Straight to the point: Baron Saint Jean is a Vin de Pays built out of what are conscientiously known on the label as regional grapes, incorporating Grenache and Merlot and a couple whose names I couldn't read, plus possibly some more, not specified. Good with toad in the hole a cardboard sign above the shelf announced at my nearest branch of German supermarket giants Aldi, which made a refreshing change from all those predictable reflexive nods to game and cheese, but how do we feel about such candour while we're shopping for wine?
Anyway. I wanted to like this drink for all the obvious reasons – screw top, very cheap, red, unpretentious sales environment, a general ideological predisposition in favour of modern affordable mass-produced everyday wines – but I have to say that I was getting nervous as I tumbled out into the car park in order to drive my loot away. Why? Because I am starting to acquire a degree of apprehension about very cheap booze in this country, and for all that it goes against Sediment's philosophy (I've bought it so I'll drink it) I am starting to wonder if, long-term, I have the constitution for rock-bottom wines.
And Baron Saint Jean was a bit of a test. Handled with extreme care, it is just about drinkable. The first gusts from the neck of the bottle practically blinded me, and if you don't give it time to shake off the cellulose and vinegar fumes while it's sitting in the glass, you will find your mouth puckering like a drawstring pouch. Sip it respectfully, and it turns into a blackcurranty kind of sluicing narrowly covering the roof of the mouth, followed by a hot gas blast in the back of the throat, a lingering impression of plastic adhesive, ending with a peppery flourish of underarm deodorant spreading down towards the lungs. Not great, but not something you could feel indifferent towards, either.
Why, then, am I drinking it at all? Apart from the usual reasons? Well, the British Government has decided that something must be done about binge drinking in this country. And what they've decided is that there ought to be some kind of minimum price attached to alchoholic beverages, to deter people at a certain level in society from buying too much of the stuff and barfing all over town centres and attacking each other and covering each other in barf and bits of teeth.
A closed world to me, obviously, because I'm too old and feeble to go out drinking and fighting and barfing but: what struck both myself and PK (quite independently) was the fact that on the BBC news when this story broke, a bottle of red wine was displayed as Exhibit A in the Government's case for the prosecution, and this bottle purported to cost no more than a wildly irresponsible £2.09, yes, £2.09 for a full 75cl bottle of some kind of red grape-based adult beverage.
That is pretty cheap, it must be said (although the inhabitants of Spain, France, Italy, Greece and so on would find it provocatively oversold, given the likely contents) and yet I've never seen anything quite as bargain-basement on sale in London. Can you only get this stuff in Doncaster? Nuneaton? Sunderland? Cardiff?
So: how far do you have to go to get near this price in the South-East; and what's the stuff taste like when you've found it?
Clearly a job for me rather than PK but given the fact that universal time as we experience it is neither circular nor elastic and I didn't feel much like exerting myself, I cut to the chase (thus failing to address question 1 altogether) and expedited a bottle of red at Aldi, going for £2.99. The price was near enough – that magical £2-and-something price point - and all I had to do was go to Hounslow to get it. Which was about as glamorous as it sounds.
As for question 2? Obviously (see above) It wasn't good. Especially not when you consider my Terraventoux at €1 a bottle. I have always welcomed mass-produced tanker wines as opening up a world of accessible non-elitist cheap'n'cheerful wine drinking. But even I couldn't get on with the Baron.
What, then, is this stuff for? This kind of drink is not a drink anyone would really want to drink. It is a means to an end. You can't drink wood preservative responsibly. It's just there to get you into a different psychic state. Which poses second question: if the Government were to slap a few more pee in duty on the price of a bottle of (say) the Baron, would it really put off a determined, impecunious, undiscerning wine drinker, whether they wanted to consume the Baron with a nice plate of Toad in the Hole, or whether they wanted to neck it in ten minutes flat and go out and break something? Anyone who drinks this grog from choice will not be easily deterred by an extra 30 or 40p on the price.
I thought I'd never say this, but the problem is less to do with the price and more to do with the terrible quality. The harmfulness of the wine lies in the fact that it's extremely difficult to treat as wine, to develop a more-than-utilitarian relationship with it. You might as well drink anti-freeze or cough syrup, for all the enjoyment there is in the consumption. And the only way to break a causal connection which posits wine as a drug and not much else - and seriously modify people's behaviour with respect to it - is to treat booze like cigarettes and price it completely out of the market.
Is this really anyone's idea of an intended consequence? Even this Government's?