Can you imagine a world without wine? This is the story behind Root Cause, a recently published book by Steven Laine.
Corvina Guerra is a flying winemaker who dreams of one day settling down in her native Italy on her family’s vineyard. On a visit to a vineyard in Italy, Corvina makes a startling discovery: Phylloxera, a menacing plant that devastated vineyards in Europe more than a hundred years ago, has infested the vines.
After reporting her findings to her company, Universal Wines, Corvina is charged with investigating the spread of the bug. Nicknamed Philomena by the media, the aphid is soon discovered in vineyards around the world. To aid in her investigation, Corvina recruits a wine expert in London, Bryan Lawless. In pursuit of its origins, Corvina and Bryan embark on a thrilling globetrot on which they uncover that Philomena is being intentionally spread.
The deeper Corvina and Bryan search, the more they become convinced that Universal Wines holds the answer to everything, and the harder they pursue their investigation the more surprises pile up.
In spite of devastating consequences, Corvina and Bryan vow to continue their investigation and do what they can to contain the spread of the infestation – but time is running short and they always seem to be a step behind. Unless they can find a way to stop the Philomena – vineyards around the world will be ruined for decades; potentially causing the collapse of the wine industry. Can Corvina and Bryan get to the root cause and save the international wine industry from ruin?
Extract from Root Cause
Corvina caught a server’s eye. She came over to their table.
“A glass of soave, please,” Corvina said, taking in the girl’s appearance. She had thinly plucked eyebrows, bleached blonde hair, and three silver studs in each ear. She looked barely old enough to drink herself.
“Sure, and for you, sir? Another gin and tonic?”
“Yes, please. Is the manager working tonight?” Bryan asked.
“He is. Something the matter?” the server asked.
“No. I’d like to meet him, if you wouldn’t mind asking for him.” “Sure, let me get him.”
“Why do you need to see the manager?” Corvina asked.
“You’ll have to excuse me for a few minutes. I’m working right now.” Corvina looked around the bar. Her gaze settled on his empty glass, which the server had neglected to clear. She raised an eyebrow. “Consider it a demonstration of what I do,” Bryan said.
Bryan’s G&T and Corvina’s glass of wine arrived before the manager did. Corvina enjoyed a taste of the wine. She was curious about what it was Bryan wanted to demonstrate.
“What seems to be the problem?” the manager asked without preamble when he reached their table. He was breathing hard from walking up the switchback set of steps leading to the upper level. Given his considerable girth, that wasn’t surprising. Corvina spotted large rings of sweat underscoring the armpits of his blue collared shirt.
“No problem,” Bryan replied. Corvina looked on with interest, wondering what she was about to witness.
“Then can I help you with something?” The manager wiped his brow and the top of his shaven head with a cocktail napkin he’d plucked from their table.
“No, as a matter of fact.”
“I don’t understand—what do you want?”
“I’m here to help you,” Bryan said. Okay, maybe a little arrogant, Corvina thought.
“Help me with what?” the manager asked.
“Take a seat. You can watch the show with us.”
“What show?” the manager asked. He looked at Corvina, hoping she could explain. She maintained a neutral gaze but was curious as hell. Bryan gestured once more to the empty chair between them. “I wouldn’t want you to miss this.”
The manager sat down, shifting his considerable weight into the straight-backed wooden chair. Beads of perspiration lined his brow. “Now pay attention, and keep an eye on your bars,” Bryan said. The manager still looked confused.
“Your bartender,” Bryan said, “the one with the spiky blond hair on the bar downstairs, is underringing almost every sale. Watch him add up the drinks in his head, collect the money, and then put the excess cash into the tip box.”
They watched the bartender serve three separate customers. On each occasion, it was obvious a lesser number of drinks was rung in than was ordered. Cash was entered into the till and the tip box on each transaction.
“I’m going to fire the bastard!” The manager shifted in his chair to get up.
“Sit down,” Bryan commanded. “That’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
The manager pulled his chair back to the table, bumping it in the process and threatening to knock over Corvina’s glass of wine. She pulled it to safety and had another taste.
“How many milliliters are in a standard bottle of wine?” Bryan asked the manager.
“What?” The question caught the manager off guard. “Seven hundred fifty.”
“And what is your pour on a regular glass of wine?” “One hundred fifty.”
“How many glasses per bottle?”
