Thursday, 1 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (3): Bull's Blood

 Brothers,

Thanks for coming round to my place this cold winter’s evening. For anyone who doesn’t know me, I’m Shop Steward at the British Leyland Cowley plant. You can call me Robbo. No relation to Red Robbo up in Longbridge, but I’m honoured that some people make a connection!
1

Now as you know, we stand on the brink of enormous political change. This winter of 1978 has been hard and cold, but we have seen solidarity across nearly every major national industry. Our brothers on the trains and lorries, the bin-men, even the gravediggers have come out on strike. We are demonstrating that the workers are the backbone of this nation. And so I’ve invited you all round to my home this evening for a bit of a get-together, not only to discuss that future, but to raise a glass in celebration, and to toast the biggest shift in the political power of the workers which this country has ever seen.
2

Some of you will have come here tonight, hearing the promise of a bevy, expecting your Double Diamond and your Red Barrel – and for those of you with a continental bent, your Skol lager. You’ll have come expecting to see one of those giant Watney’s Party Seven cans propped up on the kitchen table, ready to flood the floor when someone opens it. But tonight, I’d like to offer you something a little… better. I’d like to offer you wine.

Now settle down, lads, settle down. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, wine’s a nob’s drink. A toff’s drink. A boardroom drink. And I would say to you, yes, brothers – and that’s exactly where we’re heading.

I’m not saying that we’re going to adopt the whole bourgeois, management lifestyle. But we need to accustom ourselves to some of the trappings of authority. We’ve got to play the part. I mean, if Michael Foot got to run the Labour Party, he wouldn’t wear a donkey jacket, would he?

And don’t listen to those who say that wine’s the drink of the Right. I was proud, when I was at Poly, to go to bring-a-bottle parties, and see that when some Young Conservative did bring-a-bottle of wine from Chile, grown under that fascist Pinochet, that bottle stood there unopened. We do of course observe the boycott of all South African produce, and that includes wine. Personally, I’m still a bit concerned about wines from Greece or Spain, because they might have been tended by oppressed hands during the rules of the Colonels or of Franco. And don’t get me started on French landowners and Napoleonic law.

But thankfully, there are now several wines coming out from our comrades in Eastern Europe. Bulgaria, Czechslovakia and so on. Most of it goes to Russia, which sounds like a recommendation to me! But some of it’s coming to us, and our hard Western currency is going back the other way, so it’s fair dibs all round.

This is Bull’s Blood, a wine I’m proud to say is from Communist Hungary. I know we’ve had a few issues with Hungary, with all that nonsense back in 1956, and people calling it “goulash Communism”. But here is a prime example of what Communist labour can produce, to rival the wines produced elsewhere by exploited peasants for their landowners. Its name is testament to the strength of the wine, and the vigour of the workers who make it.
3

And it’s affordable – one of the few wines we can afford, until the management see fit to meet our demands and get this piecework nonsense sorted out. Hungary’s workers have abandoned the old vineyards of the historic landowners, got out on their tractors, cultivated the communal land, and boosted production, so that we can all benefit from this excellent wine.
4

What’s it like? Well, I’m no Johnnie Cradock! I’m not going to ponce on about bouquets and so on. You know me, lads; when I hear “palate”, I think of a fork-lift!  But I think I can say, even in these days of Women’s Lib, and as Sue from Accounts isn’t here, that this is a proper man’s drink!
5

Under capitalism, the working class in this country didn’t get to drink wine. If capitalism were to prevail – which it won’t! – but if it were to prevail, you wouldn’t see affordable wine like this in our supermarkets. Oh no; wine would be kept as a drink for the privileged few. And you certainly wouldn’t see wine from Eastern Europe, because the West wants to stifle their economies.

So let’s enjoy some Bull’s Blood together in the spirit of these extraordinary times. Here’s to the day when wine is no longer a bourgeois drink; and we can all drink good quality wine from the hands of the workers.
6

Raise a glass, brothers, of a genuinely Red wine!

Cheers!

PK


1 Derek ‘Red Robbo’ Robinson was Shop Steward at the car manufacturer British Leyland’s Longbridge plant. He was credited with causing 523 walkouts at British Leyland between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production

2   What became known as the Winter of Discontent in 1978 led to the fall of the Labour government, and ushered in the reign of Margaret Thatcher. This did indeed bring about “the biggest shift in the political power of the workers which this country has ever seen”.

In Hungarian, this wine is called Egri Bikaver, and bikaver does mean bull’s blood.  Eger is a town in north-east Hungary, an area which produced wine since the 13th century. Around 1552, Hungary was invaded from Turkey by Suleiman the Magnificent, who laid siege to Eger. However, the town was defended by Hungarian soldiers who had been fortified with a local red drink which stained their beards and armour. They repelled their invaders, fighting so ferociously that the retreating Turks spread the story that they must have been drinking bulls’ blood.

4 Under Communism, the quality of East European wine was neglected in favour of overcropping, pasteurisation, and industrial production. Historic sloping vineyards were abandoned in favour of flat land, which allowed for the use of tractors. And all of the grapes were mixed together in centralised production, so there was no incentive for individual growers to develop the quality of their own crop. 

5 The full body and dryish palate of the Bull’s Blood of the 1970s is still fondly remembered as a perfectly drinkable red wine. That may be because for young men, the name alone meant that drinking Bull’s Blood without complaint conferred a certain machismo. 

6  In 1989, on the anniversary of its 1956 Revolution, the Hungarian Republic was officially declared. A revised constitution championed the "values of bourgeois democracy”. In 2017, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book listed wines from 11 formerly Soviet regions, including Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria along with Hungary. “Hungary’s wine traditions, regions and grape varieties are the basis for Eastern Europe’s finest wines,” he writes, “finally recovering from the Communist years.”

6 comments:

  1. Great! As always.

    This brought back memories of my first taste of Bull's Blood which I bought (for its name) from my company's "shop" - I used to work at Reckitt & Colman (now Reckitt Benckiser) which imported the wine from Hungary in huge tankers, bottling it in Norwich. Searching the internet I came across a recollection written by a former employee there and, as it chimes perfectly with your piece, I thought you might like to see it:
    http://www.wisearchive.co.uk/story/the-silent-e-in-colemans/
    Jill

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    1. Great stuff – thank you! Particularly like the fact that "They had their wine production unit on one side of the yard and the slaughter-house on the other". Bull's Blood indeed…

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  2. Six footnotes? And only one mention of Foot's jacket!

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  3. The year before last, my wife and I visited a friend who had emigrated to western Hungary. The last day, he gave us a bottle of wine, a Kékfrankos from one of his neighbour's produce, he said, and with a Hungarian label as the neighbour didn't have the German ones at hand at the moment.

    Not expecting too much, we drank it at home, and it was surprisingly good! A really good wine that would be a good competitor for a price up to, say, 20 €.

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