Thursday, 22 August 2019

A wine for "wine lovers"

The whole notion of “wine lovers” is an odd one. I don’t particularly like the idea of belonging to some chummy little group of people with an arcane and specialist “love”. It sounds like being a follower of an endangered pursuit, or a lesser-known pop group. And perhaps there are similarities; I imagine “wine lovers” trading arcane information about, say, cork varieties, just like fan club members trading arcane information about Ringo’s breakfast.

But I’m particularly suspicious about the use of the term “lover” in this context; it’s similar to that lazy trope which now requires any follower of a football club to have that club described in interviews as their “beloved” team. I’m a wine drinker, definitely; but I’m not sure that enjoyment, indulgence and appreciation add up to love. “Lover” is one of those words I don’t wish to see appended to “wine”, like “wine gadget”, “ wine buff” or “wine finished”.

Still, the term “wine lover” seems to have gained traction, perhaps understandably with a generation who regularly abuse the related term “passion”. (“I have a passion for accountancy” – no, you don’t.) And so it was inevitable, I suppose, given the prevalence of the term, that someone would actually label a “wine lovers” wine. The only surprise is the way in which they’ve done it.

What drew me to this "wine lovers" wine, leering at me from the bottom shelf, was the distance between the image on the label, and that to which I aspire. This character is described by the Spanish winemakers as “Macho Ibérico”. His only redeeming characteristic, it seems to me, is his resemblance to the great Hunter S Thompson. And the great Hunter S Thompson would have said that this was the sort of creep for whom Mace was too good.

I mean, look at this guy, with his smarmy grin and his LA cop sunglasses and his Simon Cowell chest rug and Hamlet cigar combover. Is that what a wine lover is supposed to look like?

Please, tell me it ain’t so, or I might swallow my toothpick. I am relieved to say that, if the police were using this as an Indentikit picture, I don’t think I would be troubled by questioning. The thing which is troubling me is how anyone might have thought this an image of a typical wine lover.

I have since discovered that there are a further two characters in this series. There is a woman, on the white wine in both senses. She’s described in Spanish as a choni, a stereotype notorious for excessive jewellery and makeup, very revealing clothing and being ignorant, loud and obnoxious. Not at all like Essex girls.

And there is a “hunk” with a tattoo escaping above his neckline, and a disturbing semi-wink, making the internationally-recognised gesture for “Call me!”. A stud in his ear as well as his dreams.

Now obviously there have been satirical images of what might have been called “wine lovers” before. From the quaffers of Gillray, through the men and women brilliantly depicted by Ronald Searle, to the cliché of the bloated, upper-class wine drinker, red of nose and trouser.

But those were not actually being used to sell wine. And I am genuinely mystified as to the message these horrible label images are meant to convey to a potential buyer. Perhaps there is something amiss with my social inclusivity, but surely these are all utterly hideous people? I wouldn’t wish to see any of them around my dining table – so why would I want to see them upon it?

Are they supposed to be representative “wine lovers”? In which case I am further encouraged to resign from the category. Or is there some kind of irony here, that I’m meant to drink the wine despite, rather than because of, the images on the labels? Which leads us down a road of labelling wine with the kind of medical pictures now used on cigarette packets.

There’s only one thing to be said in favour of this particular label. I did taste this blend of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and merlot (go on, chuck the lot in, why don’t you?)  And I can tell you that the character on the label, in a very real sense, appears to be an accurate reflection of the oily, industrial wine itself.

Pretty repellent.


Thursday, 15 August 2019

Chilean Merlot: Cracked Cup

So I'm at the cinema earlier this year, watching, very possibly, The Favourite (if you haven't already seen it, don't) and I become aware of something cool and damp spreading around my upper right thigh. The first thought that goes through my head is Well, when you get to my age, you have to expect these things. I sit there, fairly stoically, wondering if this is going to be the trend from now on: bus journeys, crowded lifts, standing onstage in front of three hundred people, all the time wetting myself - when I realise that the top of my right hand is also damp. Spooky, I think for a time. Then, This is really challenging my preconceptions of incontinence.

Finally I work out that the plastic wine glass I acquired on the way in - containing a good measure of Chilean Merlot - has a crack in it and the contents are slowly running down my hand and onto my trousers. On the one hand, Thank God for that; on the other, I have to drink this fucking Merlot really fast before it does any more damage AND not spill it over my shirt in the process. So instead of tippling restfully in front of the movie, normally one of my favourite occupations, I have to get rid of the booze as fast as if they've just called last orders, at the same time trying to locate the area of damage while simultaneously working out if it'll be dark outside when we leave the cinema, in order to hide my shame. This has never happened before.

