Thursday, 10 October 2019


So the problem is this. On the one hand, I have a chirpy little article in front of me from the Waitrose food & drink magazine urging me to enlarge my beverage horizons. Love pinot grigio? it demands - then why not, it wants to know, try a Waitrose & Partners Petit Manseng at £9.99 a bottle, instead of the £5.99 a basement Pinot Grigio will normally cost you? Love valpollicella (and who doesn't)? Then it's a Waitrose & Partners Mencia, from Spain, apparently, also £9.99. Love côtes du rhône (no capitalisation on the R)? Cannonau di Sardegna, only £8.99. And so on.

I mean, you can't blame them for wanting to upsell until we're sick of living, but quite apart from the sheer nakedness of the endeavour, the business of moving me into new and exciting realms gets up my nose not least because it has taken me years, years, to reach the point where I stand a more-or-less evens chance of identifying a Cabernet Sauvignon, or a Merlot, or a Sauvignon Blanc, or, maybe , just maybe, a Shiraz, without looking at the label on the bottle. And I am not going to endanger that footling semi-ability by trying to get my head round a petit manseng or a mencia or an arinto from Lisbon, assuming such a thing even exists. I know, I'm closing myself off from a world of extravagant novelties, but penury, anxiety and small-mindedness make powerful allies in this case.

Added to which, and on the other hand: I have a sack of beetroot to deal with. I mean, it's fantastic beetroot, don't get me wrong - given to us by some pals in Cheshire who grow a superabundance of fruit and veg in their loamy Cheshire soil, some of which has made its way back to our place clinging to these gigantic beetroots, as big as cannonballs, not even beetroot-shaped, but full of cavities and whorls, like Barbara Hepworth sculptures in places, crowned with topknots of leaf stems, elemental beetroots in fact - and it's as much as I can do to cut them down to size, stick the pieces on a roasting tray and hope for the best. Seriously, it's a good half-hour of slashing and hacking with my biggest, most urgent, knife, just to get them into some kind of order. The kitchen's covered in red juice; it looks like the site of a gangland slaying. Which then compels me to ask myself, Which wine, of the handful of wines available to me, would go with an incredibly bloody mediæval beetroot? It's a real-world problem and one not helped by all the beseechings from Waitrose.

I sit down and gnaw at the issue. After about three-quarters of an hour I get the beetroots out of the oven, a cloud of steam emerging with them as if a boiler's exploded and I stare at my handiwork. They still look savage and undignified, even cut into bits and shimmied around a bit on the roasting tray. They are, to be frank, unreconstructedly Northern European. Bruegel would have recognised them, possibly stuck them in a corner of one of his larger compositions. They speak of mud and cold and tragedy. They are simply not a wine-related foodstuff. Down in the south, heading towards the Mediterranean, they get truffles and aromatic herbs. They have wine. Up in the north, in parts of Cheshire, they get dahlias and beetroots. What to do? Somehow honour the rootsiness of the beetroot by nipping out and buying some beer? By dousing myself in warm gin? I can't see a bottle of Cannonau di Sardegna fitting in, even if I wanted to make that effort.

As it happens, I find a couple of duck legs, roast them up too, and, with blank inevitability, reach for a half-finished bottle of generic Australian Cabernet Sauvigon which has been sitting around for a few days and let it fight it out with what's on the plate. I call it food pairing. It's okay. Can we just leave it at that?


Thursday, 3 October 2019

That which makes me pour

An odd thing happened this week. I poured myself a second – or was it a third? – glass of wine. I looked at it. And then I poured it back into the bottle.

Was this abstemiousness? Parsimony? Senescence? (Or have I just suffered a bad case of orotundity?)

Why did I pour it in the first place? Well, it’s that automatic hand again, the one which always moves to take another handful of nuts, another crisp from the packet and another glass from the bottle.

I could, perhaps should, have drunk it, of course. When you pour a glass of wine, you feel you’ve made some kind of commitment to it. I’ve started, so I’ll finish. It’s a bit like beginning a cycle on the washing machine; God knows what’s going to happen if you just terminate before completing the process. 

But when it was sitting there, I just looked at it, and thought… no. And I carried bottle and glass into the kitchen and carefully, over the sink, poured the wine from the glass back into the bottle.

What else might I have done? Some people could have just thrown it away, I suppose. But that’s such a waste, of wine and of money. There’s a couple of quids’ worth of wine in that glass. I’m not made of money. And, despite the osmosis which must have taken place over the years, I’m not made of wine.

Is it a sign of age not to finish a glass that you’ve poured? I’ve put in quite a bit of practice at this drinking malarkey over the years, and thought I had it cracked. But then, I’ve also started making involuntary noises when I put on my shoes. Is a failure to anticipate consumption a similar indication of the encroaching years?

