Wednesday 21 December 2011

Great Wine Moments In Movie History II - The Philadelphia Story (1940)

There are plenty of movies with heavy drinking in them - The Lost Weekend (potential attempted suicide) and Leaving Las Vegas (chronically protracted suicide) spring to mind - but let's be candid: you come out of Weekend or Vegas sweatily vowing thenceforward never to consume anything stronger than shandy. They are both poor advertisements for drink.

So at this traditionally difficult time of year, you need something a bit more sanguine, a movie that's not afraid to look booze in the face and still act unconcerned. And in The Philadelphia Story we have a film which is not only incandescent with stardust, witty in a way that no movie has managed since the 1940's, luminously shot and sparklingly acted, but also steeped in alcohol. This is your film.

Does it apologise for drinking to excess? Does it promote it as a pastime? No. It disapproves. But it disapproves so seductively that it's not always easy to tell quite where The Phildelphia Story's personal ideology is located. C. K. Dexter Haven, for instance, a well-heeled yacht designer (played with impeccable generosity by Cary Grant) has previously been married to beautiful, chilly, heiress Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn, radiant and terribly funny), but the experience turned him into an alcoholic. Now acceptably dry, he looks on as she attempts to marry for the second time: the proposed husband a worthy goob called Kittredge, who worships the ground she treads on, as well as being ignorant of the fact that, in the right conditions, Tracy Lord will get shitfaced on Champagne and misbehave spectacularly. The conditions - a great society party on the eve of the wedding - duly transpire, and Tracy ends up in the arms of troubled hack journalist (he intends to be a great writer) Macauly Connor (a stupendously thin and passionate James Stewart, his only Oscar-winning performance), both adrift on a sea of drink.

The whole thing is Hollywood at the absolute peak of its powers - brilliantly clever, droll, magical. The emotional entanglements rival anything in Jane Austen. The resolution is as wise as it is heartwarming. Yes, the world is divided into those who like The Philadelphia Story and those who prefer the musical remake, High Society. But even allowing for the charmlessness of Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra's inability to act, Society is still a crappy film. The Philadelphia Story is the one which is preserved in the United States National Film Registry as an artifact of especial cultural merit. I rest my case.

And the drink, of course, the drink. By my rough reckoning, somewhere between half and two-thirds of the movie is spent with the characters drinking, getting drunk, being drunk, and recovering from being drunk. It is a drinker's fairytale, in which the cast starts on sherry, moves on to orange juice in a fleeting diversion by the pool ('How about you, Mr. Connor?' asks C. K. Dexter Haven, 'You drink, don't you? Alcohol, I mean?') before swerving into the cocktail hour, followed by a cadenza of endless Champagne. 'More Champagne!' cries the reprobate Uncle Willie at the height of the party, and by God, they get it. 'That was a flock of wine we got away with', Connor says to Tracy in the blinding sunshine of the following morning. 'What about an eye-opener?' Which arrives in the form of one of Uncle Willie's notorious pick-me-ups. 'What is it?' Tracy asks Dexter Haven. 'Just the juice of a few flowers', he says. And, suitably re-lit, they all launch into the final scene, mirth and heartache all round.

It is, therefore, an intoxicating film - figuratively - about figurative and literal intoxication, and the wisdoms that spring from it. It is a film that makes you feel better about drink and the world, which reminds you that Hollywood was once able to make the highest kind of art, and which demands, in the best possible way, that you raise a glass to it.


Tuesday 13 December 2011

The past returns to haunt us – Piat d'Or

When LP Hartley described the past as another country, where they do things differently, he was almost right. The past is another county, and that county is Cumbria.

In many respects, the Lake District is the past. A place with sweetshops. A place with milk in bottles. A place where the local hardware shop offers a selection – a selection, mind you – of replacement walking stick ferrules. And a place where, on a recent familial visit, I found a bottle of Piat d’Or.

There is something irresistible about brands from our past, about Spangles and Mateus Rosé, Angel Delight and Tiffin bars. Is it that we want to see if things remain the same? Is it that we want to test them against our now more experienced, grown-up palates? Or is it the simple lure of nostalgia, what Mad Men’s Don Draper described as “a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone”?

