Jamie Fraser, settling down for his first night of incarceration in one of Her Majesty’s bleaker prisons, wondered how things might have turned out if his dead father had not considered the corkscrew an abomination.
Gibraltar had presented its inhabitants with a miserable morning. Incessant drizzle, swirling winds and a heavy levante made its streets slippery and unpleasant. Oblivious to the weather, Jamie made his way to Irish Town where the family solicitors Strachan, Strachan and Strachan (all original partners now deceased) had for years conducted their business from an elegant nineteenth-century townhouse.
As a child, Jamie had been a regular visitor. Scared, but exhilarated, he would wander the unoccupied basement whilst his father Charlie conducted whatever matter in hand had brought them there. Courageously, he would go into dark rooms full of old files and dusty books, hoping to see a ghost or an apparition, until a creak in a floorboard or a clock striking the hour sent him rushing back to his father. Charlie had already noticed the boy seemed to enjoy risk.
Arriving in Irish Town on this blustery morning, Jamie expected to see neither ghoul nor spirit, anticipating his father’s will as near a revelation from the other side as he would ever receive.
Those who had known Charlie Fraser had considered him a meticulous and charitable man possessing an uncanny ability to single out successful investments. This had made him wealthy and his trust a symbol of integrity and business know-how. Charlie’s investment strategy had been no secret, though friends and rivals found it hard to accept it was nothing more than seeking businesses with honest directors and overwhelming hurdles for competitors. They preferred to believe he had been gifted, or could somehow access valuable information long before others did. Charlie, who had never been avaricious, and would have been as happy poor as rich, had found it easy to be charitable, thinking nothing of the large sums he gave away.
He would go into dark rooms hoping to see a ghost or an apparition.
Willie Cruz, Charlie’s longstanding friend and solicitor, was neither happy nor sad as he made his way to Irish Town for the last time. Charlie’s death had come as a shock to Willie who, taking stock of his own life, promptly decided to retire with immediate effect. Strachan, Strachan and Strachan would miss the old solicitor. His network of contacts and friends in Gibraltar and London, had allowed the firm to grow influential and prosperous after Willie took over the helm following the death of the last Strachan. It was said that those wanting to quietly sell or acquire valuable businesses, property, art, rare wines or even avoid an acrimonious divorce could do no better than consult him. A day or two later an offer would be available but only after he ensured neither side was taking advantage of the other. After a long working life Willie’s reputation remained unparalleled.
On this, his last day, his retirement lunch would be held in the firm’s grand dining room. Overlooked by portraits of the Strachans, the ancient mahogany table would be dressed in crisp, white linen overlaid with the firm’s silver cutlery and sparkling crystal glasses. Willie had chosen pan-fried scallops to be followed by Irish beef and mashed potatoes. He hoped the dishes would appeal to his partners without seeming extravagant. Willie’s dislike of unnecessary expenditure was legendary in Gibraltar’s legal fraternity. However, before lunch, he would meet Charlie’s son Jamie Fraser, an encounter he wasn’t relishing. He hoped he would still have an appetite for scallops and beef after telling Jamie that the bulk his father’s fortune had been left to a charitable trust.
Charlie had loved the boy whose blue eyes and long shapely nose reminded him of his young, beautiful wife. She had died when Jamie was barely eight. At first, he was surprised that his son appeared untroubled by his mother’s death, but soon realised Jamie had been deeply traumatised. The boy started taking all sorts of physical risks. Cuts, bruises and large bumps on his head only spurred him on to his next risky adventure. On one occasion he had jumped from a second-floor window on to a drain pipe but had lost his grip and fallen, breaking his arm. Wanting to scare Rocio, their Spanish cook with his injury, he went down to the kitchen where the poor woman, horrified by his dangling arm, dropped an iron casserole which exploded on the stone floor sending shards of metal and garlic chicken in all directions. Years later, the cook, now well past retirement age but reluctant to leave Señor Fraser and his son on their own, chuckled to herself as she prepared garlic chicken on Jamie’s last day before he left for St Andrew’s University in Scotland.
Jamie did well with his studies. Economics and Finance showed he had an exceptional aptitude for analysis and decision-making. He was not, however, considered an ideal student, spending too much time running the mountaineering and ski club or organising weekends at Glenshee, or Glencoe. Fellow students soon learned that climbing or skiing with Jamie would push them to their limits and, in the end, only the very skilful or foolhardy would accompany him on his weekends.
It was now fetching over £22,000 for a single bottle.
