Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Further Complications

So I'm ranting and raving about the need to transition from a wine-based monoculture to one which was shared more evenly between wines, beers and spirits; and someone calling themselves Anonymous writes a comment at the end of the last rant which is so on the money, so neatly-turned, that I'm going to quote it in full:

'What would a 50-50 split actually mean? What are you measuring? Volume of liquid, volume of alcohol, time spent drinking, financial outlay, pleasure returned? A few months ago I tried moving away from wine to a largely gin and cider based diet (different nights), but it was a statistical nightmare. Whatever the merits of other booze might be, absent of any Exchange Rate Mechanism back into wine, they don't seem worth the admin.'

There you have it. Long-term satisfactory booze modification turns out to be a much more enduringly complex problem than it at first appears - almost impossible if you include pleasure returned as an essential criterion. Years ago, when Sediment was young and full of certainties, I came up with a cockamamie notion called The Great Wine Graph, plotting price against sensation delivered as a way of generating some kind of standardised cost/pleasure dataset against which to judge just about any drink I stuck in my mouth. After a couple of weeks, of course, I forgot about the scheme and that was that. 

But it would be one way to tackle the ongoing question, How much am I enjoying this? - which in turn boils down to Why am I even doing this?, which in turn boils down to Why bother living?, but anyway. Boiled all the way down, I end up working not with a graph but with gut feeling, figuratively and literally - a yearning for the sort of things an old man might yearn for: predictability and value for money. In other words, last night I drank whisky and soda, the whisky being the legendary High Commissioner, a massively uninvolving mainstream blend that you find in corner shops and left-behind supermarket chains all over the country. I forget how we came by it. It was okay. It had been professionally made. It tasted like whisky.

On the other hand, a couple of days earlier I had brush with that awful Chateau Pey La Tour stuff - which I feel certain I've bleated about before but can't remember when - which I keep buying because I fall for the name (sounds like something good, but what? What?) and the smoothie packaging and the crap prize at the bottom of the front face, Concours des Grands Vins de France a Macon, Medaille d'Argent, see pic, I mean, what a heap of dross it turned out to be, very nearly (but not quite) undrinkable, and I paid something for it, way more than I should have, how credulous could anyone be? I could have been complacently drinking a bland, completely non-contentious mass-market whisky for a fraction of the price.

And then the whole mess is compounded by a bottle of rosé I knocked off last week, preposterous name - LeBijou de Sophie Valrose - apparently a Cabrières, tasted fantastic. I love drinking wine, I solemnly reminded myself as I slurped through it. I think it cost about the same as the Pey la Tour but it was as high on the value/deliciousness scale as the Pey was in negative figures. You see where this is heading? Beers and spirits are going to be predictable and as satisfying as I want them to be, with occasional outbreaks of sublimity in the gin section and, I'm hoping, in the whiskies. Wines, conversely, you never know what's going to happen. I want reassurance, at a price, not endless leaps into the unknown, except when that's exactly the thing I do crave.

Which brings me back to Anonymous and his intervention: I think my division of wine/non-wine is going to be on a crudely pragmatic day-to-day basis (yesterday I had beer; today, therefore, wine) with, as the central unit of critical judgement pleasure returned, which neatly incorporates price, predictability and taste, whatever that is. It's somewhere on the cusp between art and science, but leavened with that key ingredient: futility.


Thursday, 10 May 2018

Let's discover the world of wine! (Or not…)

The cheap wooden wine cabinet in my local supermarket has a new heading. Regular readers (bless you all) may remember that it once housed their so-called ‘Fine Wine’, before becoming some kind of dumping ground. Now, it bears a simple imperative: ‘Discover’.

Discover – what does that mean, exactly? I’m old enough to feel that there’s an abuse of the verb going on, old enough to have grown up with images of proper explorers, in pith helmets, leading a train of luggage-bearing servants through a jungle somewhere. And here is a supermarket, trying to make you feel similarly daring and exploratory, with little more challenge than trying a grape like vermentino.

This notion of ‘discovery’ is peculiar to wine. I don’t see many retailers offering an invitation to discover the world of trousers. Actually, I’ll confess that I’m pretty complacent when it comes to trousers, and perhaps I should be looking to see if there are varieties with unequal leg lengths, or magnetic flies. (“Warning: Unsuitable for customers with certain piercings”)

But I really don’t feel any need to head out and 'discover' uncharted territories of trousers. Or, indeed, wine. Which must disappoint the marketing whiz who clearly thought it would sound an exciting proposition Whereas in fact, a suggestion to ‘discover’ is one of those foreboding phrases, like “I thought we could try something unusual…”, which can make your heart sink whether it’s in connection with wine, seafood or sexual intercourse.

So what is this, a carefully curated selection of unusual grapes and challenging flavours? Or perhaps a journey around the world’s wines, featuring lesser-known regions? (Which, I tend to find, generally have a very good reason for remaining lesser-known…)

Let us tip-toe with trepidation, out of our comfort zone, across its top shelf, to discover the unfamiliar wines of, er… France. Of that rarely encountered region, Bordeaux. There’s an example of the possibly less well known Chinon, but then back to a Bordeaux, cleverly labelled as claret in case that makes it seem like a different wine.

