Thursday, February 28, 2008

DAYS 26 AND 27

Grrrr. Phhhhht. Phirginnnn@@££****&**. Shhhhttttt@£*&!

Only Blogger's terms and conditions prevent me from using the real expletives. But more of that later.

A young woman called Betty - whom I will never know - saved our lives tonight.

Her cool, unflappable calculations in the face of extreme dysfunction, guided us through dark streets and uncharted waters to an on-ramp to the I10 West from Tucson to Phoenix. Roadworks had closed down eight exits and on-ramps to downtown Tucson in its desert valley setting flanked by purple mountains.

Without Betty we would have been hopelessly lost - our Google Maps printout worse than useless.

Betty is the name we gave to the lady whose voice animates our borrowed Tom Tom GPS satellite navigation system. A rubber sucker holds her to the windscreen. You tell her where you want to go, and the maps that appear are accompanied by Betty's soothing admonitions to turn left, stay on the left lane, and take the motorway.

She has a peculiar hybrid voice - largely English in accent, but with distinct American undertones. "Motorway" becomes "modorway".

She has been guiding us all around Phoenix and Scottsdale - vast distances travelled between hotel and bookstores.

Last night we had a hugely successful event at Barnes and Noble, where I was presented to the audience by my publisher, Barbara Peters, and everyone tasted and appreciated the Gaillac wines of Domaine Sarrabelle.

That in itself was a minor miracle. Without any means of getting the wine from California to Arizona, we borrowed a special wine-carrying suitcase from Susie and checked it in with our luggage at the airport - 12 bottles! The suitcase weighed a ton!! The guy at the desk grunted as he lifted it. "What the hell you got in this?" he growled.

I just laughed. As if it might have been very heavy underwear - or our dirty washing to date.

Then today we signed books at the Poisoned Pen bookstore and lunched at the nearby Cafe Zu Zu in the Valley Ho Hotel. A bizarre lunch punctuated by lookalike Bond villains circulating among the tables and wandering through the hotel lobby. Our attention was first drawn to them by a squat, oriental gentleman with moustache, dark suit and bowler hat drifting past our table.


La Patronne blinked at him and said, "He looks like Top Hat." I took one look and knew what she meant. "Top Hat" was always what my dad called Odd Job, one of the villains from "Goldfinger". Then more villains floated by - Le Chiffre, Jaws, Hugo Drax - furrowing our foreheads in deep frowns before all was explained by the appearance of a celebrity Sean Connery lookalike.





Actually, it wasn't a bad likeness. Although, perhaps, a little too plump.

So Bond was the lunch theme, bland was the food. Oh, well.

One interesting footnote. The waitress who brought our check was called Caress - her name printed boldly on a badge pinned to her left breast. Was it an instruction, I wondered, or perhaps an invitation. I didn't have the courage to ask.

Then into the kilt and off to Tucson. A 2-hour drive through the desert on the traffic-choked Interstate 10, a vast landscape of cartoon cacti and red-baked desert tinted green from recent rains. No rain today, though. A simmering 28 degrees centigrade, every horizon broken by the peaks of distant mountains, the sky enormous, blue, and cloudless. You could understand why those wagon train pioneers gave up in the end and settled in these baking, dry valleys. They stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see, and must have offered very little hope of the lush green promised land those hardy, early settlers had hoped to find.

Nowadays the pioneers are the "snowbirds" from the north and east in search of winter sun, parking up in huge, featureless RV parks with water and electricity, and the haute cuisine of the Arizona desert - MacDonald's, Wendy's, Denny's, Starbucks.

And finally, to the venue for tonight's event. The Clues Unlimited bookstore in Tucson. Except that it was closed. And dark. And there was no one there. A notice in the window advertised my appearance, with talk and wine-tasting. But the store was locked and empty. A Marie-Celeste sort of mystery.

Darkness fell with the setting of the sun. Some people gathered on the pavement outside, but there was still no sign of the owner.

A lady with a notice pinned across her chest approached us. The notice read: I have been sent by Sharon and Hibbard.

La Patronne nearly split her sides laughing. This was the sister of a good friend, Sharon Williams. We had dined with her and husband Hibbard only two nights earlier in Sacramento. But as we introduced ourselves to one another on the sidewalk, it became clear that no one was coming to open up the store. I called the store's telephone number with my cellphone and heard it ringing in the shop. It was 7.20 pm. The event should have begun at 7pm. I left a curt message, and we decided to gift the wine to Sharon's sister before we left to begin the long drive back to Phoenix.

