Wednesday 23 May 2012

Almost the Best Editorial Wine Writing of the Year!

(Our post on The Joy of Wine Browsing has won 1st Runner-Up in this year’s Born Digital Wine Awards in the Best Editorial Wine Writing category. Thanks to all the judges and, for those who missed it first time around, here’s the post again)

There is a nearby wine merchant posh enough to have an ampersand in its name. The manager has the physique of those nourished without a concern for cash, contained within an inevitable striped shirt. He sweeps out from behind the counter to intercept visitors, with an extraordinary combination of the grovelling of Uriah Heep and the swagger of a Pall Mall club porter (“Are you entitled to be here, sir?”)  And before one can orientate oneself between the Bordeaux and the bargain bins, he asks: “Can I help you?”

No. You cannot help me. I am not looking for anything specific; I am browsing. I do not need to be monitored like a potential shoplifter, and I certainly do not wish to be escorted around the shelves to the accompaniment of a running commentary. There may be a purchase somewhere in the offing, but at the moment, thank you very much, I am just looking.

What is the point (CJ will demand) of “just looking” at wines that are created in order to drink? 

Well, first, an education. Have you ever compared the colour of five vintages of Chateau d’Yquem? Did you know they make half-bottles of Chateau Lynch-Bages? Have you noticed how the Rothschilds emulate the style of the Lafite label on their lesser wines? Or the obscure wines which carry in small type the names of winemakers like Mouiex and Chapoutier? These are all things I have learnt through browsing.

I have remembered more about the relative prices of wines, regions and vintages by browsing than I ever have from lists. Somehow the visual element of a label, on a bottle, in a store registers those things more clearly in my mind.

Browsing gives you a good indication of the nature of a merchant. The presence of one or two great wines on their shelves establishes benchmarks, of price, good taste, long-standing and industry connections, which enable you to put the rest of their offering into perspective. One of the sure signs of the collapse of Oddbins was the absence of any recognisable wines in their shops.

And then there is an almost emotional element to browsing – imagining the wine, the flavour, the occasion. Simply being in the presence of wines you are trying to understand, may never be able to afford, and sometimes find it hard to believe even exist. Have you actually seen a bottle of Screaming Eagle? Or a 1961 claret? People thrill to First Editions not because they want to read the contents, but because that’s how the book first appeared. Surely wine’s even better, because every vintage is a first and only edition.

There are plenty of things people simply look at, without ever using them for their intended purpose. No-one spends their coin collection. People wander around commercial art galleries without the intention (or indeed the wealth) to buy the items on display. Secondhand bookshops depend upon browsing; and people flick happily through the racks in record shops without anyone feeling the need to offer fatuous advice. (“Looking for a record beginning with B then, sir?”)

I am not a timewaster; except in the sense that the only person’s time I am wasting is my own. I won’t waste the staff’s time, because I don’t need to occupy their time. So if you happen to recognise yourself as the chap who runs Pompous & Disdain (Wine Merchants), may I suggest (ever so ‘umbly) that the phrase “Let me know if you need any help…” is much better. I will indeed let you know, and may then actually buy something.

But sometimes it’s hard. On my recent trip to Paris I made a pilgrimage to Les Caves d’Augé.  Opened in 1850, it’s the oldest wine store in Paris, and was Proust’s local. I’ve always loved the French for window-shopping - lécher les vitrines or literally, to lick the windows – and frankly that’s about all one can afford to do in Paris these days. But in Augé, it’s actually quite hard even to browse. It’s two wonderful old, crowded rooms, each piled to the ceiling with dusty bottles, like being in someone’s actual cellar. The phrase “kid in a sweetshop” comes to mind, and any parent knows just how long that child will take to make up its mind.

But the staff hover expectantly behind you, watching every move as you shuffle between the cases. Even hiding behind the language barrier isn’t enough to dispel their attention. No, I am not going to lift that bottle of Ausone 2005 at 1380 and give it a shake. Like saintly relics, it’s enough just to look, to revel in the presence. Leave me alone!

I began to think my experience with the shelves of the Monoprix supermarket would be the most enlightening bit of wine browsing Paris would offer. But then I passed La Maison des Millesimes,  offering a truly spectacular collection of Bordeaux. The shop is off-puttingly bling, but my desire to just see such wonderful vintages overcame its froideur. However, when I shrugged off the inevitable offer of help in my poor French, the salesman responded in conversational English; it turned out he was a young Yorkshireman, who responded to the presence of a genuine wine enthusiast even if I couldn’t afford their spectacular wines.