Then there are three Kosher wines, whose presence might be explained less by an initiative to discover Middle Eastern wine, and more by a desire to shift leftovers from last month’s Passover.

Below that you can discover their own-label champagne, which is cheap, and their own-label cava, which is cheaper. Oh, and a sauvignon blanc. From Bordeaux.

Go on, you say, discover! Try something different! What have you got to lose? Well, about £13 by the looks of things, for a bottle of Chablis (ever heard of it?), where the only discovery will be of how much more than usual I can spend on a supermarket wine.

Tucked away near the bottom are some genuinely unusual wines, a Sierra de Andia from Navarra, and a Paso Robles Zinfandel blend, both in Sainsbury's own-label Taste the Difference range.  But does anyone still consider Argentinian Malbec much of a discovery? I mean, even CJ discovered that, ages ago. He, of course, would explore anywhere in the world that could possibly offer drinkable wine for less than a fiver. But Lord Sainsbury’s expedition doesn’t seem to have gone that far.

So what have we discovered? Little, beyond the low estimation in which supermarket winedrinkers  are held. Discovery, it seems, is small, confined and unsurprising. A bit like discovering your downstairs loo.


Thursday, 3 May 2018


So having returned from a few days in the wilds of North-West Scotland (startling weather, fantastic scenery [see pic], Deuchars, Tennents and some whisky) it's now time to get down to the business of transitioning into a more spirits'n'beer-driven and slightly less wine-driven mode of consumption (see More Gin). Slightly insanely, I've decided to approach this as an exercise in administrative bureaucracy, with a full internal Steering Committee - me, essentially - overseeing various sub-committees and, where necessary, individual working parties; also, essentially, me. And, possibly, strategy forums and/or enabling teams.

First question is, what kind of targets do I want to set for myself? At present, I would guess that my booze input is 80-90% wine, with the rest beers and spirits. Do I want to get this down to 50-50 or is 60% wine, 40% the rest, a more realistic ambition, certainly in the initial six-month period? Come to think of it, is six months realistic? Or is it unambitious? Or over-ambitious? Should I refer this to the Strategy Mapping Group or is it one for the Inner Goals team?

Either way, I'll have to put the problem to the Finance and Procurement Sub-Committee, or to the Health and Social Services Sub-Committee, or, more likely, both, in order to get some kind of useful steer on possible outcomes. Finance and Procurement can run the numbers on how much it's going to cost to go over to a more grain-based intake as opposed to a largely grape-based one. My hunch - and indeed, my hope - is that I'll make some useful cash savings, based on a typical weekly input paradigm (note to self: should that be paradigm or regime?) given that Tesco will sell me 70cl of blended Scotch for £11.00, which should last a week at least, whereas a couple of 75cl bottles of wine usually cost £12.00 or more and last maybe five days. Fizzy water to mix comes in at 17p for two litres, so that's okay. Gin a touch more expensive, not least because of the tonic water. Half a litre of Greene King IPA - should I want to go down the beer road - is , on the other hand, £1.24: another clear saving, if beer is trending that week.

Health and Social Services, on the other hand, have a trickier issue to work on: will I be fatter as a result? Wines contain a lot of empty calories and carbohydrates; but so do beers. Some beers are relatively light on the carbs; others are stuffed with them, so HSSSC (Health and Social Services Sub-Committee) is going to need to focus on this one in a timely and robust manner, albeit with a markedly longer (say, two months) time frame in which to make its investigations. I may also have to get Inner Goals to do some initial hands-on research into fatter and thinner beers, in an effort to manage the potential weight gain downside. At the same time, will I be a more or less objectionable human being if I drink less wine? If I've spent the evening tucking into a 14% red, the following morning can find me, frankly, both stodgy and unattractive. I know this and I'm not proud of it. But I have a feeling, an intuition, that staying with grains might improve (or should that be limit?) my performance in the loathsomeness department, to the extent that someone else might notice this improvement/limitation, specifically my domestic coalition partner or wife. So that's another one to watch (not sure how to quantify this: maybe with output from Inner Goals? Or input from External Relations?). The input, or do I mean output?, from this is going to be particularly interesting.

One other area to focus on in these, the initial stages of transitioning: the cultural inheritance. The less garbage I have to read about wines - fine or otherwise - the happier I will be. On the other hand, there's plenty of sanctimonous high-end guff written about whisky, gin and beer: earthy and fresh as a forest; some talcum powder in the semi-dry finish; jasmine, muguet and foaming butter, I'm not making this up. There is a large and pretentious cultural hinterland associated with even the dumbest ales and this, while not a deal-breaker in its own right is not something to ignore. So it's one for the Arts and Culture Sub-Committee to keep track of, reporting directly to the Steering Committee, naturally, but with a slightly different remit from those embraced by other sub-committees or input/output groups. Which reminds me: what does the Strategy Mapping Group actually do?


Thursday, 26 April 2018

When wine drinking is "cringingly common"

Here am I, “A jumped-up pantry boy, who never knew his place”, as I hope it will say upon my headstone. I thought it was posh just to drink wine, full stop. I thought I stopped being common when I gave up brown ale and Party Sevens.

