So I was having a quiet drink with PK the other night when, suddenly, it all got too much and I found myself frenziedly badmouthing the whole business of wine and everyone who had anything to do with it, myself included. Why? I think it must have been my Christmas purchase from Tesco, and not specifically because Tesco, true to form, had failed to deliver half the order.
Nor even because I wished I hadn't ordered some mixed reds from them in the first instance, or because I think Tesco will have chosen terrible wines. I am putting my faith in this mighty Fordist combine and I do not expect to be disappointed, except by the efficiency of the delivery. No the thing is, the mixed case contains wines from four different countries, fair enough, it could have been twice that number, but I was suddenly assaulted by this question: why am I expected to know about so many wines?
I mean, I'm not sure I could say I know anything about even one wine, but it's become the burden of the Anglo-Saxon wine drinker to be expected to have some kind of working understanding of wines from all over the bloody world just so he can stand a chance of negotiating his way around the thousands of possible wines that are on sale in this country at any given moment. And this struck me, suddenly, as a kind of fatuous madness.
Look. In provincial France (in my limited experience) people will have a considerable working knowledge of the local wines, along with local cheeses, charcuterie, what have you. Beyond their home region, they will get increasingly vague, maybe holding an opinion about Champagne or Calvados, but someone based in the Ventoux will not only probably not have a great fount of knowledge of Entre-Deux-Mers, they won't even care. They have their own stuff to drink, and that's what principally interests them. And if you venture a question about, say, Chilean wines, five will get you ten they'll just frown at you as if you were the village simpleton and say They make wine in Chile? What can it possibly taste like?
Ditto Germany, another well-known wine-making country. We have been served some authentically unknowable, and sometimes undrinkable, German wines in spooky green flute-like bottles by our kind hosts because it wouldn't occur to them to serve anything other than one of their local products. Last time I was in Germany I think I may have touched conversationally on Australia, a New World country that now apparently makes its own wines, only to be met by the same polite incomprehension as Chile with the French.
And I am absolutely sure that it would be the same in Italy, or Spain, or Portugal: one's interests can be deep, but essentially narrow. Our French-based friends drink gallons of the local stuff at varying levels of refinement and in different colours, and it's all good, and if you go out for a meal, well, the wine list might be a bit more high-end, but it'll still be familiar and contain the nearby names, and you will have a handle on it and it'll still be good.
Whereas in the UK, and in The States, even though the latter is a proper wine country, what criminal masochism encourages us to think that we should not only have a view on all the main wine-producing regions of France, Italy and Spain, but on California, Coonawarra, Marlborough, Mendoza and Tamil Nadu? We are not really a wine-producing country. We can't be much except eclectic. But since everything from everywhere is now available, the result is that nowhere (unless you have really thought about it and taken a self-denying ordinance to drink wine only from, say, the Central Otago region) means anything more than anywhere else. Which taxonomical impossibility then generates an entire eco-subsystem of advisors, pickers, experts and know-alls, artfully funnelling your ignorance through their own preferences and pretensions and encouraging those cruelly humiliating wine lists in fancy restaurants which look like the gazetteer out of the The Times Atlas because that's the cultural assumption we are too spineless not to live with.
PK likes all this, of course, because he's a bit of a trainspotter and he's quite good at remembering things. But I want less in my life. I would be happy if there was one-fifth the choice of booze in my nearest supermarket, but it was all okay, price permitting. Like an inhabitant of the Ventoux, I will drink the same kind of stuff day in day out, if tastes nice. It will be one less thing to worry about.
Which is pretty much what I said to PK. When I'd finished ranting, he said something pointless, along the lines of Well it's a lifelong pursuit, isn't it? And then a fellow drinker fell on the floor and had to be helped back into his seat. It wasn't The School of Athens in there, I'll be frank.