Thursday 27 March 2014

Transitional: Morrisons' Chardonnay

So I went to a Morrisons supermarket and bought a bottle of their own brand South African smooth and fruity Chardonnay. It cost £4.99. So what?

Only this. A couple of weeks ago, Morrisons caused a minor panic in the world of food and drink retailing by announcing a new and aggressive price-cutting strategy: so aggressive, in fact, that their profits would halve over the next few years, as the price war took effect. This in turn knocked £2 billion off the value of all listed UK supermarkets (Morrisons included), as the announcement sank in: the race for the mainstream, it now appeared, would be straight to the bottom.

Why are Morrisons putting themselves in this position? Because they've concluded that the supercheap German invaders - Lidl and Aldi, basically - have won the battle for Everyman's wallet, and that there is no longer any point in attempting the we-do-everything rationale which has driven supermarket growth over the last twenty years. Rationalised product lines, great value, stark simplicity, no tiresome coffee machines - that's the plan, apparently, and the price-wise British are going to break down Morrisons' doors in their eagerness to get at the goods. Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury will look on in horror, and, to a lesser extent, given their higher-end clientéle, Waitrose - leaving Morrisons supreme.

Thing is, do I believe them? After all, Morrisons have always been a funny kind of enterprise, not least because Ken Morrison, the man who made the chain huge in the north of England before taking them south at the turn of the century, insisted on having a dedicated pie counter in every store: a typically belligerent Yorkshire antirefinement which made me want to sneer out loud every time I read about it. Here in the south they were unknown until suddenly they were everywhere, often in absolutely huge supermarkets which they'd bought off Safeway. The old northern Morrisons was a byword for good business practice and strong growth; the new, national, Morrisons became known for a shortage of interesting product lines, a failure to invest in their IT systems, scant online presence, and a general sense of having overreached themselves. Reinvention is going to be hard.

And it matters because of the drink. Wine = supermarket wine, most of the time, for most of us. And the big supermarkets, with their ungovernably vast ranges and their insanity-provoking pricing philosophies, have used the fantasy of limitless choice as a way to flog us a load of indifferent wines at tiresomely inflated prices. But will Morrisons' bold new plan compel the others to ditch senseless variety and two-faced pricing, in favour of simplicity and clarity, just like you get in Lidl?

To say nothing of quality. When Morrisons made their news, everyone parenthetically raved about the great value of Lidl/Aldi produce. What no-one seemed to be saying was that a lot of Lidl's stuff is not just cheap, but good. Yes, they have a weakness for bin-ends of frogman's flippers/assorted fusewire/lengths of plastic sheeting; and as many have said, you can get some great stuff there but you can't do your week's shop. But their booze is always worth checking out - genuinely Continental in its one-size-fits-all approach. Can a bunch of chippy Northerners do the same?

Well, just to show solidarity, I went straight to my nearest Morrisons, pleasant enough store, fairly busy, helpful staff, Tescoesque punters milling around, slightly undecided wine section wrestling for floorspace with the discount ciders and jereboams of knock-off vodka. I got my Chardonnay (rashly adding a sub-£5 Chianti and a smarter Fitou at £5.99), took it home and drank it. It was okay, more dentist's rinse than Chardonnay, but served headache-cold, it passed the time. Thing is, Lidl would have had it on offer at £3.99, maybe even less. And since it's all about the price point, we can only conclude that Morrisons are at least 20% off the mark. All right, it's far too early to tell; a return trip in ten months' time ought to reveal a different store altogether.

If, by then, it is a different store altogether, can we hail the start of a new realism in cheap wine? Will Morrisons live up to their thrilling promise? Will they stop Tesco in their tracks? I'd like to think so; but at the same time, I have doubts as big as an Aldi dogfood multipack, that such a thing will actually happen in my lifetime.


Thursday 20 March 2014

Keep Calm – it's A Bottle of Red

There are certain High Street establishments which, however professional their service, seem compelled to employ a supposedly humorous title. The hairdressers, who clearly think it immensely amusing to make wordplay on ‘cuts’, or ‘crops’, or ‘heads’. The fish & chip shops, whose owners are presumably laughing so hard that they never think to see if anyone else has punned on what a great ‘plaice’ they are.

It’s a bit sad. In the same vein, I have always regarded car bumper stickers and slogan t-shirts as graffiti for people who can’t write their own. 

Perhaps it will all die out now that Twitter provides everyone with 140 characters of opportunity for wit. (Although Twitter has led to some particularly feeble product humour…) 

Some things deserve to be taken seriously. True, there is a firm of building contractors entertainingly called Underpin & Makegood. And I’m sorry to say that there is a rather good wine merchant called Philglas & Swiggot.  But where wine is concerned, that is as far as I am prepared to go.

I don’t want my wine turned into a joke. I don’t laugh at wines with names like Longue-dog, Goats Do Roam  and Chat-en-oeuf.  I doubt whether the people who get the jokes on Languedoc, Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf find them hugely entertaining. Except, perhaps, those who also run hairdressers or fish & chip shops.

