Thursday 12 December 2013

Ten green bottles. Or two. Maybe six. No, four. Twelve?

You read about a particular wine. You track it down to some obscure merchant on the other side of the city. You can’t order a single bottle, so you have to go to the shop. Or you find yourself on a trip to somewhere or other, and you pop into a local wine merchant, just to browse (hem, hem). 

And there it is on the shelf, the label appealing, the price enticing and the assistant flattering – “Oh yes sir, splendid choice, hard to find that one, just at its best right now…” – in that awful manner that reminds one of Uriah Heep.

So, from the green bottles on that wall, how many do you buy?

Better buy just one bottle. To begin with. To see how it tastes. If a single bottle is duff, you’re in the clear. You can pass a taste to your nearest and dearest, who will grimace; whereupon you can say “No, I thought not, won’t get any more of that,” and promptly finish the rest of the bottle. On sufferance, of course. Waste not, want not. And without the problem of a further stash in the cellar which you would have to fob off somewhere.

But what if it’s really good? In that (sadly, in my experience, unlikely) event, you’re then annoyed that you haven’t got more of it. 

So better buy two bottles. The first one to taste, by yourself, so that you know whether or not the second one is good to serve. It’s as if that second bottle gives you an excuse to drink the first alone, without sharing it – or, as it may be preferable to say, without inflicting it upon those you care about. And if it’s bad, you’ve only got another single bottle to offload by nefarious means.

But again, what if the first bottle’s good? Then you’re back in the position of having a single good bottle, which is a bit Johnny No-Mates. I can’t remember a single bottle seeing a friend and me through an evening. In fact, I can’t remember a single bottle seeing a friend and me through a lunch.

So better buy three bottles. One to taste by yourself, just to check, and then a brace to share. And if you think a bottle a head is a bit much, may I remind you of the great philosopher Emmanuel Kant, known primarily for his rather sombre Critique of Pure Reason. It was said of Kant’s dinner parties (as quoted in our Wining & Dining e-book, one of The Guardian’s best drink books of 2013) that “Before each guest was placed a pint bottle of red wine and a pint bottle of white”. Hence 75cl a head sounds purely reasonable to me.

So better buy four bottles. Because how many usually sit around your table? Four is getting somewhere serious. Four’s a party. Although… four also means you might be tempted to dip in for a bottle yourself, on a lonely evening. Because how long can you wait for a party?

There’s always something sad, as well as pleasurable, about drinking your stock; as George Saintsbury says in his Notes on a Cellar-Book, “it was rather a ‘fearful joy’ to take a bottle of it from the dwindling company”. From three or four bottles you’d notice – but not from five or six. And the recent flurry of 25% discount offers were on six bottles or more. If you’re going to buy four bottles anyway, and it means you get a 25% discount plus a bottle or two for spare, you may as well move up to the half dozen, no?

So better buy six bottles. 

More and more bottles are being sold in small cases of six. Actually, I’m surprised given decimalisation, and given the Euro, and given the French, that the chateaux didn’t leap upon any opportunity to rationalise the contents of a full case to ten bottles, citing metric calculations as some sort of justification, while of course keeping the price the same. After all, how many things do we still buy by the dozen? Apart from bakers?

But if you’re buying from merchants, the proper price (to say nothing of free delivery) requires the traditional case purchase of twelve bottles. And let’s all be honest here, the “real” price of wine is that twelve bottle price. It’s not that they offer a reduction by the case – they actually impose an increase by the single bottle. If you want to get your wine at the proper price, and if you’re going to get the car out…

Better buy twelve bottles.

Of course, a case is a lot of wine to buy in one go. (Or so Mrs K tells me.) Especially if you’re not sure how it tastes. An entire case of terrible wine is an awful thing (as CJ discovered, when he laboured to get rid of one). Who are these people who buy entire cases of completely unknown wines from mail order companies, on the advice and tasting notes of…the mail order companies? Far be it from me to say such people have more money than sense, but they clearly have more money than me.

Better buy just one bottle first. To begin with. To see how it tastes.

But haven’t we been here before…?


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