Thursday 31 January 2013

Have a heart…

Do I ♥ merlot? It’s not a question I often ask myself in the supermarket, where I am usually fully occupied playing What’s the discount, Hunt the longer sell-by date and Hide the indulgent purchase.

And until we've worked out how to pronounce "♥", it's not even a question, is it?

But I can perhaps understand the desperation to show a little affection for merlot. The wine has suffered ever since that infamous moment in the movie Sideways, in which wine buff Miles declares that if anyone orders merlot, he’s leaving. And he yells, in an incident which is supposed to have severely dented sales of the variety, “I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!”

It’s obviously a problem when the most famous quotable remark about your product is so entertainingly negative. It makes it so much more fun to say no to it than to say yes. And I can’t help wondering whether a wine called “I ♥ merlot” can significantly redress the balance.

Removed from that original, Milton Glaser I ♥ NY graphic, to me there’s a soppiness about using a  in that way. It's like adding it to one's signature as the dot on an i. It's surely inappropriate for any wine or indeed any one wanting to be taken seriously.

(Do you think Christine Lagarde puts a ♥ in her signature? Does one ♥ white burgundy? I think not. But did Bridget Jones ♥ her i and her chardonnay? Possibly. I rest my case of Chassagne Montrachet)

The use of this graphic on this particular label is only made worse by its transliteration at the bottom: “i heart merlot”. This upsets me, not only with its lower-case I, but also by turning “heart” into a verb. I had quite enough during the Olympics, thank you, with people turning “medal” into a verb. You do not “medal”, and you do not “heart”. Not unless you “idiot”.

There is plenty more to read on this label, albeit little or none of any informative value. Both front and back are covered with twaddle about loving wines. We love wine, they say. They don't, you notice, heart it. That idiocy is left to you and I.  

These people (and who are they, by the way?) “love everything about wine”, which must be the first time anyone declared a passion for screwcaps and sediment.

They “love that there is always something new to try”, a premise which, when you think about it, relies entirely upon ignorance.

And somewhere within all that copy they proclaim that “We’ve sourced our wines from some of the most famous, top quality wine-producing regions in the world” – so I must confess to a little disappointment when I found this was Romanian.

There is, indeed, wine of magnificence and character which is made entirely of merlot grapes, and comes from at least one of “the most famous, top quality wine-producing regions in the world” – France.  I’m thinking here of Chateau Petrus, the famous Pomerol which sells for thousands of pounds a bottle. Sadly, however, Petrus was not on offer at 3 for £12 in Sainsbury’s, so this is the wine I’m going to have to deal with.

And from the first, I remembered why I have always regarded merlot as the Formula One of wine. It has a bouquet of burnt rubber, and the texture of oil.

There are some drinks which are simply meant to be drunk in combination with others. You don’t drink Cassis, or blue Curacao, on their own. (And no, that is not a wager.) Grain whisky is better blended with malt. And on the whole, merlot, and especially cheap merlot, works best in a blend with other, more stringent varietals.

But I kept going with it – “I’ve bought it so I’ll drink it”, and I had a steak pie to get through. And actually – do you know what? – it got…worse. Blander, smoother, more slippery. Like drinking blackcurrant-flavoured paraffin.

Does anyone, apart from those involved in its production, ♥ merlot? Can people actually get up any kind of emotion, let alone love, for something so smooth and undemanding? It’s like loving lift music.

In future, I know how I am going to respond to merlot. And whether you are a barman, a wine waiter or an innocent in the supermarket aisle, be warned; it is not by placing my hand upon my breast and saying, fondly, “I heart merlot…”

No. I shall stand up and I shall yell.

“I am NOT…”


Thursday 24 January 2013

High Street Terminal

So I cast my mind back ten years, and I see a thinnner, darker-haired, fractionally blither version of myself, limping off to get a bottle of wine, possibly to take to a dinner party, possibly to consume in morbid silence at home. I am spoiled for choice. Within reasonably easy walking distance, there are two supermarkets - a Safeway and a Waitrose - and four free-standing wine shops. There is a Threshers, a Victoria Wine, an Oddbins and a Majestic. There may even be one or two others that I've forgotten. They all sell wine.

