Thursday 28 February 2013

Mixed cases, mixed blessings

The festive season had taken its toll upon my wine cellar. I clearly needed to replenish what I like to think of as “her infinite variety”. But the season had also taken an equivalent toll upon my bank balance. The obvious, simplest thing to do was to buy a mixed case of a dozen cheap bottles. But ay, there’s the rub.

Because to me, mixed cases are a suspect entity. They are the libertines of the wine world, offering carefree promiscuity over serious commitment.

We don’t purchase mixed selections in many areas of consumption. We commit to a particular variety. We never quite know which sandwiches we’ll make during a week, but we don’t buy loaves of bread comprising two slices each of white, wholemeal, seeded and rye. We are not offered a bag of mixed meats, six white and six red.

(As far as we know…)

And selections have always troubled me, because they invariably contain some things you don’t want. Like Christmas hampers; the providers lay out all of the contents like a wedding photo, and somewhere in the back row you can just spot the things that no-one actually wants – the dodgy preserved fruits, the iffy jar of chutney, the tin of pineapple in syrup.

Like boxes of chocolates, hiding their Yardley-flavoured crème centres, which taste as if you’ve just licked your Gran.

Or like Variety packs of cereals which, to my intense childhood irritation, and carefully hidden on opposite sides of the multipack, always contained two packets of boring Corn Flakes. Thanks to such instances of selection abuse, I have always had a suspicion of mixed cases of wines.

I know I am a cynic, for whom the light at the end of the tunnel must be seen as a train coming the other way. But wouldn't any merchant take this similar opportunity to offload his duff wine in a corner of a mixed case? The overpriced non-seller, whose subsequent discount will make a mixed case look more of a bargain? Or the simply shoddy plonk, which a customer might then forgive as one bad bottle out of twelve?

And what the mixed case suggests about the merchant is nothing compared to what it says about the purchaser.

Everything about the mixed case suggests failings. That you are ignorant; you simply don’t know enough about wine to assemble a case yourself that suits you and your lifestyle. You feel some kind of middle-class obligation to have wine in the house, and a mixed case is the easiest way of acquiring a small selection. That you can’t be bothered, to go through a list yourself and select a dozen bottles. Or that you want the scapegoat of a merchant upon whom you can blame any dud bottles which are subsequently mocked by your guests. “Oh, I didn’t choose that one, it came in a mixed case…”

And then there are people who are drawn by price and ostensible savings rather than contents. (No names, hem, hem…) Indeed, for those who don’t give a monkey’s about what they are buying as long as it’s discounted, there are now “mystery cases”, where you don’t actually know which wines you’re getting, just that they’re supposedly a bargain. It’s “a lucky dip you cannot lose”, one merchant says, as if you’re buying your wine at the fairground.

(The latest I was offered was a case for £79.99, “with contents worth at least £94.99, and possibly up to £140.99”. I admire the judicious use there of the word “possibly”…)

Anyway, the point of all this is that, in a moment of desperation, to replenish my depleted cellar with modest degrees of both breadth and expenditure, I succumbed to a mixed case.

My excuse was a lack of time in which to assemble a case of my own; and my reassurance lay in enjoying the mutuality of The Wine Societythat “merchant” which exists solely for its members, and so has no reason to palm anything off.

The Wine Society offer a mixed case of six reds and six whites, all under £6a price threshold so low I’m surprised anything successful apart from a limbo dancer can get under it. 

And yet, unlike CJ, still ploughing his way through a case of rubbishI have found myself drinking eagerly through a variety of consistently interesting and enjoyable wines. I have not encountered a single undrinkable bottle, which, given our success rate at supermarkets for sub-£6 wine, is quite remarkable. Even the inevitable merlot (which one does not “heart” ) was drinkable. No great epiphanic discoveries, but no palate-puckering horrors either.

Given their drinkability and their price, they promote these as wines “to serve without preparation or hesitation”, which is absolutely the case, even if hesitation has never offered any previous hindrance to my consumption.

So this is an exercise I may now try again. Far from feeling diminished, my dignity was restored by my temporarily restocked cellar. With the magisterial stride of the cellar master, I could once again proffer a dry white, a rich red or whatever else supper might require.

And all so that, at 8.30 on Sunday evening, I can offer to nip downstairs and bring up something to drink – and Mrs K can turn from the oven and say, “It’s a pity we haven’t got a bottle of cider to go with this pork…”


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