show any fear,” said Blanchkopf.
“Good dog,” I whimpered.