Thursday 24 April 2014

More Virgin Wines: My Nightmare Ordeal At The Hands of Shiraz Durif

So I'm thinking about for once raising my game to the extent of going in search of a nice Fitou/Corbières – I can't say why, some kind of vicarious wine tourism, nostalgia for somewhere I once went, with the added bonus of some spicy Mediterranean keynotes and big 'foursquare' (as Hugh Johnson calls them) drinking personalities. Nothing tricksy, but some good manly reds, with a follow-through of espadrilles.

But even as I dream of these possibilities, the doorbell rings and my wife lets in a mixed case from Virgin Wines. She calls up the stairs with her usual forensic rigour.

'Did you buy more wine?'
'I did not,' I shout down.
'Well, it's here.'

Pinpoint inaccuracy

I come down and look at the completely-branded Virgin cardboard box. Just because I bought a one-off case a few months ago, it is now clear that their system has tanked and has concluded that I want more of their fairly easy-drinking, borderline sensibly-priced, everyday wines. Which I don't. I laugh.

'Did they send these because you mentioned them in your blog?' asks my wife. Her tone, normally graven with sarcasm, sounds oddly credulous. I catch the mood.
'Yes,' I say, 'it's possible. It's quite possible.'

Half six

I know, however, in my soul, that it can't be possible, as in the three years of Sediment's existence, we haven't scrounged more than six free bottles between the two of us, let alone a whole case for one person. My heart slowly settles like glue coming off the boil. And, sure enough, when I call Virgin Wines to make sure, it turns out I should have read the fine print in the original offer.

'You joined the Discovery Club,' an almost hilarious man on the other end tells me. 'It was on the back of the voucher. We send you a case every three months.' At £7.49 a bottle, it turns out.

'Okay,' I say in a contralto, and cancel my subscription.

A heart-stopping moment

When I tell this to my Brother-in-law a few days later, he merely observes, 'They all do that. All the mail-order wine sellers,' I understand that he has scant respect for my business sense, but it stings. He then produces a 1983 Châteauneuf-Du-Pape which turns out to have a dud cork, with consequent leakage (somewhere on the unknowable floor of his wine store) and wholesale destruction of the wine, which you might think would put him on the back foot (and believe me, we did take a couple of appalled sips just to make absolutely sure, like callow prospectors willing their Fool's Gold to be real), but no. My shame persists. And £7.49!

(Actually, the guy on the phone did offer me a rebate, bringing the nominal price per bottle back down to about £6, so what am I complaining about? Well, like all stupid people who have made things difficult for themselves, I need to complain about something, even if, perhaps especially if, it's the wrong thing.)

'My terrible discovery', says idiot

What have I bought, though?

I haven't gone through the case with any thoroughness. In fact I haven't gone through it at all. I've just emptied it out in fuming silence. Only a 2003 Navarra of some kind has caught my eye: potentially the one classy item in a box of leftovers. Otherwise, so far, of an evening, I listlessly reach into the wine rack and grab one of whatever Virgin has sent me, white, red, I'm stuck with it now. So far, I have got outside a gristly Bel Olivier Vin de Pays Sauvignon; a Coorong Sounds Shiraz Durif (the Durif part new to me, possibly responsible for the fog of tarry morbidity that hung around the glass); and, as I write, a Finca Manzanos white Rioja, which ought to be fine - I mean, who doesn't like a white Rioja? - but which makes my eyeballs hurt just as much as the Sauvignon.

Nine bottles to go. Why does PK not make these mistakes? I'm as intelligent as him, I'm certain of it, reasonably certain, anyway. Nine bottles to go. Does anybody read the fine print?


Thursday 17 April 2014

Win a Year's Supply of Wine!* (*If you don't drink very much…)

The best competition prize ever offered was surely when Woolworth’s said you could win your weight in Pick n’Mix. Fabulous! Your own weight in confectionery! Of course, it would never be allowed nowadays. The health lobby would be down on you like a ton of Twix.

