Thursday, 11 July 2019

In times of Waugh

Why on earth would someone republish an old book about wine? What use are pages describing wines which have either expired or become impossibly expensive; regions whose products have changed beyond all recognition; or prices which now look more like those in a sweetshop than a wine merchant?

The thought was raised by the news that, rather like bringing an elderly vintage up from the cellar, Auberon Waugh’s 1986 book, Waugh on Wine, is being republished.

Stifle the realisation that a treasured charity shop find of the original paperback has suddenly plummeted in value; copies have been on sale for upwards of three figures. For some years Waugh on Wine has been in the Sediment library, alongside Kingsley Amis and those few other wine books which, hopefully like our own, are predominantly entertainment rather than reference.

Bron, as some were privileged to call him, died in 2001, and is remembered by our generation as a journalist who was sometimes outrageously entertaining. Or, sometimes, simply outrageous. If someone could cause such offence in writing about wine that they were hauled before the old Press Council, clearly Sediment had something to learn.

Like Sediment, Waugh was open about his relative ignorance on the subject of wine, relying instead (again like Sediment) largely upon the experience of consumption. “I assumed that as a life-long wine drinker I knew all that anyone really needed to know about the subject,” he writes in his Introduction. “Those who knew more, and could talk about such things as grape varieties, were prigs and pedants.”

Still, he succeeded in writing about wine, in that brusque, brook-no-arguments tone of the English upper class. “I think I drank a good Chinon about twelve years ago…but my last five attempts have been failures, so now I have given up. People say it reminds them of violets and wild strawberries, but I feel they must be mad.”

He wrote for Tatler and later the Spectator, propelled largely by his pursuit of good Burgundy and his complaints about the price thereof. He constantly found reasons to grumble and moan, a condition which some us share but believe might be alleviated in themselves if they, like Waugh, had no less than five cellars full of fine wine.

He believed that “wine-writing ahould be camped up”, and his own employs the most extraordinary descriptive adjectives: “mushrooms, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of French railway stations or ladies’ underwear – anything to get away from the accepted list of fruits and flowers.”

But his writing is marked by a kind of national stereotyping we find uncomfortable today. “This is the sort of heavy oak-vanilla taste which the Spaniards think high-class,” he writes of one white wine, “but I prefer my Horlicks without dust and cobwebs.” We smile at the second half of the sentence while still wincing at the first.

Or how about venturing that some of the flavours we detect in a Burgundy are “…probably because of filthy French habits – not washing their hands before wine-making, working with a dirty, yellow cigarette hanging out of their mouths, breathing garlic over the wine-press, etc.”

And that’s as opposed to the Americans. “Even the best California wine has only one taste," he writes, "Delicious but homogenised, clean but somehow unexciting. One really can’t be more poetic about them than that. I am afraid it may be the result of too much hygiene.”

He was, of course, a deliberate provocateur. And he came from a different time and society; Waugh initially inherited his cellars from his father, the author Evelyn, a man whose social standing, Bron writes, was marked by (and mocked for) his pronunciation of ‘claret’ as ‘clart’. The Press Council let Bron off the hook for describing a wine with a particularly vile analogy, but it’s interesting to consider how his writing escaped greater censure, back in those pre-Twitter days.

Perhaps those observations which do stand the test of time justify rereading Waugh thirty years on. “Champagne is essential before any meal which is intended to impress,” he writes. Indeed.

“White wine is just as alcoholic as red and probably makes one rather drunker, as one tends to drink more of it.”

And “Investors are having as bad an effect on Burgundy as phylloxera ever did, and until one can convince the world that Romanée Conti is a wine rather than an investment bond, the future is very bleak.”

Plus ça change…


Thursday, 4 July 2019

The Floating World

So the boat has returned to its home port and the wife and I have left it there, taking with us the remnants of our cruise to the West Country. This includes four weeks' worth of appalling laundry, some serious windburn and the remains of a bol sauce that I confected ten days ago in Portland Harbour. Just about everything else has been consumed (or thrown overboard), including two and a half litres of whisky, some gin & tonics, beer, cider, champagne and something between half a case and a case of mixed red and rosé, most of which was drunk by me. So now I'm wondering, were we completely sober at any point?

Most of this deluge of booze was drunk in the evenings, at a time when we were either hysterical with relief at having got somewhere without crashing; or were in a savage depression on account of not having got somewhere due to gales, downpours, fog, lethargy. The boat intensifies moods in a way you don't experience anywhere else. So, with the full sanction of what we like to think of as one of the Royal Navy's oldest traditions, we got stuck into the drink, either as mood-enhancer or mood-suppressor. Indeed, after getting into an impromptu race with a yacht owned by the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth - crewed by four junior officers and an older bloke with an accent straight out of In Which We Serve - I thought we'd really earned our beverages, even though we came in second.

