So PK gets one of his mad enthusiasms, insisting that he's found something that I cannot afford to pass up and that, whatever it is, it has got me written all the way through it like a stick of Brighton rock. Turns out he's referring to the SPAR autumn winefest rather than a Bentley, but I am no match for his implacable energies and have to admit that, yes, an hour spent poking around a small shabby supermarket chain looking for rock-bottom wines is pretty much my idea of a good time.
Not that you could tell this from the associated SPAR press release, which waves its arms frantically as it announces 'A host of fantastic quality SPAR brand wines' to be 'Backed by extensive marketing support including consumer press advertising, POS material, in-store tastings and PR.' Apparently, 'SPAR’s spring Wine Festival earlier this year saw sparkling success', while 'As a mark of their fantastic quality, a host of SPAR brand wines have been recognised by the international wine trade this year'. SPAR is actually a Dutch company, its name originally De Spar, an acronym for Door Eendrachtig Samenwerken Profiteren Allen Regelmatig, or Everyone Regularly Profits Through United Collaboration, which has a nice 1930's collectivist ring to it, a hint of North Korea. Equally, and at the same time, it is not what you'd call a glamour destination, usually found in largeish villages in the sticks, or at the marginally more weed-strewn ends of smallish towns.
In fact it takes me a while to locate my nearest SPAR, which although not a million miles as the crow flies, involves a forty-minute drive of scarcely plausible complexity at the end of which I find myself parking my car round the back of an Isthmian League football ground amid a heap of yellowing newspapers and discarded crisp packets. As I walk away from it, I turn and raise my hand in tremulous farewell, expecting never to see the vehicle again.
On the other hand, I am right next door to the SPAR, which turns out to be a local micromart with a few sausage rolls slumbering in a warmer and some copies of Closer on the rack. The in-store wine tastings and PR are either not there or so subtly done that they are invisible. In fact wine of any sort is almost invisible, so cunningly spread over three different locations within the store that it keeps coming as a surprise to me to find anything stonger than Listerene on the shelves.
Still. I elbow aside a pensioner and an obese schoolchild and get down to business. There is a dusty knot of wine giveaways (two for a tenner, white and red) on a shelf at about knee height but no, I am strong and head remorselessly for things that look like they might be part of the big SPAR Autumn Wine Event. I find the usual suspects, Wolf Blass, Gallo brothers' Turning Leaf, that kind of thing, but no again, you can get these anywhere, especially at the local newsagent, what I want is something authentically SPAR, and after what seems like a lifetime of fuddled probings under the increasingly scornful gaze of the guy behind the counter, I find a bottle of Valencia Vino Tinto at ￡5.49 and another of Valencia Vino Blanco for a mere ￡4.99. Both 'Hand Selected By WIne Experts For SPAR' it says comfortingly on the label, and although the choice in this particular outlet is nothing like the range listed on the SPAR website (e.g. the SPAR Bronze Award-winning Chablis, or the SPAR Commended Montepulciano, with full heavy-breathing text accompaniment) it's near enough and the stuff comes home with me.
Taste sensations? Could be worse: the white (no grape varieties named) gives you a spritz of citrus at the start with a quick burp of acidity at the end and nothing much in between, but there's nothing wrong with that. Similarly, the red (no grape varieties named) has a bit of Fruit Gums, a bit of Sarsons Malt Vinegar, and a nice, chesty finish that can be felt between the shoulderblades. It does the job, and what else did I expect? I mean if Waitrose can make me feel that they're doing me a favour when they sell me their everyday drinking rust remover, then I'm not going to complain about SPAR's more self-effacing take on the same stuff.
My only grievance is nothing much to do with the wine and more to do with SPAR's half-arsed, indeed, faintly tragic, idea of what constitutes a promotion. Where are the tables with gingham tablecloths? Where are the glossy brochures? I mean, they've got something worth celebrating: a selection of borderline drinkable wines at marginally approachable prices. Let's not hide it like a guilty secret among the Dreft and the Maltesers. Let's get behind it. Let's be proud, in a low-rent kind of way. Let's shout it from the rooftops, or failing that, from the junction of the A238 and the A2043, just south of Norbiton Station.