Wine-drinking in the UK was built upon brands like Piat d’Or and Hirondelle, which have largely disappeared from winesellers in the capital. When customers were frightened of varieties and vintages, they were reassured by slogans like “It’s about as likely as a duff bottle of Hirondelle”. Nowadays, that slogan would only serve to emphasise the blend’s mechanical production. And equally unlikely within that consistency was a really good bottle of Hirondelle.  

Some of these brands, particularly whites, are forever being “relaunched” for the new, wine-literate market. I tried for some time last summer to find a bottle of a supposedly “relaunched” Blue Nun, but I mistakenly purchased the relaunch before last, a vile, sugary white which left my teeth carpeted. 

So there was a certain element of nostalgic excitement in discovering that, in the Lake District at least, you can still buy a bottle of Piat d’Or red for just £4.95.

Sadly, this is not quite the Piat d’Or of our youth. Launched in 1978, it went through its own “relaunch” in 2001. Despite its French name, and an ad campaign which insisted that “The French adore le Piat d’Or”, the French had actually never heard of the stuff. So in 2001, it was decided that the whole French connection should be abandoned. “France and the French are no longer aspirational,” said their marketing manager at the time, which will come as news to wine buyers in China and Hong Kong today.

How French is Piat d’Or, anyway? It does declare it is produit de France, but the label also reveals it is actually bottled in Italy. And its description is printed in English, French and German, a rare opportunity these days to see these three European cultures in accord on a document.

The original label did have a subtle reference to France, through the fact that it was gold (“d’Or”, duh…). Ironically, having discarded this little linguistic Gallic echo, they seem instead to have tried to copy the work of Fabien Baron. He’s a US art director who, they may not have realised, is originally… French.  Still, their imitation fails badly; the Piat d’Or label now just resembles the random typography of a ransom note.

(One thing I did not attempt was to pour the wine in the manner depicted on the label. This seems to involve slopping the wine into some kind of tsunami in the glass, and would almost certainly result in a tablecloth resembling a butcher’s apron.)

The “rebranded” Piat d’Or declares its grape variety, which frankly is just as well. Initially it has a strong blackcurranty nose, but like that first fragrant opening of a jar of instant coffee, this is utterly misleading. The bouquet, and indeed any taste of fruit, vanishes pronto, leaving only a nasty, brackish aftertaste from the alcohol. It’s a bland, watery, unpleasant drink, which may once have succeeded in a market unfamiliar with wine if only because we didn’t know how wine should taste. Not only would I challenge anyone to say in a blind test that this was a merlot, I would challenge them to say it was wine. 

But perhaps there was something reassuring about finding it at all. The rest of the country may have moved on, but as with a display of walking stick ferrules, the presence of Piat d’Or may reflect the comforting refusal of Lake District retailing to discard the attitudes of the past. 

Indeed, one of my family asked if there was any chance of the local supermarket’s wine buyer getting in some Cloudy Bay? No, he said, demonstrating a misunderstanding of the whole idea of modern retailing. “There’s no point. It sells out as soon as we get it in.”


Tuesday 6 December 2011

So many wines… Montepulciano, Rioja, Pinot Noir, a Load of Things from Tesco and All the Knowledge in the World

So I was having a quiet drink with PK the other night when, suddenly, it all got too much and I found myself frenziedly badmouthing the whole business of wine and everyone who had anything to do with it, myself included. Why? I think it must have been my Christmas purchase from Tesco, and not specifically because Tesco, true to form, had failed to deliver half the order.

Nor even because I wished I hadn't ordered some mixed reds from them in the first instance, or because I think Tesco will have chosen terrible wines. I am putting my faith in this mighty Fordist combine and I do not expect to be disappointed, except by the efficiency of the delivery. No the thing is, the mixed case contains wines from four different countries, fair enough, it could have been twice that number, but I was suddenly assaulted by this question: why am I expected to know about so many wines?

I mean, I'm not sure I could say I know anything about even one wine, but it's become the burden of the Anglo-Saxon wine drinker to be expected to have some kind of working understanding of wines from all over the bloody world just so he can stand a chance of negotiating his way around the thousands of possible wines that are on sale in this country at any given moment. And this struck me, suddenly, as a kind of fatuous madness.

