Thursday 26 February 2015

Cheap Fizzy White Wine On Tap: A Clarification

So I'm reading PK's post last week, the one about Vinovispo, wincing with bafflement and frustration as usual; and while I'm not even going to attempt to unpick his insane etiquette cosmology, the one in which people are forever clubbing their brains about which fork to eat scallops with at dinner, or whether you can call a Bowler Hat a Derby, I am going to offer a tiny corrective to his appreciation of the Vinovispo stuff.

He was quite right, in that the drink we tried in London's glittering West End was not very sparkly, not exactly flavourful, and definitely not cold enough, but: the conversation we had about it afterwards was rather differently nuanced than he suggests. As I remember, it went:

PK: That fake Prosecco was flat, bland and not very cold.

Me: True. What we tried just now was a bit rubbish. But if it were done properly, I could see it working. Imagine you're going to a pub, or a High Street wine bar, let's say with a lady friend, and she says, Oh, I'd really like a glass of fizzy -well, there it is, large as life: you just point at the tap on the bar and say, A glass of sparkling for the lady and large red for me, please, also from the tap. And your evening is off to a perfect start, all thanks to Vinovispo. It is a product which will be welcomed in places as far afield as Reigate and Cheltenham, Ilford and Wilmslow.

PK: Of course you are right, sensei. Your wisdom flows like a spring of pure water.

Context is everything. If you're out for a night of high-jinks, the provenance and quality of your booze will be inexpressibly low on your list of priorities. The beer (for instance) you get in a mainstream pub is, often as not, some kind of generic brown/gold beverage, cool and unassertively flavoured, dispensed from a tap straight into the glass, and it does the job. Why shouldn't wine be the same? Pub wine is a graveyard of ambitions at the best of times, being wildly overpriced, indifferent to the taste, and usually kept knocking around for God knows how long in a dank trio of bottles next to the crisps.

All of which is mercifully swept away once we get with the programme and start using pump dispensers. Along with the Vinovispo chiller/pump combination, there were a couple of other chromed taps, offering red, white, and I would swear rosé, pumped up from a bag-in-box arrangement under the counter. Ideal. A new candour prevails: this is wine, that popular everyday beverage, served with the same quotidian familiarity and consistency as your everyday weak gassy lager, your neither-here-nor-there heritage bitter, and all the better for it. You're not going out on the town for a dégustation; you're not going to treat every encounter as a chance to advertise the superiority of your tastes; you just want to have fun.

Or, as the great Nigel Slater once put it, hymning the delights of a mass-produced burger after a night on the tiles: 'The gherkin smarts on your tongue. A moment of absolute bliss. The doughy bun becomes your best friend. You chase the last bit of sauce around the polystyrene container with a stalk of warm lettuce or a cold French fry and lick the last sweet-salty blob from the corner of your mouth.' Quite: his point being that we can, and should, take pleasure in all things, without guilt, provided the time is right, and we do it as sentient human beings. Why deny yourself the simple, only slightly corrupt, occasional pleasure of fast food or fast wine?

So. If I can get a borderline generic red/white, plus a hilarity-guaranteeing schooner of fizzy straight out of a hygenic tap + corporate logo on the handle, without any of that excruciating titting about pretending to weigh up the pros and cons of some foul Malbec as against an equally disgusting Merlot, as if it mattered, then I will be happy. I simply will not care what it's called. With this proviso: it's got to cost less than the equivalent glassful from a bottle. Since the fancier wine-makers will want to hang on to their perceived premium values by differentiating the bottle from the draught, I can't see this being a problem. The technology is there. The need (God knows) is there. Can we just do this thing?


Thursday 19 February 2015

"A glass of Prosecco, please…"

The way in which you order a glass of wine reveals a great deal. It’s not like taking a bottle quietly from a shelf, or choosing a name from a list. You actually have to summarise what you want. And someone is going to interpret that – could be the barman, could be the wine waiter, could be the person you’re out with, or could be an absurdly judgmental observer. Like myself.

Take the person who straightforwardly orders “A glass of red wine, please”. Do they simply not care which one they get? Would they ask for “Oh, just any piece of meat, thanks”?

Or perhaps they genuinely cannot taste the difference between a light, sprightly Beaujolais and a face-punching Shiraz. In which case, their relationship with wine will probably be long, carefree and joyfully inexpensive.

Then there’s ordering “A glass of House white.” The implication? “I’m shifting the responsibility here.” A House Wine has been chosen by the establishment as representative of their own principles of taste and value. They’ve even put their name to it. So if you take someone to Jamie’s Italian, and order a glass of Jamie’s Italian Bianco, and it’s horrible, who’s going to get the rap? Jamie.