I am not one for competitions. I have never, for example, won anything on the lottery, although there are those who say I would give myself more of a chance if I actually bought a ticket. But even I have been tempted recently by competitions proclaiming that I could win a year’s supply of wine. It sounded like my ideal prize. However…

The obvious thing to ask is, a year’s supply for whom? Gerard Depardieu? (When the French actor had emergency multiple open-heart surgery, doctors warned him to cut out his four to five bottles of red wine and three packets of Gitanes a day. Of course, he responded. He stopped smoking.)

To avoid supplying such prodigious consumers, promoters state, in their terms and conditions, how they define “a year’s supply of wine”. And depressing reading it makes.

For example, “A year’s supply” of Virgin Wines has been widely offered as a prize, by a train company, a travel agent and, in an unusual drink/driving combination, the AA. “One lucky winner,” they said, “will receive five cases throughout the year – each containing 12 specially selected bottles. That’s one case every three months – plus an extra case for Christmas.”

All three competitions defined 60 bottles as your “year’s supply”. Five bottles a month. Or four if that “extra case” is for your Christmas party. Is one bottle a week a reasonable supply for anyone who enjoys wine?

Tesco were a little more generous in their version of the competition. Their year's supply in a 2011 competition was 12 cases, more than twice as much. But “12 cases as selected by the Promoter in its sole discretion”. A worrying proviso to anyone who has seen some of the stuff the Promoter selects, in its sole discretion, to put upon its shelves.

Indeed, Tesco ran a similar competition to win a year’s supply of Hardy’s wine. (It would be too easy to suggest the second prize was two years' supply of it…) The terms and conditions define the prize as 12 cases of Hardy’s wine, plus one bottle signed by William Hardy, upon which they place a total retail value of “c.£656”.

Now I don’t know how they put a retail value on a bottle of Hardy’s wine signed by Mr Hardy – or, for that matter, one signed by Mr Laurel. But 145 bottles into £656 comes out at a fraction over £4.50 a bottle. And getting through nearly 3 bottles a week of £4.50 wine from Tesco sounds to me more like a penance than a prize.

A generous promoter might define “a year's supply” by expenditure rather than quantity. Last autumn Majestic, for example, offered £100 in wine vouchers every month for the next year. Now that’s a proper year's supply, whether you choose 16 £5.99 bottles a month or, with the opportunity to choose quality over quantity, a handful of higher-priced wines.

But that same amount was offered more than ten years previously, by Horse & Hound magazine, that stalwart of the huntin’, shootin’, fishin’ and, I see, drinkin’ set. Their prize was “one year’s supply of wine to the value of £1,200.” The same £100-worth of wine a month; but back in 2001, when prices were considerably lower. 

“Quarterly dispatches of £300-worth of wine will be delivered to the winner’s nominated address,” they explained – but added the intriguing constraint that “No more than 72 bottles of wine to be sent in any one quarter.” That would still be an impressive 288 bottles, or 24 cases a year. Now that’s what I call a supply.

But why the constraint? Surely the Hunt weren’t going to drink wine that cost less than £4.16 a bottle? Did the transport costs of so many bottles to the Shires threaten to eclipse the cost of the wine? Or… was the health lobby beginning to rear its head?

For when Oddbins offered this prize in December, they took a very cautious position. “Oddbins is a responsible retailer,” they declared, “therefore ‘a year’s wine supply’ is based on government guidelines.” I work that out to a maximum 120 bottles or 10 cases a year. Unless, of course, you’re a woman – when a promoter would presumably be justified in saying that, following government guidelines, you should drink and therefore win rather less. 

But the thing is, most people do not drink their wine on their own. Obviously a year’s supply of, say, haircuts is limited to an individual winner; but you wouldn’t offer someone a year’s supply of electricity, and then try to divide its consumption between members of a household. My wine is shared with family and friends – why should my year’s supply be defined by my personal consumption?

The meanest year’s supply I have seen was offered by a serviced apartment company based in Reading. In the New Year, they ran “a Prize Draw to win a year’s supply of wine”. And they declared that “The winning prize shall be 12 bottles of wine.” 12 bottles? One bottle a month? Call that a year’s supply?

