Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Drinking wine with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street


Following my recent invitation for a glass of wine at 10 Downing Street…

No, let me start again.
When I was invited to drinks with the Prime Minister,…

The thing is, CJ is away – which is why you have two postings on the trot from me. And there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth when he returns; for he will discover that I have taken yet another upward step in my social status during his absence. Because this post is not about drinking wine at my dining table or in the study; no, this is about drinking wine behind (as the No 10 website puts it) “the most famous front door in the world”.


An invitation to Downing Street is understandably surrounded by security arrangements, and there are restrictions on telling people much about a visit. However, no-one has told me that I cannot talk about the wine, which is what you lot are really interested in, and of which I had high hopes.

Recent articles like this have revealed something of the quality of the government’s cellars. I thought it unlikely that they would bring out the Chateau Petrus 1978, worth more than £2,500 a bottle, for our little soirée. But perhaps the Chateau Latour 1955, with its little note, "Drink on v. special occasions”? This occasion was certainly v.special to me.

And look, the Chateau Palmer 1975 is described as a "really old-fashioned style claret, rich and excellent with some austerity"! Precisely what we have now – some austerity!! The Palmer '75 would indeed be excellent with it.

Well, needless to say, I was sorely disappointed.

There is something thrilling about arriving at Downing Street, showing your invitation to the policeman, and being guided through the gates while a gaggle of tourists look on, clearly thinking ‘Who the hell is that?” There are various security procedures whereof I cannot speak, before you are ushered through the shiny front door and into No 10 itself.

I must first draw particular attention to the glassware. We have had several tussles on the Sediment blog over appropriate drinking containers, but I can say with some confidence that No 10 surpasses even CJ in clumsy glassware. Our wine was served in clunky, green-glass goblets, more appropriate to a campfire celebration with Robin Hood’s Merrie Men.

The only possible explanation is that, along with so many other elements of such an evening, proper glassware is considered to be a security risk. These Downing Street wallahs have clearly been to a few dodgy pubs in their time; presumably, these goblets are either unbreakable, or would crumble like a car windscreen in the unlikely event of a guest attempting to “glass” the Prime Minister.

Obviously I am not privy to the catering arrangements at No 10. It is admittedly unlikely, even faced with yet another invasion of their Pillared Room by a group of strangers, that the Camerons simply popped down to the offie. But whether the wine was actually provided by No 10, or chosen by our reception organisers, I do not know.

However, in standard, drinks-party manner, your goblet is proffered with a choice of red or white wine. And here’s the thing.The white was Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc, an innocuous, fruity and citrussy New Zealand wine which you can buy in virtually any supermarket or off-licence. Indeed, at the time of writing, you can get 26% off at Tesco, something which might appeal more to No 11.

Obviously we were not attending for the wine, but a visit to No 10 is rather special, and this Sauvignon Blanc is so widely available, and so blandly drinkable, that it doesn’t register as anything special whatsoever.

The same is true of the red – Campo Viejo Rioja Crianza Reserva; again, relatively innocuous, blandly drinkable and widely available. The only thing I can really say in favour of the selection of this pair is that judiciously, one is from the Commonwealth and the other from the EU; coincidence, or politics?

So basically, a lot of things are special about a drinks evening at No 10 – but not the drinks. Perhaps they are trying to emulate the population at large by providing the kind of modestly priced, bland and unchallenging wine many people would buy for themselves. Make them feel at home. Except…we’re not at home. We’re at 10 Downing Street.

Anyway, we sipped from our health and safety approved goblets, their rims thick as china mugs. There was in fact no violence, even though security had clearly overlooked the lethal potential of a weapons-grade vol-au-vent. The PM toured the room, meeting and greeting in an accomplished manner. A few words to the gathering; a little, probably well-used joke confusing Nick Clegg with his wife as his absent “other half” (ho ho); and a crafted reference to the value of “our industry” which would clearly fit any bunch of visitors.

Presumably No 10 learnt long ago that world leaders were not averse to pocketing a reminder of their visit, and so there is absolutely nothing to, er, take home. No crested notepads, badged pencils or matchbooks. Even the gents loo air freshener and soap are, as it were, bog standard. So with no phalanx of flashbulbs to illuminate my exit, I left alone and with only my memories into the dark of Downing Street like a reshuffled Minister.

For a very modest outlay, you can experience the whole thing for yourself. First, down to your local retailer for a bottle of Villa Maria or Campo Viejo. Find your clunkiest heavyweight goblet, and log into the No 10 Virtual Tour. Pick up your glass – “Red or white, sir?” – as you view the Terracotta Room where drinks are provided; then sip your wine while viewing the Pillared Room where guests congregate. Should you wish to avail yourself of the lavatory (surprisingly omitted from the Virtual Tour), rest assured that your own is probably not very different to the one at No 10. This will give you the whole experience; except, of course, for the opportunity to share a few words with one of the most significant, insightful and interesting people in the country. But if you send me an invite…

PK

5 comments:

  1. Wow, what dull wines!

    If they're not going to serve Supertuscans or First Growths they might at least consider English wine.

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  2. I agree with Paul...where were the wines from Nyetimber or Chapel Downs...what's with serving NZ and Spanish swill?

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  3. All is not lost amongst the political elite! At least the House of Commons souvenir shop sells a re-labelled Denbies White.

    Panders to the French a little bit elsewhere though:
    Brut Champagne, 75cl £23.50
    Flint Valley, Denbies, Surrey 75cl £9.50
    Sparkling Wine, Chardonnay Brut, France 75cl £14.50
    Sauvignon Blanc, France 75cl £9.20 Merlot, France 75cl £9.20
    Claret, Bordeaux, France75cl £11.00

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  4. Point taken, but perhaps a small correction edit to your red wine name there, that Campo Viejo can't be both Crianza and Reserva.

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  5. As a previous visitor tempered my excitement when I received an invite (which won't be happening again for a while!) - expense will be spared!

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