Some days later, it occurs to me that I now invest so much expectation, so much humble desire for a given experience when I take my drink into the local arthouse cinema that when something goes wrong my whole week is ruined, to an irrational degree. My whole month. I decide that, like war, this must never happen again. But how?

- Proper glass glasses in the cinema: almost certainly prohibited, on account of safety (a glass gets left on the floor, is trodden on, causes injury, panic) and public order (incredibly middle-aged, middle class, arthouse audience riots at the wholesale witlessness of The Favourite, starts throwing glass glasses at the screen). But worth keeping in mind.

- Tin mugs: unbreakable, not much use as a weapon, cheap and serviceable. Not too bad for drinking wine out of, either, if the enamel's still there, although you tend to feel like a character out of a Hemingway novel.

- Plastic feeding tubes which emerge from the armrests. Dial up your favourite beverage from your phone - using the handy app - and start drinking! Unlikely to become a reality, not in my lifetime. Also, disgusting.

- The Totnes solution. A couple of weeks ago, the wife and I were in Totnes, Devon, and I can tell you that not only is Totnes a ton of fun - picturesque, quirky and stuffed with bars and restaurants - it also has one of the most terrific cinemas I have ever come across. You enter through a diminutive street entrance (see pic) go along a slightly Expressionist passageway and at last emerge into what was, until relatively recently, a public library, now hollowed out into barn-like space with a full-service bar, tables, chairs, sofas and whatnot, all very companionably dotted around - and behind the bar, a really big cinema screen. You get your drink, make yourself comfortable at your preferred seating position and watch the film unfold in a completely relaxed and slightly deconstructed fashion. Genius. Not only that, but the films on offer mix the current (Rocketman, when we were there) with the classic (The Blue Angel; Wages of Fear) so that you'd have to go back every night, practically, to keep ahead. Genius, again. Movie and drinks combine in an equivalence of pleasure, rather than subordinating the booze to the level of mere plastic-glass add-on. I'm sure there are other places in England that do something similar; but it's the first time I've actually seen it. The fact that it's still slightly a work in progress - rough-hewn timbers, industrial nuts & bolts around the place - only makes it more fun, more delightfully spontaneous. Back at my local bioscope, I think they'd have difficulty tearing out the seats in order to make enough space: but it's got to be worth looking into.


Thursday, 8 August 2019

A chocolate teapot in anyone's language

What is the most useless thing you can think of? A chocolate teapot, perhaps? A chocolate fireguard? A pair of spectacles for a one-eared man? Append your own – but I think I have found a new and singularly useless thing, and it’s in the world of wine.

The world of wine has, of course, been responsible for some spectacularly stupid items, many of which we have highlighted in our annual Xmas Gift Marts.  But surely this takes the (chocolate) biscuit.

It is an augmented reality app, which translates wine labels.

Created by two immensely hairy men, their spiel suggests that this app might ultimately provide users with a load of the other stuff which a winery often wants to show you, but you really don’t need to see; probably sunset over their vineyard, or gnarly old peasants picking their grapes, or a trendy-looking winemaker swirling, sniffing and tasting their own product with smug satisfaction. Rather like a dog. But let’s focus on this translation business.

Why oh why would you want to translate the name of a wine? Surely the name of a wine is its brand – you don’t want it translated. A bottle of Sides of the Rhône, anyone? Vineyard of the Sun? Écho Cascades? Would anyone, anywhere ask for a bottle of Latour as a bottle of The Tower? Or for that matter, La Torre?

Translating a wine’s name strips it of its authenticity. There may be some people challenged by pronouncing Casillero del Diablo, but that’s its name, and there’s no reason to translate it into The Devil’s Cellar. And if you did, no wine merchant would have the foggiest idea what you were asking for. If you asked a wine merchant for holy wine, would he give you a bottle of vin santo or just a very funny look?

No, this app is of no use to consumers, partly because you need to have the label, and therefore bottle, in hand in order to scan it. You can’t just point the app at a distant bottle behind a bar, or up on a shelf, in order to discover how to ask for it. In fact, even if you could, why not save the download time and point at it with a finger?

And by the time you have it in hand, why would you need to translate its name? No further discussion is needed. Brandishing a credit card is usually sufficient for a perceptive retailer to grasp the idea that you wish to purchase something. Or you can do that traditional mime of someone signing a cheque, surely due to be replaced by a mime of someone keying in their PIN.

At most – at most – a winery itself might want to translate the name of their wine once, in order to communicate with markets unfamiliar with their native alphabet. But if we wanted apps we would use only once, we would all have installed iBeer.

