“Humidity-controlled,” Irvine said to himself bitterly. “Ha.” Humidity control was only one of the boasts made by the company who, at eye-watering expense, had installed the state-of-the‑art wine cellar beneath the garage at his Wiltshire manor house. A six‑month dig, enough racks to hold 1,000 bottles – Irvine had filled about three‑quarters of that so far – not to mention the special cases for magnums, double magnums and jeroboams.
But no sooner had his cellar been installed, its dials and thermometers and hygrometers up and running, than the skies had opened and the Wiltshire lowlands in which his house sat turned into a giant lake. The cellar had – while Irvine was in Hong Kong on business – flooded. Not the fault of the manufacturers, as they pointed out, but the housekeeper’s, who, baffled by the fancy remote control, had left the new hydraulic external door very slightly ajar.
Whoever’s fault it was, Irvine’s collection – which included an unbroken run of Château Lafite Rothschild from 1945 to 2011, as well as several earlier vintages – had spent a week underwater. When the cellar was finally drained, the extent of the damage became clear. The labels of every single bottle had come unstuck and floated off. Was this the 1818 or the 1982? Nobody knew.
Bitterer still, the insurance company was only prepared to pay out for water damage to fixtures and fittings on the grounds that the bottles themselves were all intact. When its senior representative had drawlingly volunteered, as a goodwill gesture, to pay for new labels to be printed, Irvine had hung up.
Irvine was now the stricken possessor of a wine collection worth close to a million pounds in aggregate – but the value of any given bottle of which was anyone’s guess. Oh sure, a master of wine might be able to tell by opening it and taking a sip – but at that point the value was, of course, lost. Besides, the point was not just to drink the wine. It was an investment too, bought to hedge his fortune against the future. And so, in the very strictest secrecy, Irvine did the only thing he could. He started to glue the labels back on.
“What are you doing in there, darling?” his wife had shouted down the cellar stairs. “Er, checking for water damage,” he shouted back up, as he set about another bottle with the Pritt Stick. It took nearly as long for Irvine to “restore” his collection as it had to build the ruddy cellar in the first place. He was resolved: he’d sell the whole lot at auction. He wasn’t really doing anything immoral, he reasoned, because overall it would be worth exactly what was paid for it. All he needed was a nouveau riche pseudo wine enthusiast to take it off his hands for boasting rights, and he could start all over again with a full wallet, an empty cellar and a clean slate.
What he hadn’t bargained on was that the buyer, on that fateful day at Christie’s, would be Boris Negresev, a man renowned not only for his aluminium-industry billions but for his love of the grape and the unrivalled excellence of his palate. Worse still, Negresev and Irvine were business acquaintances – and Negresev insisted Irvine “drop by” once the sale was complete to toast the exchange.
A fortnight later, though he’d tried and failed to think of a way out, Irvine watched with mounting horror as Boris insouciantly uncorked a bottle of – theoretically – quite extraordinary age and value. The glass came to Negresev’s lips seemingly in slow motion. Visions swam before Irvine’s eyes of prosecution by the fraud squad, of public humiliation, of ruinous compensation claims, of dark car parks and Negresev’s heavies closing in…
And then Negresev said: “Bozhe moi! The 1975 is just as good as I remember.” As the blood returned to his head, Irvine sipped from his own glass. It tasted suspiciously like Ernest and Julio. He allowed himself a smirk.