I don’t think I will be entering. Nor, I suspect, will Gerard Depardieu.


Thursday 10 April 2014

Evelyn Waugh's Noonday Reviver

So, and not for the first time, I am seized by the conviction that if I drink one more glass of wine, I am going to die of ennui. I am haunted by something I am convinced Nicky Haslam - interior designer and legendary socialite - once said about European wines: They put something in them to make them taste funny. Maybe he did say it. Maybe he didn't. It's starting to sound plausible, even if he didn't. I am also falsely certain that he claimed that his favourite tipple was gin, and the cheaper the better. He cited (or I believe he did) White Satin as a quality choice, followed by Asda's own label. Can that be right?

At any rate, it starts to lead me down that deeply-rutted and potholed track known as Novelty Drinking. I want a drink, but I want something new, painfully new if possible. Number 2 son has worked behind bars in the West End of London, and claims to know his cocktails. He insists that without a bottle of rhubarb bitters you are nowhere as a decent Mixologist. And did you know that the secret of a good Bloody Mary - along with all the Tabasco and celery and whatnot - is to add a small measure of red wine? It's true: you get a much more elegant drink. But the rest of his recipes sound too complicated, and no fun if you have to put the ingredients together yourself. And what's the point of a cocktail drunk alone in your kitchen in the middle of the day? Context is everything. I don't really like Manhattans, but I once had a fantastic Manhattan overlooking Long Island Sound as the sun went down. That's not going to happen again.

I dig out Kingsley Amis's Everyday Drinking (also not for the first time) and hunt around for inspiration. Among other suggestions, he offers The Copenhagen (vodka, aquavit, almonds and ice); The Salty Dog (gin, grapefruit juice, salt, ice); The Dizzy Lizzy (Chambéry, framboise, cognac, Angostura, ice). They all sound terrible. I am briefly and suicidally drawn to something called a Tigne Rose: 1 tot gin, 1 tot whisky, 1 tot rum, 1 tot vodka, and 1 tot brandy. Apparently it was invented at the Tigne Barracks, Malta, by the 36th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment. All newly joined subalterns were offered this unbelievable drink as a Saturday lunchtime apéritif. According to Amis, the sometime 2nd Lieutenant T. G. Rosenthal, from whom he got the recipe, 'Put three of them down before walking unaided back to his room and falling into a reverie that lasted until Monday-morning parade.'

On the other hand, there is Evelyn Waugh's Noonday Reviver. Waugh was a cantankerous drunk, doing his novels and journalism during the day, while lit up but lucid; his Diaries in the evening, while substantially pissed; and his Letters the following morning, hungover. He was also one of the most brilliant writers of the Twentieth Century, so I'm not going to moralise; I'm just noting the fact that he drank.

Which is why his Noonday Reviver, unsurprisingly, presents a challenge. The ingredients are: 1 hefty shot of gin, half a pint of Guinness, some ginger beer. The Guinness and gin should go straight into a silver tankard, with the ginger beer to top it all up. 'I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the attribution,' cautions Amis, 'but the mixture will certainly revive you, or something.' Very well. It has just gone noon, revival time. I feel pretty okay, actually, but then I always need some reviving. In a nod to health & safety, I use about one-third the recommended quantities in a whisky tumbler. It looks harmless enough.

By half-past twelve I have taken a few apprehensive sips, and to be honest, it could be worse. There's actually a synthesis going on between the Guinness and the ginger beer, an almost Far Eastern sweet/sour thing, on the brink of refreshing, and the whole is a million miles removed from the deathly Queen Victoria's Tipple I tried a while back. Trouble is, it's not a reviver - I can feel a numbness, a lethargy, starting to creep over me, the product no doubt of that gin, the hidden assassin - or, to put it another way, it's only a reviver if you're an alcoholic. If you want something to take away the pain of the morning after and dull the edges of the rest of the day, then this will do fine. Otherwise, no. Also there's the taste. It's not bad, but it is defiantly retro, treacly and spicy and full of burps. It would be perfect in 1951, in Waugh's freezing manor house in the West Country. But now? On a bright spring day? With added central heating?