Also, I’m afraid it’s not even very good at translating. I’m no multilinguist, moi, but even I know that if Pinot Noir appears on a Spanish wine label, it should remain exactly that on a French label – and not be “translated” into the utterly meaningless Pilote Noir. You had one job…

Heston Blumenthal did actually create a chocolate teapot, for Easter last year.  It was, said his Fat Duck Group, “filled with whimsical wonder”, which I suppose makes a change from sweets.

(“A surprise awaits chocolate lovers,” they said, “who are able to actually eat the sweet teapot.” In what sense is that a surprise? What are you supposed to do with something made of chocolate – drive it? A far greater surprise would have awaited chocolate lovers if it had been made out of bacon…)

Anyway, a chocolate teapot (not one of Heston’s) was actually tested for its efficacy, by filling it with teabags and boiling water (as opposed to whimsical wonder). It was found, perhaps not surprisingly, wanting. “The first evidence of loss of containment was observed at approximately T+5 seconds,” it was reported. “This had reached catastrophic proportions by T+15 seconds, with total loss of H2O containment.”

The researcher concluded that, “On the basis of this test we felt it safe to conclude that, in respect of its suitability for the role that its design suggests, a chocolate teapot is of no use at all. As such, such an item should serve as an excellent baseline of uselessness against which to compare other, similarly dysfunctional, items.”

Like this app.


Thursday, 1 August 2019

Beer: Gipsy Hill

So a pal of mine in south London says I ought to come and try this place near where he lives, where they make beer and sell it at the brewery tap. It's just your sort of thing, he says, which normally makes one's heart sink, but still.

Gipsy Hill, SE27 - it's that deep - is the place and the Gipsy Hill Brewing Company is the outfit that makes the beer. I've never heard of it, but then I never hear of anything; so I make it all the way across town to SE27 and the pal's place and we limp off in an elderly way and get to a little light industrial estate not far from Gipsy Hill station and what do you know? It is only the most excellent thing I've seen for ages; probably one of the top five encounters this year, in fact.

I mean, it doesn't look like much - it looks like what it is: a big parking space surrounded by tidy new sheds, all part of the brewing operation, with pallets stacked up here, metal kegs over there, a van or two, other bits of light industrial miscellany, pretty much what you'd expect, except for the fact that one shed has its doors wide open and a few tables and benches outside and this is the Taproom. We enter. Inside, the theme continues: it's mostly a big metal shed lined with pipework and barrels and bits of machinery which hiss and clank from time to time, plus some more tables and benches, a few galvanised light fittings, some dainty flowers in vases and a couple of fairy lights to soften the edges and - presiding over it all - a fabulous bar, made of yet more bare wood and metal, alarmingly provisional in some ways, utterly purposeful in others, with various beverages written on a board behind. And a guy waiting to serve us, because it's a warm day and we look like a couple of tragic, parched old men.

We get our drinks. First up is a pint of Hepcat IPA at 4.6%, one of Gipsy Hill's core beers. Given that this is a modern take on the IPA theme - complete with knowingly quirky name - I'm slightly fingers and thumbs, but you know, it wins me over. Citrussy, lightly hoppy, golden colour, smallish head, that kind of thing, not a trad brown pub ale but one with a tendency to interrogate you just a little bit before settling down. A couple of swigs in and I conclude that it is delicious. My pal makes himself comfortable, burps and starts going on about post-War cinema which is normally a good sign. The Taproom (which has only just opened for its evening session, I might point out) starts to fill up.

I move on to a pint of Beatnik Pale Ale at 3.8%. I can see a family resemblance with the Hepcat, anxiously noting Bit more hoppy? while reserving the my doubts as to what I actually mean by hoppy. But it too is a winner, cool, very slightly distant in its manner, but with plenty of narrative drive nonetheless. Everything is increasingly haloed in wellbeing. A woman sits at the next table with a bulldog which comes and sniffs our shoes, just to make sure we're on the level. A wood oven pizza van starts up outside. The place is getting busy, now: hipsters abound. My pal leans heavily against some fairy lights.

At which point I decide that it's not just the beer - which I now feel deeply attached to, treasuring it above all wines and many spirits - but the whole setup, the whole taproom experience. All pubs should be like this, I sigh into my glass. The Gipsy Hill people have turned metal sheds, tarmac, scaffolding and clamps, uncompromising brewery kit, into a place of deep funky geniality, something between a fashionable club and an exhaust replacement centre. Everything about it entertains - but there's nothing frivolous, apart from the fairy lights. And they make the beer right there, right under your nose, giving an extra sense of meaning and purpose to the encounter, an additional validation. And they've got another outlet just down the road, near Penge. I mean, what are the trains like from here to Anerley?


