Thursday, 8 December 2016

Bish, bash, bosh - it's wine money!

Look at my wad! I’ve got Loadsa wine money! Whap it out!.

Not content with simply offering discounts, wine merchants are now distributing faux banknotes, as if to make us feel we have some kind of actual spending power in our hands. They are printing wine “money” faster than you can say quantitative easing.

And to be honest, they look more like genuine banknotes that some genuine banknotes. (I’m thinking of those childish old Dutch guilder notes, which looked as if they had come out of a board game.)  This “wine money” is carefully designed, with shiny, silvery sums, with pseudo-banknote squiggles and lines, to make you feel you’re handling actual currency. No-one’s going to forge these, you’re meant to feel. They must be genuinely valuable notes of exchange.

I’m like a child, building a stash of Monopoly money. I’ve got all this pretend moolah, that I can spend on actual wine. Bish, bash, bosh, lovely job! Look at my wad!!

But think about this for a moment or two. Who on earth pays for a case of wine with cash these days?

Cash occupies the opposite ends of the social spectrum, where people don’t ask, don’t tell about their money. United in a desire to make their transactions untraceable and untaxable, the people who hoick out a wad of cash to pay for purchases are either at the lower end, like scaffolders, drug dealers and ticket touts, or the high end, like Russian plutocrats.

But the people who buy cases of wine are predominantly the middle classes. Honest, clean-living suburban characters, who read the personal finance columns and put their money in ISAs. Even in these times of austerity and low interest rates, they’re still not keeping their money under their Slumberdown mattresses. Happy in the middle of that social spectrum, they don’t carry cash – they pay with credit cards – because they worry about being mugged by the lower end, or mistaken for the other.

Are there merchants where the cash cowboys buy their wine? I have a feeling that drug dealers and scaffolders are not particularly au fait with the world of wine; their involvement with cases is limited to the courts.

At the other end of things, there is somewhere like Hedonism, in Mayfair, the incredibly upmarket wine merchant – sorry, “fine wine and spirits boutique”. But a £60 saving wouldn’t go very far on a case in Hedonism; it might just get you a 10% discount.  On a bottle. And someone showing off by pulling out a stack of fifties to pay cash for a 1989 Haut Brion at £2,300 is hardly like to fish out a £60 discount voucher.

In fact, the wine merchants who distribute these faux banknotes actually do most of their business online, where cash is useless. So, hidden in the ornate calligraphy of their “banknotes” are codes and passwords that will allow you to get these discounts online – making a mockery of the whole business of impersonating cash.

And if a merchant did only accept cash for their wine, wouldn’t we think that a little suspicious? When any shop nowadays says that their till is broken, or their debit card machine has gone down, and would you be able to pay in cash, we assume the worst. They’ve got, as the term has it, cashflow problems – and we wonder whether they’ll still be around next week.

Now I know that CJ mocks my yearnings for a mythical past, when wine drinking was the province of the cultured. But I do not wish to be associated with either the scaffolder or the plutocrat. And how much more refined it must have been, when one sent one’s man down to St James’s to select one’s wine. Presumably a nice hand-written invoice, made out in guineas, arrived along with the cases. One paid with a proper cheque. And no, one did not put one’s card details on the back. One’s signature was sufficient.

But it’s all fiscal nowadays. It’s all about handing over the dough and meeting that pricepoint. Bosh, bosh, shoom, shoom, dollop, dollop. And surely something about the character and tradition of wine, the relationship with your merchant, and the sheer pleasure of the transaction, has been lost, if you pay with a fistful of notes – one of which has been issued by the merchant themselves?


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Pump Up The Volume: Xmas Drinking Songs

So let's cut to the chase: I'm talking about songs with the word wine in the title and which contain numerous references to that drink, such that I can play them festively over the Christmas period in order to get me through that particular nightmare. That's all I'm interested in. No, not quite - Days Of Wine And Roses, for instance, the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer classic, is a great tune in its way, but not what I'm after. Ditto Little Old Wine Drinker Me - sung by Dean Martin, it passes the time and there's never a good reason not to listen to Dean Martin, but all the same: it's too effortless, it lacks urgency. To say nothing of Paul Anka's A Steel Guitar And A Glass Of Wine. Or, for that matter, UB40's take on Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine. No, in these troubled times I need something up, something elemental. And these are my top six up, elemental, wine songs. Or seven.

Wine Woogie - a tearaway 1952 r'n'b swinger from Marvin Phillips & His Men From Mars, jam-packed with sax and containing the line I can drink wine, baby, like no-one else can, a commitment we can all, I think, relate to. Likewise the legendary Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson with their magesterial Wine-O-Baby Boogie from 1949. First thing Big Joe says is When you see me sleeping, baby, please don't think I'm drunk. About the last thing is Better stop stealing my money baby, and buying that bad green wine. There you have it: the human condition in the space of two and a half minutes, and when Big Joe puts it down, you better get hip and pick up on it.

Something more recent? I'm going to go wide and choose PassThe Wine (Sophia Loren) an out-take-that-made-it from The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street of 1972. If you can stand Mick's cheesy Americanisms, this boils down to Pass the wine, baby, and let's make some love, all things being equal in an imperfect universe. Is it that close to being one of The Stone's more half-assed numbers? Yes, but I like to think there's enough horn section and sassy female backing singers in the mix to get it across the line into sheer dumb good-time listenability.

