There is a nearby wine merchant posh enough to have an ampersand in its name. The manager has the physique of those nourished without a concern for cash, contained within an inevitable striped shirt. He sweeps out from behind the counter to intercept visitors, with an extraordinary combination of the grovelling of Uriah Heep and the swagger of a Pall Mall club porter (“Are you entitled to be here, sir?”) And before one can orientate oneself between the Bordeaux and the bargain bins, he asks: “Can I help you?”
No. You cannot help me. I am not looking for anything specific; I am browsing. I do not need to be monitored like a potential shoplifter, and I certainly do not wish to be escorted around the shelves to the accompaniment of a running commentary. There may be a purchase somewhere in the offing, but at the moment, thank you very much, I am just looking.
What is the point (CJ will demand) of “just looking” at wines that are created in order to drink?
Well, first, an education. Have you ever compared the colour of five vintages of Chateau d’Yquem? Did you know they make half-bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages? Have you noticed how the Rothschilds emulate the style of the Lafite label on their lesser wines? Or the obscure wines which carry in small type the names of winemakers like Mouiex and Chapoutier? These are all things I have learnt through browsing.
I have remembered more about the relative prices of wines, regions and vintages by browsing than I ever have from lists. Somehow the visual element of a label, on a bottle, in a store registers those things more clearly in my mind.
Browsing gives you a good indication of the nature of a merchant. The presence of one or two great wines on their shelves establishes benchmarks, of price, good taste, long-standing and industry connections, which enable you to put the rest of their offering into perspective. One of the sure signs of the collapse of Oddbins was the absence of any recognisable wines in their shops.
And then there is an almost emotional element to browsing – imagining the wine, the flavour, the occasion. Simply being in the presence of wines you are trying to understand, may never be able to afford, and sometimes find it hard to believe even exist. Have you actually seen a bottle of Screaming Eagle? Or a 1961 claret? People thrill to First Editions not because they want to read the contents, but because that’s how the book first appeared. Surely wine’s even better, because every vintage is a first and only edition.
There are plenty of things people simply look at, without ever using them for their intended purpose. No-one spends their coin collection. People wander around commercial art galleries without the intention (or indeed the wealth) to buy the items on display. Secondhand bookshops depend upon browsing; and people flick happily through the racks in record shops without anyone feeling the need to offer fatuous advice. (“Looking for a record beginning with B then, sir?”)
I am not a timewaster; except in the sense that the only person’s time I am wasting is my own. I won’t waste the staff’s time, because I don’t need to occupy their time. So if you happen to recognise yourself as the chap who runs Pompous & Disdain (Wine Merchants), may I suggest (ever so ‘umbly) that the phrase “Let me know if you need any help…” is much better. I will indeed let you know, and may then actually buy something.
But sometimes it’s hard. On my recent trip to Paris I made a pilgrimage to Les Caves d’Augé. Opened in 1850, it’s the oldest wine store in Paris, and was Proust’s local. I’ve always loved the French for window-shopping - lécher les vitrines or literally, to lick the windows – and frankly that’s about all one can afford to do in Paris these days. But in Augé, it’s actually quite hard even to browse. It’s two wonderful old, crowded rooms, each piled to the ceiling with dusty bottles, like being in someone’s actual cellar. The phrase “kid in a sweetshop” comes to mind, and any parent knows just how long that child will take to make up its mind.
But the staff hover expectantly behind you, watching every move as you shuffle between the cases. Even hiding behind the language barrier isn’t enough to dispel their attention. No, I am not going to lift that bottle of Ausone 2005 at €1380 and give it a shake. Like saintly relics, it’s enough just to look, to revel in the presence. Leave me alone!
I began to think my experience with the shelves of the Monoprix supermarket would be the most enlightening bit of wine browsing Paris would offer. But then I passed La Maison des Millesimes, offering a truly spectacular collection of Bordeaux. The shop is off-puttingly bling, but my desire to just see such wonderful vintages overcame its froideur. However, when I shrugged off the inevitable offer of help in my poor French, the salesman responded in conversational English; it turned out he was a young Yorkshireman, who responded to the presence of a genuine wine enthusiast even if I couldn’t afford their spectacular wines.
“Look at this!” he said conspiratorially, and pulled open a drawer to reveal a 1947 Sauternes, its wine the colour of honey, its label held on with clingfilm. We stood there for a moment, just looking at it together, grinning. Just looking.
And then I left.