But no. It seems it’s not as simple as that. It seems there are a number of class signals in wine drinking itself which reveal whether you are U or Non-U, posh or common. Have my guests been laughing at my social gaffes for years because I Didn't Know?

You may not have heard of Nicky Haslam, or Nicholas Ponsonby Haslam to those who have to look him up. He is an interior decorator. This is a profession which requires that you are rich enough to have an interior with which you can do what you like, and then to employ someone else to do with it what they like.

Nicky is “interior decorator to royalty, pop stars, oligarchs and aristocrats” (House and Garden), who are presumably that rich. His small country house is “ravishing”, his London apartment “elegantly playful”. Sometimes, he even looks like a curtain. (Oh, “And do use the couch for your feet,” as John Betjeman put it. So much for class.)

However, Nicky Haslam has developed a secondary career, as an arbiter of what is currently U and Non-U. In the 1950s, this business started with observers specifying that genuinely posh people used words like ‘napkin’ and ‘pudding’, while upstart social climbers said ‘serviette’ and ‘dessert’. Now, it largely seems to involve answering the question which has been perplexing Brits ever since we graduated from using sheets of Bronco; whether the paper on a toilet – no, lavatory – no, loo roll should hang down at the front or the back.

Nicky has declared many things to be ‘common’, such as heating, telescopic umbrellas, coloured wellies, cufflinks and Richard Branson. And unbeknownst to me, Nicky has issued several edicts on aspects of wine – which, horror of social horror, I may have unwittingly transgressed.

For example, he says that rows of wine glasses on a dining table are ‘common’.

Really? Personally, I find them attractive, efficient, and informative of what is to come.  (And it’s a rule which appears to be transgressed at the poshest of dining tables: Buckingham Palace.)

Nicky has declared that changing wine glasses for the second bottle is “cringingly common”. Of course, his wine presumably does not dump a beach-worth of sediment into glass number one.

But in particular, he says that it’s either wine, or it’s white wine. It is ‘common’ to offer “red wine or white wine?” One should ask, “Will you have some wine, or would you prefer white?”

I have clearly been making some huge social blunders over most of my wine-drinking life. In my jumped-up ignorance, I have been cheerfully lining up glasses, and asking guests “Red or white?”, for years. I thought I was displaying generosity – but perhaps I was only displaying my lack of class.

What about my guests? Can I trust that they, too, have all been commoners who Didn’t Know? They may have been poshly ignoring my faux pas, then laughing at me behind my back.  Or perhaps I had already blown it by putting on the heating?

Once you go down this route, you find a surprising number of similar class edicts about wine. William Hanson, a “trusted expert” on etiquette and protocol, lists words that “prove you’re not posh”, and says  that “the word ‘bubbly’ is “a big Non-U giveaway.” It was, he says, invented to make people – presumably poorer people, like me – feel less guilty for serving prosecco rather than Champagne.

He says that 'alcohol' is U, while 'booze' is non-U – “and the term ‘vino' is obviously common.”

And then I came across a guide in the Telegraph to what’s posh and what’s not in 2018, written by someone called Sophia Money-Coutts, who must know whereof she writes because she has a name as impossibly posh as Margaret Tea-Fortnum.

She says that drinking at lunchtime is posh, because “it suggests you don’t have much of a job to go back to.” In my circles that’s called ‘unemployed’.

Not posh, she says, is cold champagne. She quotes Haslam again (these people clearly all know each other): “Much nicer not freezing cold.” Obviously common is spraying people with it. Presumably whether freezing cold or not.

Who are these people? What makes them “trusted experts”? Although it obviously helps to have a name like Susan Notebook-Smythson. Or to be a Ponsonby.

CJ doesn’t get bogged down in all of this stuff; but now I’m worried that that’s because he instinctively knows it already. When he offers me "Wine?", it is indeed always red. No, he has never offered me “Red wine or white wine?” But I assumed that was because he hadn’t got any white.

How many other wine drinkers, like me, were simply oblivious to these rules? Which only revives the old question about whether a falling tree makes a sound if no-one is there to hear it. If a social edict falls upon wine drinkers, but none are aware of it, does it make an impact?


Thursday, 19 April 2018

More Gin

So a couple of our chums were giving us a meal a few weeks ago (I mean, top-flight stuff, fennel and blood orange, salmon, Pouilly Fumé, it's that good) and to start off, we get a gin and tonic. But not just a Weybridge G & T, no, this one is a rhubarb gin, made by Slingsby's of Harrogate and presented in a frosted glass bottle like a bumper of perfume, topped off with fresh Fever-Tree tonic, American-sized ice cubes and slices of a kind of lemon/lime hybrid which I have never encountered before but which looks a bit like a tiny watermelon. We grasp our fabulous, scintillating, very slightly pinkened tumblers and get stuck in. And it is beyond delicious. In fact it seems to be the most delicious drink I have ever drunk. I can't believe how life-enhancing and yet thirst-quenching it is. And it has rhubarb in it. How can this be?