It would be impossible to take it with us. The wine carrier had already been FedExed back to Susie in California. Sharon's sister said she would wait there with the wine until a friend she was expecting arrived. We thought it might be a little dangerous leaving her on her own on the sidewalk with six bottles of wine, and she accepted our offer to walk her to the car with them. She smiled and patted her purse. "I normally carry a handgun," she said. "And I've had training in how to use it. But I haven't got it with me tonight."

We decided it was time to take our leave of Tucson.

And so we began the long, depressing drive back through the dark, guided by Betty, clueless as to why Clues Unlimited had advertised my event, then failed to open up for it.

There may be some perfectly plausible explanation, some tragedy, some unavoidable circumstance. So until an explanation is forthcoming, I reserve judgment. And my expletives remain (for the moment) deleted.

Grrrr. Phhhhht. Phirginnnn@@££****&**. Shhhhttttt@£*&!

Monday, February 25, 2008

DAY TWENTY-THREE

It was a dark and stormy night...

And no one turned up at the bookstore. Well... that's not quite true. A few hardy souls braved the dire storm warnings being pumped out by the media to come and hear me speak.

The phrase "from the sublime to the ridiculous" came to mind. The contrast between San Mateo on Friday night and Corte Madera on Saturday night could hardly have been more marked.

The one bright spot was that Sarah Weldon, an old friend from France, turned up with a friend, and we were all able to share a glass or two of wine with the storm-bravers and chat about the books.

While the good people of Northern California closed their shutters and huddled down in their homes to brave the blast, we drove an hour and a half through the rain to get to the town of Corte Madera which, in normal circumstances, has a fabulous view of San Francisco across the bay. But on this dark and stormy night, there was nothing to be seen. Not even a twinkling light.

Actually, the thing I really discovered was that the word "storm" has different meanings in California and Scotland. The forecasters here had been predicting heavy rain blowing in on winds of 40 miles per hour, gusting to 60. Which would have been an average February day in Argyll, where we spent our last ten years in Scotland. Winds need to get up to about 100 miles an hour before we would start to get concerned.

But a "storm" here in early January had brought down trees and power lines, and so no one wanted to venture out.

In the end, it wasn't even as bad as the forecasters had been warning, and we drove home through light winds and flashes of moonlight.

The following day was Oscars day. People in the States have Oscars parties. Families and friends gather around their TV sets with plates of finger food and watch a seemingly endless procession of celebrities tripping off and on the stage, shedding tears and thanking their grannies. But not having seen a single one of the nominated movies, it was, for us, a little like watching the Super Bowl. Unfathomable. But a good excuse for a glass of champagne!

Oh, well... Tuesday sees us depart for Phoenix, and with nearly a month still ahead of us, the great cross-America trek will begin.

(It's farewell to Sacramento, Susie, and grand-daughter Madeleine)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

DAY TWENTY-TWO

Wow! What an event. Sixty people crushed into the bookstore, drinking Gaillac wines and loving them, laughing at all the right places during my talk, buying lot of books. I think perhaps this was the best single event I've had in three US tours.

And to top it all, three delightful people - lawyer Mark Radcliffe, his wife Dianne, and their friend Anne - took La Patronne, Susie and I to dinner at a fabulous French restaurant a couple of blocks away from Ed Kaufman's M is for Mystery bookstore in San Mateo.

That was after Ed had wheeled out trolley after trolley of books for me to sign - many of them pre-ordered.

San Mateo is just south of San Francisco, in the beautiful Bay Area. We drove down in glorious sunshine, the jagged peaks of islands and headlands silhouetted against dazzling water, shredding the incoming cloud. And as we drove across the Bay Bridge, we had an extraordinary view of San Francisco itself, climbing and falling around all those steeply pitched hills. In the distance we saw the Golden Gate Bridge, spanning the bay away to the north.

It was nearly midnight as we headed back the same way in the dark, the lights of the city reflecting in the black expanse of water below.