Thursday, 25 July 2019

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Untold Wealth: Romanée-Conti

So last week PK was giving a shout-out to Auberon Waugh who, in turn, was giving a dismissive  shrug to Romanée-Conti, a wine too expensive to drink - and what do you know, but our pals with the superstylish house in southern France are coming over for some nosh and the husband sends me a cheeky email announcing that he's got a Jeroboam of Romanée-Conti 2001 Grand Cru and should he bring it over? Kismet, I think to myself. He also appends a flyer from one of his posh wine merchants to explain just what a startling beverage this is, plus pictures, just in case I was in the dark.

Well, even I have heard of Romanée-Conti, so naturally I tell him to bring it without a shadow of a doubt and actually spend five minutes wondering if my crap Paris goblet wine glasses are really going to do justice to the wine or whether I should nip out and get some proper ones. I then re-read the email, this time adding on all the noughts to the Romanée-Conti asking price which I overlooked the first time round. The bottle in question seems to come in at £130,000 in bond, so I at last work out that this is just a tease rather than a serious offer; although, that said, the pals are quixotic/generous/bonkers enough to do something like bring round a bottle of Romanée-Conti, just for fun, and if anyone was going to gift me a six-figure bottle of wine, it would be them rather than, say, PK.

Only now I am bugged by the idea of a single bottle of wine, even a really big one, costing as much as a Bentley. Hugh Johnson, in my ancient edition of the World Atlas of Wine, notes of the Romanée-Conti family of wines, 'For the finesse, the velvety warmth combined with a suggestion of spice and the almost oriental opulence of their wines the market will seemingly stand any price', which sounds about right. But even allowing for the magnificence of a bottle of Romanée-Conti in any size, what's the point of pricing it so that the price becomes an end in itself? Yes, lots of things are bought for their investment potential, not excluding property, paintings, Warner Bros., Hermann Goering's memorabilia, champion livestock; but in the main you can do something with these things while they appreciate. But a bottle of wine? 'An investment bond,' as Waugh put it? If you'e not drinking it or at least planning to drink it, where's the fun? Do you just stare at the label and that's enough?

Or is the point to be so inhumanly rich that the fun lies in the obscenity of knocking back something which would keep scores of families out of poverty then non-figuratively pissing it away a couple of hours later? Or, rather, to identify it as an obscenity but at the same time detach oneself affectlessly from the demands of the real world and float above it? I could sort of just about imagine the kind of moral putrefaction which might interpret that as an okay way to spend your time; and, if nothing else, it would sit nicely with a comparably value-garbling Jeff Koons, the wine and the artwork, there in your Knightsbridge condominium. I could see that. But would the drink taste better, the same, or worse than any other drink you might consume that day? Or are you so rich that there is no better or worse, only a kind of null perfection? This is doing my crust in.

Actually, all my brush with Romanée-Conti points to is the fact that I still don't understand the relationship between price and market value, believing, at heart, that the price of things reflects the value of things.This is at least one reason why I am not rich. On the other hand, our pals, who are a lot richer than me, turned up, not with a Romanée-Conti but with a bottle of cold pink Crémant de Bourgogne. And it was delicious.


Thursday, 11 July 2019

In times of Waugh

Why on earth would someone republish an old book about wine? What use are pages describing wines which have either expired or become impossibly expensive; regions whose products have changed beyond all recognition; or prices which now look more like those in a sweetshop than a wine merchant?

The thought was raised by the news that, rather like bringing an elderly vintage up from the cellar, Auberon Waugh’s 1986 book, Waugh on Wine, is being republished.

Stifle the realisation that a treasured charity shop find of the original paperback has suddenly plummeted in value; copies have been on sale for upwards of three figures. For some years Waugh on Wine has been in the Sediment library, alongside Kingsley Amis and those few other wine books which, hopefully like our own, are predominantly entertainment rather than reference.

Bron, as some were privileged to call him, died in 2001, and is remembered by our generation as a journalist who was sometimes outrageously entertaining. Or, sometimes, simply outrageous. If someone could cause such offence in writing about wine that they were hauled before the old Press Council, clearly Sediment had something to learn.

Like Sediment, Waugh was open about his relative ignorance on the subject of wine, relying instead (again like Sediment) largely upon the experience of consumption. “I assumed that as a life-long wine drinker I knew all that anyone really needed to know about the subject,” he writes in his Introduction. “Those who knew more, and could talk about such things as grape varieties, were prigs and pedants.”

Still, he succeeded in writing about wine, in that brusque, brook-no-arguments tone of the English upper class. “I think I drank a good Chinon about twelve years ago…but my last five attempts have been failures, so now I have given up. People say it reminds them of violets and wild strawberries, but I feel they must be mad.”

He wrote for Tatler and later the Spectator, propelled largely by his pursuit of good Burgundy and his complaints about the price thereof. He constantly found reasons to grumble and moan, a condition which some us share but believe might be alleviated in themselves if they, like Waugh, had no less than five cellars full of fine wine.

