As we touched down on the runway, I could see the Union Jack fluttering on Moorish Castle. For me that was always the start of the holiday. Today however was a new experience, I was here to work and not to enjoy the sun, atmosphere and time with family and friends.
I was quite proud of myself as I guided my boss, Chuck, through the airport and out into a delightfully fresh, clear day in Gibraltar. He seemed impressed that I knew my way around and by the warm welcome from one of the customs officers in arrivals (we used to play squash against each other at Victoria Stadium). As an American from Los Angeles, Chuck found the notion of walking across the runway astonishing and stopped to take countless photos as we crossed the tarmac and made our way towards Main Street.
Chuck found the notion of walking across the runway astonishing.
We were seeing one of the large financial institutions with a presence in Gibraltar and our meeting was in their impressive, if rather old-fashioned, offices. As we sat in their boardroom and discussed our proposal, the faces of Nelson, Collingwood, and Sergeant-Major Ince looked down impassively from their gilded frames. Whilst our presentation was well-received, we were none the less surprised when Sir Ian, who was leading the discussion from their side, asked us to delay returning to the UK on the afternoon flight, stay in Gib overnight and join him and the team for dinner. He had us booked at The Rock Hotel and was clearly not going to take no for an answer.
An hour later I was gazing out across the bay and marvelling at the number of oil tankers anchored there, waiting for orders to go and collect oil from who knows where. With Africa within touching distance it was easy to imagine sailing the high seas stopping at one exotic port after another. A sharp knock on the door brought me back to reality: “Where can we get a cold beer?” asked Chuck. I grabbed my jacket and we headed out.
It was 4pm and we had hours before dinner. Making sure Chuck had his passport, we made our way into town, stopping to admire historic Trafalgar Cemetery on the way. Along Main Street and through Casemates and soon we were heading back across the runway into Spain. Chuck couldn’t believe that we had just walked into another country and was now sending his wife selfies with the Spanish flag in the background. We headed into La Linea and, after a few twists and turns on streets I had run around on when I was a boy, we arrived at my favourite bar in Spain – Pepe’s.
I had taken friends there before and most of them had thought I was mad when we walked in, and loved it by the time we walked out. Chuck, who was a well-seasoned traveller and knew me quite well, sensed as soon as we crossed the threshold that this would be an experience. He took off his jacket, folded it neatly and then placed it on the counter. This was a classic sherry bar. Small room, bar topped with slate, three tables occupied by old men watching football on the TV and 6 large sherry barrels, in a pyramid, against the wall behind the bar. “Dos finos, por favor.” The barman, without taking his eyes from the TV, poured two generous measures in front of us and then wrote, on the slate, what we owed. Chuck looked at it doubtfully. “I was really hoping for a beer first, this heat has made me thirsty.” I asked the barman who opened a small fridge, pulled out a gigantic, half-empty bottle of Cruzcampo, and poured a generous measure, without care, into a large glass. Chuck downed it in one and then turned his attention to the Fino.
His question was the obvious one. I explained that sherry is a misunderstood drink. Most people equating it only with their grandmother’s Christmas tipple, never considering it a sophisticated wine with many different styles. I described Fino, the style we were about to enjoy, as delightfully refreshing, crisp, dry, with a hint of almonds and olives. Chuck looked at me politely nodding non- committedly. Soon we were speaking excitedly about the prospect of dinner and how it boded for our chances of securing the deal. Chuck seemed to be enjoying the sherry. In passable Spanish he ordered another two. I pointed out that these should be our last as on this occasion it would not do to be fooled by sherry and its effects. That would have to wait for another time
Delightfully refreshing, crisp, dry, with a hint of almonds and olives.
We arrived by taxi at Queensway Quay well in time. Claus On the Rock had just newly opened, a worthy addition to Gib’s fine dining scene at the time now sadly gone. We were seated at a large table overlooking the marina – a welcome breeze blowing in from the sea. When the others arrived there were handshakes all round and soon we turned our attention to the menu. The food looked fantastic and soon we had ordered and Sir Ian chosen something to accompany our first course. He told us that he was a huge fan of Spanish wine and that, if we did not know it, then we were in for a real treat. My parents had indoctrinated me in Spanish wine from a relatively young age and, as a result, I was quite knowledgable but felt it polite not to mention it. I remember it was a delightful barrel-fermented Nekeas Chardonnay from Somontano which complemented the locally-caught sea bass perfectly.
As the plates from the first course were cleared, Chuck asked Sir Ian if he would allow us to choose and pay for some red wine that we could enjoy with our next course. Sir Ian agreed, happy to afford his guest this courtesy. The waiter came over and offered Chuck the extensive wine list. Instead of taking it, Chuck simply uttered something in waiter’s ear before turning his attention back to the table. I could see a flurry of activity in the back and then suddenly the waiter with Claus himself, in full chef’s attire, were at our table together with, a bottle, a decanter and various other accoutrements. Theatrically, Claus, in perfect English but with a pronounced German accent announced:
“The Vega Sicilia Unico, 1970. Spain’s jewel in the crown! There is nothing better. A magnificent wine.” Claus now smiling and changing to a more jovial tone winked at Chuck “Somebody knows his wine here!” he followed. Sir Ian may have been a Knight of the Realm but that did not stop his jaw dropping like a schoolboy when he saw the legendary wine. When Claus had finished, Chuck simply said that he thought a fan of Spanish wine would appreciate this gem.
At the end of dinner, Sir Ian placed his napkin on the table and gently cleared his throat. He then told us that our proposal had been extremely compelling, he felt there was a strong cultural fit between our organisations and that he looked forward to working with us on the deal. To this day I don’t think that ordering the Vega Sicilia won us the deal, but it certainly didn’t do us any harm.
As the plane thundered along the runway and took off into the Mediterranean sky I turned to Chuck and asked him how on earth he had figured out to order the Vega Sicilia. He looked me in the eye and said “I didn’t. I just asked him to bring me the most expensive bottle they had”.