Bryan turned his attention to the upstairs bar.
“The bartender with the eyebrow piercing is underpouring each glass of wine, stretching each bottle to six glasses instead of five. The cash for every sixth glass goes into the tip box.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“I’ve been watching her three straight shifts. Don’t worry, I’ve been keeping my receipts, and they’ll all be expensed,” Bryan said.
He’s been here three nights just observing? Okay, he’s patient—a good quality in an investigator, Corvina thought.
“What the—” the manager said.
Corvina stifled a laugh.
Bryan didn’t let the man finish his sentence. “Do you know what the price difference is between a champagne bottle sold at retail and a bottle sold at wholesale?”
“A lot. Your Taittinger by the glass is not your Taittinger—someone is smuggling their own bottles in and selling them. Check your garbage tonight and compare the number of empty bottles to the number of bottles sold. The variance will surprise you.”
The manager was still sweating, but no longer from exertion.
“Next. Your Belvedere is in fact Smirnoff. Someone swapped the alcohol and is now pouring Smirnoff out of a Belvedere bottle. I’ve had it tested. Mixed with juice or a soft drink, no one could tell the difference. You can confirm this by comparing your stock purchases to stock sales.
“Similarly, upsells sold at the table only get given the spirits from the well, as the customers can’t see what’s being poured. And since they’re served with mixers, they can’t taste the difference. So when the waiter upsells a guest from Cuervo Gold to, say, Patrón Añejo Tequila, they’re still getting the Cuervo but paying for the Patrón. The difference goes into the tip box.
“Your buy-three-glasses, get-the-bottle-free promotion is providing a giant loophole to at least two of your waiters. They’re giving the remainder of most unclaimed bottles to their friends or selling the remainder for cash to other customers, in effect selling the same drinks twice—once for you and once for them. Leftover wine sold by the bottle is being resold by the glass. This was what was happening at a famous five-star hotel on Piccadilly not too long ago. It’s a well-known scam.
“How long do you keep guest stock for guests if they buy a bottle of spirits and don’t finish it by the end of the night?”
“Maximum, one month,” the manager answered.
“We reintroduce it into our stock and sell it or dispose of it.” “That’s what you think is happening. The guest stock you keep for VIPs isn’t being disposed of and is being sold for cash to regulars. Only, the cash is going into your bartenders’ tip boxes and not the tills.
“Your door girls are recycling free drinks coupons and have copied the entry stamp for their friends. Check your ticket sales versus your door clicker. Unless, of course, your doormen are in cahoots with the door girls. I suspect this is the case, given everything else going on here.”
“Jesus H. Christ.”
“Oh, and one last thing.”
“There’s more?” the manager asked. He was shaking his head, looking lost.
“The broken handheld terminal for credit cards—the one that never seems to work? In reality, it’s a credit card cloning machine your staff uses to clone customer credit cards right in front of them.”
Corvina almost gasped. So he was smart as well.
The manager stopped writing. “Can you send me some kind of report?”
“I’ve already sent it . . . to your boss.”
“What? Why would you do that?”
“Because he’s the one who hired me to read your team. There he is now.”
Corvina followed Bryan’s gaze to the entrance, where the hapless manager’s boss had just walked in.
“But how is this all possible?” the manager asked, panic in his voice.
“We don’t have any liquor shortages or cash shortages or any guest complaints. There were no signs.”
“Of course there were. I discovered all this after only a few evenings spent reading your staff,” Bryan said.
“Then how come I couldn’t see it?” the manager asked. Corvina was thinking the same thing.
“That’s simple.” Bryan leaned forward one last time. He rested his elbows on the table, and in a voice just above a whisper Corvina and the manager had to strain to hear, he said, “Your staff are all in on it together.”
About the Author
Steven Laine was raised in Ontario, Canada and has dual Canadian and British citizenship. He has travelled the world working in luxury hotels for international brands including The Ritz, Hilton, Starwood, Marriott, and Jumeirah. When he was Beverage Manager of a five star hotel in London, he learned all about wine and has since visited over one hundred vineyards and wineries in Napa, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Lebanon, and South Africa. As the only North American ever invited to be a Member of the Champagne Academy, he had the privilege to tour the major Champagne Houses in France. His circle of friends is made up of winemakers, Masters of Wine, Master Sommeliers, restaurant managers, and wine distributors from all over the globe.