“Look at this!” he said conspiratorially, and pulled open a drawer to reveal a 1947 Sauternes, its wine the colour of honey, its label held on with clingfilm. We stood there for a moment, just looking at it together, grinning. Just looking.

And then I left.


Thursday 17 May 2012

Asda Tasting: Arithmetic, Zilzie Shiraz Viognier

1) So Asda holds a little tasting/wine discourse event for a group of wine bloggers, and PK and myself turn up, and it's all very civilised, except for when we sit round a table to experiment with different food taste/wine combinations, the experiment being led by Asda's charming Master of Wine. The problem being that whenever she says What happens when your pair off the sushi with the Riesling, or the hard cheese with the Cabernet Sauvignon, what happens to the acidity? What happens to the tannins?, all the other bloggers, who clearly know wine, start murmuring about softness and acidity and suppleness and sugars and other wines, using all the arcana of wine appreciation, while I sit there experiencing precisely the same feeling I used to get during Additional Maths O-level when the maths master scrawled his way across the board before coming to an entirely unexpected halt and asking, What then, is the final term? And the rest of the class murmuring with lazy irony that it was, of course, (4 - y6) as I sat bathed in mute and baffled dread, not having the remotest idea what was expected of me. I am finding these events increasingly stressful, to be honest.

4 - Now reduced to 2!) Elsewhere, there was a fine selection of mainstream wines, mostly generic types made in the prodigious quantities that satisfy Asda's demands, and none the worse for that. The big question, though, was less about the qualities of the booze on offer, and more about the price policy. Both PK (who can start a fight in an empty room, bless him) and I tried to raise this with the Master of Wine herself and another Asda wine executive, only to be politely stonewalled. But this is the question about everyday wine, more than ever now that the big supermarkets have made themselves almost entirely responsible for our mainstream wine habits. There was (for instance) a nice Zilzie ShirazViognier from Australia, retail price £7.48, and as long as I wasn't paying for it I pronounced it good, but wait: £7.48? For 75cl of okay red wine? For that money I could buy, from Asda themselves, two entire chickens, just as tasty as a battery-farmed Shiraz, but capable of feeding a family of four twice over, instead of providing moderate drinking pleasure for two people once over. Or I could get a pack of 52 dishwasher tablets, far more functional and longer-lasting than almost any red wine. Or 10 kilograms of potatoes, more than I can eat in a month. Or, if I leave Asda altogether and go to Wickes next door, a 2.5 litre tin of Bituminous Roofing Felt Adhesive, and that stuff's really useful. To be frank, not a single wine on sale at Asda - or Tesco, or Sainsbury's, or Morrisons - is worth, in the great scheme of things, more than, what? £4, and most of that's paying for the glass bottle. The only reason we even contemplate £7 or £8, to say nothing of £15, is because, as Anglo-Saxons, we are on chronically bad terms with drink, thirsting persistently after it while at the same time feeling shame at our desire, being rendered stupid and vulnerable as a consequence. Governments have always exploited this guilty inner conflict, using it as a justification for the huge levy they raise on wine, currently standing at well over £2 a bottle, including the VAT on the duty. We are also curiously prone to welcome the promptings of wine conoisseurship, which extends its diseased nimbus all the way from farcically overpriced investment-level wines down to supermarket grog, endowing it with a fake specialness, an air of occasion which it doesn't justify, allowing it to become something nearer to a premium product even though it's no more premium than tea or flour. We should be paying 99p a bottle for our everyday red, and if we were filling up our cubi in provincial France, or hauling the stuff out from a cash'n'carry in Spain, that's what we would be paying. Only we're idiots. Sorry if this is something Sediment tends to bore on about, but there it is.

Figure to be Announced) How much has this posting set Asda back? The bloggers' thing was at the end of an all-day event, for which they had to hire a venue, pay for the catering, and so on. So what was the cost to Asda of inviting me and PK? 50p a head? £10? I've mentioned their name nine times already, and reproduced their corporate logo, which should be a result so far as they're concerned. Then again, they've only bought themselve exposure in a microniche blog, and without knowing the figures, it's hard to tell whether this is value for money or not. The cost to them is also affected by whether or not the other bloggers mention Asda in their posts, bringing down the effective cost-per-head with every mention. Sediment could turn out to be cheap as chips, or painfully overpriced. I trust someone at Wal-Mart's HQ in Arkansas is trying to work it out right now.


