The pursuit of writing fiction set in the world of wine is a noble albeit generally futile one. I’ve reviewed previous attempts and it’s often the case that the author is trying to just slap together a book and set it within a wine context to make it interesting. The results, are, as to be expected, poor. “Corkscrew” by Peter Stafford-Bow does not run afoul of this folly and is instead a well-written book, by an author who truly understands wine (or had the good sense to ask those who knew more), and makes for an overall lighthearted romp, albeit with a couple of failings you may find moderate to severe depending upon your preferences.
The book starts with its orphan protagonist, Felix Hart getting kicked out of boarding school for being… let’s say a “naughty naughty boy” and he stumbles his way into working at a wine shop in London, quickly building a booming career much to the chagrin of other professionals from the “right schools”. In a nutshell, the book is a bunch of hijinks that happen to Felix while he works his way further and further up the ladder of the wine buyer food chain.
There’s a lot of poking fun at sacred cows in the wine world, which is definitely good for a laugh. One of my favorite bits was that there are “only” 1,000 Minstrels of Wine (the book’s Master of Wine) in the world. Another was the absolutely absurd Bacchanalia that is the press tasting of his employer’s new wines on offer that paints journalists as the most sordid of drunks. Not of course true in this day and age (for the most part), but at the same time, fair game for satire and well played.
The book unfortunately runs out of steam about halfway through and has a feeling like it was a good deal shorter and punchier (apparently there’s a NSFW original version floating around) but the publisher needed Stafford-Bow to fluff up another 50 or so pages and, much like a watered-back wine, it’s thin. There’s also this rushed quality which made it tedious to really care what happened in the end. Oddly, it shares a lot in common on this front with the book Root Cause. In reading reviews on Amazon, it seems I wasn’t alone on this front.
But beyond running a bit light at the end, what really started nagging at me was the “naughty, naughty boy” aspect in that, there is simply an inordinate amount of fucking in this book. Felix travels somewhere, boom, sex. Felix passes an exam, boom, sex. A cool breeze washes in and boom, yes, sex. I get that it’s meant to all be ridiculous and he’s this “lovable rapscallion” character by design but there are two whopping big flaws here.
The first is that there’s in effect no character development. Felix finishes the book just as rapscallion-y as he started. Some people may find that endearing but I find it a let down and again, it makes reading tedious as, despite traveling the world, the character literally takes no personal journey. I can’t even tell how much time has passed as he seems as old at the end as when he was kicked out of boarding school at the beginning.
Secondly, fuck this character. The timing of this book (originally released in early 2018) couldn’t be worse as we’re in an era where this macho, hornball, dirtbag has really played out. I doubt that any woman would want to work with Felix Hart because she’s already worked with a Felix Hart in the past. As I’ve said recently, I tire of this profile of guy in wine as well and so his constant need to screw is just patently boring and offers up no escape from the fact we’re surrounded by immature men like this in real life. And again, this constant viewing of every woman he encounters as a possible bang, just makes him a flat character.
So, if you’re willing to overlook what is ultimately a one-dimensional character and want a jaunty, generally-fun read for the most part, have a look. Overall though, I’d say that the book got a lot of interest early on due to Mr. Stafford-Bow not actually being Mr. Stafford-Bow but a pseudonym which added to the mystique and allure of the book. The success of the first has seen a sequel published called, “Brut Force” and even though there are those saying it’s better than the first, I think I’ll take a pass…
Review copy purchased by reviewer
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“by an author who truly understands wine (or had the good sense to ask those who knew more)”. He didn’t need to ask – the author is the former global buyer for Marks and Spencer. He pretty much lived the life of the main character! Though not sure if the volume of sex was autobiographically accurate. You should read the second book – another fun read.
There were thanks given at the back of the book to people who helped with information so he did ask about things when he didn’t know them and the wine knowledge showed as being far more coherent than what was in Root Cause or others which just name drop.
I think I’m off wine-based fiction for awhile now. Too many other books to catch up on.
No, you’ve gotta read Jamie Goode’s new book, no? I’ve got it on order. Will read over the holidays…
Ah yes, that I do. Most curious how Dr. Science has fared in the world of fiction.
Just spotted this article. Appreciate you taking the time to write a review, MH, even if you weren’t that keen on the protagonist’s world view! In his defence, Felix Hart isn’t a predatory or callous seducer like Fleming’s 007, it tends to be the women who have the agency, and they seduce him. He is, however, a male fantasy figure, and there’s no doubt his cheerful cynicism leaves him unencumbered by the constraints of empathy – except, perhaps, at the point when it matters most in the main plot.
You might find the sequel, Brut Force, rather more palatable – the protagonist has grown up a little and there’s relatively little gratuitous shagging. If you DM me on Twitter or IG, I’d be delighted to post you a copy!