Normally I would worry about a gin with rhubarb in it. There are so many gins, so many craft gins, so many craft gins with stuff in them (cherry and almond, strawberry, orange, rose, honey, pomegranite, sprouts, cornflower, yacht varnish, you name it), all crossing some unhappy conceptual divide between adult tastes and the world of the nursery, that anything resembling them (with rhubarb in it, let's say) sets my alarms ringing. But what do you know? The rhubarb lends tartness to the mix as well as a kind of supernatural earthy fragrance: this is G & T taken to a new level - impeccably served, let's not forget - and I never want to drink anything else. Light, clarity and ebullience fill me from top to toe. It's a revelation.

Of course, gin is always doing this, surprising me with its fabulousness - from the Martinis I made earlier this year (with a gin given me by the rhubarb gin lady, a lady who really understands and appreciates her gins) to my tour round the Sipsmith factory three years ago: it keeps jumping out like an implausibly happy memory. And my response is always to wonder why I don't drink gin for ever after, in all its permutations, and kiss tiresome, unpredictable, overpriced wine goodbye.

So I think for a bit. And then I get it: tragically, I realise that the reason I can't get by on gin alone, is because it doesn't go with food - not that much, anyway. I hate to sound like PK with his endless hypothetical dinner parties and his fine wine appreciations, but there is an issue, here. The only food I can think of, off-hand, that goes well with a brimming G & T is curry - not least because of the colonial overtones. Other than that? I'm open to suggestions, but doubtfully. Also it only really works as a big, sparkling G & T, unless you're making cocktails, but who does that on a Tuesday evening at home? If you want it at room temperature and not long, what else is there but wine?

Oh, but of course: whisky. Whisky! Why didn't I think of this before? It goes long, it goes short, there are all sorts of different styles of whisky, you can take it at any temperature you like, even hot, and it lends itself precisely to the sorts of foods they might traditionally consume in Scotland - beef, salmon, lamb; arguably, raspberries and tayberries. I suppose, porridge. Dundee cake. Haggis for sure - in fact you're meant to pour whisky over the steaming concoction before you start eating it. I even like haggis, which I like to think gives me some perverse currency, somewhere, almost certainly not in Scotland itself. In fact I can't think off-hand of anything I wouldn't drink whisky with, although pasta might be a stretch. Damn! The answer was there all along! Gin and whisky! All right, maybe an occasional beer, because who doesn't like beer? Gin, whisky and beer! The tyranny of the wine rack is a thing of the past! It's 1957 and I'm going to have a party. Just you watch.


Thursday, 12 April 2018

Home Alone

Mrs K is out for the evening, at a musical, which I think avoids the need for any further explanation as to why I have stayed home alone.

So I have choices of both food and wine. On food, I can take the high road, put in some effort, and enjoy the things which Mrs K eschews, such as venison, black pudding and custard, although probably not all at once. Or I can take the low road through quick and easy eating alone options, like fish fingers, pasta with pesto, and ice cream, again probably not all at once. (Although let’s not limit my creative options here; I’ve been watching Masterchef.)

But of course, the real question is on the wine front; and again, it’s whether to take the high road or the low road. Should I enjoy a good wine on my own? Or settle for something mediocre because I’m drinking it by myself?

I have always been wary of the argument that “life’s too short to drink bad wine”. If anything, I have argued that life is too long to drink the good stuff now. That would simply decimate my cellar, and leave me with little to look forward to over the coming years beyond mental and physical decline – incompetence and incontinence.

What about that bottle I have earmarked to celebrate my 70th?  Am I supposed to drink it now, in fear that I may never reach that milestone? And then have nothing worthwhile left to drink if I do?

So when I look at my cellar for solo drinking, my eyes tend to race over the (few) really good bottles. Better to save them for some special event. Cometh the hour, cometh the corkscrew. And while I might get to enjoy twice as much of their contents by drinking them alone, much better to share them, talk about them, enjoy them with someone else.

Drinking alone per se has accrued an image of sad self-destruction, of the drinking into oblivion of Nobby No-mates. But I cling to the belief that there has to be a difference between drinking wine alone, and drinking, say, vodka by yourself. Surely the consideration and appreciation of good wine, even by yourself, is a different matter?

The prohibitionists would make no such distinction. The government measure of drinking by units of alcohol renders all consumption the same, whether it’s white Burgundy or White Lightning. Am I simply clinging to justification by pomposity, like Randy in South Park: “I’m not ‘having a glass of wine’ – I’m having six, it’s called a tasting and it’s classy.”

Surely not. I read what Roger Scruton has written in I Drink Therefore I Am, his Philosopher’s Guide to Wine, about the pleasures of drinking good claret. “Always in good company,” he writes, “which does not, of course, preclude drinking it alone, if your own company reaches the required standard (which, after a glass or two, I find, mine does).”

I am struck by a vision of myself sitting in my armchair, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets in hand, Beethoven’s Op 132 playing in the background. Yes, a bottle of good claret would indeed raise the company in this “evening under lamplight” to my own required standard.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be reached, what with the toll exacted by grilling fish fingers and all. In my hand is more likely to be the television remote. And in the background that classic episode of Grand Designs which they seem to repeat constantly.