Fifteen hours earlier, I had dragged myself from my bed to do a radio interview by phone with John DeMers for his "Delicious Mischief" radio show in Houston, Texas. Originally I was to have appeared live on the show on Saturday, March 1st. But he will be out of town that day, and so was pre-recording all the segments.

John is a great guy. It was the third time I've been on his show. He makes it so easy just to chat. Here's what he says about the upcoming transmission on his blog:


KILLER WINE
Many wine lovers complain these days that one or two wine critics exercise too much power over the wines that get made and marketed. Yet it’s a safe bet most of us have never considered knocking one of these guys off. That is precisely the premise of Peter May’s brand-new mystery “The Critic,” which he joins us to discuss. What’s more, the Scots-born May now lives in France and has done extensive research (a.k.a. drinking) into the wines of Gaillac for his page-turning novel.


Today we will try to make it into San Francisco for what's known as the "Crushpad Mashup" - an annual event where you can taste more than 300 different barrel samples of wine from 50 vineyards, alongside the people who are growing the grapes and making the wine. This will be a stop for us, in 3rd Street, en route to tonight's book event at the Book Passage bookstore in Corte Madera - right across the bay from San Francisco.

The only worry is the weather forecast. There's a big storm coming in off the Pacific. Heavy rain and high winds predicted. It could be a dark and stormy night!

* A footnote to the event in San Mateo. A charming lady called Milene Rawlinson, who has become a regular at my events there, arrived with an internet printout for me - a sequence of photographs depicting the current state of readiness in Beijing for this summer's Olympic Games. They made me laugh out loud. So here are a few examples. Enjoy!!



DAY TWENTY-ONE

The freeway cut sharply through the mountains behind Los Angeles. East and north. In the distance we could see snow on the highest peaks.

This was goodbye to sunny Southern California, and a long road north to Sacramento, which was forecast to have a chilly weekend of wind and rain. Finally, we are on the road. The tour has swung into gear. I feel sad to be leaving the sunshine behind, but no doubt we will encounter it again in Arizona and Texas, before our itinerary takes us to the still frozen northerly climes of Colorado and Minnesota.

Suddenly, the road swoops down through the foothills, and the great plains of the Californian interior shimmer off into a distant haze of ominous cloud and rain. In the very far distance, east and west, the dark lines of jagged mountain ranges fringe what they call the breadbasket of California. Endless miles of fruit trees and grain crops. There is already blossom on the trees.

Our 7-hour journey north is punctuated by pitstops at Starbucks, and I remember yesterday, and my tour of the Forensic Science Service labs of Orange County. A tour guided by the lead forensics investigator, Grant Fry, who took us from the helipad on the roof of the "penthouse", down through every floor to the blood drying rooms in the basement. A fascinating journey through the latest forensic technology, which will find its way into the new book when I sit down to write it at the end of the tour.

The drive also gave me a chance to think about that book. About story developments and characters. It is taking rapid shape, both in my head and on paper.

Tomorrow begins a heavy weekend, with events in San Mateo and Corte Madera, in the San Francisco Bay area, and an email from Ed Kaufman at San Mateo alerted us to the need to bring more wine for the tasting. He was anticipating a crowd of sixty or more squeezing into his small bookstore. "We had a bigger uptake than anticipated," he said. "I did an interview about the event on a local radio show, and the phone hasn't stopped ringing since."

So now I must unroll the kilt from the stocking it travels in, dust myself down, and dive once more into the fray.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

DAY NINETEEN

Okay, I'm standing drinking Gaillac wine, surrounded by French people talking French. So where am I?

Paris? Toulouse?

Actually, just off Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. It seems very strange to be chattering away in French. A young stagiere comes from the Aveyron, just a couple of hours away from where we live, and a stone's throw from my French publisher, Editions du Rouergue. A couple of ladies originate from towns very close to Gaillac, and are thrilled to hear me talk about the town and the wines, as well as to drink them - a taste of home.

This is the Los Angeles Alliance Francaise, and most of the people who have come to hear me speak are either French, have a French spouse, or grew up in France. Everyone speaks French. There are classes held here nightly, and facilities for teaching kids the language from the earliest age.

The event starts at seven, and doesn't finish until after ten. Our Sarrabelle wines were augmented by the wines of another Gaillac vigneron, Robert Plageoles, but it was the Sarrabelles that stole the show. Everyone wanted to know where and when they could buy them.