Look. In provincial France (in my limited experience) people will have a considerable working knowledge of the local wines, along with local cheeses, charcuterie, what have you. Beyond their home region, they will get increasingly vague, maybe holding an opinion about Champagne or Calvados, but someone based in the Ventoux will not only probably not have a great fount of knowledge of Entre-Deux-Mers, they won't even care. They have their own stuff to drink, and that's what principally interests them. And if you venture a question about, say, Chilean wines, five will get you ten they'll just frown at you as if you were the village simpleton and say They make wine in Chile? What can it possibly taste like?

Ditto Germany, another well-known wine-making country. We have been served some authentically unknowable, and sometimes undrinkable, German wines in spooky green flute-like bottles by our kind hosts because it wouldn't occur to them to serve anything other than one of their local products. Last time I was in Germany I think I may have touched conversationally on Australia, a New World country that now apparently makes its own wines, only to be met by the same polite incomprehension as Chile with the French.

And I am absolutely sure that it would be the same in Italy, or Spain, or Portugal: one's interests can be deep, but essentially narrow. Our French-based friends drink gallons of the local stuff at varying levels of refinement and in different colours, and it's all good, and if you go out for a meal, well, the wine list might be a bit more high-end, but it'll still be familiar and contain the nearby names, and you will have a handle on it and it'll still be good.

Whereas in the UK, and in The States, even though the latter is a proper wine country, what criminal masochism encourages us to think that we should not only have a view on all the main wine-producing regions of France, Italy and Spain, but on California, Coonawarra, Marlborough, Mendoza and Tamil Nadu? We are not really a wine-producing country. We can't be much except eclectic. But since everything from everywhere is now available, the result is that nowhere (unless you have really thought about it and taken a self-denying ordinance to drink wine only from, say, the Central Otago region) means anything more than anywhere else. Which taxonomical impossibility then generates an entire eco-subsystem of advisors, pickers, experts and know-alls, artfully funnelling your ignorance through their own preferences and pretensions and encouraging those cruelly humiliating wine lists in fancy restaurants which look like the gazetteer out of the The Times Atlas because that's the cultural assumption we are too spineless not to live with.

PK likes all this, of course, because he's a bit of a trainspotter and he's quite good at remembering things. But I want less in my life. I would be happy if there was one-fifth the choice of booze in my nearest supermarket, but it was all okay, price permitting. Like an inhabitant of the Ventoux, I will drink the same kind of stuff day in day out, if tastes nice. It will be one less thing to worry about.

Which is pretty much what I said to PK. When I'd finished ranting, he said something pointless, along the lines of Well it's a lifelong pursuit, isn't it? And then a fellow drinker fell on the floor and had to be helped back into his seat. It wasn't The School of Athens in there, I'll be frank.


Tuesday 29 November 2011

How to remove a screwcap

I have been disturbed by some research which claims that screwcaps on wine bottles are now the norm. 85% of regular wine drinkers in the UK, it seems, now accept screwcaps. Which leaves me, not for the first time in my life, among the minority.

There has been a lot of claim and counter-claim about corks vs screwcaps. But what no-one seems to have addressed is the aesthetics of their removal.

You may think this is ridiculous. The whole idea of a screwcap is the ease of removing it. Sadly, for someone like me, ease is an alien concept. Effort equals reward. And style is all.

Removing a cork can be an act of elegance and flair. It is a beautiful thing to see a capsule cut and a cork professionally pulled, with little flourishes and smooth, effortless grace concluding with a gentle pop. It is a skill some of us struggle, over years of practice, to master.

And a skill some never learn. I am reminded of CJ’s wrestling match with a cork, when “the cork started to split, and by the time I’d dragged the thing out into the open (like pulling a sack of sand across a ploughed field) there was cork everywhere, over the table, an acne of cork bits floating in my bell-shaped glass.” CJ has always expressed a preference for the screwcap. This does not surprise.

So is there a manner of removing a screwcap which even begins to echo the grace and elegance of a skilful cork removal? Let us consider the methods:

1) Making a fist of it. Effective, but brutal and ugly. If statistics are correct, 99% of men will be familiar with this grip (and the other 1% are lying). Both activities can be enhanced, I understand, by a flamboyant twist of the wrist at la moment critique. Nevertheless, both are but crude and less satisfying imitations of superior activities.

2) The inverse fist – more polite (because less onanistic), but clumsy and awkward to the opener themselves. It often fails to provide sufficient grip to separate cap from sleeve. See 5).

