So PK and I are at a wine-tasting run by the admirable Liberty Wines, and we're trying to look august and senatorial rather than betting-shop seedy, so, having arrived late already we sit as carefully as we can down to lunch and get talking to a mover and shaker in the high-end wine trade. This is a guy who clearly knows a stelvin from a bung made out of bunched-up table napkins, and who has a smarter haircut than either of us, and he makes at least two salient points, which, coming from him, sound more salient than they would coming from either of us. They are:
1) Anyone who pays the full asking price for a bottle of supermarket wine is an idiot. Supermarkets now have such a Byzantine philosophy of consumer confusion, involving excessive choice multiplied by incessant special offers, that pricing bears no relationship to actual value. The only sensible course of action is to wait for one of your preferred wines to pitch up with 25% off and buy then.
Perhaps we knew that already, but it's nice to hear it from the trade. On the other hand,
2) Give the insanely high levels of duty on wine in the UK + transport costs + packaging/point of sale materials/tasteful shelving and all the other crap surrounding the purchasing of wine, there are no cheap wines left in this country, there never really were, and we'd better get used (once more, just like our parents) to the idea of wine as luxury rather than everyday consumable. We don't live in France, and we're not going to. Unless we actually go and live in France.
Well, agreed PK and I, he would say (2), on account of being a high-end wine guy. But there was nonetheless a sobering vestigial truth about it, or it would have been sobering if we hadn't rather made pigs of ourselves over a red Burgundy that was sitting, unguarded, in the middle of the table. And if it was true, it meant that my entire life's work, to find cheap drinkable grog in the UK, was utterly wasted (see footnote). I know that I might have been trying to live like a provençal Frenchman, with all the low-cost rough'n'ready douceurs and general freebies that implies, while having at the same time to pay London prices, but I thought that there was at least only one direction of travel, and that was always towards better and more value-packed wine, if not to the level of living it large in Manosque, at least to the point where I could freely pour out my pauper's drink and not choke on it. Why else are we in the EU?
Stricken, I fell to brooding on things that you can get in this stiflingly overpriced country that still, just about, represent reasonable value for money. After about ten minutes, I had thought of:
- Illegally downloaded music
- A packet of Tesco value white sliced bread
- Free newspapers, or, better yet, a copy of The Sun that someone's left behind on the tube
- Cigarettes are still affordable, at around 40p a smoke
- An Aston Martin DB9. Yes, it'll set you back £130,000. But just look at it
- Getting your shoes re-soled
At no point could I think of anything which contained the ideas of wine and value for money within the same larger concept, unless you include Aldi's ￡2.99 range, which is certainly well-priced, but which, given my last experience with Aldi, may not be drinkable by humans.
And then it occured to me, just as the preceding thought exited my head, that even as I was thinking that previous thought, I happened to be drinking some Heidsieck Brut Reserve and writing next to its entry in the catalogue, Big, gassy & soapy; and I saw the merest ray of hope, no bigger than a speck of dandruff. Because the fact is, if you can scrounge an invite to the occasional wine tasting, you can consolidate value and quality, because the stuff's usually good, and it's free, and damn me if I wasn't knocking back some ￡50-a-bottle Heidsieck Champagne as if I had every right to, while simultaneously calling it Big, gassy and soapy. And not spitting quite as rigorously as I ought to. Beat that, if you can.
And here's the clincher. The smart guy in the wine business finished his gloomy purview with an instance of what he understood by the value/quality nexus, which turned out to be a prize-winning Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru, retailing at approximately ￡65 a bottle.
- Try it, he said. It's pretty good.
So we did. And, to our cost-effective surprise, it was, not least because we weren't paying. There you go: the problem contains the lineaments of its own solution, and Norman Vincent Peale was right.
Footnote: none of this is strictly true