Fair enough. We were technically on holiday and had to get through it. And we had some good times, especially once we'd found a couple of packets of crinkle-cut crisps in a corner locker. What worries me now, though, is that I might be translating this behaviour into acceptable practice back on land. Four weeks is quite long enough to internalise a routine of a couple of stiff whiskies followed by some cheap red wine once it's gone six and I don't know if my liver can handle it in an ongoing fashion. Okay day? A few small gratifications, some kind of micro-acheivement like mowing the lawn or just getting out of bed without putting my back out? Treat it like a successful forty-five-mile crossing of Lyme Bay, open the Famous Grouse. Crap day? Nothing achieved, constant residual despair at lack of funds, political situation, inability to remember the lyrics to Mr Tambourine Man? Same as for Okay day, but remember to frown into whisky tumbler, shun crisps. A pattern establishes itself, with only the gradual empurpling of my nose and a delta of tiny ruptured blood vessels spreading across my face to mark my decline. It doesn't seem like a good idea, not as long as I want to hang on to the remains of what I like to call my dignity. But it looms, unless I can change the trend.

The alternative, of course, is to stay on the boat for ever, drinking like only those afloat can and not bothering about the consequences. After all, once you get past the high-priced yacht marinas and their fancypants residents, the world of water lends itself quite readily to a fully alternative lifestyle. We knew one bloke who lives in a giant windowless barge up a backwater, only the occasional movement of his tarpaulins and the barking of his dogs to give him away. He's an expert in military electronics as it happens. And on the lovely river Dart this year we saw another bloke sailing a home-made boat, painted pea-green and shaped like Marat's bath, just room enough for him to sit in. He was using a single sail apparently cut from a bedsheet to move him along, with a paddle-cum-tiller, like Venetian gondoliers use, to get him out of difficulties. Upriver it's another world, and I don't think anyone there is going to lose sleep over how many litres of whisky it takes to amuse two people in the privacy of their own hull.

This would, in turn, require me to grow a beard and occasionally wear mittens, in order to go properly off-grid. Hideous? Yes, but the beard would at least cover up my drinker's face including, if it got big enough, part of my nose. I need to think this one through.


Thursday, 27 June 2019

Get yourself trolleyed

Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m gettin’ soft” – but am I the only one to feel a note of personal criticism behind some of the reports that Majestic is up for sale?

Because there seems to be some suggestion that Majestic customers are now all doddery old fools, who don’t realise that the world has moved on. That people simply aren’t supposed nowadays to drive to nearby places which sell wine, choose from an impressively huge offering, taste a few before deciding, buy half a dozen bottles or more and take them conveniently back home.

No, there are people who want to condemn that rather attractive proposition to the past. Instead, customers ought to be online, “subscribing” £20 a month, like paying a direct debit for gas. This gives you access to wines you have never heard of before, which will be delivered to your door when you’re’re out – or, more likely given your suggested demographic, in the toilet.

Oh, and you will have chatty online exchanges with the makers of your wines, who you are “supporting”. If you can squeeze them in between your supportive relationships with your potato grower, your ketchup provider and your sausage maker.

Given this dire alternative, I thought I should dodder along to my local Majestic, and remind myself why I ever went there in the first place.

That first time I went to a Majestic, I felt that I had, in some way, grown up in my wine-buying. Those were the days when Majestic sold a minimum of 12 bottles. And it was as if I had suddenly joined the real wine aficionados. These weren’t people picking up a single bottle because they were taking a gift to a dinner party, or looking for something to go with that night’s takeaway. No, these were people buying full, proper cases of wine, people who consumed and presumably stored wine on a serious basis. People I wanted to join.

And this week, I felt surprisingly good strolling those aisles again.

For one thing, they have spruced up the interior of my local Majestic. The bottles are no longer standing on teetering piles of cardboard cartons – there’s proper shelving, with the cartons stashed away beneath. The staff weren’t wearing that strangely contradictory combination of fleeces and shorts. And there weren’t any pallets to make you feel you were wandering around a loading bay.  In fact, it didn’t feel like a warehouse; it felt like a large shop.

In some branches, I can see online that this remodelling has gone too far, and the result looks like an over-illuminated Pizza Express. There’s also an obsession with “tasting”, with “creating” and “exploring”, which sounds like an activity session for toddlers. But hey, we can all get carried away. Calm down, guys. Have some wine…

Of which there was an impressive selection. No, a vast selection. There were seven different Chablis, for goodness sake. And not only were there bottles too cheap and threatening for me to consider, but there were others too grand and expensive; celebrated wines like La Reserve de Leoville-Barton, Bella’s Garden Shiraz, Segla Margaux, and my favourite Pouilly Fumé, Ladoucette. And for me, that’s important.

Established names set the benchmarks. They show that a merchant has access to the best as well as the rest, that they understand how good wine can be. They set a pricepoint against which to measure their cheaper wines. And they enable you to compare their descriptions of the wines you’ve never heard of against those of which you have.

From wines too basic for my palate to wines too clever for my purse, with plenty in between; what’s not to like? To be honest, there used to be a lot.  And for a while there, things looked grim. But the warehouse notion, that you’re buying bargain wine just unloaded from the back of a lorry, seems to have been quietly laid to rest; and buying from Majestic feels like it could be an attractive proposition again.

Yes, this may be the old businesss in new clothes – but, surely, better clothed than naked.