Thursday, 21 February 2019

The game name

Of course it was the name which caught my eye. The late Jack Bruce was one of the greatest bass guitarists ever, a man who merged jazz and rock techniques, the member of Cream who wrote their best-known numbers, and a chap who was not a stranger to the bottle. Oh, sorry – this is Bruce Jack.

Apologies for the confusion. There may be people who have been christened Simon Paul, Charles Ray or Vincent Gene – but they haven’t put their name on a wine label. It would be the same if I'd seen a bottle of whisky labelled Daniel Jack. 

It’s not Bruce Jack’s fault, obviously. I blame the parents. But there is his name, celebrity-sized, like an Ian Botham red wine, or a UB40 red red wine. Little wonder I thought it was from the estate of Jack Bruce.

And while we’re used to seeing winemakers’ names on labels, albeit not quite so large, we’re not really used to seeing their photos. You don’t see pictures of Louis Jadot, or Michel Chapoutier, on their labels. But here on his back label is Bruce himself, with his sleeves rolled up, ready for action, ready to, er, “Collect new board from shaper…”

Come again? I think this may be something to do with surfing. It is not a diary item in many wine circles. And call me narrow-minded, but if you’re looking at the actual winemaker’s name and face, and you’re about to buy his product, surely you want to believe that he’s been thinking about making wine? Not about buggering off to his surfboard shaper?

This is particularly important when the wine is being marketed entirely on the name, the face and the character of the winemaker himself. Bruce Jack launched his South African wines in the UK at the turn of the year. Bruce has a background in big, mass-market blended wines like Kumala, which might or might not be a selling point to UK consumers. And according to his website, his wines “reflect the culmination of the lessons I am still learning”, if you would like to sort that sentence out.

Bruce Jack doesn’t just have a story, or values, or a philosophy – Bruce Jack has all three. There are several abstruse thoughts from Bruce Jack on the back label. Some even have a connection to winemaking. “The land has an energy of memory”, and “The real disco is below the soil’s surface”. Others include “Imagination is sanctuary enough.” Sorry?

Of course we’re all buying into concepts of some kinds when we buy a bottle of wine, often to do with heritage, connoisseurship or status. But the more you have to philosophise on your website, the clearer it is that wine itself cannot convey such things as “fairness”, and “humbleness”, and “surfing”.

And sure enough, the wine itself is a perfectly decent Shiraz – steady, straightforward, not over fruity and with a nice touch of bright, peppery spiciness. It’s a red middleweight, not a purple bruiser, and  it will happily take down a herby sausage. I have no complaints.

But it was not the “thrilling experience” which Bruce Jack somewhat ambitiously promises for £6.25. Nor did I get a taste which reflected the fact that Bruce Jack wines “continually interrogate, and expose the folly through our actions, of information from those acting in opposition to our values.” 

Which isn't exactly Russell Bertrand.


Thursday, 14 February 2019

Serious Martinis

So while the DIY booze fumes in the darkness (down from one hectic belch every second to a lethargic burp a minute) I decide to try out the pro cocktail making set my mixologist son gave me for Christmas. At the time, he handed it over with many stern injunctions as to the correct use of the various bits and which cocktails were best made with such uncompromising tools. I tried to retain this information but a) I have trouble remembering, among other things, who was The Beatles' producer, so it's pretty much in one ear these days and b) the only drink I really like out of all the confections open to me is a Dry Martini, or its equivalent, a Gin and French, veering towards the latter on account of a liking for French vermouths.

That said, it is a wonderful piece of kit. The mixing vessel is made of an incredibly durable glass with a lattice pattern cut into it for traction; you can clap the stainless steel strainer over the mouth of the vessel and pour single-handed, with one of those eye-boggling metre-long cascades from mixer to glass; there is a long-handled spoon with a special twist in the stem so that, with the correct grip, you can stir the ingredients in the latticed vessel without having to do anything more than merely shift your hand in a gentle sideways to-and-fro; there's is a measure with two sizes built in; there's even a vicious peeler for lemons and other fruit. Put together it has a purposeful solidity that you only find in motor cars from the 1950's or Joseph Conrad's prose.

