Swizzle and Spit

Nobody feels sorry for a dentist in pain. But I’ll tell you my story anyway. As part of his mid-life crisis, my partner in the clinic ran off with the Oral-B sales executive who looked a little like Scarlett Johansson. Even if she’d looked a lot like Scarlett Johansson, it was so out of character that it left me thinking you can never really know another person. His departure also left me with an unfinished $650k extension to the dental clinic to finance – money I didn’t have. Don’t get me wrong, otherwise I’m doing okay. I still have all my teeth, I’m still married to my first wife and we live on the river in St Lucia. Our three kids all have braces and attend the Brisbane Girls Grammar. You know, we own a Dyson.

One of the problems being a dentist is how to spend all the money without spoiling it for the profession. By that I mean if we all started flashing it around too much, people will start asking if a filling really costs $250. Without giving it away completely, if you were to think of an amount under $50 and halved it, you’d probably still be too high. So I wear a Tissot rather than a Rolex. I drive a Benz, but not the AMG. For a while I collected European antique clocks and furniture. I suppose I was searching for accoutrements that complemented my inherent decency and slow prudence. Then, when I was 35 I tasted a glass of 1982 Chateau Petrus merlot. I was transported by its power and richness. It was complex, concentrated, with hints of chocolate, truffles, Asian spices and ripe, creamy, black fruits. It was the other world of swizzle and spit. In the following ten years my cellar grew to around 80 dozen, investment-grade fine wines.

I mentioned the clinic finance issues to my lawyer and he put into words what I’d been denying.

“What about the wine cellar?”

He referred me to Brooke Brousseau, a South African émigré whose business card said, Confidential Fine Wine and Spirits Broker. Brooke had superb orthodontic work and professional whitening behind plump, red lips and wore no jewellery. As far as I could tell she was a natural blonde with eyes the colour of the surf at Jeffreys Bay. She might have been anywhere between 35 and 40 and she clearly spent time in the gym. She arranged to meet me at the Paladar Fumior Salon in South Brisbane.

“Do you like cigars?” I asked, indicating the surroundings as we sat down.

“Occasionally. Paladar is more of a networking place for me. In Brisbane I find people with spare cash and a taste for the finer things eventually find their way here.”

Brooke ordered a mineral water.

“So tell me what you’ve got to offer, Simon”.

“Well over the last 10 years I’ve invested heavily in the Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Toscana. The Bordeaux include Petrus, Lafleur and Margaux. I have a respectable quantity of Burgundy from Coche-Dury. My Italian portfolio is mostly Tuscan classics from Fattoria Poggio di Sotto and Casanova di Neri. I’ve added some colour to the cellar with Californians: Old Sparky and Mondavi’s Opus One mostly. Local Aussies include The Armagh and Henschke’s Hill of Grace.” I handed her an itemised inventory and valuation.

“It’s a substantial offering.” Brooke licked her lips while she was thinking. “Right then, I recommend we try and move it as a single transaction. We find someone who wants an instant cellar with a respectable pedigree. We could even offer your services in an educational capacity; you know, ‘tasting notes from the cellar master’, or some such. I’ll ask around and call you in a couple of days.”

True to her word, Brooke called a few days later.

“Right, I’ve lined up a couple of potential buyers. The first one you’re going to love. Gavin Tennyson made his fortune with a BBQ gas cylinder exchange business that he sold to BOC last year. I just brokered a deal for him to buy a 1955 Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve.”

“I’m not familiar with whisky,” I said.

“Well, confidentially it’s worth $85 grand.”

“What, a cask?” I asked

“No, a bottle.”

“Jesus!”

“I know, he bought it for a poker night!”

I went to meet Gavin Tennyson at his sprawling, 3-storey mansion on Sovereign Island, a gated canal estate on the Gold Coast. He had coffee-stained teeth with some lower left 2 and 3 crowding and 1970s amalgam fillings. He was in his late 40s, hair like Jack Kennedy and answered the door in bare feet. I suppose he was quite good looking in a retired, pro-surfer way; tall and well-muscled with a 2-day salt-and pepper beard covering his tanned face. He was wearing cargo shorts and a faded lime green polo shirt that showed off a small pot belly. He smelled like he’d recently been in salt water.