No doubts, however, about Drinkin' Wine Spo-dee-o-dee, in all its manifestations. This hymn to excess, with its half-gallons of cheap red wine, its references to constant fistfights and wanton destruction of property, its New Orleans setting, has everything the lifelong wine drinker needs to celebrate his or her favourite beverage. So many great versions to choose from, but I'm going to stick with Winehead Swing by James 'Smokestack' Tisdom (1950). This begins with him yelling Aw, you winehead fool and Gimme a drink so I can play this thing and spreads outwards from there, with the assistance of James's intense guitar work and a harmonica player in the last throes of delerium. The YouTube version's a bit fuzzy, but it gives you a sense. Him, or The Sugar Creek Trio. I have a feeling the trio aren't playing these days, but a couple of years ago they were hardcore Rockabilly madmen of the most uncompromising kind, playing both Las Vegas and the greater Oxford region. Their take on Drinkin' Wine defies you to sit still for longer than five seconds, if at all. Drinkin' that mess with delight is the essence of the encounter and the guitar player is on fire. Stick this on while you're basting the turkey and everything is going to turn out fine. Oh, and I'm going to capriciously throw in The Moonglows' Hey Santa Claus, just because it's so good - and, yes, I know, it doesn't use the word wine once.

To calm down? The conversation-stoppingly lachrymose Tears And Wine from Dusty Brooks & His Tones, recorded in 1953. Tears and wine to help forget, they groan, because laughter and love are uneasy bedfellows at the best of times and if you can't be depressed at Christmas, when can you? Equally, if you're like PK and your Christmas is spent wearing a quilted smoking jacket and an Edward VII beard while inhabiting a world where certain timeless verities apply whatever else is going on outside, then you might decide to celebrate your largely insane otherness with, say, The End Of Me Old Cigar, the Harry Champion music-hall classic. Not wine, no, but a related activity, and I'm going to include it. You can get Harry himself performing the song, but I've got to confess to a partiality for the version by the great Adge Cutler & The Wurzels. This is, in fact, what PK listens to non-stop from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day; and it pretty much captures the essence of the man. Seriously, it does.


Thursday, 24 November 2016

Christmas: claret, crackers and candles – Roc de Lussac

Christmas is coming, in case you hadn’t noticed, and the weight of tradition weighs heavily upon the wine selection. We have just one day a year in which we can relive Dickensian England, by eating old-fashioned food, going a-wassailing, and sending the children up the chimney.

Inevitably, the same desire to step back into the past must apply to our choice of wine.  Don’t tell me it’s all about taste, because even if it tastes fabulous, when Mum, Gran and Auntie Janet are all coming to Christmas dinner you’re hardly likely to put out a bottle of Sexy Wine Bomb. Having a wine which looks suitably old and grand is as key to the Christmas table as candles and crackers. Even if you can’t actually afford it.

But that’s where Messrs Sainsbury have come to help, with this magnificent-looking bottle of wine, retailing for the princely sum of just £7. That’s from its formerly ducal price of £9.

I mean, just look at that label. The generations of winemaking encapsulated in that traditional typeface. The touches of gilt. The crest, with its crown and lions regardant. This is clearly one classy product, with no pictures of falling leaves or bare footprints. Surely the kind of thing one could put proudly upon one’s dining table to project an image of history and tradition.

No picture of the chateau, mind you. Fair enough, there are several grands crus which don’t depict their chateau. But there’s no actual mention of a chateau here, either. Or, for that matter, of a grand cru. Still, they do proudly declare on line two of the label, which should be enough for most Sainsbury shoppers to pick it up with confidence, that Roc de Lussac is a marque deposée. Or ‘trademark’.

And it’s a Grand Vin de Bordeaux! A Grand Vin! That’ll impress the Christmas crowd. Well, those who don’t know that it carries no actual classification weight whatsoever, and is a non-specific suggestion of quality, rather like a pint of best, Tesco Finest or Greatest Hits.

Saint-Emilion, though, eh? Everyone’s heard of Saint-Emilion, even CJ. Unfortunately, this is Lussac Saint-Emilion, which is five or six miles from Saint-Emilion itself. Like visiting Abingdon and then saying you’ve been to Oxford.

But at least it’s recommended. And a recommendation of such significance that it’s actually printed on the label. Like printing a good review on a book jacket. Recommandé par Damien Dupont, no less.

Sorry? Who?

You know, Damien Dupont. Chef Sommelier France. What, the chief sommelier of the entire country? Head of all sommeliers in France?

This is hard to verify, as my trusty friend Google seems unable to find Damien Dupont, in his prestigious position as Chef Sommelier France, among the various project managers and trainee psychotherapists who share his name. Perhaps he is a chef sommelier, in a restaurant somewhere in France, a sort of rural wine waiter. In fact the only other wine reference I can find to Damien Dupont is on the label recommending another Bordeaux wine, with the remarkably similar name of Roc de Chevaliers, from the remarkably similarly named producer, Producta Vignobles.

(In fact, Producta Vignobles market eight wines with Roc in their title. “The name ‘roc’” they explain on their corporate website, “gives an impression of solidity, balance and heritage.” Hope you got that impression too.)

I have to say that my own judgment differs from that of Damien Dupont. Considerably. After a brief initial burst, the bouquet of this wine becomes thin and woody, rather like the cardboard from a new shirt. On the palate there’s a marked absence of any of the flavour you might associate with wine, such as fruit, leaving only a nasty bitter taste more like chewing old citrus pith. And finally a belt of acid and alcohol as if the product is better suited to some kind of vehicle maintenance.

Look, you can listen to Damien Dupont, or listen to me. I can recommend this too, along with other festive non-consumables like crackers and candles, as something that would grace any Christmas dinner table. Just as long as you don’t drink it.