One: So here we are, back in the South of France, just under the shoulder of Mt Ventoux, and our chums say, Let's go to this cave, they're advertising Champagane, no, not méthode Champenoise but actual Champagne, so we say, Fantastic, we haven't been to a cave since almost this time last year, with you, as it happens, and off we go, down a deeply rutted French track, throwing up dust and gravel, sweltering slightly insanely in the heat, before drawing up in front of a nobly-proportioned but apparently derelict château with an industrial crane sticking out of the top -
But what do you know? This is a work in progress: and yes, as we step over some power cables and a length of hosepipe, it turns out that the Château la Croix des Pins is indeed in business, and has set out its stall in a freshly-painted antechamber, formerly the private chapelle of the château - with, as a token of lingering piety, a couple of plaster seraphim on the wall behind the cash register.
What's more, the instant we clear our throats, a very soignée young woman bursts out of a side door and starts flogging us the Château la Croix des Pins range of Ventoux-flavoured wines, plus the Champagne they seem to have the concession for down here, plus some gluey-looking stuff from Tunisia. She tells us a tale of decline and rebirth: the previous owner of the winery dies, the house starts to fall down, some bright young gunslingers with a hand in other wine-producing regions (hence the heterogeneous mixture) take over, they rebuild and re-invigorate the brand, and their stuff costs €7 and upwards a bottle. Her rhetoric is so seamless and so determined that we lapse into an admiring stupor as she collects more glassware, plus a bucket, plus more wines which we taste, repeatedly extending our glasses for a refill.
Actually, she (correctly) identifies me as the lustreless goob of the party and soon stops my refills, concentrating her energies on our markedly smarter friends. Who, in due course buy some red and some Champagne, and we all go home. And the red (not that it's my place to criticise) tastes fine in what I now think of as a light, Grenache-y Ventoux way, nothing to make you tear your shirt off in ecstasy, but fine.
Two: I wander into my dreary local Majestic Wine Warehouse. I am the only person there (a Monday morning, admittedly, and raining) but I am mercifully left to dicker around with the tasting wines, including a 2000 Chinon, a wine about which I know less than nothing, and which I consume in kingly solitude, noting that it is (a) pretty nice and (b) too expensive. At no point does anyone attempt to tell me the story of the charmless west London shed which Majestic have made their own. Nor does anyone slyly withhold the glassware from me at the tasting stall. There are no soignée young women, just a bloke in fishpaste-coloured shorts. Mildly glowing with Chinon, and glad to have been left alone, I scale down my pretensions and buy some 2009 Domaine Les Yeuses Merlot/Syrah Pays D'Oc.
This reveals itself later in the day to have a nose full of tar and tobacco, a mild clusterbomb effect on the palate and gums, and a pleasingly cough-mixture finish. In other words, at £7.49 a bottle (including discounts) it is approximately £2 over my Platonic price point, but still worth it.
The problem: insofar as there is a problem, it lies back in France, in their interpretation of tasting, the dégustation et vente you see all over the wine-growing regions (an index of PK's grandeur, by the way: he goes to wineries where you have to pay to get in).
How? Well, I used to cling to the sentimental idea that dégustation et vente allows you to try a wine and meet its producer without the same mercantile pressure that you experience when buying something in a wine shop. Of course, in a cave, there's no escape from being eyeballed by the hungry proprietor, but I still like to imagine it as a meeting of individuals, rather than doomed participants in an ineluctable transaction.
And when we rocked up at Château la Croix des Pins, frankly, I was desperate to buy some drink, any drink, if only because it's a cuddly, touristy thing to do and I wanted that kind of transaction, that escape from the Anglo-Saxon condition, that intimacy (however fake) with the wine-maker.
Instead it became one of those typically French impositions of form over content, in which great attention is paid to the proprieties of the encounter, with marginally less paid to the quality of the product itself. An extension, in fact, of one's experiences of middling, bourgeois French restaurants, with their menus à prix fixes, their stiff and inefficient service, their monotonously indifferent food, their insistence on form. Not that a trip to Château la Croix des Pins is even faintly near as excruciating as having to eat bad French restaurant food. Just that one has this feeling of being simultaneously strongarmed and condescended to - however nice and Frenchified one's hostess is, however much she fans out her fingers and elaborates the magical story of the vineyard - and that one is meant to be grateful for the privilege.
Which leaves one wondering, what is a tasting, a dégustation anyway? Is it a chance to try out new stuff and attempt to talk wine with an expert? Or is that too pitiably naive? Wouldn't it make more sense just to assume that the dégustation isn't really happening and face up to the fact that it's all about the vente and not much else?