“Hey man, welcome. Call me GT.”

I took a visceral dislike to him.

“Can I call you Si?” he asked.

“Nobody else does,” I replied.

“Great.”

As he led me through his house a stunning brunette skipped past us on her way out to the horizon pool that overlooked the canal.

“Brazilian,” observed Gavin casually as the woman stepped outside. I wasn’t sure if he was commenting on her nationality, or her wax job. By the cut of her swimsuit it might be both. I stumbled on the small step leading up to a bar area. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I noted a handful of motor cars displayed behind the glass wall of a working garage. They were all Porsches including: a matte black Cayenne; a green mid-1980s 911 Turbo; a gaudy yellow 968 Club Sport and a competition-ready 911 GT3 decorated with Gavin’s name on the windshield and featuring the red and yellow “Gas ‘n Blow” logo. The floor of the bar area was finished with slate and a large fireplace, completely unnecessary in this climate, dominated one wall. Gavin motioned for me to sit in one of the big Cuban leather armchairs while he walked behind the bar and started a large anodised red Gaggia espresso machine.

“Caffeine hit?” he asked.

“Sure, macchiato.”

He ground the coffee beans and made a show of tamping the grounds just-so. Wanker,” I thought. I looked around. The walls were decorated with framed sports memorabilia. Like a lot of self-made men, it seemed Gavin had simply accessorised with more expensive versions of the same things that had interested him as an adolescent: cars, gadgets and women.

“So Brooke tells me you’ve got a serious Bordeaux stash,” said Gavin as he delivered my coffee. “Biscotti?”

“Thanks, you know about wine?” I asked.

“Not much, but I’m a quick study. My motto has always been suck it and see.”

I rang Brooke from my car on the way back.

“I’m not sure it’s going to work out with Mr Tennyson,” I said.

“Really? I thought you’d have a connection, both self-made businessmen and all.”

I imagined Gavin Tennyson filling a fountain with red wine.

“I think he’d drink my entire cellar over the course of a weekend,” I said.

Brooke pointed out the obvious. “Simon, if you sold it to him it would no longer be your cellar.”

“I know, I know. It’s just, well, important to me who buys it.”

“Right, well I do have someone else for you to meet,” said Brooke. “He’s a serious Hong Kong property developer who’s just moved out here and wants exposure to wine.”

Brooke arranged for me to meet Clement Fung at his French Provincial-inspired pile in Sunnybank. I suppose you could say he lived in a dream home, if your dream was never to mow the lawn. I approached his front door after crossing a front yard that was paved to the fence line in all directions. A large, silver Range Rover with tinted windows dominated the driveway, license plate: FUNG 18. A small Chinese woman with ill-fitting plastic dentures answered the door.

“Mrs Fung?” I enquired. She gave me a startled look, shaking her head.

“I’m Simon Campbell. I’m here to see Mr Fung,” I ventured.

The woman flashed me a loose smile and left the door slightly ajar as she hurried off inside. As I waited I noticed the doorway was crowded by discarded pairs of expensive shoes. There were also bulk grocery items stored randomly around the living room: 20kg rice bags, vegetable oil in 25 litre drums and a great wall of toilet paper. At first this struck me as odd, but then I supposed Clement Fung didn’t get rich buying retail. The woman returned a moment later.

“He come,” she said and I watched her walk to the formal dining area where she was assembling a large number of IKEA wine racks.

Clement Fung had high-end porcelain implants that gave his face the startling appearance of a weather beaten house with new porch furniture. He was in his late 60’s and dressed for golf with a Burberry sleeveless sweater. I was pretty confident nobody in the design department at Burberry had ever seen such a thing. He smelled of moth balls and Tiger Balm.

“Please call me Clem,” he said in British public school English as he gestured grandly towards the Range Rover. “Let’s go out for tea.” We drove to the Golden Leaf Tea House in Fortitude Valley’s Chinatown where he double parked. Clement led the way through a circular mahogany moongate and into a private room. He was known to the staff. We sat at a low table carved from a single piece of tree trunk. A young waitress with transparent braces and dressed in a black silk jacket with mandarin sleeves greeted us and asked Clement what kind of tea he would like.