It was nearly midnight by the time we got home, having left at 10.30 that morning to meet with our former French neighbours, John and Bettie Jensen, at the LA Country Club for lunch. We have eaten there with them many times, and it is always a joy to see them again. We first met them 20 years ago when we bought a small holiday home in the 13th century village of Carennac on the banks of the River Dordogne.

They always told us they could hear us giggling at night, our voices carried across the gardens on the warm summer air, and that it always cheered them up. Happily, we are all giggling still.

Then it was on to the Los Angeles Mystery Bookstore in Westwood, where I signed piles of books before heading off for the Alliance Francaise.

Four events in 48 hours has left me staggering a little, but I cracked off to the gym this morning (Day 20) to get oxygen to my brain for a research trip this afternoon to the forensic laboratories of the Orange County Police Department at Santa Ana (the CSI people) - research for the new book.

No rest, it's true, for the wicked. So I must be ve-ery bad. Cos first thing tomorrow, it's into the car for a seven-hour drive north to Sacramento, and events Friday and Saturday at San Mateo and Corte Madera, right across the bay from San Francisco.

It's at times like this I almost wish I'd succumbed to last year's temptation to buy a little vineyard in Gaillac and spend the rest of my days producing wine rather than words. But it's maybe a little late to change horses now.

So.... onwards! And northwards!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

DAY EIGHTEEN

Patrick and I each had a long day.

Patrick is the bookseller at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego. He was selling my books in the afternoon when I talked to a group of readers and conducted a wine tasting at the store.

And he arrived with boxes of books to sell at the evening event at Le Bouchon French restaurant just up the road in Escondido. He had to listen to me twice, which must have been trying enough, but neither of us finished up until 8pm.

For him, the day would end with a short drive home. For us it was nearly two hours back to Newport Beach, another 12-hour day under our belts.

But 12 successful hours.

During a quiet moment I asked Patrick how things were going at the store. He said things were good. And when authors came and signed books, even better. During both evening and afternoon sessions I had signed piles of stock, of both "The Critic" and "The Killing Room".

That evening Patrick told me, "Before you left the shop, I had those books up on the internet. They'll all be sold by tomorrow."

He said I had established a good fan base in San Diego, and that the turnout at the shop at 3.30 on a Monday afternoon had been amazing.

Those readers were particularly privileged - not because they had to endure me talking for an hour - but because they got to taste the first Sarrabelle wines ever to be drunk on American soil.

I went through the tasting processes with them, and opened a bottle of Sarrabelle's Saint Andre - a wonderful, smooth red made from 100 percent Braucol grapes, then aged in oak. They loved it. The wine writer from the San Diego newspaper was there, too, and arranged to conduct a phone interview with me later this week for the full low-down on the Sarrabelle vintages. By this time glasses were empty, and there was a clamour for more.

As there was later in the day when members of San Diego's Alliance Francaise packed into Le Bouchon to hear me speak, and then taste both the Saint Andre and the Sarrabelle Syrah - as well as the Gaillac white made from 100 percent Mauzac grapes. Everyone wanted to know where they could buy these wines. And we were able to tell them that they should be available for general sale from February 28th when the first shipment arrives in Weygandt-Metzler's warehouse from France.

And what I found particularly strange, but oddly comforting, was to be standing in the heart of Spanish influenced Southern California talking French to restaurant owner Michel, and Alliance Francaise organiser Anne Laure! The world turns in strange ways.

(Chatting in French to restaurant owner Michel)

It has been a long road since we first stumbled upon Domaine Sarrabelle, tucked away anonymously amongst the rolling hills on the north bank of the River Tarn. A long time since we first stood in a darkened tasting room at the back of the wine shed with Fabien Causse tasting those wonderful wines for the first time.

And it gave me a particular pleasure and satisfaction to see so many people sharing in the pleasure of those same wines, two-and-a-half years and 6000 miles later.

Day nineteen will see us on the road again. To LA this time. A drop-by signing at a Bookstore in Westwood, then on to an evening event organised by the Los Angeles Alliance Francaise. More wine to be drunk, more converts to be made, more books to be sold.

And miles to go before I sleep.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

DAY SIXTEEN

It might seem like a bit of a jump from twelve to sixteen, but actually I think I was miscalculating (it's the sun and all those Margaritas). It was La Patronne (who else?) who pointed out that since we left on February 1st, the blog day should correspond to the date.