Leap forward to 2013, and Threshers and Victoria have both disappeared from our part of town, leaving their premises empty and abandonded, while Safeway, having had a brief fling at being a Morrisons, was rudely turned into an enlarged car park for the even more engorged Waitrose next door. Oddbins, subject of a couple of posts here already (one invoking a deluge of abuse from the firm's stooges, suggesting a business both thin-skinned and impotently furious, a Basil Fawlty business in fact), at first filled a huge cornershop space, then filled it less convincingly, and finally didn't fill it at all, but handed it over to a wildly over-optimistic independent wine merchant, who did his best to bring the art of fine drinking to our very slightly substandard neighbourhood.

The over-optimistic wine merchant kept it going for a good eighteen months before decamping to the other side of the main road and into smaller, more manageable premises, more befitting his bespoke trade ambitions. Meanwhile, another wildly over-optimistic wine merchant succeeded to the ex-Oddbins slot, but with even fewer resources than the first one. Majestic, tucked away from these arbitrary dissolutions and reformations, picked up the business they lost, and prospered.

But where are we now, right now? Unsurprisingly, the first over-optimistic wine merchant has gone bust. Pizza flyers and demands for final payment litter his shop entrance. The second over-optimistic wine merchant is trading with a vanishingly small amount of stock in an increasingly vast retail space, which now resembles a basketball court with a bottle of Pinot Grigio at either end. It can't be long before this too goes the way of all independent wine shops. In the interim, it must be said, not one but two Tesco Metro stores - the little urban stop'n'shops - have taken root. And Waitrose just keeps getting bigger. Thus, we began the decade with four wine stores and two supermarkets. We now have one wine store, one supermarket, one moribund wine store, and two chain convenience stores. I am guessing that this is pretty typical of High Street UK.

Is there any reason to fret about this? Patterns of wine consumption have changed out of all recognition in the space of a generation, so why shouldn't the retailing? My parents did their booze shopping in a world of off-licences and one-man suppliers, who kept limited hours and even more limited stock. If you could even find a bottle of Riesling in of these outlets, the chances were that it was sharing the shelf with a tin of Long Life and some Babychams. So in the great scheme of things, we haven't lost much. In fact we've gained. So is there any cause for anxiety? Only because of Majestic, round the corner.

For why? After all, the last couple of years have been pretty good for Majestic, sales up strongly, new stores opening. Until this last Christmas in fact, when sales growth seems to have taken a bit of a hit. Indeed, like-for-like sales in the first 39 weeks of the business's financial year were only up 0.8%, which is better than nothing, but not outstanding. Does this matter? Isn't it premature to get exercised about one, fairly marginal, set of figures?

Well, it taps into a sentiment which I can't quite rationalise and can't quite shake off: that Majestic has stopped being as much fun as it used to be. I can remember going, over a quarter of a century ago, to my first Majestic: where I was knocked out by its immensity, its unbelievably exciting (for the mid-Eighties) range, its stupendous prices, its gritty, authentic, warehouse atmosphere, all concrete floors and industrial lighting. And the fact that you had to buy a minimum of a case, which made me feel like a real grown-up, all that wine and only one liver to deal with it.

Now it's 2013 and the warehouses are still there, with the concrete floors and the draughty ambience, but the wines are starting to look a bit familiar, pretty much like the ones you see in the supermarkets, and the prices are okay but not magical, and the draughty ambience is starting to seem less like a justifiable approach to great value retailing and more like a convention, a reflex, another bit of branding rather than the expression of an ethos. And what with the recent TV adverts: I mean fair play, they want to broaden their appeal, but the last time I was in there, a bloke - pretty much like the woman in one of the ads - said, Well actually I don't drink wine, it's for somebody else, what's a good red? And the sales guy, right on the money, said, Rioja's popular. You know what I mean. It's not exactly special.

I like Majestic. My heart still quickens when I pass one of their stores. If they went the same way as Oddbins and Threshers, I would be upset, partly because it would mean losing something I was attached to; and because the whole retail ecosystem of our neighbourhood, and by extension, the country, would dwindle.