And what do you know? Some people have come to stay with us and I am going to lay a Martini/Gin and French on them, because they don't have to try and get home afterwards. The gin is Tanqueray; the vermouth, Dolin; the extras are ice and a lemon twist. My son also gave me a lot of advice about how, exactly, to combine the twist with the contents of the glass and indeed, the glass itself (rubbing it around the rim so that the lemon zest reaches the drinker's nose a fraction of a second before the gin fumes; even applying it to the stem of the Martini glass so that the drinker's fingers, too, acquire a hint of playfulness) so I do my best. Holding the long-stemmed spoon between middle and third fingers in the approved style is weirdly satisfying, and, yes, the spoon does rotate unhurriedly, combining iced meltwater, gin and vermouth into a glistening, fragrant liquor, the scent of booze rising deliciously.

I take a couple of tastes to check for strength and quality then pour the precious stuff into some fabulous Martini glasses, also gifted to us and as stylish as the Empire State Building. I do my thing with the lemon twists. It's a kind of perfection - except, have I made enough? The Gin and French looks a tiny bit lost in the conical heaven of the glassware. I've used a single big measure of gin per person, plus a measure of Dolin in a four-to-one ratio. It tastes pretty damn good, but should I have doubled up the amounts? Only snag with that is, if you do get outside a really brimming glassful of basically gin, you, or at least I and people like me, find that speech is a thing of the past and that one's hands have turned into factory reject hands, useful only for pointing and spilling. Answer is obviously to go for 1½ measures of gin per person with French to match. But it doesn't occur to me in time.

As it is we make the most of our Gin and Frenches; getting the benefit without quite getting the full effect. A mood of very slight constraint descends upon us. It's possible that what everyone wanted, in the final analysis, was to get completely shitfaced - and this liberation, a liberation that only a drink like a Gin and French can provide, has been denied us. From which I think I take away the understanding that if I'm going to use my fabulous Martini kit in the future, I'm going to have to step up and make my drinks rhino-stoppingly strong. Otherwise the drama implicit in the act of taking out a cocktail mixer can never be fully realised; the intention is never properly consummated. And we all know what that leads to.


Thursday, 7 February 2019

Gentleman winemaker me

I’m sure it wasn’t like this for Baron Eric de Rothschild.

For some reason, I have gone along with CJ’s crackpot idea of making our own wines. It is one thing for him to try and emulate or even better the bottom-shelf bargain wines that he buys; quite another for me to try and echo the classier products that I pursue.

But then I considered the respect I have for the makers of my wines. Perhaps becoming a winemaker, albeit a modest one, could be a means of claiming first-name terms with the likes of “fellow winemaker” (as I could rightfully call him) Eric. Or with Aubert at the Domaine de la Romanée Conti. I might acquire the urbanity of someone like Leoville-Barton’s distinguished Anthony Barton. I certainly echo his philosophy that “I don’t make investment wines”. No indeed, not in my kitchen.

I had kept quiet at home about this mad plan of CJ’s, and hidden the equipment, and a hoard of my empty bottles, in the cellar,. I anticipated an unfavourable reaction from Mrs K to the idea of liquids fermenting around the house (or, as I must begin to call it, the proprieté). She did, it emerged, wonder why our recycling had been uncharacteristically light on bottles. But she seemed remarkably relaxed when I broached the plan, her first and only real anxiety being that she might have to taste the results.

And so it begins, although I remain disdainful of CJ’s use of the term “Home Brew”, just as I am troubled by purchasing wine-making equipment from a company called Lovebrewing. This is vinification, surely,

I, too, watch the briskly enthusiastic brewlover Richard making wine in his t-shirt and jeans. He does not reflect my vision of an urbane gentleman winemaker. He sports a t-shirt from an outdoor apparel company, and stubble unrelated to a designer. Unlike CJ I do not become fixated by the contents of his washing machine, but I do notice that the on-screen caption suggests he is “sterlising” (sic), an attention to detail on my part which I hope will prove beneficial.