Hmmmm. She's not known as Miss 167 for nothing.

So here we are on Saturday, February 16th - Day Sixteen - and I have just completed my first formal event.

It was at Thousand Oaks, a small, prosperous community nestled among the hills just north of Los Angeles. The bookstore was Mysteries to Die For, run by Heidi and Deanne. There was a good turn-out on a beautiful morning. I had just driven the two hours north from Newport Beach on half empty freeways, and guzzled a caramel macchiato at Starbucks.

I was a little nervous, since this was my first talk of the 2008 tour - discussing the second and third books, respectively, of the Enzo Files and China Thrillers series. I never like to prepare too much, because then I get locked into a battle with my memory for a form of words I might have written down earlier.

So I had simply sketched in a broad shape in my mind the night before, making a few notes on my (now working) new computer, at the end of a long day of too many Margaritas and too much wine. And, as always, I found myself talking about things I hadn't planned to - like my first research trip to an oil rig in the north sea during a Force Ten storm, and a drunken dog with a bag over its head.

If you want to know more, you'll have to come along to one of my events. By the end of the tour the talk will have been honed to a fine art, and will trip off my tongue without a second thought. But there's always something a little exciting about the first one - like the first performance of a new play. A little rough around the edges, but crackling with creative tension.

On the drive back, I could barely keep my eyes open. The sun was blazing through the windscreen, the freeways were choked, and we sat in long tailbacks. It was a huge relief to get home - where awaited a delicious surprise.

The six sample cases of Sarrabelle wines had arrived, delivered by FedEx to Susie's door. All the brave efforts of Fran├žoise at the winery, and the determination of Fabien and Laurent - the winemakers - to make their wines available for my California tastings had paid off.

I also received a mail from Peter Weygandt, the American importer, to tell me that the rest of the wine would be available for shipping from his US warehouse from February 28th.

Woo hoo! Success!!

All that remains now is to taste and drink, and introduce both readers and wine lovers to the delights of Gaillac wines. As well, hopefully, as selling a few books along the way

We made a good start today. Keeping fingers crossed now that all will go well with the rest of the tour.

IT HAS BEGUN!

[Susie and La Patronne herald the arrival of the wine (note Karl Rove preparing his world famous guacamole in BG)]

Thursday, February 14, 2008

DAY TWELVE

Now I'm really losing track, having squandered two entire days in that nether world of computer frustration, where nothing seems to work and nothing you do seems to fix it.

The new computer - the one to replace the new one that didn't work - arrived on Tuesday as scheduled. What should have been a simple installation of software followed by a migration of files, all went horribly wrong.

(The scene of the computer crime - somehow we had managed to assemble at least six computers!)

My files refused to migrate automatically through the usual firewire link between the two computers, and so I had to do the migratation, file by painful file - including my entire library with all its preferences.

It took hours. And then, finally, just when I thought it was all hunky dory, my hard disk told me it was full. 120 gigabytes of full. When there should have been more than 70 gigabytes of free space. I went to bed in despair and frustration.

The following day, with the help of Apple expert and software genius, Eric the Viking, I finally solved all the problems and got the damned thing working - with full access to the online virtual world I am researching. Woo-hoo! Back in business.

As a thank you to all, I made lunch. My famous souffle omelette, which the Viking generously described as the best omelette he'd ever had.

And by way of celebration, as well as to make up for missing my session at the gym, we all went out for dinner - well, eating and drinking seems to me like a good way of making up for lost exercise!

At the restaurant, we met up with Susie's neighbours Rob and Linda, and through the windows watched folk sitting outside around tables with huge flames flickering into the night - California style.

Suddenly I became aware that the waiting staff was treating us like celebrities.

For a moment I thought it was because of Rob. Rob is a big, glamorous man with a teak tan and a thick head of pure white hair. He just took early retirement from what must be one of the most exotic jobs on the planet - for the last fifteen years or more he piloted Sony Pictures private jets around the world, rubbing shoulders with famous movie stars, producers and directors, and flying them to every corner of the planet.

But it wasn't Rob attracting the attention of the staff. And it certainly wasn't me.

Then came the revelation.