Of course some people might positively flaunt it as impressive self-control. Look at the way I can pour out a glass of booze, look at it, then pour it back again. I don’t need to drink another glass. Dependent, me? Clearly not. Even if I am already thinking about tomorrow night.

Because by pouring it back into the bottle, I would have enough for the following evening. I hate that thing of drinking 2/3rds of a bottle. Because when you hold the bottle up to the light next day, you see there’s only 1/3rd of a bottle left, and what can anyone realistically do with that?

So there could be an element of forward planning involved here. There must be a Biblical parable about keeping stuff back for the next occasion. Something about loaves, or talents, or indeed bottles of Campo Viejo.

That must be it, then. Now it sounds rational. Nothing to worry about. Move along.


Thursday, 26 September 2019


So I'm reading PK's ruminations on champagne last week and this at once sets me thinking about soda syphons. I mean, in my world, champagne gets drunk about as often as liquid nitrogen, given our preference for cheap sparkling knock-offs at anything from half to a third the price of the serious stuff - but, on the other hand, we do get through a huge amount of fizzy water, so much so that what we spend on bottled water we very likely ought to save by drinking from the tap instead, using the funds released thereby to pay for champagne.

Is this a problem? If so, what to do? Go back a couple of generations and you find an answer in the form of the soda syphon. My Pa always had a couple stashed in the drinks cabinet - immense, heavy ribbed, reinforced glass things supplied by Schweppes (maker's name extravagantly emblazoned on the side) with proper levers to dispense the contents in a barely-governable torrent. Part of his Saturday morning ritual involved a trip down to the off-licence to exchange the spent syphons for full ones. This is what we did, back then: we got milk, orange juice and fizzy water in glass bottles which were then recycled by the businesses which owned them. Apart from the petrol used by my Pa in the drive to the offie (two-and-a-half-mile round trip) the system was as ecologically sound as hell.

Time to get back to something approaching this model? Given that Schweppes, as far as I'm aware, don't do the refillable syphons any more, what about getting a fizzy water maker? There's millions out there: I mean, this thing from Grohe, I'm not making it up, a built-in sparkling water chiller/dispenser; or this, at just over one-thirtieth of the cost of the Grohe and resembling the soda syphons we all know and respect; and, of course, everything in between. Why not buy something affordable and effective and present it as a fait accompli to my wife? And put an end to financial ruin as well as all those planet-killing plastic empties?

Immediately, however, I can think of three objections. First, the business of making some sparkling water as opposed to opening a bottle involves a pitiful amount of labour, all things considered, but I am also pitifully lazy, so no. Secondly - and I burn with shame to admit it - in the days when my Pa was tending his Schweppes bottles, there was a tacit understanding in our house that it was somehow slightly common to use Sparklets-type DIY soda syphons. I never really found out why it was common - maybe it was the hint of manual labour involved instead of getting a paid underling to do the dirty work; maybe it was the jazzy brushed steel exterior of the Sparklets bottle, turning the sitting-room chimerically into the guest lounge of a businessman's hotel somewhere around Hounslow, which did the damage - either way, I never knew. But the prejudice lingers. I just can't treat the things with any degree of conviction.

But third - and more significant than either of these - is London's tapwater. I mean, I love London's tapwater, it's a great water for all everyday use, especially washing the car or having a bath in, but it does taste like a swimming pool. The thought of carbonating it before chucking it into the evening whisky makes my gorge rise. That's why we spend something equivalent to the revenue of a county the size of Hampshire on the ready-made embottled sort. And the idea that we might buy sweet-tasting still water, in bottles, just to carbonate it ourselves makes no sense because (a) there's no real ecological or cost benefit, given the number of plastic bottles we'd be consuming and (b) we can't be arsed (see above).

All that said, I can see a day coming, fairly soon, when, in order to get a fresh bottle of sparkling water we will first have to present an empty, used one (probably made of glass) as a key. Same for marmalade, window cleaner and aftershave, and why not? That, or a return to the old days of milk deliveries, but with a float tinkling around with Perrier, San Pellegrino and Badoit, dropping it off at the front door in exchange for the empties. Which, now I think about it, sounds so London middle-class it's not even funny.


Thursday, 19 September 2019

Drinking champagne alone

Why do we rarely drink a bottle of champagne alone? Could it be that champagne is quintessentially social, an experience like kissing, which has to be shared in order to be properly enjoyed?

It can’t simply be the cost – I would think it a personal treat if I drank by myself a bottle of good claret or white Burgundy costing the same as a bottle of champagne. And can any drink really be reserved for “special occasions”? – in which case surely the drinking of it should make any occasion special by default.

There are of course famous quotes about drinking champagne at every possible opportunity. In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it, and so on. That line of Coco Chanel’s: “I only drink champagne on two occasions – when I am in love with a Nazi, and when I am not.” (She may not actually have mentioned the collaboration bit.)