He believed that “wine-writing ahould be camped up”, and his own employs the most extraordinary descriptive adjectives: “mushrooms, black treacle, burned pencils, condensed milk, sewage, the smell of French railway stations or ladies’ underwear – anything to get away from the accepted list of fruits and flowers.”

But his writing is marked by a kind of national stereotyping we find uncomfortable today. “This is the sort of heavy oak-vanilla taste which the Spaniards think high-class,” he writes of one white wine, “but I prefer my Horlicks without dust and cobwebs.” We smile at the second half of the sentence while still wincing at the first.

Or how about venturing that some of the flavours we detect in a Burgundy are “…probably because of filthy French habits – not washing their hands before wine-making, working with a dirty, yellow cigarette hanging out of their mouths, breathing garlic over the wine-press, etc.”

And that’s as opposed to the Americans. “Even the best California wine has only one taste," he writes, "Delicious but homogenised, clean but somehow unexciting. One really can’t be more poetic about them than that. I am afraid it may be the result of too much hygiene.”

He was, of course, a deliberate provocateur. And he came from a different time and society; Waugh initially inherited his cellars from his father, the author Evelyn, a man whose social standing, Bron writes, was marked by (and mocked for) his pronunciation of ‘claret’ as ‘clart’. The Press Council let Bron off the hook for describing a wine with a particularly vile analogy, but it’s interesting to consider how his writing escaped greater censure, back in those pre-Twitter days.

Perhaps those observations which do stand the test of time justify rereading Waugh thirty years on. “Champagne is essential before any meal which is intended to impress,” he writes. Indeed.

“White wine is just as alcoholic as red and probably makes one rather drunker, as one tends to drink more of it.”

And “Investors are having as bad an effect on Burgundy as phylloxera ever did, and until one can convince the world that Romanée Conti is a wine rather than an investment bond, the future is very bleak.”

Plus ça change…


Thursday, 4 July 2019

The Floating World

So the boat has returned to its home port and the wife and I have left it there, taking with us the remnants of our cruise to the West Country. This includes four weeks' worth of appalling laundry, some serious windburn and the remains of a bol sauce that I confected ten days ago in Portland Harbour. Just about everything else has been consumed (or thrown overboard), including two and a half litres of whisky, some gin & tonics, beer, cider, champagne and something between half a case and a case of mixed red and rosé, most of which was drunk by me. So now I'm wondering, were we completely sober at any point?

Most of this deluge of booze was drunk in the evenings, at a time when we were either hysterical with relief at having got somewhere without crashing; or were in a savage depression on account of not having got somewhere due to gales, downpours, fog, lethargy. The boat intensifies moods in a way you don't experience anywhere else. So, with the full sanction of what we like to think of as one of the Royal Navy's oldest traditions, we got stuck into the drink, either as mood-enhancer or mood-suppressor. Indeed, after getting into an impromptu race with a yacht owned by the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth - crewed by four junior officers and an older bloke with an accent straight out of In Which We Serve - I thought we'd really earned our beverages, even though we came in second.

Fair enough. We were technically on holiday and had to get through it. And we had some good times, especially once we'd found a couple of packets of crinkle-cut crisps in a corner locker. What worries me now, though, is that I might be translating this behaviour into acceptable practice back on land. Four weeks is quite long enough to internalise a routine of a couple of stiff whiskies followed by some cheap red wine once it's gone six and I don't know if my liver can handle it in an ongoing fashion. Okay day? A few small gratifications, some kind of micro-acheivement like mowing the lawn or just getting out of bed without putting my back out? Treat it like a successful forty-five-mile crossing of Lyme Bay, open the Famous Grouse. Crap day? Nothing achieved, constant residual despair at lack of funds, political situation, inability to remember the lyrics to Mr Tambourine Man? Same as for Okay day, but remember to frown into whisky tumbler, shun crisps. A pattern establishes itself, with only the gradual empurpling of my nose and a delta of tiny ruptured blood vessels spreading across my face to mark my decline. It doesn't seem like a good idea, not as long as I want to hang on to the remains of what I like to call my dignity. But it looms, unless I can change the trend.

The alternative, of course, is to stay on the boat for ever, drinking like only those afloat can and not bothering about the consequences. After all, once you get past the high-priced yacht marinas and their fancypants residents, the world of water lends itself quite readily to a fully alternative lifestyle. We knew one bloke who lives in a giant windowless barge up a backwater, only the occasional movement of his tarpaulins and the barking of his dogs to give him away. He's an expert in military electronics as it happens. And on the lovely river Dart this year we saw another bloke sailing a home-made boat, painted pea-green and shaped like Marat's bath, just room enough for him to sit in. He was using a single sail apparently cut from a bedsheet to move him along, with a paddle-cum-tiller, like Venetian gondoliers use, to get him out of difficulties. Upriver it's another world, and I don't think anyone there is going to lose sleep over how many litres of whisky it takes to amuse two people in the privacy of their own hull.