“King’s Oolong 913,” he said decisively. The waitress returned momentarily with a tin and began making the tea.

“This oolong tea is blended with ginseng leaves. It has significant health properties,” said Clement.

The waitress poured each of us a serving into a tall cylindrical cup. Clement demonstrated how to tip the tall cup into the regular teacup and held the tall cup to his nose.

“It’s called the aroma cup,” he said. “It’s for appreciating the smell of the tea before appreciating the taste.”

“Not unlike wine,” I observed following his lead.

“Unfortunately I’m not well acquainted with wine Mr Campbell. Brooke tells me your cellar is earning around 20% per annum. Is that true?”

“Well yes, but it’s also a significant collection of wine that in five years will be perfect for drinking.”

“That’s a moot point I’m afraid. My doctor tells me to stay away from red wine; it plays havoc with my gout. Too much Johnnie Walker in my youth.”

“Hard to pronounce,” I quipped.

“Hah yes, but easy to drink! I’m interested in the cellar purely as an investment.”

“I see.”

“Mr Campbell.” Clement leaned forward and spoke confidentially. “For tax purposes I propose to handle the transaction in cash. Is that acceptable to you?”

That evening my wife Heike Becker and I were flossing our teeth in front of the bathroom mirror. I discussed the two meetings with her.

“Neither of them, psst, have any interest, psst, in the actual psst, wine.”

“Sweetie, psst I know how much of yourself you’ve psst put into the cellar over the years. But the psst clinic is the engine room of our psst finances. Maybe you could even psst buy it back off Mr Fung in a few years’ time.”

As usual Heike was right. I decided to sleep on it and rang Brooke in the morning to agree to the sale, wondering how big a suitcase I would need for the cash. Would I need a security guard?

“Right, well Mr Fung is out I’m afraid. He’s just bought a million dollars’ worth of Manuka honey from New Zealand.”

“What, since yesterday?”

“Yes, apparently is has significant health properties. And a 235% profit margin,” Brook added.

“Any other ideas?” I asked.

“Listen, Simon I never told Gavin Tennyson you weren’t interested in selling to him. I think I can still do the deal.”

After the removalists cleaned out the cellar I moped around for most of the day. In the early afternoon I went looking for a bottle of something to drown my sorrows. I walked down the stairs to my beautiful bluestone basement with its bare, custom-made Tasmanian oak wine racks. The pickings were very slim. I found a single bottle of 2010 Jean Grivot Vosne-Romanee Pinot Noir I’d forgotten about under the bench. It promised dark cherry, a hint of Asian spices and a top note of violet – in about 10 years. But I thought, “what the hell.” When I walked into the kitchen with the bottle and my Laguiole Millesime corkscrew, Heike looked at me like I’d just pulled the pin on a hand grenade.

“Simon, are you okay” she asked cautiously.

“You know sweetie, I’ve just handed over something I spent ten years building. And I never got to drink a drop of it. Maybe we should live a little.”

“I’ll make up a cheese plate,” said Heike, smiling.

As I went to grab a couple of Reidel glasses, my phone rang.

“Si, is that you?”

I recognised the smooth voice of Gavin Tennyson.

“Is there something wrong?” I asked, annoyed.

“No, no nothing like that. Hey man, listen. I’m opening a couple of bottles tonight, do you want to come over? I need to know what goes with Brazilian.”

THE END

6 thoughts on “Swizzle and Spit”

  1. Cousin Anton said:

    Hi Jeff. Ahh… brought to mind a phrase that has resonated more and more since my time spent working in remote Queensland; “white people problems”. This one certainly delivered a few needed laughs, and also the sense that I was missing out on a few more- if only I was more refined! Thanks champion.

  2. Saturday's Jason. said:

    Thanks for sharing, Jeff. It’s an enjoyable read. I’m always amazed at how much you know about a lot of things – certainly more than the Saturday Jeff that I know. 😉

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