When Jamie graduated, Charlie reluctantly offered him a position in his office knowing that his son’s propensity for risk would eventually end in friction between them. He was relieved when his son turned him down, having accepted the post of a ski guide in Verbier, where he would spend the next few years leading proficient skiers down the steeper runs of Mont Gelè. Summers would be spent climbing the Swiss classics.
The autumn before Charlie died, Jamie, having said goodbye to Switzerland for the last time, returned to Gibraltar. Years of skiing and climbing the Alps had dampened his enthusiasm and he no longer felt the exhilaration he once did. His father, who had been secretly terrified that someday he would bury Jamie, was relieved when his son returned home, seemingly no longer interested in life-threatening pastimes. Charlie died that winter from a rare blood disorder. Jamie, grief-stricken, realised how much he had loved his father and bitterly regretted not having spent more time with him.
If he was upset with his father’s will Jamie didn’t say. He had been left the family home, a large detached Georgian villa in the South District, and a generous amount of money. The will had made it clear that Charlie had considered his wealth a burden unlikely to bring his son lasting happiness. Jamie would have to carve a future of his own making. Willie Cruz, painfully aware of the silence that had enveloped the two men after reading the will, quickly offered his help in disposing of Charlie’s wine collection. Jamie had never taken an interest in his father’s purchases and was surprised that Willie should consider the contents of their basement worthy of special interest. He could not think when he had last been there. Willie pushed a thick, red file towards him. It listed innumerable wines personally acquired for Charlie. Purchases meticulously recorded with names like Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Lafite Rothschild and Leroy appearing regularly. Bottles whose prices continued to go stratospheric as Chinese and international buyers demanded the finest of fine wines from merchants in London and Hong Kong. Before their meeting, Willie had checked the going price for a wine taken at random from the file. Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru 1985 was now fetching over £22,000 for a single bottle – Charlie had bought several cases when the wine was still affordable. It struck the old solicitor that perhaps Jamie was far wealthier than his father ever intended.
Years earlier, when Charlie first acquired the Jayer wines, the 1985 Richebourg had shone like a large translucent ruby against the powerful light on his desk. It had been a long time since he had used the common corkscrew, an implement he considered an abomination, demanding brute strength and abrupt movements dispersing clouds of ancient sediments back into clear, bright liquids. Charlie would not be using one to open this, or any other, wine.
Carefully, he clamped the old bottle to a beautiful brass and steel contraption whose shiny metal wheel, steel prongs and intricate mesh of sprockets and cogs would have baffled the casual observer. It had been made to Charlie’s specification by a clever watchmaker in London, who had been delighted to take on such a challenging commission. Charlie, carefully turning the polished wheel, made the bottle revolve whilst two sharp scalpels neatly decapitated the lead capsule. Long, thin blades then descended vertically, effortlessly disappearing into the gap between glass and cork. He watched fascinated as the steel blades quickly reappeared carrying a perfect, un-pierced cork. After decanting the liquid, Charlie, as he had always done, threw the cork and capsule nonchalantly into a large tea chest and placed the empty bottle back where it had lain.
It was afternoon by the time Jamie returned from Irish Town. His father’s will in a large manila envelope. Throwing the envelope aside and without removing his coat, he rushed to the basement taking the steps two at a time. Pushing open the heavy, creaking door he was momentarily overwhelmed by the smell of cork and ancient wine. In a corner stood his father’s brightly lit desk and, in the gloom surrounding it, thousands of bottles interspersed with wooden cases on racks stretching from floor to ceiling. Glittering on the desk stood the shiny contraption he had been allowed to operate as a child. His father called it his ‘Sommelier’ – a word that captured the boy’s imagination which he repeated out loud the rest of the day.
Charlie had never considered his wines as investments. Generous to a fault, he enjoyed sharing them with friends and acquaintances and it was a rare day when he dined alone. He took great pleasure in hosting opulent dinners where the well-heeled paid his charities handsomely for the privilege of tasting his famous rarities. Now seriously ill, Charlie, who had always pitied those who died with a full cellar, carefully negotiated his way down to the basement determined to open his last full bottle. He was deeply grateful for a gratifying and successful life and felt neither fear nor regret as he watched his Sommelier operate its magic for the last time. He passed away three days later.
He was overwhelmed by the smell of cork and ancient wine.