And even they might struggle to be amused by A Bottle of Red.

In case you’ve had your head in a bucket for the last few years, the story of the rediscovery of Keep Calm and Carry On, a World War II information poster designed to be used if Britain was invaded, is detailed here

It became incredibly popular when our current government started using the term ‘austerity’, as if we were all going to revert to powdered eggs and ration books. And when we didn’t, and it became clear that we could still afford haircuts and fish suppers, those who thought they had a sense of humour revelled in altering the slogan to read Keep Calm and… make bacon pancakes/go shopping/have a beer/eat chocolate/do nothing…

It became so popular that you can now go on to websites, insert your own words, and create your own version to put on to mugs or t-shirts. Or, presumably, wine labels. Which is quite possibly what happened with this bunch of wine-marketing muppets.

Let’s have a laugh, they presumably thought. Let’s pinch the Keep Calm… design. Let’s package a wine as if it’s a 1940s utility product. Let’s sell it for £5, not £4.99, just to reinforce how down-to-earth it is. Let’s put government-style instructions on the labels. 

And nobody said…let’s not.

As my old school teacher used to say, it’s not clever and it’s not funny. Particularly when the actual product is as poor as their sense of humour.

They have taken the utility product “joke” on to the back label. “We reserve,” it says, “the right to restrict supplies of this product to one per household during times of national crisis.” Well, let me tell you chaps, you don’t need to worry, because once I have wiped the tears of mirth from my eyes, I shall be restricting supplies of this product myself, to the one my household had the misfortune to take in.

There are only two words on the labels which actually describe the flavour of the wine itself, and both of them are what (to continue our connections with wartime) Winston Churchill would have described as terminological inexactitudes. The wine is neither ‘soft’, nor ‘fruity’. More accurate descriptions might include ‘acrid’, ‘bitter’ and ‘singularly unpleasant’. It is a powerfully nasty wine, with little flavour but an overwhelming astringency; it does, as befits its concept, recall essential household products, but Brasso, Copydex and Airwick are not intended for consumption. 
Perhaps purchasers imagine they will get a (brief) moment of amusement, when they present this to a host, and quip “Well, you said to bring A Bottle of Red – and here it is!!” Collapse of stout party.

But sadly, after that, you have to get through something significantly longer lasting than any moment of amusement. Someone is going to drink this stuff. 

And believe me, you won’t be laughing then.


Thursday 13 March 2014

Disorientation: Graham's 1948 Vintage Port

So what did I find when we got to India? Only that once you go south of Goa and head for the Malabar Coast, booze is unobtainable, or as good as. In one place I managed to get a bottle of Kingfisher beer, but it had to be brought to my table swathed in old newspaper before being hidden behind a curtain so as not to start a riot. The last time anything like that happened to me I was in Utah. Out of three weeks in the sub-continent, I must have spent at least nine days teetotal. No beer, no wine - although I swear I saw someone else drinking Sula red - no whisky.

The nearest we got to that was in marginally hedonistic Mysore, where there were places in which men sat in almost total darkness, consoling themselves with liquor. We stopped outside one of these dives to examine the drinks on display outside: should we get a half-bottle of Royal Stag Indian whisky, or go for a full one of Peter Scot? A man lurched out from the (packed) counter and started telling us the prices. Other men shouted encouragement through an open window. We said we'd think about it. A day later and it was back to water. I haven't felt so disorientated for years.

I tell a lie: weeks. The previous time I felt so disorientated was just before I left for India, when I met the fiendishly talented writer/photographer/cultural contrarian who runs The London Column, for a drink at the Royal Festival Hall.

'You'll like this,' he said, producing a small glass jar with a lid. Inside the jar was an amber fluid. 'Graham's 1948 Vintage Port. We've been keeping it for years. We drank most of it the other night.'
'What's the container?'
'It's an old pâté jar from Lidl.'
'The safety button's popped up.'
'I washed it out. Don't worry.'

We tipped the contents into a couple of plastic cups (see serving suggestion, above). It's possible to pay over £500 for a bottle of Graham's 1948, although perhaps less for this one, given its slightly kooky provenance: British Transport Hotels Ltd. St. Pancras Chambers N.W.1. it read on the label.

'They must have flogged it off. Perhaps it was Dr. Beeching.' He showed me pictures of the formal bottle-opening, complete with candlelight and crystal decanters. 'It was pretty good.'

Up to this point, we'd been drinking the RFH's own Les Amourettes basement red, which tasted of coal dust and paraffin and was the cheapest thing on the list. The Graham's, in comparison, was like, I don't know, a 78 rpm recording of Galli-Curci, something desperately ancient and classy, almost on the point of extinction. There were Madeira-ish overtones, raisins, cinnamon, a long finish with a nice suggestion of old carpet. Nothing like the bespoke expectorant I normally associate with mainstream port, but instead a patrician, largely geriatric, intimation of what port could be if only it made an effort.

