Call me lucky, but I had never met a con man until I met David Mullin. I remember it was a Friday morning in August when a persistent levante had finally lifted its ugly head, leaving the town to sparkle and the inhabitants cheerful with a spring in their step which had been missing for weeks.
I was in my office in Portland House doing nothing much. Work had been slow and I sat back with my feet on the desk enjoying the cool breeze of an ancient fan and the thought of the weekend ahead. I was due in Sanlúcar where my host had managed to book me into Las Arenas, a cheap but clean hotel with a sparse breakfast and walls which left little to the imagination.
Being August, the town was choc-a-block. The annual horse racing along its sandy beaches was in full-flow and I was looking forward once more to the incongruous sight of horses charging down crowded beaches, their tiny jockeys in colourful silks urging their mounts mercilessly towards the finish line.
“I was a disappointment to my father in many respects. Wine was just one them.”
It was a tentative knock on the door that brought me back to Friday morning at the office.
Looking up I was met by a head poking through the partially open door. Whether it was the untidy blonde hair, the cheerful smile, or ears too large for classical symmetry I don’t know, but irrationally I immediately took a liking to the stranger.
“Hi. I am David Mullin. I am told you may be able to help me.” he said cheerfully.
I beckoned him in. He was taller than me at around six foot. He reminded me of one of those characters from a Graham Greene novel blissfully unaware that Britannia no longer ruled the waves. His crumpled linen jacket labelled him more traveller than tourist and an accent which sounded honed at one of those privileged schools in Windsor or Surrey. To complete the picture of an Englishman abroad, he carried a genuine Panama hat in one hand. In the other, a scruffy canvas bag with a bottle of wine. I had never seen him before and wondered what he wanted.
“I want to sell the contents of my father’s wine cellar. Would you be interested?”
Before I could answer he placed several A4 sheets of yellow-lined paper on my desk. Whoever had produced the list of wines in front of me had beautiful handwriting.
It was a wine-lover’s dream. Haut Brion, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite, Domaine de la Romannee Conti, Cheval Blanc, ancient Vega Sicilias , dripped off the pages like gold dust on to my vivid imagination. I could almost smell the iodine of the Cheval Blanc and the graphite of the legendary Mouton 82. Two wines whose tasting notes I knew by heart but unlikely ever to taste!
“So why do you want to sell such a wonderful cellar. Your dad must have been quite a knowledgeable collector?”
“He was. It came as a shock to him knowing he would die with a full cellar. He’d always planned to open his last bottle on his death bed.” he shrugged as if indicating the futility of second-guessing life.
“So why sell?”
“He left debts as well wine. I cannot afford such luxuries. Don’t feel sorry for me. I never could tell a Burgundy from a claret.” he said smiling. “I was a disappointment to my father in many respects. Wine was just one them.” A hint of bitterness suddenly creeping into his voice.
“Why had he come? How had he got into the enclosure?”
David Mullin (I found later it wasn’t his real name), told me he would be prepared to accept any reasonable offer if someone took the whole of the cellar’s content. The wine was in his father’s house near Ronda, a rambling old villa with extensive grounds and pretty almond orchards according to him. He was keen to settle his father’s affairs and wanted me to come and have a look that very weekend, but I told him I had already been invited to Sanlúcar and in any case the price was out of my league.
His look of disappointment soon evaporated when I mentioned some people I would be seeing were not just sherry producers but wine collectors in their own right. I would be happy to take his list and make enquiries. I told him about Sanlúcar, the races and the sherry producer’s enclosure at the finish line where. I made a copy of the wine list and he arranged to come in the following week. Before leaving, he placed the bottle of wine he’d been carrying on my desk. It was a bottle of Chateu d’Yquem 1986. The look on my face must have been telling.
“I don’t want much for it. I need petty cash urgently. One hundred pounds is a fair price.” It was. I gave him twenty pounds more than he asked.
The sherry producer’s enclosure at the Sanlúcar races is by invitation only. It tends to be a family affair each producer providing all manner of food, some of it home made. Hams, shellfish, fried squid, meats in sauces, rabbit paellas all accompanied by innumerable bottles of sherry and non-stop gambling on the races.
To say I was surprised to see David Mullin in the enclosure talking to a group of people in the sherry trade is an understatement. Why had he come? He’d never heard of Sanlúcar until our conversation in my office. How had he got into the enclosure? He seemed to be the centre of attention in the group. They seemed to be laughing at something he was saying. Someone in the group replenished his glass. I immediately saw David Mullin in different light. Something wasn’t right. I decided not to mention him nor his cellar to anyone.
He soon spotted me and bounded over. It was clear he’d had a few sherries, greeting me like a long-lost friend though offering no explanation why he was there. I didn’t ask and soon made some excuse to get back to my group. I never saw him again.
What transpired was recounted to me some time later. The three victims, involved in the world of wine, had immediately realized the real value of the wines. First thing on Monday, after visiting their bank and withdrawing a small fortune in fifty-euro notes, they made their way to Ronda to inspect the wines. Perhaps blinded by greed they were determined nobody would beat them to this once-in-a-lifetime bargain. After showing them round the impressive property, David Mullin took them down to the cellar. It turned out to be immaculate with all the usual temperature controls befitting such a large and rare collection of wines. There and then they agreed a price and handed over the money. They were to come back with a large van for the wines.
When they arrived two days later, having presold most of the wines at a large profit, a middle-aged English woman answered the door. When they asked for David Mullin she suggested they must have the wrong house. There was no David Mullin there. They insisted there must be. He was the owner. The woman at that point called the husband who confirmed they were the owners not David Mullin whoever he was. Now aware there was something wrong, they described David Mullin. They owners said it sounded like Stewart Pinkerton. An English gentleman, who having fallen on hard times, had knocked on their door looking for casual work. Feeling sorry for him they had employed him for a few days to clear some weeds. Stewart Pinkerton had turned out to be hard working and very well informed when it came to wine. The owner had shared a few glasses with him and shown him his impressive cellar. When the time had come to get paid, he’d ask for a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem instead of cash, something that surprised the owner but was happy to go along with. They were shocked when they discovered that Stewart Pinkerton, AKA David Mullin, had gained access to the house and ‘sold’ their valued collection for a fraction of its real value when they were away in UK. Nothing was missing from the house. Theft was clearly was not David Mullin’s style. Perhaps exploiting greed was.
Three very depressed gentlemen, drove an empty van back to Sanlúcar.
The Chateau d’Yquem 1986? Spectacular!