It was Eric the Viking. Only, they didn't know he was Eric the Viking. They thought he was Karl Rove - political guru and architect of the Bush presidency. I did a double-take, and for the first time realised that the Viking was, indeed, the dead spitting image of the one-time White House puppetmaster.

I was almost in exalted company, I thought. Then re-thought. Actually, I was in much more exalted company than any disgraced White House chief of staff. I was with good friends, in a fine restaurant, with a computer back home that was finally back on track.

Not only that, but I was eating Scottish salmon. A taste of home.

Sometimes life is good. And good friends are even better!

(PS: Can anyone spot which is the real Eric the Viking?)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

DAY TEN

Well, it might be ten. Or maybe nine. Even eleven.

See... lost track already. Today is Monday. Yesterday I did my first signing - out on the sidewalk outside Martha's bookstore on Balboa Island. Two hours in the sunshine. Temperature creeping up to 26 degrees. Got a big red face today!

Everyone stopped to talk, to gawp at the kilt (first time I've worn it this trip - and it felt good around the waist after me losing all that weight!!). Then, just like the same venue, same time last year, a couple passed and the woman looked at me suspiciously and said, "Why are you wearing a kilt?'

Of course, I heard immediately from her accent that she was Scottish. "Because I'm a Scot," I replied. And their faces lit up.

Turned out they came from Paisley, where I started my career in journalism on the Paisley Daily Express. Not only that, but we discovered we knew all these people in common from way back in the seventies - folk like Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly and Danny Kyle, and a bunch of talented people I interviewed for the paper - all former pupils of Paisley's St. Mirren's Academy. A hotbed of creative talent in those days, it seems.

In fact it was a couple of articles I wrote about a Paisley artist who had graduated from St. Mirren's, that won me my 'Young Journalist of the Year' award. All these years later I can still remember his name. Fergus Hall. I wonder whatever became of him.

So then we discovered that these good folk had emigrated to Tasmania, of all places, thirty years ago, and here they were, decades later crossing my path by chance on a street on Balboa Island, California. It really is a small world. Last year, on the same street, I met a young Scotsman who had married an American girl and settled here in Newport Beach. His parents were there on holiday from Scotland, and it was the father who had given me the odd look and asked why I was wearing the kilt.

Okay, so people are always giving me odd looks - whether I'm wearing the kilt or not. I should be used to it by now.

Then it was off to lunch with the Jensens, my old neighbours from France, who live in a wonderul timewarp cottage in Beverly Hills. Despite now being well into their eighties, they made the drive down from LA to see us, and come along to the launch party in the afternoon.

Susie's House

Susie was hosting the party, and the caterers wheeled in copious amounts of extraordinarily good food, while we cracked open the bottles of Gaillac wine we had managed to find for sale in the US (the good stuff is not scheduled to arrive till later this week). Everyone raved about the wine, though, including a French couple who live across the road and spend Spring and Fall in their apartment in Paris.

The good ladies of Martha's bookstore arrived with piles of my books, and we did a good trade in sales and signatures. La Patronne even sold ten copies of her romantic comedy, "Looking for the Zee".

When finally the dust settled, and Susie had flown off to San Francisco for a meeting today, her business partner Eric (the Viking), and I sat into the small hours playing piano and guitar, dredging up old Beatles songs from the dark recesses of long lost memory.

Practising on the grand during a quiet moment before the fray

And as I drove through the sunshine to the gym this morning in Susie's BMW sports convertible, the long shadows of tall palms dissecting empty streets, I thought...

... I could get used to this life.

If only I could afford the health insurance!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

DAY EIGHT

Okay, so I've been hiding for a couple of days. Two things have been on my mind.

The first, and most important, was that my daughter, Carol, was taken into hospital in Bangkok to have a biopsy done on a tumour growing on her liver.

The poor wee soul had a miserable and painful time. She wasn't allowed to move for four hours after the procedure, and was then kept in overnight.

That was Thursday night, California time. Through the wonders of technology, I talked to her in her hospital bed that night. She was in quite a lot of pain, and pretty miserable. She had to wait until early afternoon the following day to get the results. A tense and stressful period of waiting.

I found it difficult to concentrate on much all day Friday, phoning finally late on Friday night. She and her husband, Chris, were just checking out of the hospital. And she was on cloud nine.

The tumour was benign. Huge relief all round.