This would, in turn, require me to grow a beard and occasionally wear mittens, in order to go properly off-grid. Hideous? Yes, but the beard would at least cover up my drinker's face including, if it got big enough, part of my nose. I need to think this one through.


Thursday, 27 June 2019

Get yourself trolleyed

Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m gettin’ soft” – but am I the only one to feel a note of personal criticism behind some of the reports that Majestic is up for sale?

Because there seems to be some suggestion that Majestic customers are now all doddery old fools, who don’t realise that the world has moved on. That people simply aren’t supposed nowadays to drive to nearby places which sell wine, choose from an impressively huge offering, taste a few before deciding, buy half a dozen bottles or more and take them conveniently back home.

No, there are people who want to condemn that rather attractive proposition to the past. Instead, customers ought to be online, “subscribing” £20 a month, like paying a direct debit for gas. This gives you access to wines you have never heard of before, which will be delivered to your door when you’re’re out – or, more likely given your suggested demographic, in the toilet.

Oh, and you will have chatty online exchanges with the makers of your wines, who you are “supporting”. If you can squeeze them in between your supportive relationships with your potato grower, your ketchup provider and your sausage maker.

Given this dire alternative, I thought I should dodder along to my local Majestic, and remind myself why I ever went there in the first place.

That first time I went to a Majestic, I felt that I had, in some way, grown up in my wine-buying. Those were the days when Majestic sold a minimum of 12 bottles. And it was as if I had suddenly joined the real wine aficionados. These weren’t people picking up a single bottle because they were taking a gift to a dinner party, or looking for something to go with that night’s takeaway. No, these were people buying full, proper cases of wine, people who consumed and presumably stored wine on a serious basis. People I wanted to join.

And this week, I felt surprisingly good strolling those aisles again.

For one thing, they have spruced up the interior of my local Majestic. The bottles are no longer standing on teetering piles of cardboard cartons – there’s proper shelving, with the cartons stashed away beneath. The staff weren’t wearing that strangely contradictory combination of fleeces and shorts. And there weren’t any pallets to make you feel you were wandering around a loading bay.  In fact, it didn’t feel like a warehouse; it felt like a large shop.

In some branches, I can see online that this remodelling has gone too far, and the result looks like an over-illuminated Pizza Express. There’s also an obsession with “tasting”, with “creating” and “exploring”, which sounds like an activity session for toddlers. But hey, we can all get carried away. Calm down, guys. Have some wine…

Of which there was an impressive selection. No, a vast selection. There were seven different Chablis, for goodness sake. And not only were there bottles too cheap and threatening for me to consider, but there were others too grand and expensive; celebrated wines like La Reserve de Leoville-Barton, Bella’s Garden Shiraz, Segla Margaux, and my favourite Pouilly Fumé, Ladoucette. And for me, that’s important.

Established names set the benchmarks. They show that a merchant has access to the best as well as the rest, that they understand how good wine can be. They set a pricepoint against which to measure their cheaper wines. And they enable you to compare their descriptions of the wines you’ve never heard of against those of which you have.

From wines too basic for my palate to wines too clever for my purse, with plenty in between; what’s not to like? To be honest, there used to be a lot.  And for a while there, things looked grim. But the warehouse notion, that you’re buying bargain wine just unloaded from the back of a lorry, seems to have been quietly laid to rest; and buying from Majestic feels like it could be an attractive proposition again.

Yes, this may be the old businesss in new clothes – but, surely, better clothed than naked.


Thursday, 20 June 2019

Thursday, 13 June 2019

A lexicon for wine today

Just take a look at this wine, Lion And The Lily. So called because it’s “Bold like a lion, elegant like a lily”. Obviously.

The wine is described as “chic”, a characteristic which rarely finds its way into tasting notes; and some eyebrows may be raised by this rosé’s claim to be “The perfect wine to pair with Hamburgers”. But what particularly intrigues me is the use on its label of the verb, “to vint”. It says that it is “Grown & Vinted in France”. Which is a new one on me.

Does “vinted” refer to its harvesting, making, blending, marketing or selling? Does the term “vinted” refer to anything specific? Or could it be that the creation of a contemporary wine, with all of the commercial, industrial and branding processes involved, requires a new word in order to describe that operation attractively – and “concocted” doesn’t quite work?