Except, except. How sentimental can anyone afford to be about a retail chain? Maybe my kids will come to regard our notion of a High Street wine merchant with as much amused condescension as I grant the memory of the off-licence with my Dad bumbling in on a Saturday morning to get his soda syphon refilled. If the wine merchant goes the way of the milliner and the draper, does it matter? Why shouldn't we get everything online or from a supermarket chain? Nostalgia is a disease, so let's embrace whatever the future might bring in as sanguine a frame of mind as we can manage. To which end, I unheedingly take another swig from my Waitrose generic Côtes du Rhône (4.99 from their Almost Drinkable range) and await developments at Majestic, just a quarter of a mile away from its arch-enemy, the Last of the Few.


Thursday 17 January 2013

How much is that grog in the window?

This week, I have been not buying a lot of wine. This is because I have felt overwhelmed by the pricing chicanery of the wine market. New Year special offers, bin-ends, discounts and sales – I feel I’ve had the lot; and ended up in the position of knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

I have written before about the ridiculous pricing strategies you get on wine these days. On one legendary occasion, two bottles of wine cost me just one penny more than one bottle of wine. Two-for-one is a fairly standard supermarket offer these days, or Buy One Get One Free. It was but a short step, therefore, to the offer (I thought) I saw (right) in a Booth’s supermarket, in which two bottles of Chateau Pierrail, a claret, cost slightly less than one. Price for one, £9.49; price for two, £8.49. So reduced to £4.25 a bottle then, a bit under half price, fair enough, I thought, wedging a brace in my basket.

Of course, when I got to the till, it was another matter. It was carefully explained to me, in that patient tone usually reserved for small children, that if you bought two, the price was £8.49 each. Each. So the “price for two”, whatever I thought I saw on the shelf-talker, was £16.98.

I thought I was buying some wine. I did not anticipate the kind of tricky price statements I associate with mobile phone tariffs. But in fact, buying wine seems to be acquiring something of the complexity of the mortgage market. 

For example, I was sent two New Year offers of Chateau Pennautier, a Cabardes from the South of France, which blends Bordeaux and other varieties into a comfortable, easy-drinking red. I have an affection for it, because my father-in-law used to buy it for his everyday drinking (or “PP – Pensioner’s Plonk” as he would describe it), before its price went up. This week the Wine Society sent me an offer saving £10 a case, which brings the equivalent bottle price down to £6.08. Then I find Majestic are offering it – same wine, same vintage – at £5.99 a bottle when you buy two. Not twelve. Although, because it’s Majestic, you have to buy six. They listed it at £8.49 originally, the kind of price that stopped my father-in-law buying it. And of course £8.49 is much higher than the Wine Society’s original list price of £6.91. So their discount is even greater. And… I’m lost – in a fog of list prices and quantities and discounts, somewhere within which lurks the actual worth of one bottle of wine.

It’s becoming like the market for sofas, in which one is forced to distrust any price which is not discounted, and wonder who the fool is that paid “full price”. Somewhere, I imagine, there must be a little-visited sofa outlet which is full of repellent sofas at astonishingly high prices. There, these ugly specimens do their statutory time with an absurdly high price tag – just so that, come sale time, they can be “marked down” by 50%.

And then, I thought I might have found its wine equivalent. There was a supermarket Bordeaux which I didn’t buy this week, not because it was on offer, but because it wasn’t. Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte 2004, standing in a corner of the wine shelves at my Sainsbury, with a price tag of £50.99.

It’s £50.99, for God’s sake. It’s probably the most expensive thing in the supermarket, below a television set. I can just imagine Mrs K’s reaction, when I say that I’m just going to pick up a bottle from the wine aisle, shove this insouciantly amongst the groceries and then, when we get to the till, it comes up costing half of the entire weekly shop. 

Perhaps they thought someone might trolley it for Christmas dinner, or for a gift. But now, it just looks absurd, like an Hermes scarf amongst the dishcloths. 

Or perhaps, given the likelihood of purchase, it’s actually been standing there, upright, at the hot end of the store, for the last eight years. Ignored. Because if one was spending £51 on a bottle of claret, one would surely expect at least a little unctuous fawning, in addition to some proper, horizontal storage.

Maybe, one day, it will be offered at “two for one”, or “33% off”, or something. Will it then be a bargain? Or is it a rip-off now? We are often told, when it comes to investments, that “your money may go down as well as up”. To which I reply that you could say that about planes – in which case I would never get on.