Carol and Chris on their wedding day


A tiny coda to the story. When the doctor was examining ultra-sound images of her liver he said it was otherwise in excellent condition. I expressed my amazement to her: "After the amount of booze YOU put away?"

She laughed and said: "That's exactly what I said to him."

The other thing on my mind - which was, of course, put firmly into perspective by Carol's predicament - was the purchase of a new laptop computer from the local Apple store.

Damned thing had "issues" as they say here. It was gobbling up memory like a hungry dog on speed. Suddenly a 120 gigabyte hard disk had 450 megabytes left!!!

Not only that, but for some reason it wouldn't run a critical piece of software that I am using right now for research on my new book. A graphics-hungry little number that takes me into a virtual world. Crashed the whole system everytime.

So I have spent more than four hours, over two days, standing at the Genius Bar in the Apple Store trying to solve the problems. First they replaced the computer. We reloaded my files and software. Bingo! Worked like a treat. But still wouldn't take me back into my virtual world.

Further investigations revealed a conflict between a new video card and the access software. A problem that looks like it won't be solved any time soon.

So now I have another computer on the way. Should arrive Tuesday. Hopefully that will solve the problem. All digits crossed!

A final word to Joe, our genius at the bar. We kept the poor man at work way past his going home time - wife and kids waiting for him round the dinner table. But he dealt with us with patience and good humour. Even when he saw us returning the next day, and his heart must have been sinking.

Joe.... thank you. But if the new computer doesn't do the job, expect to see us again on Tuesday!!!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

DAY SIX


On this year's tour, I'm not just going to be talking about my latest books, but introducing the wines of Gaillac to the world. This little-known wine-producing region of South-West France is where "The Critic" is set.

I received wonderful help and support from the wine producers there during my researches for the book. From two producers in particular: brothers, Hubert and Pierric de Faramond of Chateau Lastours, and brothers Laurent and Fabien Causse of Domaine Sarrabelle.

Characters from both vineyards somehow magically morphed into characters in the book through the mysterious processes of fiction writing. But the wines made it into the book without any fictionalizing from me.

And so, during my tour, I wanted not only to give a talk about the book, but to invite my readers to join me in tastings of the Gaillac wines that feature in the story. Unfortunately very few wines from Gaillac actually make it to the States. Which is a shame, because there are some fabulous undiscovered wines, at extremely good prices. And I just know the Americans would love them.

So, through a process of diligence and persistence, I finally managed to interest an American importer in bringing in Gaillac wines for my tour - and beyond.

The importer is a man called Peter Weygandt, of Weygandt-Metzler. They are based in Pennsylvania but import to almost all of the states we are visiting. Peter Weygandt himself is a highly respected wine-taster whose choice of wines receives the full-hearted endorsement of Robert Parker - the world's No1 wine critic.

So when he decided to import the wines of Domaine Sarrabelle that was quite an accolade for Fabien and Laurent Causse, who grow their grapes on 37 hectares of rolling land on the north side of the River Tarn. Because he didn't just take my word for the quality of the wine. He had some shipped to taste for himself. And so impressed was he, that last week he went all the way to France to meet the winemakers and taste their wines in the vineyard itself.

He loved them.

But importing wine is no easy task - especially to the United States, where every state has different laws governing the importation, sale, and consumption of alcohol. So it has been a last-minute rush to try to get the wines here on time - and it looks like we might just have succeeded

While the main shipment won't arrive in time for the start of the tour, Domaine Sarrabelle, in cooperation with Weygandt-Metzler, are air-freighting 72 bottles of wine from Gaillac to California so that we have genuine Gaillac wines to taste at the early events.

There are two reds:

The Sarrabelle Syrah, which as you might imagine, is compose mostly of Syrah.

And the Saint Andre, which is produced 100 percent from the Braucol grape, which is one of the signature grapes of the Gaillac AOC.

In addition, there will be a white, produced from one of the signature white grapes - Mauzac

These grapes, along with others like Duras and Loin d l'oeil, are what give Gaillac wines their very distinctive flavours. A little different from Bordeaux and Burgundy, but every bit as good - even if they aren't as well-known.

So, it is with bated breath - after much e-mail to-ing and fro-ing - that we await the arrival next week of the first Gaillacs.

And I'm really looking forward to a taste of home.