Perhaps we do need new terms to keep up with modern wine culture. Not that “vinted” is new as such – Trollope referred to “the best wine that ever was vinted”, although it’s still not clear what that actually means – so perhaps some older terms could be similarly reclaimed. But whether it’s to describe the wines themselves, or the ways in which we now drink them, perhaps we could use some more words and phrases which simply weren’t needed in the days of the butt and the tappit hen.

Belfer – a very cheap wine, probably supermarket. “Wow, that’s a bit of a belfer”. Derivation: “bottom shelf”. Like the wine.

Spence – A household space for storing boxes of wine, eg understairs, which cannot really be called a cellar. “Is there another bottle in the spence?” (cf Chaucer, The Summoner’s Tale, “Al vinolent as Botel in the spence”)

Needle – a modest portion of wine, akin to a tasting sample delivered via a Coravin – “Try a needle of this one…”

Lefty – A bottle of wine brought by a guest, whose quality cannot be vouched for by the host. “Do you mind if I open a lefty?” Derivation: disputed: 1. such a wine is “left” by a visitor; 2. it tends to get opened when there’s nothing else “left”; 3. a lefty is never quite…right.

Spoonstander – a strong, syrupy red wine, esp. Shiraz

Smite – That modest amount of wine left in a bottle which isn’t enough to be worth saving for a following evening, and so might as well be drunk now, even if it’s just a bit more than you actually intended to drink. “Oh, look, there’s only a smite left, I’ll finish it off tonight” (cf Milton, Areopagitica, ‘It smites us into darkness’)

Greeted – “The wine was greeted in Bristol in 2018” – an attractive way to describe the moment when the bulk shipping container’s sluices were opened.

Undertop – to refill somebody’s glass with as little wine as you can get away with. “Can you undertop James next time, darling, he’s getting a bit loud.”

Mulberried – to have one’s teeth stained with red wine

Pumped – a wine which has been properly vac-u-vin’d, as opposed to someone having shoved the rubber bung back in without pumping the air out as you discover to your annoyance several days later. “Is this one actually pumped, darling?”

Sixer – a supermarket offer of a 25% discount when buying six bottles. “Hey, there’s a sixer on at Waitrose next week!”

Turn tail – to finish a bottle of white and upend it in an ice bucket, raising the issue of whether another is required. “Oh, have we turned its tail, then?”


Thursday, 6 June 2019

Thursday, 30 May 2019

A case to consider

It’s The Case of Ten Bottles. And sadly, it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story.

It’s an “introductory case”, offering 10 bottles of wine and two Riedel wineglasses. As opposed to 12 bottles of actual wine. These are merchants who say they are “determined to break the mould”, which calling 10 bottles a “case” certainly does in my book.

Is the ten-bottle case now a thing? Are we entering a world of a one-piece suit, a pack of 18 cigarettes and a box of five eggs?

We know all about “shrinkflation”, with fewer biscuits in a packet, less chocolate in a bar, a smaller number of fish fingers in a box. Sometimes they change the size of the packaging, sometimes they don’t; my packets of digestives now have an empty, loose bit of packet at the end which once contained a couple of additional biscuits. Unless you examine the quantity or weight, you think you’re still getting a bar, or a packet, or in this instance a case – but it actually contains a bit less.

In this case (and I mean “case”) it’s 2/12ths less. A reduction of 16.6%.

I don’t think they are trying to fool anyone. It’s clearly an introductory sampling, for first-time customers, such novices that they don’t even possess two decent wineglasses. Novices, indeed, who may not even know that a case is usually 12 bottles. But then, why call it a case?

It was bad enough when people started selling six-bottle cases. Wasn’t there a time when only champagne was sold in six-bottle cases? Partly, I believed, because of the weight of the (thicker glass) bottles, which made a 12-bottle case unwieldy; and partly because the cost was so high that people rarely bought 12 bottles at a time.

Now, the six bottle case is everywhere. Convenient, yes, lighter, and a less expensive single outlay; remember how Majestic’s customers increased when they reduced their minimum purchase from a twelve-bottle case to a six. But is it true that posh wine merchants call the six-bottle a Pauper’s Case? And it’s so confusing, when you think you’ve found a good buy by the case in a list, and then find it’s actually twice as expensive per bottle as you thought.

So why call it a case at all? Why not call twelve bottles a case, and six bottles a box?

And if, on decimalisation grounds, you feel that ten is a better measure than a dozen, because it makes it so much easier to calculate the cost of an individual bottle, then standardise that – only call it a "decem" or something.

But of course it’s the tradition of “a case of wine”, with all its social resonance, which is behind this. If you’re buying wine in quantity, any quantity, then the marketers think that by calling your selection a “case”, you feel you’re becoming a more significant wine purchaser, a descendant of George Saintsbury, that you’ve risen to the status of starting a cellar yourself, even if you actually live in one. No wonder they “introduce” you to multiple wine purchase with a “case”, even if it actually comes in a carton.