I lob the remains of the Reviver down the sink and turn to the next drink in Amis's list: Woodrow Wyatt's Instant Whiskey Collins. And then put the book down. I am not so revived that I don't know when I'm beaten.


Thursday 3 April 2014

Empty statements – what your recycled wine bottles say about you

I’ve been looking into my neighbours’ recycling boxes. I mean, not looking into them as such, not really looking per se, just sort of… glancing as I pass.

I can’t help but be interested in the empty wine bottles they contain. Ooh, I think, they’ve been drinking a lot of champagne, wonder what they’re celebrating?... That’s a bit of a low rent red…Hmm, fell for that one, did they?...Now that’s a bit nice…etc.

Wouldn't you? Don’t you? Worst of all, is someone doing it to me?

We don’t normally have to make a public declaration of our wine drinking. What we’ve drunk, and how much of it, in the past week. But the glass recycling box, sitting outside your house, does exactly that. And if like me you’re concerned about what a wine says about you as a host, it stands to reason that you’re worried about what neighbours think of the wines you’ve been drinking.

In my case, there’s quite a range. There are the occasional indulgences, that I hope someone passing recognises I had the knowledge and good taste to buy. There are the midweek supper wines, which might indicate a certain shrewd balance of quality and price. But unfortunately, there are also the appalling offers, discount fiascos and bottom-shelf bargains to which I’ve fallen prey, which I hate to think my neighbours might consider to be my wines of choice.

There’s the inevitable judgment about consumption. With a weekly collection, there is no hiding place. The neighbours don’t know that I sometimes keep empty bottles for weeks, to refer back to the labels because I’m writing about them. I do. But I have enough trouble sometimes persuading Mrs K that not all of my recycled bottles were drunk in the last seven days. So my neighbours must inevitably assume that they are looking at my weekly consumption. 

And then there are the cases, because cardboard goes in another recycling box, and there’s the flattened case for a dozen bottles of this, or half a dozen of that. Immediately, of course, passers-by are thinking aha, there’s someone who’s sufficiently into wine to buy it by the case. To consume it by the case. And Mrs K is thinking aha, I didn’t see another case arriving…

I think anyone would be suitably indignant if the council said that you had to put up a notice outside your house every Tuesday, detailing just what you had drunk that week. It would be a pretty serious posted declaration; hardly Martin Luther, but still. I’ve bought it so I’ll drink it is one thing; but I’ve bought it, drunk it, and I’m happy to tell every passer-by is quite another.

I could, I suppose, take them all to a bottle bank. Unlike a weekly collection, this has the advantage that no-one knows how long you have been hoarding up your bottles. It also has the childish attraction of hearing the bottles smash inside the bank, as you shove them in. Smash! Smash! It’s like state-sponsored vandalism.

But therein lies its fault; shoving bottle after bottle in, one by one, is a pain in the…arm. And somehow, you always stain your cuff with a little dribble of red wine from one bottle which runs out and up your wrist. 

Or I could try recycling them myself. I have seen bottles turned (or “upcycled”, as I believe they say in craft markets) into tablelights,  chandeliers,  flower vases, distinctly hazardous wall lamps and, er, things

There is one simple but significant drawback to these items. They’re all horrible. Deeply, deeply horrible. I am not about to jeopardise years of acquired good taste, not to mention a happy marriage, by decorating my home with what are still clearly old bottles.

And this do-it-yourself business is all very well, until “yourself” is “me”. I am not remotely convinced that I could cut drinking glasses from a wine bottle without the need for an ambulance. Readers of a certain age will remember television ads for the legendary Ronco Bottle & Jar Cutter, a tool which in my hands could only lead to reconstructive mouth surgery. 

So you find me, out in the dark, stockinged feet, rearranging my recycling box. Trying to move the contents around quietly. (Here’s a tip: you can’t.) Pushing the bargain bottles out of sight. Turning bottles around so that the labels don’t show. 

And probably suggesting to the neighbours far more about my sanity than any empty wine bottle ever could.