For I am nothing if not a stickler for detail when it comes to recipes. I am indeed (as I explained to Julian Barnes when he gave us our André Simon Award, a Pedant In The Kitchen.  So I am concerned that the airlock I have been sent has a yellow cap, and not, as referred to in the accompanying instructions, red. This is the kind of thing which can lead to disaster.

Anyway, I plump for making cabernet sauvignon, as close as I can get to my beloved claret. With increasing confidence I wield the likes of hydrometer and airlock. I sterilise, and mix, and test. (Well, do you know the exact temperature of the hot water from your tap? Well, do you?) I mix in oak chips, because I’m short on barrels.

And finally I have a demijohn of foaming liquid, coloured a threatening purple, which I stash carefully away. I have somewhat gratifying stains of grape juice on my hands, although before Mrs K returns I carefully clean the somewhat less gratifying stains of grape juice off the kitchen surfaces.

I managed to persuade Mrs K to allow the wine to ferment in the currently warmest place in the house, where we dry our laundry – but in order to protect the surroundings, I must keep my demijohn inside a binliner, inside a bucket. Is that really necessary? Well, the instructions say that if fermentation becomes “quite lively”, then “liquid can be forced out of the airlock and end up decorating your floor and walls!”. Not a situation Eric probably had to deal with – or worse, explain to his wife.

Now, the waiting begins. But at least there is one aspect of this where I feel I may have gained ground over CJ. I have come up with a suitable name for my wine (no, no, you’ll have to wait) and have begun designing an appropriate label. This at least may have the sophistication, the style, which I aim for in the wines that I enjoy. Whether the wine itself will live up to that, time will tell.


Thursday, 31 January 2019

Home Brew IV

So the kit has arrived. Not the gear I was originally toying with, but - following a discussion with PK - a starter pack from Lovebrewing, containing a Beaverdale Cabernet Shiraz ingredients box as well as a couple of demijohns, a siphon, a thermometer, hydrometer, all sorts. And he's acquired the same set, too, so that we can both attempt the same muck and compare our results.The tension is palpable.

Slightly moreso when I get round to watching the DVD which comes included. In this, an affable bloke called Richard stands at his kitchen sink and tells you how to make your own wine. Fair enough, except that his starter pack contains one enormous plastic bucket instead of two plastic demijohns; and he's bustling through the techniques required as if he's late for a train. I have difficulty keeping up. I sit there wondering whether to use the hideous old bucket in the laundry room to make wine in - and is there any way I can get it clean enough - as he flings materials and tapwater around on screen. Then I realise that his washing machine is in camera shot and that it contains some laundry. I become transfixed by this, trying to decide what's actually in the wash. Bedding, I reckon after a while, or towels. Finally I settle for bedding, at which point he's already tearing open sachets of yeast and additives as fast as his hands will let him and I realise that, just as in chemistry classes at school, I have strayed intellectually, could not tell anyone what I have witnessed and consequently have no faith that when I try the experiment it will come out anything like it's meant to.

The good news is that Beverdale tell you what to do on a single sheet of pink paper packed with the plastic bladder of concentrated grape juice that is their stock-in-trade. This is more like it. I sterilise my gear, failing to use warm water, with the result that my hands are blocks of ice by the time everything's clean. I then admix grape juice and tap water in a demijohn, add some kind of ground-up oak powder for that fine oaky flavour at the end, chuck in the yeast, agitate, examine the resulting purple treacly foam with the hydrometer (bang on 1080, two successive readings). It smells a tiny bit rank, so I seal it up with an airlock and stand back. For some reason I am now mournful that it all should have taken so little time.