But drinking champagne by yourself somehow suggests decadence, indulgence, an unacceptable sort of wealthy languor. So what actually happens if you detach it from its image, and drink it alone as you would any other wine?

Only one way to find out. Mrs K was going to a Do, an awards event where she might well drink fizzy in both social and celebratory contexts. So as I will be alone, I decide that instead of my usual everyday red or white, I will try drinking champagne, alone, thoughout the evening. It already feels weird.

Lurking in the cellar I find a bottle, which must have been brought by a guest but stashed,  because its journey had rendered it either too warm to drink, or too Elvis. (All shook up.)

It’s surprising how odd it feels to open a bottle of sparkling wine with no-one else around. No-one to “Ooh!” and “Ah!”. And no-one to appreciate my opening technique, avoiding a loud pop and wasteful spume by opening it like a skilled sommelier, with only the gentle hiss of a duchess breaking wind,

(Although, as I have got older, I find I am less impressed by the skill of the sommelier and more by the technique of the duchess.)

However, like the tree which falls when there is no-one listening, there is definitely a sense of deflation when no-one witnesses my opening.

Should I get down a single champagne glass? I wouldn’t get down the best glasses for a weekday bottle of red; but again, the rituals of champagne are hardwired, like some kind of vinous firmware. I climb a stepladder and retrieve a single flute.

Things begin well with a glass while I cook. Perhaps it's the collective unconscious of years of cooking for get-togethers, making me think that tonight must be a special occasion. Or perhaps it's just that I always find cooking is more enjoyable with wine, whether or not it’s in the food.

And it is a reasonably tasty champagne, which I shall describe, as most wine critics describe most champagnes, as “biscuity”, without specifying whether that “biscuit” refers to Rich Teas, Digestives or, for that matter, Jammy Dodgers.

Before now I have certainly carried a pre-dinner glass of fizz through to the table, and drunk it with my starter. But I can’t actually remember drinking sparkling wine with a main course. A champagne flute certainly feels odd in this context; it’s one thing when you’re simply drinking, but when you’re washing down a meal, this glass tube feels slightly absurd. And after a meal, as things begin to settle down, raising a lightweight glass of fizz seems simply inappropriate.

By the end of the evening, I’m afraid the champagne has also become rather sickly. The first mouthful of chilled champagne is surely the best, sparkling as much as it ever will, cold as it can be. But it’s downhill from there on. Unlike a good claret, champagne does not improve in the glass over an evening. It gets sugary. And two hours on, it’s not so much crisp biscuit as soggy Custard Cream.

Clearly no, I am not Sebastian Flyte, nor was meant to be. There are things which are immensely satisfying when pursued alone, which start well and often get better. Like reading. But drinking a bottle of champagne clearly benefits from company. When you can each enjoy those first, fresh glasses from the bottle, and then move on.

A bottle alone? In the end, the experience is mirrored by the final mouthfuls of the champagne itself – just a little bit flat.


Thursday, 12 September 2019

En Vacances: Some Burgundy

So we come back from our trip to see our pals in the South of France and France does not disappoint. In fact it goes out of its way to be ultra-obliging and sunny and crammed with delicious food and drink, so much so that, in honour of all that France has done for us, the British, over all the years, I am now going to use as many French loan words and phrases as I can in an act of sincerest homage or even hommage. In practice this means non to creaky Edwardianisms such as amitié amoureuse and faites comme chez vous, but oui to anything else from the last forty-five years. Alors.

Key points in the trip? Number one is when the wife and I are enjoying a quiet tête-à- tête at an eaterie in the almost too wonderful city of Dijon; and as we scan the menu what happens but I fall for a bottle of unmarked white Burgundy, at a price way beyond my usual? Nevertheless, some kind of amour propre overwhelms me and I suggest, in as nuanced a way as I can that holidaying gives me carte blanche to make a pig of myself, so why not? In fact I manage this with such élan - panache, even - that I persuade myself and any bystanders that paying three times my standard rate is a beau geste worth making.

And what do you know? It is. Something arrives in a label-free container and it is white, delicious, full of bourgeois solidity. I strike up a wordless rapport with it tout de suite and instead of feeling hopelessly gauche - my usual state in any French restaurant - after a couple of glasses consider myself not only alarmingly au fait with the wine list but, by sheer good fortune, quite the connoiosseur. My wife, who regards me as an idiot savant at the best of times, just lets me get on with it. Laissez faire rules for a couple of hours.

The sense of bien-être builds, the further south we get. I could write a whole billet-doux to France, just north of Avignon. Leaving behind the architecture, the chic dress boutiques and the teasing bric-à-brac sellers of Dijon, we sink into a world of pure sensual pleasure. A moment of déjà vu assails us as we pass some familar landmarks, but this then acts as a kind of apéritif of memory for things to come. Once we are in the deep South, surrounded by dust, vines, mountains and olive trees, the usual mood has taken over. Plus ça change, I nearly say, à propos of all this loveliness, but don't. By the time we reach our pals, nestling at the foot of Mt Ventoux, I'm drowning in delectable clichés.