So how low will merchants sink to employ the term? How minimal can a multiple purchase be in order to call it “a case”? Merchants selling two bottles generally have the dignity to refer to them as “duos” or “gift boxes”.

But step forward Berry Bros & Rudd, because here is a Berry Bros Classic Collection mixed case… of three bottles. 

A “case” of three bottles. Three. From Berry Bros, of all people. I thought they were old enough to know better.


Thursday, 23 May 2019

Bordeaux Grands Crus Classés 2015 - 2018

This week's style icon: David Mamet

A bar. CJ and PK are in a bar, seated at a table, drinking. They have just come from a tasting of a selection of Bordeaux Grands Crus Classés in Church House, SW1

PK: So this is the thing...and it's not just me saying this.
CJ: Uh-huh.
PK: Because this is, what? Look at me.
CJ: Alright.
PK: It's widely held.
CJ: It is.
PK: As day follows night. As the rich man takes his tithe.
CJ: Of course.
PK: Fuckin' right it is. But if.
CJ: If?
PK: What if? Look, look, what if there was there was...Jesus, look at me. At my age. These people, I beg them.
CJ: For pennies.
PK: You said it.
CJ: I do.
PK: I'm begging and they have...all this...
CJ: Riches.
PK: Exactly. Is that the law?
CJ: It's the unwritten law.
PK: It's bullshit.
CJ: As the duck flies south in the winter...
PK: Exactly.
CJ: To furnish his winter nest...
PK: So I'm saying. And this is just me saying. Listen to this. I'm saying we go back in.
CJ: Back in.
PK: And not just anywhere. We go to the Pomerol table.
CJ: That's a table.
PK: It's two hundred notes a bottle.
CJ: I hear you.
PK: We go to it.
CJ: Directly.
PK: Or indirectly. The point is...we're at the table.
CJ: Uh-huh.
PK: And a bottle goes...
CJ: Huh?
PK: We.
CJ: So...
PK: A bottle is removed. From that table.
CJ: Do they..?
PK: It goes. A whole bottle. We are at the table. A bottle goes.
CJ: Do they give us..?
PK: No.
CJ: We..?
PK: If that's how you want to see it.
CJ: They have people.
PK: I don't know they have people? A bottle goes. It goes to us.
CJ: People all around the table.
PK: I don't know that?
CJ: Do we..?
PK: By an action. We go back in. The bottle goes. We go out.
CJ: We take the bottle..?
PK: Those are just words.
CJ: We..?
PK: Take, leave, sample, liberate, possess. What are these words? There is no word, beg. Jesus. You say, that's a man? How do you know that? Fuckin' years I put up with this. Less than nothing they give you. Like they're superior. 'Oh this, oh that. Oh take this. This is all'...Pieces of...and we're grateful? No. We go back in. Maybe you wear a coat. A large coat.
CJ: In the..?
PK: Or a container. You got a bag. I say, 'Oh this, oh that', you have...
CJ: A receptacle?
PK: The bottle goes in.
CJ: And you're saying..?
PK: I finish my conversation.
CJ: That's what you're having.
PK: As civilised human beings.
CJ: I take the bottle.
PK: We leave.
CJ: Straight out.
PK: It's out of the ground. What can they do?
CJ: All I'm saying is...
PK: What?
CJ: It's not...
PK: What?
CJ: What I'm saying. They have people.
PK: You sad sack. You fuckin' sad sack.
CJ: It's..
PK: Don't talk to me. In fuckin' life, there is a time and then...what are you left with? That moment. You look back. Who is there to judge?
CJ: I have to go.
PK: You fuckin' pussy.
CJ: I don't have a coat.
PK: I have a coat.
CJ: I have to leave.
PK: Alright. And this is me talking. Wait. We change our focus.
CJ: Fuck you.
PK: Okay. Listen. We go down town.
CJ: What?
PK: Give me this much respect. Alright? We go to another place.
CJ: To the..?
PK: Not so rich as the Pomerol.
CJ: A lesser..?
PK: Pomerol, maybe they are watching.
CJ: It's possible.
PK: Another table, it's not so...
CJ: Not so...
PK: A smaller one, a lesser label, they'd want us to take it. Montrose. I don't know. Get the name out. If we just asked. We're doing them a service.
CJ: We tell them.
PK: Explain.
CJ: Alright.
PK: Who could resist?
CJ: Down there, it's fifty notes a bottle. Sixty.
PK: What's that to them? In reality?
CJ: Uh-huh.
PK: Alright. I'm asking. I'm asking.
CJ: Alright. But you have to wear the coat.