Of course, it's not over. There's a lot of jaunty chat from DVD Richard about the right temperature at which to ferment your brew. It is alarmingly high: 23ºC is acceptable for much of the time. We are in the middle of the coldest snap of the winter and anyway, our house tops out at 21.5º during the day, before dropping off noticeably at night. Richard (who's wearing a T shirt, I mean it's clearly high summer at the time of filming) suggests various ways to keep your brew up to temperature, among them an electric thermal belt to wrap around the bucket/demijohn, a electric hot platform and an immersion heater. He also mentions cladding the thing in a blanket, which is what I go for - a blanket of bubblewrap, the stuff the demijohn was packed in, a nice symmetry, no extra cost and better for the planet, I factitiously assume.

So there it is, in the shower at the top of the house where the air is warmest. If the demijohn explodes for any reason, the wreckage will be contained by the shower itself. There's also a heated towel rail nearby to keep things toasty. The demijohn is swathed from top to toe in bubblewrap. It looks oddly vulnerable on the floor of the shower. I leave the thermometer on top of the bubblewrap to let my wine know that I care. 21º it's saying, which I can live with. There are one or two lethargic bloops of gas coming up. The longer the fermentation takes, supposedly, the better the wine. At this rate, I will be bottling at some point in 2021. But you know what? PK hasn't even started.


Thursday, 24 January 2019

Time for a bottle of wine?

During the recent festive break, some people with nothing better to do were circulating this statistical graphic. It purports to show the amount of time which various nations spend eating and drinking each day. Other people with nothing better to do, like me, were drawn to consider it.

The French come top, sustaining every cliché there is, spending 2hrs 11mins a day eating and drinking. The average is 1hr 31mins. And we Brits come two-thirds of the way down the list, spending 1hr 18mins a day eating and drinking.

(The US come bottom, with just 1hr 2mins. Well, they did invent fast food.)

But this cannot be drinking as you and I know it. Well, as I know it.

In the corner of the graphic, two little stick people are sitting down at a table eating and drinking together with a bottle of something. They could be in a café, or they could be in their IKEA home, at their Guzla table. Either way, it’s a nice scene for anyone, let alone the stick people, who are generally only seen running for a fire exit.

And there are indeed times when Mrs K and I sit together to eat and drink, just like the stick people. That is proper “eating and drinking”, whether at home or in a restaurant. But how much of our eating, let alone drinking, do any of us actually do like that?

I assume, for instance, that the statisticians are not including things like eating on the go, where one’s primary activity is not eating but, er, going. Or people who are simultaneously working. Some office workers eat at their desk – something we may call “al desko”. (Some people eat on underground trains – something we may call “disgusting”.)

People have to eat at their desk, not because they haven’t got time to go to a café, but because the cafés are occupied by people on their laptops. So the cafés are full of people working, while the offices are full of people eating and drinking. Who’d be a statistician, eh? 

And then there’s drinking. Let’s suppose that while my meal is cooking, I open my bottle of accompanying wine in readiness. I taste it, of course, to make sure it’s okay. It’s jolly nice, thank you for asking. I may well sip a little more, just to while away the time while the pot I’m watching doesn’t boil. Is that drinking? Has my 1hr 18mins begun?

After the meal, I carry my unfinished glass of wine into the lounge and switch on the TV. Is my clock still ticking? Am I still “drinking” while I am enhancing my knowledge with an accomplished historian.

Presumably not. These statisticians must surely have ignored any drinking which takes place while also reading, listening to music, watching television, or musing upon the king my brother’s wreck. Because if they counted any of that as “drinking”, surely many of us will spend more than 1hr 18mins drinking wine beyond any meal itself?

Perhaps what they’re describing is limited to that period when one is both eating and drinking? Whether that ropes in nibbling olives with a glass of white beforehand, or dunking cantuccini in Vin Santo afterwards, I cannot say or guess. But it seems a very narrow interpretation of “drinking” to me.

And it would probably eliminate that clichéd Frenchman, who is sitting in a café for an hour with a glass of wine, but to a statistician is classed as “reading the newspaper” – or, in that definition beloved by travellers, “watching the world go by”.