(You know, the one they’re always showing, where the build goes on over the winter, and the bloke runs out of money and starts working on it himself, and his wife gets pregnant, and Kevin ends up saying “I was always nervous about this build, but d’you know what, this house made of rice cakes actually works…”)

So it’s a bottle of the rubbish stuff for me. The standard of my cooking, the quality of my own company, the cost of good wine, and the selfishness of solo consumption, all point towards a bottle of the trolley fodder. I reconcile myself to a bottle of Sainsbury’s Taste The Difference. (Mmm, certainly can…)

At least I can pride myself on avoiding the embarrassment of serving it to somebody else. Heaven forbid they might think that I would drink this stuff myself.


Thursday, 5 April 2018


So my old Ma has got these bottles of red wine sitting in one of her dank, mouldering, cupboards, but has no use for them. Since she's been existing for the last few years on a diet of brandy and Pringles with an occasional glass of Echo Falls on special occasions, I feel no shame in taking the reds away for my own consumption. And they look well posh: some Dourthe Montagne Saint-Emilions and some Gérard Bertrand Minervois, both 2015 both getting okay write-ups from the wine-spotters on the internet. How the hell did they end up in my Ma's hideous cupboard? I must have bought them and dragged them over for Christmas lunch, or maybe Easter 2017, whereupon they weren't drunk.

Only snag: they're standing up. How long has this been the case? Last time I thought to look I could have sworn they were lying down, in a midget bent-metal wine rack dating back to the 1970s. Somehow they've been translated into the vertical, possibly by my Ma's Stakhanovite cleaning lady, probably not by my Ma herself who can barely get out of her chair. But when? Fear very slightly eats my soul: how much difference is it going to make to these nob wines that they're been pointing upwards?

Of course I get them home and forget about this tiny agony, preferring to gaze on their handsome bottlings and their sleek red capsules among my usual dead man's screwtops and telling myself that when the time comes to drink these wines, I'm going to be living the good life.

Not so, as it happens. First time I get stuck into the Dourthe Saint-Emilion, it tastes of insoles, quite clearly - only I refuse to believe the evidence of my mouth and keep determinedly drinking as if I've been told it'll do me good. After a bit I can't separate my lips on account of the pucker and even I have to conclude that something's wrong. I'm forced to tip the rest away at the same time telling myself that it's a rogue and that the next will be fine. Next bottle, some days later, is one of the Minervois. Not as much deep cack as the Saint-Emilion, but, you know, it too has a wrongness about it that I can't rationalise away. No. 2 son has given me for Christmas a rather excellent wine aerator which has had some success moderating my usual gutbucket stuff, so I force the Minervois through it in the hope of shaming it into good behaviour. And, yes, maybe it's a tiny bit less undrinkable; or maybe it's wishful thinking.

Either way, the next bottle of Saint-Emilion only goes to show that, no, it wasn't a one-off and the whole lot (four bottles, I might add) is probably on the fritz. Same for the Minervois, I'm guessing, although for some reason I'm consoled by presence of a Vizigoth Cross on the label; I mean, it looks as if it really might intercede on my behalf in some way.

But then again, how long can you leave a bottle of wine upright? Internet wisdom has it at a few weeks, not much more - although there seem to be plenty of contrarians who argue that it's okay to leave a bottle upright for years and that all fears are baseless. And once, years ago, we opened a magnum of Moët & Chandon which had been standing tall in an overheated room for ages and it was quite drinkable. In other words, the Minverois and the Saint-Emilion might well have been buggered by storage; or they might not. But if not, why are they so awful? I know my sense of taste is arbitrary at the best of times, but I don't think I'm that bad at knowing what's poison and what's not. I don't think I'm choking and spitting on anything really decent. Which means that - in this case - it only takes a month or so of verticality to make a hash of quite a few quid's worth of drink: a notion which I find slightly disturbing, given my tendency to acquire and then forget almost anything that comes in a bottle. Unless, of course, I just stick to spirits, which can take any amount of punishment: a drinking programme, in other words, for the progressively senile. Like my Ma.


Thursday, 29 March 2018

Another Fine Mess…

My local Sainsbury seems to have abandoned its “Fine Wine” cabinet. They previously used this wood-effect shelving unit, which fooled no-one, to segregate their supposedly “Fine Wine” (ie anything costing above about thirteen quid) from whatever you call the other wine.

There are, however, no special cabinets for fine beans or superior sausages; and tubs of posh organic ice-cream sit contentedly in one freezer cabinet alongside extruded vanilla-flavoured gloop. Now it looks as if the “Fine Wine” has lost its First Class compartment, and will have to jostle for unreserved accommodation with the Off Peak night-in riff-raff.

But was the presence of “Fine Wine” in a supermarket ever really credible? Was it akin to finding a cabinet in Poundland labelled “Precious Stones”?

“Fine Wine” was once something to which I aspired. The finer things in life – what are they, I pondered? Well, here was one thing which was bold enough to actually declare its superiority, like fine china. Surely it would be a mark of achievement when I could eventually understand, appreciate and indeed afford “Fine Wine”?