Of course it was over in a flash on account of there only being a tiny quantity to start with - about £60 worth - and us drinking it too quickly. We looked at the now-empty pâté jar as it baked under the RFH's savage shopping mall lights.

'Well, that was nice,' I said, inhaling the fumes from my cup.

And then, a few days later, I was 10º north of the Equator, quite unable to get a drink of any sort.

For a while, I toyed with the idea that destiny had taken it upon itself to cut off my booze supply altogether, using the Graham's Port in a pâté jar as a metaphor for the direction in which my life was headed. Back at home, of course, I now appear to be surrounded by grog, as ever, and can drink as much as I want. But is that really true? I thought the whole world was liquid, once. Seems I may have over-estimated.


Thursday 6 March 2014

Good Ordinary Claret - from Waitrose. Really?

What have we here? Not just ‘good ordinary wine’. Oh no, this is Good Ordinary Claret, with all the layers of Englishness and class which that construction contains. 

And it’s from Waitrose. Ditto.

It wouldn’t work with any other wine. Good Ordinary Champagne? Most of us only drink champagne on occasions we like to think of as out of the ordinary. Good ordinary chardonnay? Sounds like a Bridget Jones session wine. Good ordinary Burgundy? Contradiction in terms.

The word ‘claret’ has been in use in England since 1400, but gradually became applied solely to red Bordeaux. And partly because of the fashion for Bordeaux among the Georgian aristocracy, the term has become associated firmly with the English upper class. (I’ve had cause before to quote the clever couplet from Blur: “Educated the expensive way/He knows his claret from his Beaujolais.”) 

The term Good Ordinary Claret was first marketed by Berry Bros & Rudd, the oldest and most aristocratic of the wine merchants who come bearing ampersands. As their video explains, they took the name Good Ordinary Claret from their records of selling wine centuries ago, when it was sold from the barrel to customers and described, not by chateau names, but simply as the merchant’s “Claret, choicest”, “Claret, finest” and the like. You imagine that their “Claret, ordinary, good” would have been perfectly palatable – as it remains today. 

You have to admire the sheer Englishness of it all. That way in which we play down any sense of quality or advantage. (We are surely the only race who actually mock intelligence; what makes someone “Too clever for his own good”? How can someone be “too clever by half”?)

Only the English could make something appealing by stating that it’s ordinary. By taking something from the Downton Abbey lifestyle (hence calling it claret, and not Bordeaux) and then suggesting that you are taking it for granted. If it’s everyday for the aristocracy, then it’ll be a treat for us peasants.

And so suddenly, latching on to this idea like some Johnny-come-lately arriviste, here comes Waitrose, ignorantly pushing its trolley across the croquet lawn.

Waitrose is the supermarket which likes to wave aspiration in the face of its customers. This is why the Waitrose Essentials range includes such 'essential' items as guacamole,  orchid-scented candles, and camomile ironing water

And here they are, selling a 'Good Ordinary Claret' at £4.99, around half the price of Berry Bros’ offering. 

Understandably, given it is their claret you are buying, Berry Bros feature themselves on their label.  Waitrose choose not to follow suit. (Perhaps because the most widely circulated picture of a Waitrose is this.) 

Instead, their claret bears a hideous pictorial label with perspective problems. It looks less like a chateau and vineyard, and more like a country cottage with a badly trimmed hedge.

On the back, they have helpfully put a little map, in case we’re not sure where Bordeaux is. They don’t have to do this at Berry Bros, because their customers have forebears who actually owned Bordeaux.

But one may say that the label is neither here nor there, since if we are drinking traditional claret in traditional claret manner, we will be decanting it. It is a matter of some concern that a proper claret jug now seems only to make an appearance as the trophy of the British Open. But of course, Berry Bros sell two – bottle size and, rather magnificently I feel, magnum size. Waitrose’s parent, John Lewis, sells an impressive 32 decanters –  but claret jugs – noneSays it all, really.

It is a matter of painful regret that I have drunk as many bottles of £4.99 wines as I have good clarets, so I feel qualified to say that the Waitrose wine falls firmly into the former category. Its initial hit of vinegar mercifully softens in the glass, but leaves behind a less aggressive but also less flavoursome wine, without any of the fragrance or finesse which Bordeaux should achieve. Its blandness makes it more drinkable than other harsher wines at the price. But I’d feel sorry for anyone who thought they were getting even ordinary claret, let alone good. And why might they think they could get that for £4.99? Because Waitrose tells them so.

At £9, Berry Bros’ Good Ordinary Claret is not cheap. But, it’s the real deal. In that now all too commonplace phrase, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Although it doesn’t come in one.

Their Good Ordinary Claret gets customer comments from the likes of Will (of course) from Shropshire (naturally). “Great wine for a boys shooting weekend,” he says.

Thanks for that, Will. We’ll tell the lads in Peckham.