Monday, December 17, 2018

Q&A with Brut Force Author Peter Stafford-Bow

Peter Stafford-Bow knows satire. And he knows the machinations of most facets in the wine trade. These truths are self evident in the author's initial release Corkscrew: The highly improbable, but occasionally true, tale of a professional wine buyer and its sequel Brut Force. This release once again follows wine buyer Felix Hart as blackmailers put him in precarious situations involving a corrupt wine tasting between old and new world Pinot Noir. Like its predecessor, Brut Force is a compelling read; I found myself leaping into the next chapter -- even as late night drowsiness set in. It is also entertaining, at times silly (don't be surprised if you laugh out loud), but Stafford-Bow keeps the focus on the wine industry throughout the various plot twists. This focus and the author's inherent knowledge of the wine trade led me to submit several questions regarding his background and his highly recommended current release.


1) When did you develop an interest with wine?
I started working in a liquor store while studying at university. At the time, my experience of wine was limited to hosting house parties where we’d buy bag-in-box Don Darius (a cheap, La Mancha red), blend it with brandy and orange juice in a trash can, and tie a ladle to the side of the bin. Not exactly the fine wine end of the spectrum. But the liquor store management were big on training, even for part-time staff, and they persuaded me to study for a basic wine exam. After that, I was bitten. I gave up my ‘proper’ university studies (and the trash cans full of gut-rot) and dedicated myself to wine full time.

2) In Corkscrew, the main character, Felix Hart, becomes a supermarket buyer and retains that occupation in Brut Force. Are his experiences anecdotal to any events you experienced as a supermarket buyer?
Yes, I’ve based both books on my experience of buying wine for supermarkets in the 1990s and 2000s. The main plotline in Corkscrew is based on real experience. We used to find stowaways in containers of Italian wine quite frequently – you’d receive a call from the depot saying a bunch of Afghans wearing bobble hats had just leapt out of a shipping container full of Pinot Grigio and legged it out of the warehouse. I lived in Cape Town for a while and the South African adventures in Corkscrew are based on my time there.

3) The plot lines in both books are very complex with multiple twists that require extensive resourcefulness and imagination. Do these attributes come naturally to you?
That’s very complimentary of you, thank you. I hope the plots aren’t TOO complex! I love spy thrillers, especially John le Carré, so maybe I’ve brought a little of that to my novels.

4) In Brut Force! the plot begins with Hart's Pinot Noir vine that he planted in his backyard. How prevalent is Pinot Noir in actual English vineyards?
Pinot Noir is quite widely planted now, thanks to the focus on sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. South-East England is less than 200 miles from the Champagne region and the soil is the same geological formation as that in Champagne – i.e. chalk – so that’s what English vignerons are concentrating on. The total area under vine in England is only 5,000 acres, so still tiny compared to the US or European countries, of course. Around one quarter of that is Pinot Noir.

5) People may be surprised that there is a vibrant English sparkling wine industry. Are there any estates you recommend?
Yes, most English sparkling wine is excellent quality – it’s all Traditional Method (i.e. Méthode Champenoise). Good estates include Hambledon (their rosé is superb), Camel Valley, Hush Heath (who make the Balfour brand) and Hoffman & Rathbone – though that last one is very boutique.

6) Moving along with the plot in Brut Force!, there's a blind tasting between new and old world Pinot Noirs. Did you conduct a similar tasting to get a sense in your mind what Hart would experience?
I didn’t set up my own tasting, but there are lots of people doing similar ‘face-offs’ these days. Just last month, at a posh London hotel, there was a Champagne versus English Sparkling blind tasting, with several eminent Masters of Wine in attendance. The French won, I believe, but it was pretty close. Perhaps the English will triumph next year…

7) In both books, you discuss wine regions such as South Africa or in Brut Force!, Pinots across the globe. Did you travel to these locations in order to research - obviously Burgundy but also New Zealand, Germany, California, or Oregon?
I’ve been lucky enough to travel very widely during my career. I’ve been to every major wine producing region, and plenty of minor ones too! So yes, with hindsight I consider my whole drinking career to have been literary research…

8) Staying with wine regions, do you have a personal favorite(s)?
That’s a tricky one. I love the rolling hills of Beaujolais, while the picturesque villages and vineyards of Tuscany are wonderful too. Central Otago in New Zealand is gorgeous, but the breath-taking scenery of South Africa’s Cape probably takes the top slot for sheer beauty.

9) Brut Force introduces organic wine fanatics. Do you have an opinion on organic, biodynamic, or natural wines?
Yes – Organic is good, Biodynamic is better, and non-intervention, Natural wines are best! Of course, you have to know what you’re doing in the vineyard and winery. But any movement that respects the environment, minimizes additives, and allows the true nature of the wine to shine is on the side of the angels in my opinion.

10) The characters in both books are quite distinctive, from Hart to his companions to his adversaries. Do you follow a process when creating each character or are they based on actual acquaintances?
I wouldn’t say there’s a process, as such. All the main characters are based on a real person or, more commonly, a combination of people – usually work colleagues or wine trade folk. Many of the characters in the novels are thoroughly despicable, of course, whereas in real life most people are reasonably pleasant, so that’s where I have to make a few dark tweaks – for legal as well as artistic reasons!
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