Do not trouble yourselves as to why I found myself spending a night alone in a hotel far from home. Stuck on the edge of a town full of pound shops, cash converters and discount sports clothing stores. Consider only my dilemma upon returning to said hotel, after an early supper, with a couple of hours to kill before bedtime.
I could go into town for a drink, but I was put off by a sign in a window which declared: House wine £6.99, or upgrade to Echo Falls for an extra £1. You know you’re in trouble when Echo Falls is the upgrade.
So then there’s the hotel bar. But, really, why would you?
You imagine you’re going to enjoy the epigrammatic wisdom of a world-weary barman, with the laconic delivery of Humphrey Bogart. In fact, the barman is an over-eager student on a Saturday job.
The crisps are absurdly expensive because they are ‘handmade’, despite the fact that, like bottles and baked beans, the quality of crisps has only benefited from mass production. And the last time I sat at the bar, I ended up trapped in conversation with some nutter who talked about having a crucifixion-style tattoo on his back of Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull.
Also, the bar is full of men wearing their shirts outside their trousers.
But this hotel is unusual. Because it contains a rather good wine shop, easily the best in the area, run as a side business by one of the hotel owners who happens to be a Master of Wine. As the hotel itself is an oasis of civilisation in an otherwise grim locale, why not?
And I suddenly wonder, why not just take a bottle up to my room? It will be quieter, and easier, and, well, cheaper. Any conversation which arises has advantages uncommon in bars – mute and call end buttons. And if I get maudlin I can just sit and watch the traffic.
Of course, I have terrible memories of those holiday hotels where you find yourself trying to smuggle food and drink past reception. Hiding local carrier bags, wrapping bottles in towels so they don’t clink, desperate to avoid the exorbitant room service and minibar charges.
But no problem here, surely? I’m just buying a bottle of wine from their shop, in their lobby, and I’m just taking it, quite openly, up to my room in their bag. Are they going to say that I can only collect it after checking out? Like some Duty Free purchase, that I have to present unopened at Departure?
I browse their shelves. Zinfandel has not loomed large in my wine drinking, perhaps because it’s not that big a variety in Europe. Or perhaps because it’s hard to take seriously when it sounds like some fantasy kingdom, along with Xanadu and Narnia. (“The magic land of Zinfandel/Where unicorns and pixies dwell…”)
So The Big Top Zinfandel on the “Under £15” shelf lures me in, with its novelty, with its promise of “grace and elegance”. With its screwcap, which requires no giveaway request for a corkscrew.
And with its pricetag, which, at £8.50, is not only significantly under £15, but is also much better value than wine in the bar. For the cheapest red wine there is £5.50 for a 175ml glass, or £7.50 for a modestly satisfying 250ml. Why would I not buy an entire bottle, three times as much wine, for just £1 more, and drink it in my room?
I boldly, brazenly carry my purchase upstairs. Of course, in my room I have to drink it from a tumbler. Not a trendsetting, hipster tumbler, you understand, but a toothrinsing tumbler.
But because it’s muggy, do you know what? I can sit in my room and drink my wine in my underpants! Cool my legs! Even in a bar where gentlemen wear their shirts outside their trousers, wearing no trousers might be frowned upon. In fact, it might even be frowned upon at home. Hey, this is comfort better than home!
Does the zinfandel exhibit the ‘grace and elegance’ to which its label refers? Actually, it’s bloody aggressive; it rushes at your nose as soon as you open the screwcap, a nostalgic rush for those of us old enough to remember removing the lid from a classroom jar of Copydex. It’s got a grip like a clenched fist, and it almost sandpapers the back of your throat, albeit with a powerful, fruity clout.
I probably should have chosen something lighter to drink on its own. But I was driven by the pricetag and, if you ignore it for a while, like most aggressive characters it quietens down. It actually has body and weight similar to a shiraz; and it becomes, like the elephant on the label, big, powerful but tamed.
And suitably soporific. I did not even have to go up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire – just lie back. I stopped drinking at that key point when I was ready for sleep, but had not spilled any red wine on the pristine white bedding.
Perhaps, as they say, there are winners and losers in this world. And it’s clear who the winner was this time – the guy sitting alone in his hotel room, in his underpants, drinking inappropriately heavy wine out of a toothglass, counting his pennies and watching the traffic.