The pals, of course, have got savoir-vivre down to a fine art. Everything is utterly comme il faut, but with the lightest of touches. Indeed, the whole place is, with the Rhône valley shimmering in the distant haze, strictly entre nous, borderline magical. Perhaps the most magical thing (and key point number two) being the carafe of rosé which lives in the fridge and which never seems to run out. Every time I peer inside to help myself to a refresher, the wine is brimming. What genre of rosé is this? Vin d'une nuit, apparently, hence its almost non-existent blush. But it wouldn't matter either way. It represents largesse at the highest level, the dernier cri of hospitality.

A few days of this is enough to banish all ennui, to restore one's lost esprit de corps, to achieve, frankly, a renaissance of all one's hopes and ambitions. But what do you know? No sooner have we got the hang of Provençal douceur de vivre than we must clear up the débris of our stay, bid au revoir to this adorable venue, achieve a complete volte-face in our progress and start north again. Our pals wish us bon voyage back to England, where a Parliamentary coup appears to be taking place, where democracy has reached an evil-tempered impasse and the great Brexit débâcle grinds on, all attempts at détente having been thrown out of the window in one protracted and possibly unlawful contretemps. The closer we get to home, the worse our mood gets. We experience a kind of mal de mer long before we even reach the sea. Eventually and en masse, we and a load of other gloomy Brits cross the Channel in a ferry piled high with old coffee cups.

You have to hand it to the French: when they get it right, they really get it right. I only hope we can reprise our trip next year and continue the va-et-vient of Anglo-French tourism, passports, no-deal Brexit and French goodwill permitting. If not, then quel cauchemar!


Thursday, 5 September 2019

Give me a vowel…give me a wine

Vivolo. Ethereo. Incanta. Primavara. Alluria. They could be the names of pharmaceuticals. Or bitcoin apps. In fact, they’re wines.

They’re not in the language of their origin; in fact some of them don’t seem to be in any language at all. They sound as artificial as Quibi, Consignia or Aviva. Vivendi is a media conglomerate; Vivolo is a Pinot Grigio. Really, what’s the difference?

Does Avior sound to you like an Argentinian Malbec? Or a Venezuelan airline? Actually, it’s both.

I have given up trying to understand the “names” of modern commodities like cars. Never mind the Cordia, Tredia and Starion; how am I expected to know what differentiates a “Series 3” from a “Series 5”? They’re cars, not box sets.

How do I tell a Sony MDR-Z7M2 from a Sony DSC-H400? Oh, one’s a pair of headphones and the other’s a camera.

But once upon a time, you knew where you stood with wine labels. In fact, the label probably told you where the winemaker stood. A wine would have a name like Le Vieux Chateau Guibeau, from which one of those knowledgeable people we call “wine buffs” would conclude that it was probably French.

Then along came New World wines from places like Australia, California and South Africa where they labelled wines in English. Sometimes their name would identify the actual place where the wine had come from, but often the wines were labelled with either invented but evocative locations (Bays, Valleys, Creeks etc) or just concocted, unusual phrases or names.

This has proved so popular that the style been adopted by countries whose native language isn’t English. So Stones and Bones, which could come from anywhere on the planet, actually comes from Portugal. The Waxed Bat is from Argentina. Some time ago, we wrote about a white Bordeaux which transformed its sales by eschewing the Vieux Chateau tradition and caliing itself Stone Rock. And before you know it, you end up with a wine from Moldova calling itself Plum Valley, instead of Valea Perjei.

Anyone would think winemakers were trying to disguise their origins. Andoni is a sparkling white which sounds vaguely Italian, in the same manner as Cornetto. It is in fact from Hungary. Solevari and Primavara are from Romania; and so is Incanta.

And we are back again at these concocted, nothing names, suggesting no particular country of origin, no authenticity, no typicity – but which will presumably sell around the world. Incanta; Vivolo; Manera; Beneficio; Velea. It’s a bit like going to TK Maxx, where labels sound vaguely like a name you might have heard of, but have actually been invented – by TK Maxx.

Alpha Zeta is a Venetian Chardonnay. Because…?. 

Alluria is an organic pinot grigio which sounds like a cheap seductive fragrance (although for all I know it tastes like one).

And Ethereo could be anything from a chill-out album to a mattress. It is in fact a Galician Albarino. The importers say of its winemaker that “You can taste his passion for the region”, a passion that clearly doesn’t extend to putting anything Galician into its name.

Completely artificial, concocted with no regard for authenticity, history, origin or typicity. If those are their names… what might that say about the wines?


Thursday, 29 August 2019

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.