And one day, I might join the gilded society of those who can stand with their trolley before the “Fine Wine” shelving, flaunting their wealth and refinement, and eschewing those like CJ who stare in bafflement and penury at the “other” wines.

But now, the phrase has a tawdry feel to it. “Fine Wine” is something which appears in news reports about fraudsters and expense account fiddlers. The nouveau riche lifestyle of crooks and ne’er-do-wells always seems to involve spending on exotic holidays, fast cars and “fine wines”.

And that’s not because those crooks’ palates have suddenly developed, or that they’ve now grasped the basics of the 1855 Bordeaux classification – it’s because “fine wine” has simply become promotional shorthand for “expensive wine”.

No wonder shops have been so keen to tempt us with it. Retailers like Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and Majestic have seen that the way to make more expensive wine appealing is to call it “fine” – and to present it, not on their regular, white, metal-supported, wipe-clean shelving, but in a special wooden (or wooden-effect) section.

Because everyone knows that “fine wine” comes in wooden cases and not cardboard boxes, and is sold in dusty old, pre-industrial wine merchants, not efficient modern stores. So surround your wine with wood, whether it’s shelving, cases, worn floorboards or wood panelling, and it magically becomes “fine”.

“Majestic are the specialists when it comes to fine wine,” I read, a claim which might carry more weight had it not been made by Majestic. “Most of our stores have dedicated fine wine shelving…” It’s as if the shelves themselves confer status.

Of course, “fine wine” has no precise definition. You can stick the adjective “fine” in front of any wine, just as you can append credibility (and a higher price tag) by waving the word “vintage” in front of an unpleasant old tie.

I once thought “fine wine” was about issues like complexity, or balance, or ability to age. Or heritage, behind a label which had earnt its stripes over centuries of excellence. But then along comes some jumped-up New World product, with its perfect varietal simplicity, tiny output, long waiting list and huge price tag, and bingo, that’s “fine” too.

Then there is the abuse of the term “fine” itself, as in “fine dining”. This has now become the Masterchef criterion, to meet which food is sculpted, tweezered and coiffed into absurdity, the basis for judgments such as “I’m afraid in fine dining, those peas would be peeled…”.

On the Mr Porter designer menswear site, you can’t buy watches – only Fine Watches.  And people like the “fine wine and spirits boutique” Hedonism don’t have a Fine Wine list at all; they presumably wish us to believe that all of their wine is fine.

So wine joins a world of marketing in which certain adjectives become permanently, pointlessly attached; where all wines are “fine”, all apartments are “luxury”, and all labels “designer”, even when contradicted by common sense. (A fine wine for £10? A luxury apartment in Peckham?)

We’re back in the land of the nouveau riche, where merit is purely a function of price. Except that with “fine wine”, that also seems completely arbitrary. At Majestic, the “fine wine” selection begins at £17.99; but at Waitrose Cellar it’s £11.99, and at the Wine Society it’s just £10.50.

Wine is a field in which many descriptions – geographic, varietal, etc – are regulated and precise. Yet the only commonly recognised description of quality has been abused to the point of worthlessness. Perhaps more retailers should simply abandon it, and let expensive wines compete on their merit alongside the cheaper ones?

Which would be just fine.


Thursday, 22 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (10): Black Tower

So, guys, what do we make of the Black Tower reboot? Clear bottles? Half black half clear? Upscale imagery? No crackle finish? Softened typeface? Clive? Does it do it for you? I know, I know. It was a real thing, back in the day, of course, it had presence, right? Exactly. It looked like a thing. Like a what? Say again, Pyotr? It was like piece of an exhaust pipe? On a car? It was, wasn't it? Like part of the silencer, maybe. Or the catalytic converter? I don't know, Clive, is that what they look like? I thought they looked like boxes. But you're right, a big black bottle that didn't look like a bottle of wine. So cool. Pyotr? It looked like something you could throw, exactly, a missile. What would you throw it at? A shop window? Really? You'd throw it at a vegan wholefood store? Don't say that in front of Morwenna. He's kidding, Morwenna. No, seriously. I'm practically a vegan myself. You know that. Or an explosive device? Mm. Clive? Like something the Nazis would have used in World War Two? Yeah, I guess. Tell you, there was a word going round, couple of years back, they were going to up the Germanic. Heavy up the typeface, really scary black tower, and they were going to rebrand it as Der Schwarze Turm. That's what I heard. Exactly! Standout on the wine rack! Iconic! Really menacing! No, Clive, they weren't going to use the SS flash insignia, fuck's sake. Tell you what I would have done, though. I would have gone down the whole Seventies kitsch thing. Heyday. Seventies. Ford Capri, yeah, rubber plants, flares, James Last, lasagne, exactly. Total retro, niche, but so niche. And Peter Wyngarde! What do you mean, Peter who? YouTube the shit out of him, Morwenna. Wyngarde or Jason King, face hair, gappy teeth, velvet three-piece. He's the bomb. Totally off the chain. I would so have him upfront, the face of Black Tower. Is he still alive? Oh. Had to be, I guess. Anyway, that's my dream, but no, they've gone beige, Easy ends the day, that's the strap. I mean, is that really a thing? Get pissed, it's gone six o'clock, I mean is that a narrative? Oh, oh, it is. Okay, guys, you're ahead of me. But - and you probably know this - the weirdness is that at the same time, same time as they're saying Get pissed, depressed lady, they've gone in with this Tough Mudder outfit as wine partner. Anyone know anything about Tough Mudder? Yeah, it's some kind of assault course thing you do for fun. Yeah, seriously. I don't know, has anyone been on it? I think you crawl through mud and jump over walls and beat yourself up like you're in the Marines, only you pay to do it. Seriously. Yeah, it's a big thing. So you do that and at the end you have a glass of Black Tower. So it's like Black Tower is suddenly the 4 x 4 of white wines, like a Toyota Land Cruiser. It's like a total Man Wine. It's called Tough Mudders cause of the mud, Clive. What? It's like saying Mothers in a New Jersey accent? Mudders? Mudderfuckers? Clive. Morwenna, he's just being obvious. Okay? So, anyway, all that taken together, what do we think? I mean, you know, Blue Nun, they tried a reboot on that, I don't think it's going that great, to be honest, but Black Tower? New Black Tower? You think it's got traction? Maybe. Say again, Pyotr? Have I ever drunk Black Tower? Hahahahahahahahaha. Have I ever drunk Black Tower? Seriously?


Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (9): Blue Nun

Hard as it may be to understand now, this was once the definitive taste of white wine in the UK. If today it is Sauvignon Blanc, and yesterday it was Chardonnay, back in the 1970s the popular white wine was sweet and German.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Kingsley Amis in 1972, on serving white wine at home: “My advice would be to stick to hocks and moselles, which everybody likes, and avoid white burgundies.”

Back then, as Hugh Johnson recalls, "no great dinner could begin without its Mosel … or Rhine Spatlese." And not just “begin”; Blue Nun’s marketing slogan was “right through the meal”, aimed at allaying any anxiety that we novice drinkers might have about the correct order of wines. So it was Blue Nun throughout, even if your starter was carpaccio, your main course steak and you finished with Stilton. You could, according to another ad, confidently ask for “Blue Nun and the menu”.

Let’s briefly scamper through the history of Blue Nun. It was created by Hermann Sichel following the “famous 1921 vintage”. Why a nun? Well, “liebfraumilch” (which it was) is a medieval term that describes the "milk" from the convents and monasteries in the Rhine Valley. Turn that into marketing speak, as a Blue Nun representative did years later, and you could claim that "The monks and nuns of the Middle Ages knew how beneficial a glass of good wine was for the harmony of mind and body."

And why Blue? It’s possible it was a printer’s error; legend says that it was meant to be the brown of a traditional nun’s habit, until a printer misread “brau” as “blau” in Sichel’s handwriting. Or perhaps one of them was smart enough to realise that it would sound rather more appealing than having a Brown’un.

It was certainly one of the first examples of a smart branding exercise. For as Kingsley Amis also observed, “Whatever the men in the know may say, a German wine label is a fearful thing to decipher.” And that’s from a chap familiar with Welsh railway stations. The success of Blue Nun and other subsequent branded German wines, like Black Tower and Goldener Oktober, with a generation of novice wine drinkers, lay in the approachability of their names as much as that of their taste.

The complications of language and labelling were just part of an eventual triple whammy on German wine. It’s hard to be a popular success if ordinary folk can’t understand or pronounce the words on your bottle. And for a generation raised on Commando comics, German wines sounded a little too much like barked instructions to present your papers.

Then there were adulteration scandals, just as we were becoming aware of a world of alternative wines beyond Germany and France. And there was also an inevitable progression, like teenagers who begin drinking Southern Comfort and end up enjoying Chablis, away from those sweeter flavours. Today in
that barometer of middle-class English taste, my local Waitrose, they have labelled sections for wines from virtually every country in the world – but not Germany.

Blue Nun was sold in 1996 – and you can find reports of a “makeover” in 1998; a “resurrection” in 2001; a “reinvention” in 2010.  The nun herself was transformed over the years, from the one I found disturbingly come-hither in my youth, through a drawing with a Florence Nightingale vibe, to the shallow designer motif of today.

And in 1997, they introduced a blue bottle. Well of course they did. A distinctive bottle is a sure-fire sign of a wine sold by marketers rather than winemakers. 

I would employ the adjective “hideous”, but this blue bottle is inevitably described as “iconic” by Blue Nun’s marketing people, who wouldn’t know an icon if it came up and bit them in Constantinople.

And how do those marketers now position their product? “Whether you like to enjoy your Blue Nun wine after shopping, for dinner, getting ready for a girls night out, or staying in with your friends, Blue Nun goes with every occasion,” they say. Well, when I get ready for a girls night out, it’s by checking that Mrs K is taking her keys.

Ignoring their clumsy hints at gender targeting, if Blue Nun goes with every occasion perhaps I could work it into the bin routine on a Tuesday night. And I quite like the idea of a glass after shopping, especially if Sainsbury’s car park has been a bit challenging.

