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.