Still, it does mean that the next time I am accused of “spending the rest of the evening sitting there drinking”, I can now deny it. Because excuse me, as far as statistics are concerned, I have clearly not.


Thursday, 17 January 2019

Home Brew III

So the new year is upon us and it really is time to get this DIY wine thing going. I discuss it with PK. I say that we should each get a home wine making kit and attempt our own separate concoctions.

He doesn't demur, so I go on, more confidently, Who should do what sort of wine? Should we each try a different brew, for the sake of variety? Or should we both do the same one, in order to make a proper comparison? Mm, he says, staring out of the window. Naturally I reckon I can make a better under-the-stairs beverage than PK and secretly play out scenes in my head in which we cautiously sip our makings and he nods, surprised, slightly aggrieved, and says, Well yours isn't bad, at which I preen and say, It's nothing special, you've either got it or you haven't, we can't all be gifted that way.

Well why don't we both make the same wine and see whose is better? he says, at last. Right. I will start looking for wine kits. He then adds, Won't we need demijohns and tubes and other such things, in order to do it? Mm, I say. Good point. I have actually forgotten about this aspect of the process. All I have been thinking about is a box of powders and an instruction manual, having marginalised somewhere the actual physical plant needed. That's going to up the costs, I say, at least until we start making our wine in quantity, at which point we can amortise the layout on glassware, bungs and specialist tubing. He says, What?

I go looking on the internet. I have no idea which retailer to go for. The Home Brew Shop looks alarmingly businesslike, with its five gallon wine kits and just about everything under the sun for making wine, beer, cider, liqueurs and spirits. It is dizzyingly polymorphous. Brew has a tidier punters' interface, but is every bit as overwhelming when you get down to the fine print. Lovebrewing I like the look of not least because it directs you straight to the Wine Equipment Starter Packs, with the basic pack (two one gallon demijohns, a hydrometer, thermometer, siphon and DVD) at a very reasonable £22.00. Art of Brewing clearly has everything I could want, but again, is daunting in its profusion of opportunities, like a provincial junk shop. The appealingly-named Beaverdale also looks tremendously purposeful, but again, perhaps too full-on for a half-arsed dilettante to feel really comfortable with.

At any rate, I think I can see where to go for the basic infrastructure. Which still leaves me with the question of which wine to attempt to make. Why do I think that red would be a safer choice? For some reason I assume that a red, being inherently more flavoursome, ought to be more idiot-proof. It has more options. It is more robust. Also I still have memories of my Pa-in-Law's home-made white, made with the pungent little vines from his greenhouse plus all the dirt and tendrils and insects that he couldn't be bothered to separate from the grapes themselves. It was a tough beverage to get outside. Yet on TheHomeBrew Forum I find some discussion to the effect that, actually, it's harder to make a drinkable red than white. Maybe flavoursome is just another way of saying complex and complexity is my enemy.

Therefore: back to Lovebrewing - pick up the necessary hardware and elect a beverage. What do you know? They'll sell me a Beaverdale pack straight off - and at £12.49 (special offer) for a six bottle Beaverdale Chardonnay kit, how can I fail? That or maybe a Belvino California White kit, which apparently makes thirty bottles for only £16.95 - except I don't have thirty used wine bottles to put all this bounty in, so back to Beaverdale, recklessly scorning the advice that litters the internet, to the effect that the more you pay for your wine kit, the better the resulting wine.

Or Wilko, for God's sake, who first inspired in me (see pic) the desire to do this thing, down in the barren extremities of south-west Wales, where the rocks gleam in the rain and the sheep debate among themselves the correct form Brexit should take. Wilko, of course, who seem to be offering a twelve bottle starter kit with everything you need plus a choice of wines - a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay, all for £35.00. I take a deep breath. It's the Wilko box. I'm going to put it to PK. I'm excited, to be perfectly frank.