Finally another “offer” arrived in my inbox yesterday. “Delicious New Year savings”; 33% off Chateau Valfontaine Bordeaux, amongst others, at Waitrose. Down from £8.99 to £5.99, but only for another week. I hurry to the interweb, to see what others have said, and there I find tasting notes from an Oxford butler - what better authority on claret could there be? He writes favourably about it, and includes a little picture of the one-third off shelf-talker. And then I see the date of his post – 20 October 2012. So – it was £5.99 in October; shifted back up to £8.99 for Christmas; and is now (“Offer ends 22nd January!”) at £5.99 again. 

Forget it.


Thursday 10 January 2013

So What Did We Learn Over The Festive Season?

Insofar as I am capable of learning anything, these nuggets I have gleaned in the last couple of weeks of vigorous consumption.

1) I cannot drink wine at 15%, nor, I feel should anyone else, certainly not if they don't want to. My Pa-in-Law, generous to a fault in many ways, has a thing about really powerful reds. Ever since he went to California last year (he's nearly ninety, you know) he's been celebrating the virtues of these cudgelling Napa Valley creations made from super-ripe grapes, terribly tarry, as fruity as a tin of wine gums in syrup, headache-making, black as night when viewed in anything dimmer than a Klieg Light. He not only likes these wines, he likes the big-hitting mentality that goes with them, the idea that even the most half-arsed attempts at finesse are for degenerates and crypto-communists, and that elephantine flavourings are an inalienable part of a man's right to be free. To which end, he acquired, for our Boxing Day visit, a great quantity of 15% Primitivo from somewhere, almost none of which I could get outside. It was so bad that, in between meals, I had to creep down to the nearest Lidl (it was open, thank God) and get a couple of bottles of 12.5% Côtes du Rhône for my own private consumption, something I could manage to drink without going blind. He gave me a look when I asked to put my valetudinarian's French red on the table, but it was Christmas, so he let it go.

2) On the upside, in the space of ten days I attended a pre-Christmas drinks party, a pre-Christmas (but not Christmas Eve) dinner, a Christmas Eve dinner, Christmas Dinner, a Boxing Day dinner, a post-Christmas birthday dinner and a New Year's Eve dinner, drank loads, and didn't get a hangover once. How did I manage this remarkable feat? To be frank I don't quite know, except for two things that stay in my mind. First, there was always food, even if only a bit of food, at the same time as there was drink. Secondly, I only drank wine, although it may be that a tiny bit of port crept in, somewhere. The stroke of genius was to refuse those whisky/brandy digestifs so temptingly offered at the end of the meal, and just let the mishmash of Champagne, red & white relax like the contents of a settlement tank. Why, at the drinks party I kept two glasses in my hands, one containing red, the other sparkling white, and I felt positively champion the next morning, full of flinty alertness. Yes, I'm not advertising anything that everyone doesn't already know. I'm merely advertising the fact that for the first time in decades, I exercised enough self-control to make it work.

3) Expensive wines are invitations to failure. All of them. A few weeks ago, PK and (the supremely elegant) Mrs. PK were round at ours, and I had some fancy red which I decanted too early, with the result that by the time we drank it, it had faded to a mere nubbin of what it ought to have been. Determined not to repeat the mistake, I found a bottle of St. Émilion (gifted to us, I would add) for one of the pre-Christrmas dinners, decanted it a mere half-hour before drinking, and sat back to await results. Same problem: didn't taste of anything. The next go round, a day later, I had a flash Rioja (gift, too) which I refused to decant, serving it instead straight from the bottle. We drank a bit, sat around a bit, drank a bit more. Did it ever get round to measuring up to its fabulous label and Robert Mitchum demeanour? No. It, too, was a flop. People had evidently paid a fair amount for some smart-looking wines (I looked them up to get a rough price - 30 to 40 a bottle seemed appropriate) to give as presents, and they all disappointed. Sinister implication? My Pa-in-law is right, and Californian 15 per centers that turn your bowels to concrete are the way forward. Optimistic inference? Cheap is good. My mantra (there's a surprise) for 2013.