Pulling out bottles here and there and shaking wooden cases, Jamie soon realised the fabled wine collection was nothing more than the empty detritus of a lifetime of wine consumption. He had felt deeply hurt by Charlie thinking him unable to handle money and powerless to prove otherwise until Willie Cruz threw him a lifeline with his file of expensive wines. A lifeline which had ceased to exist. To Jamie’s rational mind the solution was simple. He would fill the empty bottles which the unsuspecting solicitor would sell on to eager and wealthy clients in Gibraltar and London. Heart thumping, he realised he had not felt this exhilarated in a long time.
Had Jamie’s university lecturers witnessed his approach to fraud they would have would have agreed it was methodical and structured. For the next few months Jamie immersed himself in the world of fine wine and that of its noxious cousin – fake wine. He learned that auction houses, aware of the huge profit fraudulent wines could bring criminals, had developed sophisticated tests routinely applied to suspicious consignments. The criminal fraternity now accepted counterfeiting old bottles, labels or corks was no longer viable. Jamie had inherited a fraudster’s dream: genuine bottles, labels and boxes – all with traceable provenance. Even the sediment in the bottles was genuine! It was clear to Jamie that without the Sommelier’s unpunctured corks his fraudulent scheme would have been dead in the water.
Domaine de la Romanèe Conti -Romanèe-St-Vivant 1990, considered the apogee of Burgundian Pinot Noir, cost its producer no more to make than an averagely priced supermarket wine. Jamie noted dispassionately its current bottle price of £15,000. He read how experts considered its escalating price more to do with status and investment than the quality of the liquid which many claimed was indistinguishable from wines produced in adjacent vineyards. From Willie Cruz’s file he knew his father had acquired seventy-two bottles in six cases back in the early nineties which, if sold, would now pocket Jamie over a million pounds.
Several weeks later, having taken delivery of six cases of wine from nearby vineyard, Jamie took great pleasure in carefully filling the empty Romanèe bottles. It took him the rest of the day to match each bottle with its corresponding cork which he then sealed with an identical lead capsule replicated from the originals by a small, helpful firm in Glasgow supplying tiny, independent whiskey bottlers. After packing the now full bottles into their original cases, Jamie called Willie Cruz.
The retired solicitor, delighted to hear from Jamie, had little trouble in finding a buyer for the famed wine. Their new owner, a successful London investment banker in his forties, had opened several of the bottles for his wife’s thirtieth birthday. The evening had been a resounding success with guests unanimously declaring the wine fabulous. The banker, on expensive crested paper, wrote an old-fashioned letter thanking Willie and praising the quality of the wine which he described as “fragrant, ethereal, with a truly complex finish. The most elegant wine I have ever tasted”.
A few days later Jamie, hands shaking, opened Willie Cruz’s envelope. The NatWest cheque inside seemed to Jamie extraordinarily ordinary, almost casual in its appearance. The way the ball-point pen had inelegantly skated across the shiny paper, Willie’s unassuming signature and the way so many zeros had been squeezed into such a small space made it seem mundane. No doubt hundreds of similar-looking cheques would be used in Gibraltar that day to pay electricity bills, repair bills and parking fines. Few would change lives. It was several moments before Jamie stopped smiling. Above all else he could now prove he could have managed the family wealth.
Over the next few years Jamie’s became increasingly wealthy, his fake wines arousing no suspicion. After all they were genuine, almost! His reputation as a collector and dealer of fine and rare wines firmly established in London and beyond. He was regularly sought out by major auction houses for his opinion on rare consignments. Private collectors, worried that they had been sold fake wine, quietly consulted Jamie who could now tell at a glance if a bottle was genuine or not. By the time Willie Cruz died, Jamie had been confidently placing wines directly with major auction houses In London and New York where their traceable provenance attracted record bids.
Eighty-year-old, legendary wine maker, Louis Pinsard, sitting down for his morning coffee and pastis was horrified to read that six bottles of his 1992 Cuvèe St Michelot were to be auctioned in London the following day. He knew they were fake. The wine been made as a private reserve, from a tiny patch of ancient vines adjacent to his country house. Only twelve bottles were ever produced before the vines were reluctantly grubbed-up to make way for new stables. Six bottles still lay in his cellar and six had been opened and drunk with his friend Charlie Fraser at one of Charlie’s charity dinners in Gibraltar years before. The next day Louis Pinsard flew to London where the horrified auction house withdrew the wines and immediately informed the police.
When Detective Inspector Andrew Tucker rang the doorbell, Jamie, who had taken to holding lavish charity dinners like his father before him, was opening a magnum of Chateau Montrose 1928 for his paying guests –watching as the old Sommelier effortlessly extracted the cork for the umpteenth time.