3) The flick. The ne plus ultra of screwcap removal. The cap is snapped free with a sharp movement of second finger and thumb, the same as a click of the fingers. I was once greatly impressed by an usher separating tickets from their stubs like this. The only cool way to remove a screwcap, but demanding immense finger strength.

3a) The inverse flick. Given the direction of the screw thread, this is only for the left-handed, but could be even more challenging than finding left-handed corkscrews.

4) The optimist. The cap is held delicately but firmly betwixt first and second fingers and thumb and, as with opening champagne, the bottle is rotated and the cap held still. Called the optimist because it assumes that the cap will simply and cleanly, with only a little effort, separate from its sleeve. It will probably not. Once again, see 5).

5) The tools. Am I alone in finding that a troubling number of screwcaps simply refuse to open? What I think of as Thatcher caps – simply not for turning. Or, worse still, the cap clings to the sleeve, the sleeve fails to cling to the glass, and the whole thing simply revolves around the bottle neck. Unlike the single, efficient corkscrew, you may then require any of three tools to get the thing open; monkey wrench to hold the sleeve, pliers to grasp the cap, and a knife to sever those irritating little stubs of metal which hold the cap to the sleeve. (The knife will almost certainly be blunted and ruined. It may also slip, and cut one’s left thumb, in that fleshy bit on the side just below the nail. Trust me.)

And then there’s the sound. I was taught that a champagne cork should be removed, not with a vulgar explosion, but with a gentle pfft, described to me as the sound of a duchess farting. There must be a similar analogy for the lovely sound that accompanies the removal of a standard cork – suggestions welcome in Comments. That resonant, optimistic pop of a cork being pulled, as anticipative as the tap of a conductor’s baton, can never be replaced by the harsh clack of a screwcap being removed.

Nothing, of course, can alter that clack sound, with all its nasty connotations. You can only smother it, with a well-timed cough or stamp of the foot. This technique is judiciously accompanied for some with an appropriately-placed Tena pad.

So, you have succeeded. What to do with the cap? You need not sniff it. Experts have long argued the value of being presented with a cork to sniff; no-one has ever suggested the benefits of sniffing a screwcap. (Which is just as well, because another thing in favour of corks is that you never run the risk of lacerating your nose on any aforementioned little stubs of metal.)

A screwcap does not look nice on the table next to the decanter. It does not tell you the vintage. It is rarely a souvenir. There is nothing you can do with it other than throw it away. 

(I’m sure there is someone out there who is recycling metal screwcaps in some ostensibly creative manner, but do not tell me about it, unless you have an accompanying image of Bryan Ferry possessing the resulting item.)

What about some wine tasting? What indeed. I’m afraid I simply had to put my intended bottle aside. I was told that its screwcap could be twisted off by just a short, sharp jerk.

Not me, then.


Monday 21 November 2011

Suntory Whisky - The Unbreakable Drink

One of the great things about Suntory Japanese Whisky is that it comes in a really strong bottle. I can attest to this because as I was doing my best to smuggle a (full) bottle of Suntory into our chi-chi ryokan so that we could have a quiet sundowner in our room, the thing fell out of my bag and fell quite a long way to the ground without breaking. I was standing next to our comedy rentacar at the time and the bottle didn't shatter on the hard stone at all, but instead bounced once and skidded under the car, where it lay, glinting in the shadows.

So I got down on my hands and knees and started grovelling underneath the comedy car, at which point our exquisitely charming and formal Japanese hostess came pattering out behind me to ask if everything was all right. I grabbed the bottle with an audible grunt, leaped to my feet, cramming the unbroken Suntory back into my bag in one seamless movement and said that everything was wonderful and what a lovely day we'd had, before slamming my coat negligently in the car door, from where I then had to remove it as if I'd meant to slam it in a car door all along. There was a look of frank alarm in the eyes of our hostess, but she nonetheless continued to smile graciously at me as I flapped and banged away in front of her, trying not to tear my coat or drop the Suntory again.

That's what you do if you're basically a bum on a budget and you can't afford to have a brimming whisky and soda brought to your elegant eight-tatami-mat room by a kimono-wearing servant and set respectfully on the table in front of you. In fact, I've lost count of the times we've had to smuggle drink in under the noses of different hotel managements, all over the world, our pockets bulging with contraband cashew nuts, our tote bags burdened by liquids, followed by the degradation of having to drink cheap whisky or gin or red wine out of a toothmug with the door locked.