And when it’s time to move up to more sophisticated things, Blue Nun now produce other varieties, including a Gold Edition sparkling version containing flakes of 22 carat gold leaf, which presumably provides potentially rich pickings for your dental hygienist.

Unnoticed amid all this loss of dignity, they changed the actual blend of Blue Nun itself, to become less sugary, and redefined it as a Rheinhessen Qualitatswein, rather than the currently scorned Liebfraumilch. But it was too late. By the turn of the millennium, according to their website, Blue Nun had become “the best distributed German wine in the world.” You somehow know a brand is in trouble when their claim to fame is that their lorries are better than yours.

Ironically, despite that famed distribution, Blue Nun is incredibly hard to find in the UK. On the Blue Nun website, you can choose countries from Norway to Korea, but not Germany itself, who presumably get it “distributed” out of their own borders asap. But after visiting numerous off-licences, convenience stores, and a succession of grim, bunkerlike supermarkets, I only saw one of their “varieties” on a UK shelf, and not Blue Nun itself. Of course it’s online, should you wish to order an entire case. But once you’re online, I find it’s surprisingly easy to search for and order something else instead.

In 2001, its brand manager said "We are trying to get back to the situation when Blue Nun was a must-have item, high up on The Ritz wine-list." In that, they have failed.


Thursday, 8 March 2018

The Wines That Made Us (8): Martini

Martini is a mystery. It's one of the most familiar brands in the world, it's given its name to the most famous of all cocktail drinks, for some of us it still rings a distant answering bell as the quintessence of a certain kind of Eurotrash High Life, but how often have I ever drunk the stuff? How often have you? I mean, it's culturally ubiquitous but at the same time invisible. Just last weekend I made some - though I say so myself - killer Dry Martinis. The gin was Silent Pool (terrific) and the vermouth was Dolin (ditto). Plus a twist of lemon, not an olive, that's the way I roll. But not a drop of actual Martini. Maybe I should have announced these beverages as old-fashioned Gin & Frenchies but does anyone do that these days? And why do I feel no compunction at all about not using original Martini vermouth?

A five-minute trawl of Google reveals not much about the business behind the drink - Martini & Rossi - except the unsurprising truth that Martini began as an Italian vermouth company in the mid-nineteenth century, reaching the New York market in the late 1860s. The first Dry Martini cocktail arrived, probably in New York, at the start of the twentieth century - although the drink's name may actually be a corruption of Martinez, the guy who first mixed gin and vermouth together. Since then, interest has mostly swirled around the exact ratio of vermouth to gin, plus whatever interventions (brine for a Dirty Martini; olive or twist; vermouth mixtures, like two-stroke petrol; ice or no ice) the mixer may or may not be keen on. I am not much better off for knowing this.

So I go out and buy a whole litre of the stuff, in a blousy screwtop bottle slathered in Martini-isms and try it out. I know I've drunk it before, somewhere, but a kind of guilt obliges me to get the taste authentically, here and now. It's the Bianco, the one you're supposed to take long, with a mixer, or as it comes, with a lump of ice. I pick the latter, try and few mouthfuls and, yes, there are botanicals swirling around, plus an aromatic headiness, not necessarily in a good way, more like stale perfume on a cashmere sweater, but I suppose there might be times when that's the experience I might crave, plus a tough terminal coating on the back teeth. The label suggests drinking it long with tonic water but it's already sticky and sugary enough as it is and anyway, if I want to drink Sprite, I can. And now I have 90cl of Martini Bianco bulging away on the liquor tray and I can foresee the awful stuff going with me to the grave, endlessly undrunk, brassily insistent, and I paid £10 for it, on offer.

So it's not the taste and it never has been the taste. Which only leaves one thing to account for its bothersome presence in my mind and indeed in the mind of PK and others of our generation: the adverts. You know what I'm talking about, they're all over YouTube, It's the left's the right's Martini, we used to sing, back in the Seventies. Somehow these ads appropriated a particular iconography all for themselves - the Mediterranean sunlight, the fancy blondes, the fast cars, the megalithic tumblers chinking in close-up, the James Hunt costumed morons leering at the controls of a speedboat, the promise of a brown fortified wine to set your day straight. No-one else came close. And when this cataclysm of kitsch wasn't blaring at us in the cinemas we had it silently reproduced in full-colour magazine ads, a kind of top-up before the next time we went out to watch Diamonds Are Forever or Shaft. And yet - adverts and motor racing sponsorship: is that really all it came down to?

The answer has to be yes: so far as I can see, no encounter with basic, raw, Martini is ever going to be anything other than puzzling and inconsequential. Trouble is, I can't think of anything else - even allowing for the intercessions of time and senility - whose essence has been so mediated by the publicity that went with it - that exists, basically, as a thing advertised rather than as a thing. David Bowie? National Savings Certifcates? NATO? Fondue? Quadrophonic hi-fi? Any time, any place, anywhere...There's a wonderful world you can share... I'm wondering, could we just leave it at that? Keep these imperishable sentiments without having to tangle with the vermouth? On this occasion, isn't the advertising the thing with the real value?