Thursday 10 May 2012

From plonk to plonkers with Jay McInerney

It’s uncanny. Like me, he began by drinking Mateus Rosé at the age of sixteen. Like me, he felt that “The fact that wine had no place on my parents’ suburban dining table seemed to confirm its consumption as a mark of sophistication.” Sadly, at that point, our wine writing careers diverged. Sadly, at any rate, for me.

Jay McInerney has come a bit further, since a passing reference in his first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, where he drinks wine with  “a bouquet with a hint of migrant-worker sweat.” His writing has allowed him to rise from drinking Mateus plonk to recommending a rosé Champagne at $700 a bottle.

Not that he’s necessarily paying that. He’s now a celebrity writer, adding to his celebrated novels with a celebrated wine column in House & Garden and the Wall Street Journal, of which The Juice (Bloomsbury, £14.99) is the third collection. He now gets invited to the vineyards, the chateaux, the restaurants and ultimately the big-ticket dinners, the “bacchanalian gatherings” as he calls them, where he gets to drink the greatest wines in the world. And where he meets some truly awful people.

Given the chance, any of us might grab an opportunity to hobnob with VIPs, and drink their absurdly expensive wines for free. But while I have a great deal of interest in wine, I have little interest in the people who run its businesses. There may or may not have been a Mr Johnnie Walker, but meeting him would not alter my opinion of his whisky. I would simply ask him why he strode around looking like a tosser.

McInerney gains access to the rarest and most expensive wines of the world via a succession of individuals, whose careers, clothes, dropped names and luxurious lifestyles dominate this book. And they culminate in a repellent set of super-rich, willy-waving collectors, in a chapter appropriately entitled, His Magnum Is Bigger Than Yours.

Now, we English have always been wary of the arriviste – or, in our popular contraction of the French term nouveau riche, the Noov –  whose newly acquired wealth is displayed through the purchase of the most expensive items, without any commensurate knowledge or taste. (I fall into neither of these categories, as I am tragically aware of both my poverty and my ignorance.)

I’m reminded of the old tale of a Northern industrialist, visiting a top London restaurant to celebrate a commercial success. “What’s your most expensive wine?” he demanded of the waiter, without even opening the list.

Thinking of the legendary dessert wine, the waiter replied “That would be the Chateau d’Yquem, sir.”

“Right then, lad,” said the industrialist. “We’ll start with two bottles of that – and keep it coming!”

More recently, this was the kind of criticism levelled at Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, when he foolishly revealed his taste in wine to the Gazzetta della Sport. His list of expensive, trophy wines was immediately dismissed by the Daily Telegraph as  “the list of a labels man, who’ll drink anything as long as it scores lots of points and costs a lot of money.”

“We’re talking,” they went on, “about someone with the taste of an insecure Russian oligarch.”

And this is the company into which, as the prices of the wine rise, McInerney inevitably moves; until finally a chap wearing a “windowpane sports jacket over an open white shirt showing plenty of chest hair” is sabering open a $10,000 bottle of 1945 Bollinger, before buying two bottles of rosé champagne at auction for $84,000.

We’re a long way from Mateus. This is “Big Boy”, a property magnate who, when asked by McInerney if his cellar might contain more than fifty thousand bottles, says “Hell, I have fifty thousand bottles of ’96 champagne!”

McInerney writes that “The night before the auction I personally consumed, by my best estimate, over $20,000 worth of his wine – including the 1945 Mouton and the 1947 Cheval Blanc – and I was one of fourteen drinkers.” Well, lucky Jay; but given that “Big Boy” provides the must disgusting sexual analogy for the tightness of a Champagne that I have ever heard, he does not sound the kind of chap I would myself invite to High Table.

Personally, I would have liked to know how those extraordinary wines actually tasted… and while McInerney provides a fascinating insight into a number of wine people and their lifestyle, he is not good on describing their wine. His analogies are rooted in the world in which he is moving. If one Burgundy is “a Ferrari” and another “a Mercedes” – one champagne “a Porsche 911 Carrera” and another “the 911 Turbo” – I’m afraid I’m none the wiser.

