So it's week 9 of The Apprentice, and we've reached the point when things usually start to get fizzier. The flatter candidates have gone, and those that remain are starting to smell the bouquet of victory... So what better task for this stage of the competition than a challenge centred around English sparkling wine? Maybe Lord Sugar thinks this lovely beverage is a bit like him - it's sweet, rich and well-matured. Well, he's right on two out of three at least. Anyway, as he must be starting to think about who he really want to go into business with now that the field has narrowed to a handful of candidates, maybe he's in need of some tasting notes to help him decide who to pick...
Let's start with Team Phoenix. Flavour of the month is clearly entrepreneur Nick Holzherr - the original three members of the team clearly couldn't wait to have him on their side when Lord Sugar gave them the chance to pick a new team member at the beginning of the task. Full-bodied, complex, with a hint of wet dog - that's his hairstyle anyway - everybody loves Nick, and he usually doesn't disappoint. This week he turned in a characteristically high quality but understated performance on his team's website.
There are also high expectations on Tom Gearing, another relatively quiet yet well-respected character with an excellent record on the show. This task ought to have been vintage Tom because, as a wine merchant, he was in his natural habitat. But in this episode I found him a little too full of himself for my liking. As on last week's urban art task, he seemed more concerned with demonstrating his own knowledge than getting down to business. Too showy with not enough substance to satisfy Lord Sugar's discerning palate? Only time will tell...
On the tangier end of the spectrum, we have Jade. With her fruity voice and acid observations, she's an acquired taste, but one which might just suit Lord Sugar as she's sharp, hardworking and combines well with a variety of other elements, this week working relatively successfully with both Nick on Phoenix's website and with Adam on their video.
But Adam, Adam, Adam; on this task greengrocer Mr Corbally seemed more like a lump of cheddar than a sparkling and sophisticated business partner for Lord Sugar. He looked a particularly lurid colour on my TV at least (you're supposed to spit it out, Adam...), and the bubbles certainly seemed to have gone to his head as he came out with a series of increasingly bonkers - but admittedly very English - observations on the liquids before him: "Christmas cake! Granny Smiths!", he bellowed. Aide Karren Brady wasn't impressed, but I've heard less plausible tasting notes - and at least Adam has always been honest about his strengths and weaknesses, a quality which seems to have endeared him to Lord Sugar, himself more like a crusty old chunk of Stilton than a bottle of vintage Dom Pérignon.
Adam compares favourably, in my view, to salesman Stephen Brady, who leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. He might have a good record on paper, but as far as I can see he's mostly all gas with very little real depth. Over fond of his own voice and quick to deflect blame onto others, he seemed to bring very little to the task this week - we just saw him panicking in the supermarket, giving Jenna little assistance with their video, and sliding his way out of being fired in the boardroom. "Oozing quality with every pour" was the slogan his team came up with and, while I'm not entirely sure to what extent its creation was down to him, it perfectly epitomises his oily flavour and general slipperiness - I can't quite believe he's escaped Lord Sugar's finger for this long. But somewhat to his credit, he readily agreed to be put to the test as team leader next week.
Performing better was architect Gabrielle Omar, the only one of the Sterling quartet to escape this week's final showdown, probably thanks to her warm personality and creative spark - the logo she designed in the shape of an English rose was a particularly inspired touch, as Lord Sugar recognised. But I wonder if Gabrielle is a little too one dimensional. How strong are her abilities other than her creativity? And for her to win a partnership with Lord Sugar, there surely needs to be a hint of cold, hard steel underneath those sunny top notes.
By contrast, Ricky seems to be revealing more and more hidden depths as the series progresses. At first this recruiter by day, wrestler by night seemed overly brash and bullish and I thought that Lord Sugar was unlikely to hold onto this shot glass shaped man for very long. But, good tequila (sorry, couldn't resist the Latin analogy) has interesting and rounded flavours if sipped slowly and carefully, and Mr Martin has consistently shown doses of substantial strength over the past few weeks. On this task he led Team Sterling solidly, and gave an excellent presentation to Lord Sugar's panel of experts.
But this time round, despite the show of consultation, the outcome really entirely depended on what Lord Sugar himself thought. With no sales figures or targets to tick off this week, victory came down to the subjective judgement of one famous tongue. So after he'd swished and swilled both team's efforts around his mouth, what would the outcome be? In the end, both were effectively ejected firmly into the spittoon of corporate mediocrity. "Www.yawn.com", was his verdict on Team Phoenix's efforts, while Sterling's wedding caper was labelled "Carry On Boozing". Though neither went to his head, Lord Sugar did however grudgingly send Tom and his team off to a very bubbly-looking rooftop jacuzzi, leaving Ricky, Gabrielle, Stephen and Jenna thoroughly deflated.
Jenna acted with no small integrity by taking pretty much sole blame for the offending video, but, paradoxically, it was probably this honesty and sense of responsibility that was her undoing. As she declined to push much culpability (perhaps mistakenly) onto Stephen or Ricky, Lord Sugar decided he'd had enough of Jenna's distinct northern flavour. Maybe Jenna was never going to be the one to crack open the fizz with everyone's favourite aged English sparkler at the end of the process, but I think, despite Stephen's better record, Lord Sugar will regret losing his bottle and not firing him when he had the chance.