Still. If that's where you're coming from, Suntory (the regular Kakubin variety, not one of the swankier versions) not only comes in a fantastically strong and grippable (square cross-sectioned) bottle, it tastes good, too, toothmug or not: rounder, smoother and with a sweeter finish than your mainstream Scotch, but uniformly satisfying and with a nice amber colour. They've been making the stuff since 1924 and it's good in a hotel room in the nervous dark and it's good when drunk without undue embarassment as a highball in a bar/eaterie, where there's a fair chance you'll get Suntory with Wilkinson Tansan soda, a column of crushed ice and possibly a twist of lemon peel to finish. Tokyo salarymen knock this stuff back as if every night were New Year's Eve. The consumption is prodigious.

How do I know? I came across a party of them, shitfaced, hitting each other over the head with bags of satsumas at half-past eleven at night, one friday. That's how I know.


Tuesday 15 November 2011

Saké – the rice wine of Japan

So, having come back from Japan, I am first of all obliged to express my deep gratitude to

a) The Japanese themselves, whose charm, friendliness, helpfulness and courtesy, were limitless, and

b) The Japanese railway system. This is so good - startlingly punctual, clean and efficient - there were moments when, in an unhinged and jet-lagged kind of way, I wondered if I hadn't died and been put on the Heavenly Afterlife Train along with a surprising number of Japanese commuters and my own wife.

Booze? I made a discovery: Sake, with or without the terminal é, is delicious. Previously, if I had any opinion at all about Sake, it was that it was a kind of comedy drink, warm and sweet and made from rice and tupped from a thimble-sized porcelain cup: altogether meaningless in any Western context.

Then we found ourselves a couple of hours north of Tokyo, in one of those hole-in-the-wall bar/eateries the Japanese seem to have a genius for, and the sake was everywhere and being drunk in prodigious quantities, cold, out of glassware. What to do? I thought about hanging on to my comedy drink prejudices, but the chance was too good to pass up; not least because the sake itself was being served from these wonderfully shapely, nearly two-litre-sized bottles (see bleary photo) with elegant Japanese characters cascading down the front, simply demanding to be taken seriously.

So I gibbered and squeaked a bit, and found out that, yes, you could have your sake sweet (and elsewhere I did see it served sweet and warm and out of a diminutive teapot plus tiny porcelain drinking vessel) but you were more likely, given the relative clemency of the weather, to have it dry and chilled. And in a little box. A playful refinement: the little box is emblematic of the crate in which the rice would originally have been stored. You can have your sake poured directly into this baby crate (makes it bit tricky to swallow, especially around the corners), or you can have it in a glass (see other bleary photo) which then sits in the crate and, indeed, is filled to overflowing so that some of the sake ends up on the floor of the microcrate, betokening generosity.

It is not, in other words, like having a quick beer. Sake, made of the rice which sustains Japan and the rest of south-east Asia, is a drink pregnant with significance. You can find sake presented at temples, in bottle form or in barrels, a sanctified wine. You will toast the happy couple at a wedding with sake. You can find it on sale in sleek drink shops and in supermarkets. You can find it in gilt gift packages and you can find it in resealable waxed cartons. It affirms a culture.

So I raised it apprehensively to my lips, not wanting to find it disgusting in any way and as a consequence start coughing and spitting and wiping my nose and doing other such impermissible things, but no: all was good, a whiff of some kind of very dry white wine (what PK would doubtless call a flinty Bordeaux), maybe a gesture towards a vermouth, Noilly Prat, and then a follow-through a bit like a Dry Martini, but without that nail-varnish shimmer you sometimes get from the gin. Frankly, it was terrific, light and a bit astringent, but subtly warming, too, leading to a sense of complete genial clarity and refreshment.

Also, within ten minutes, I was pretty well lit up. On the strength of one large schooner of sake on top of a couple of beers. Sake isn't that powerful (somewhere around 15%) but my ears were ringing, in a good way, and I had some difficulty leaving my seat. 'This is a fantastic drink,' I kept saying, and it is - subtly crafted, beguiling, silently anaesthetic. It would make a perfect pre-meal drink over here, the only problem being the inevitable one of excessive novelty, and looking a bit of a twat, offering sake instead of a glass of cheap Tesco cava. Why didn't I bring a bottle back with me? Damn.