1965. After three months in Bordeaux ... I caught the train home (with an illegal number of cases of claret for my Dad and his mates) for three years of University.
Over which, I will gloss. Apart from mentioning that I did my Geography dissertation on 'The Wines of St Emilion and Surrounding Areas'. (More visits to Bordeaux and I got to interview the young Christian Moueix and Jean-Claude Berrouet, the men behind Petrus and other such wonders).
And I met a very fanciable girl. She didn't much like my ways and I got a broken little-finger to prove it. Barbara and I both left Durham with the lowest degrees possible. Me, because I was thick. She, because she was DANGEROUS! She still got a great job. I didn't; I went back to M. Cassin's Bordeaux winery.
So there I was in this vast concrete structure which Monsieur objected to me calling ugly. I can see his point, now. I have worked with so many co-operatives over the years and found so many great wines, made so many friends, that to me, they are now sort of beautiful; 'Jolie laide' as the French say.
I stood beside the small bottling line, on to which I placed the empty bottles, hour after hour after hour, day after day, ...with two small, dark, very pretty sisters who found me utterly hilarious and unbelievably stupid. I could not really communicate with them or anyone else there; the accents were too strong.
But there was the wine! There were a hundred taps in the immediate vicinity and only a few - painted red - dispensed water. In time I began to be a little more discriminating and stopped drinking straight from the tap. There was a grimy wine glass hidden in the tool cupboard. It had lost its foot and the broken stem was embedded in a wooden barrel bung. We all used it.
So I still liked the work... but felt it was not perhaps a fast track, careerwise. Monsieur kindly gave me Mondays off to do a day-release wine course at Bordeaux University run by the wonderful Professor Emile Peynaud; the man who did more than anyone to kick Bordeaux out of decades of doldrums into the splendiferous golden age in which its top Chateaux have resided ever since.
I used to taste wine under the Prof. all morning then go off to join in the student riots in the afternoon. 1969 was not as riotous as 1968 but rioting ('le Manif!') was still the fashion. I had zero political views but was still trying to meet French girls.
Most important thing the Prof taught us was not to trust our pathetic human palates. I think that's what he said anyway. He certainly played tasting practical jokes to teach us (my classmates were all heirs to fancy Chateaux) humility. I've not trusted my palate ever since. And I don't believe in people with 'wonder palates'. Has this helped my business, I wonder?
It was a nice year. But something had to be done, I supposed. Yes, but job interviews in Bordeaux were as unsuccessful as they had been back home.
Then one day; THE BLINDING LIGHT! My road to Damascus, turned out to be the narrow lane between Puisseguin and Ste Colombe. Monsieur, driving me home after work, suddenly suggested that if no-one else would let me sell their wine, I should try selling his...set up as an agent.
I have probably embroidered the story over the years but the suggestion seemed to ignite a great welling-up of wonderful ideas to do with writing letters to people, going round giving tastings, collecting lots of orders, rolling in money.
Monsieur weighed in with stern practicalities. We talked and talked and talked...into the night ...sitting in a 2CV Citroen in Monsieur's darkened garage.
A worried Madame had to come and drag us to dinner, so hard did the idea bite, so long did we sit and talk.
Sales letters were immediately drafted, special labels printed, prices worked out. So exciting! Finally, There Was A Goal!
With Monsieur's blessing, while things were preparing I went to work for a small, traditional wine merchant in Castillon-la-Bataille. My job was to bottle a barrel of wine per day. Sitting on the floor, filling, corking, capsuling, labelling all by hand. Local wine, wine from the 'Midi' and best of all; 'Mascara' from Algeria! Fabulous stuff!
Ets. Appelghem had two cellars; a modern one by the Railway
Station, and the old on the Dordogne quayside...which, to distinguish, they called 'le chai au quai'. I had no idea how important that place was to become to me forty years on.
The long hot summer of '69 was just so idyllic... living in a disused Castillon chateau, playing 'Abbey Road' to girls who actually believed I knew Paul McCartney.
All was wonderful. The future was...sorted!