(He is also somewhat repetitive. Rioja, he writes, “can suggest practically the entire spice rack, not to mention the cigar box and the tack room.” Suggest indeed; just three paragraphs later, a rioja has “an amazing nose…the whole spice box, plus the stable and the library.” Perhaps, like his native New York, New York, he thought it was so good that it needed saying twice.)

The actual price of drinking these wines is not the amount for which they are auctioned, but the time you might have to spend with people who wear window-pane sports jackets, crocodile shoes, and sunglasses formerly owned by Elvis. Are those the “marks of sophistication” Jay associated with wine back in his suburban youth? Perhaps that’s why we diverged – because they certainly weren’t mine.

I guess I’ll stick with the plonk. McInerney can stick with the plonkers.


Thursday 3 May 2012

Regency Drinking - Cosmina Pinot Grigio

So  I cautiously pour out another glass of Cosmina Pinot Grigio (a very nice Romanian white, £4.99 special offer at Waitrose) and hope the wife hasn't been keeping count, when she says,

'Did you start that bottle this evening?'

'I certainly did not,' I reply, jumping a bit and slopping some of the precious grog over the side of the glass. 'It's been around for a couple of days'. The imputation is clear, though, that even if it has been around for a couple of days, the contents are going down too fast. I, naturally, reckon otherwise, and actually start rehearsing a self-serving little speech in my head about drinking at the end of the eighteenth and start of the nineteenth centuries, in order to make my position clear.

'You do realise,' I say to myself, 'that whatever you may think of my drinking habits, William Pitt the Younger (1759 - 1806) was famous for his ability to get through six bottles of port a day and remain functional, and one or two heroically constituted drinkers of that period were believed to manage twice that much. Yes, the bottles were smaller than today's - nearer half a litre than three-quarters - and the alcohol content of Regency era port was lower than today's stuff; more like that of a hefty modern table-wine. And after all, you couldn't drink the water, and tea was for ladies. But the quantities were still prodigious, infinitely more than I could ever manage. And you started first thing, you didn't wait like a slavering dog for six o'clock in the evening.

'Breakfast,' I continue, wordlessly, 'for even a relatively self-denying drinker might be accompanied by claret or ale, or perhaps a hock and seltzer to settle the stomach. A glass of sherry or madeira was taken in the middle of the morning, any outdoor activities would require a brandy bottle along the way, and then, by five in the evening, the Champagne would come out. And that would be followed by other types of wine, port, brandy, and possibly more Champagne to round the day off. French wines (other than Champagne) were often frowned upon as being too prissy for the determined English drinker - quite apart from being increasingly difficult to come by as the wars (Revolutionary/Napoleonic) with France dragged on and the stuff had to be smuggled across the Channel. Iberian wines - port, Madeira, sherry - were much more to this nation's robust tastes.

'Those on reduced budgets or with unscrupulous wine merchants,' I also observe inwardly and no longer quite to the point, 'were quite likely to find that their 'Old port' had been artificially generated by adding supertartrate of potash to some immature slop; and that their fine wines were routinely acquiring a nuttier flavour thanks to bitter almonds, which contained prussic acid. Still,' I note, coming back into focus, 'It didn't stop the drinking. Apparently, Pitt the Younger and his pal, Henry Dundas (later Lord Melville), turned up at the Commons just at the outbreak of war in 1793, pissed as whelks, giving rise to this humorous couplet:

I cannot see the Speaker, Hal, can you?
What! Cannot see the Speaker, I see two!

'Everybody drank', I conclude silently but with increasing self-righteousness, 'even Jane Austen, who, when staying with smart relatives at Godmersham in Kent, wrote, in 1813, I am put on the sofa near the fire, and can drink as much wine as I like. The sainted Jane Austen, this is, clearly determined to get outside a bottle before anyone came round and started asking her what her consumption was likely to be for the day. It wasn't until the arrival of the Victorians with their monomaniacal prudery that all this had to come to an end, and - '

I realise that the wife has got her back turned to me. The interior monologue stops. I swiftly pour another glassful and then make great play of screwing the cap tightly back on the bottle, just so she can see.

I did, of course, start the bottle this evening.