Competition – Antoine Capstick


Antoine Capstick's unedited entry in our seminal wine competition is below. Here's what he says about himself: 'I am 40 years old and live in Antibes. In 2008, after the crash, when people I knew had a lot of time on their hands due to the collapse in demand for expensive yachting vacations, I founded a dining club, Antibes Wine Over Lunch (AWOL).  The guest list frequently includes local wine merchants who give some product demonstrations, and there is always at least one trade supplier present, be it a provisioner, crew agent or general yacht supply company. The watchword is, if you don’t know who is paying the bill, it’s you.

'Meetings are held at the restaurant Les Chineurs, selected for their tolerance of large parties drinking thirstily from glasses filled with wine they have brought with them.  My first experience of wine was as a child on summer holidays in a château in Normandy. Dinner was held around a long oak table under a quite grand chandelier. My parents would accord me the special treat of a drizzle of wine in my water. It made me feel like one of the adults.  I think the intention was to find a way of discouraging me from drinking from my father’s glass.

'What I remember most is the generosity of our hosts, particularly their kindness to me and also the sense that they were patient with the not very sophisticated English family that descended on them every year.  I have never been a chef, but have long held their power in awe. A good dinner can transform what has been a terrible day into a glorious ending.  I am obsessed with the concept, and achievement of the perfect meal. It’s not just the food, but the mood also and all the ingredients that go into that – the service, ambience, crockery, cutlery, tablecloth, lighting, ceremony, flotilla of stemware, how the wine is served and paired, the company, the time available and, vital, an appetite.  The interaction between these elements alone is not enough. From somewhere has to come magic, divinity akin what elevates a coronation above a simple church service.  Often this comes from the wine.

'I work in the entertainment business. As my story illustrates, mood, plenty, timeliness and pairing are what I try to get right.  Observing a party of guests enjoying a dining experience that I have masterminded, watching the progression of their meal, and warmth towards each other grow, is what hospitality is all about.  Hospitality is what I’m about.'

Two thousand and seven was the height of the property and investment boom that created instant wealth and disposable income for elites worldwide. As property and investment values rose daily, people felt rich and there was no end in sight.

At the time I was working on an 80-foot charter boat based in Antibes with two other crew, an Australian couple who served as deck hand and hostess.

The yacht looked fast, was fast and its speed was the main attraction for the customers who rented her, and us, for day and week trips on the French and Italian Riviera.

We could serve breakfast in St Tropez, lunch in Corsica and dinner in Portofino, all on the same day.

Our aim was to provide the kind of experience that would result in a large cash gratuity at the end of each trip.

I had experienced good restaurant meals and knew that when everything went right, and the service was good, as a diner the feeling of immense satisfaction upon receiving excellent hospitality created the kind of mood where generous tipping was a pleasure rather than an onerous extra cost on top of the bill.

This was how I wanted our guests to feel on the boat.

In restaurants the frustration of empty glasses, and, worse, empty bottles on the table was, to me, synonymous with poor service.

I could empathise with the lead diner, the host, carefully crafting the mood of the table, investing heavily in providing a memorable experience, all the effort and cost of assembling carefully chosen friends in one place, the escalating mood of conviviality stalling due to the absence of more wine, and no waiter in sight!

It became my business to ensure our guests never suffered this kind of neglect. Not on my watch. So we always had plenty of wine, especially chilled rosé (Domaines Ott, and occasionally Minuty were the most frequently requested wines), and we never ran out.

When not driving the boat, I did the drinks. From bouncing champagne corks off the awning to topping up glasses and sliding clear ice nuggets from a shiny demi-carafe via a miniature silver trowel into pale rosé, always attentive to avoiding the faux-pas of a tidal wave splashing over the rim, this was my raison d’être.

The strategy worked well. Charterers were happy. Money was left behind.

To keep the show on the road, we also needed a regular and plentiful supply of another highly refined liquid; diesel. This was brought to us by truck, in our berth in Antibes, in between charters. It needed to arrive on time, which meant in the morning, before the guests arrived to start their holiday.

The importance of keeping the mood up was paramount. A good mood was created by a good start.

A good start occurred when the guest motorcade arrived, the party embarked, the gangway came in, boat engines already running, the ropes cast off and we cruised out of the harbour to the symphony of chinking champagne flutes and « Welcome to St Tropez » by DJ Antoine.

Within five minutes of their arrival, the charterers would be in open sea, engines cranked up, destination: Pampelonne Beach.

A bad start was when the cars arrived, unable to stop at the back of the boat due to the presence of a dirty diesel bowser, greeted by the inert presence of an unshaven, barely clothed local truck driver and tripping on the supply hose to reach the passerelle.

The air, heavy with a cloying mist of diesel and truck exhaust fumes, departure delayed by at least half an hour due to the late arrival of the diesel delivery did not create the perfect first impression.

No one likes a bad start. Lifting the mood from a good start to elation, triumph, masters of the universe is easy, like pushing a wheelbarrow downhill.

Restoring a state of wellbeing after a bad start requires similar effort to pushing the same wheelbarrow up a long, steep hill with a flat tyre.

If the good mood occurs too late, or not at all, it affects the gratuity.

The truck driver affects the gratuity. Something had to be done about the truck driver. It was decided that the trickle down tip effect should be used to guarantee, or at least improve timeliness.

Once the fleet of fuel company « chauffeurs » became psychologically attuned to the relationship between punctuality and the « bonheur » of a cash tip, reliability followed.

One of the problems we encountered was the absence of small notes. Ten or twenty euros was sufficient and, unfortunately, no one we knew gave us money in these denominations. On occasions when there was no change on board, I would recognise good deliveries with a bottle of wine instead, which was usually just as well received.

For emergency use, there was some wine hidden under one of the bench seats in a wooden box.

It was red wine that no one asked for in the summer season. The labels on the bottles read « Pavillon Rouge, Chateaux Margaux 1996 ».

As the season wore on, delivery drivers asked us for wine instead of money.

This was no problem, indeed preferable to handing over a fifty or hundred euro note.

The punctuality problem had been satisfactorily resolved, our charters were starting well, the mood was good, we were making money and delivering a good service. All was well for the remainder of the summer.

The 30th of September 2007 was officially the end of our contract. To commemorate the occasion, and celebrate a tough but rewarding period, the hostess prepared a typically English dinner, our first decent meal since the spring.

Bangers and mash, with a drizzle of truffle oil in the potatoes and plenty of butter. What a treat! To accompany the meal, I opened the last remaining bottle from the emergency stash.

After the toast (« To those who have done well, well done! ») we all drew heavily from our glass. The hostess was the first to speak « wow! Do we have any more of this? », followed by the deckhand « Ohh yes! A masterful choice, is there any more? ». I washed down a forkful of sausage and mash with another slug while considering my reply.

Oh, the delight! The salty, garlicky fat from the Toulouse sausage, the sweetness of the potato and sophistication of the truffle melded, joined with the leathery, dark fruit of the Margaux in some heavenly alchemy spanning all of time, history, now, the future, creating the most sublime effect.

All I could do was stare into the distance and enjoy that single moment of paradise, and even when the wine was gone and my mouth empty, still there was something…. incredible.

« Isn’t there a whole case of this under the bench seat on the port side? I’m pretty sure i put it there at the beginning of the season… » the hostess continued.

That was the moment I started to pay more attention to wine…..