Bear with me. You may not imagine they exist, but I am about to explore the extraordinary parallels between buying wine – and buying meat.
Just a fortnight ago, I wondered about the kind of person who would simply order “A glass of wine, please”, without any kind of detail. Don’t they care what they get? Who would ever order “Oh, just any piece of meat, thanks.”?
And the more I thought about this, the more that purchasing these two consumables seemed to become indistinguishable adventures in ignorance and embarrassment.
If someone did walk into a butcher’s and ask for “A piece of meat, please”, then like our capricious orderer of a random glass of wine, the first question they might be asked is surely the same: “Red or white?”
Not so tricky, that first hurdle. But like the opening question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, it’s a sort of entertaining warm-up. Just to put you at your ease with something you can probably answer, before the difficult questions to come.
Because as soon as you get past that initial question, you’re then expected to have some kind of knowledge of the potential varieties. You think you know enough basics; the beef, lamb, pork and chicken; the Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chianti and Rioja. And you know how to pronounce them. That’s Ri-oh-ka. Soss-idge.
But then the chap behind the counter starts suggesting things you’ve never heard of. “This isn’t just a pork chop, it’s a Gloucester Old Spot.” “Ah, now this is what we call a Super Tuscan.”
You start getting drawn into issues of provenance. Chardonnay – Californian, or New Zealand? Bacon – Danish, or Wiltshire? How “natural” or “organic” do you want your product? How contented a life has your grape – sorry, chicken – led?
You get offered alternatives. If they don’t have pheasant, should you take partridge? Or guinea fowl? If the Burgundy’s too expensive, will that Otago Pinot Noir suffice? And you find yourself struggling to maintain your end of the discussion by showing some kind of basic knowledge. “Shiraz…that’s Syrah, right?” “Mallard…that is duck, isn’t it?”
We’re terrified in both establishments that we’ll be asked a whole load of questions which feel as if they’re simply there to demonstrate our salesman’s superiority, and serve only to highlight our ignorance to other, tutting customers. “Blade or skirt?” “Pouilly-Fuissé or Pouilly-Fumé?” “Do you want that Frenched?”
(By the way, if a chap does inquire whether you want that Frenched, or simply asks “Spatchcocked, sir?”, make sure you’re in the butcher’s.)
There’s a bewildering range of options. Do you want that bacon dry cured, sweet cured, smoked or unsmoked, streaky or back? Will your Bordeaux be Left Bank or Right Bank, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Premier, Grand or Superieur?
And is the particular variety of meat or wine you’re interested in better aged, or young?
In the end, you just have to decide whether to trust the chap behind the counter, when he tells you that this will taste terrific, and it’s really worth spending the extra on this particular cut or bottle. Because no, you can’t “try before you buy”. It’s raw and/or unopened – so the only way to find out which you prefer is to buy them, take them home, prepare them appropriately and taste them for yourself. You have little to go on, beyond the remarkably comparable advice of Olly Smith telling you it’s “quaffable”, and Homer Simpson going “Mmmmm, bacon…”
(Come to think of it, isn’t most shoddy wine writing basically “Mmmmmm, wine…”?)
Of course there are differences. As I have observed before, you don’t buy a selection box of twelve mixed meats, most of which you have never heard of, then eat your way through deciding which you prefer. But perhaps you shouldn’t buy mixed cases of wine, either?
Many of us avoid these issues by going to the supermarket. There, we can pick our products from the shelf, and read the packaging in quiet bafflement. What is the difference between stewing steak, braising steak and chuck steak? Or between Rioja, Rioja crianza and Rioja Reserva? There’s no-one to tell us – but at least there is also no-one there to tut impatiently or sneer at our ignorance. We can simply stare at the labels, in the hope that enlightenment will descend upon us like the annunciation.
But the next time someone feels daunted about shopping in a wine merchant’s, perhaps they’ll be reassured to realise that it’s just the same as being baffled in the butcher’s.
However, do remember which is which. Only one of the salesmen should be wielding a knife.
Or a bottle.