One notch up is the varietal orderer. Asking for “A glass of Chardonnay” says “I know what I like.” And they’ll probably like something fairly consistent and pretty much always drinkable, like Merlot or Pinot Grigio, which won’t have the potential peaks and troughs of, say, claret.  It’s a brave drinker who orders a random “glass of Bordeaux”.

And then we enter the realm of people who really know their wine. It’s revealed as soon as they order. “A glass of Pinot Noir, please. Burgundy if you have it…” It’s like saying, “I know what I’m talking about. Don’t mess me around.” The Rioja…is it Riserva? What year is the claret? “A glass of your House Red – what is  it exactly…?”

Finally there’s the over specific, the customer who orders a glass by reciting its entire listing, thereby declaring that they actually know nothing about the wine. In one posh London restaurant, they list six red wines available by the glass, each of them described in full, like: 2010 Les Cadrans de Lassègue, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, Bordeaux, France. The only cool way to order that is “A glass of the Saint-Emilion, please.” Anyone who rattles off the entire description in ordering a glass is clearly an idiot. As is someone who says “I’ll have a glass of the Bordeaux from France”. Or, for that matter, “A glass of number 2010, please.”

Which just leaves the issue of ordering a glass of sparkling white wine. Or, as people actually say, depending on their location, food and wallet, “A glass of Champagne”, “A glass of Cava” or, in particular, “A glass of Prosecco”.

Recently, CJ and I got invited to try out draft Prosecco-which-isn’t. This is a sparkling Italian white wine being served on tap, from a keg – but it can’t be called Prosecco, because it isn’t fermented in a bottle. So all the experts are wrangling about definitions, and the classifications of Italian wine. And I’m thinking, how are people going to order it?

Because no-one asks for “a glass of sparkling white wine”. It sounds as if you want Champagne, but are too embarrassed to ask for it.

There are circumstances in which Champagne is appropriate, and Champagne gets ordered. And there are others when someone gets stung into paying for a glass of Champagne they never intended. So when someone thinks “I’d genuinely like a nice, sparkling white wine – is there something reasonably priced?”, the question they ask is, “Do you have a Prosecco by the glass?”

Unfortunately, that provokes a bizarre answer from the man behind this keg, along the lines of “Ah, well, we don’t have Prosecco as such. We do have this sparkling white wine on tap, which is made from glera, the grape from which Prosecco is made. But it’s not, technically, Prosecco, because of the way that it’s fermented. I can give you a glass of this, but legally I have to say that it’s not Prosecco.” Oh. Well, how about “A glass of not  Prosecco”?

Failing to see the value of calling it Not Prosecco, they have in fact given this fizz a new name – Vinovispo. And this is surely where madness tips into absurdity, the moment where one of the snakes on the plane leaps out of the toilet. What kind of colossal advertising campaign would be required to get punters asking for “a glass of Vinovispo, please”?

We’re also glossing over another small but significant point here, which is that Sediment wasn’t terribly impressed by the wine itself. I found it rather bland, insipid actually, lacking in any significant flavour. And CJ complained that, despite its complicated chilled delivery system, it wasn’t cold enough. There wasn’t the requisite condensation on the glass. And somewhere between his concern about what was on the glass, and my concern about what was in it, the whole sparkling concept went flat. In the end, it simply wouldn’t be worth the trouble required to ask for it.

“Actually, I’ll have a glass of Prosecco, please.” And you can read into that what you will.


Thursday 12 February 2015

Great Wine Moments In Movie History VI: Gideon Of Scotland Yard

Gideon Of Scotland Yard (1958) is not much of a film, not by anyone's standards, and certainly not by the standards of its director, the legendary John Ford. What the creator of The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was doing in the late 1950's with the small-budget London-based policier which is Gideon, is a bit of mystery. But there it is, Ford's only cop movie and one of very few films that he set in (what was then) the present day. I have now seen it twice, which is probably once more than John Ford ever saw it.

What's the story? We follow Chief Inspector George Gideon (played by Jack Hawkins, an actor whose head was directly attached to collar of his suit, no neck involved) through the course of one stupendously busy day, involving multiple murders, gun crime (quite a rarity in 1950's England), a Docklands boys' club, bribery & corruption, some fresh fish, an assault occasioning actual bodily harm, several routine traffic offences, and a lino-textured subplot involving the Inspector's daughter (played by a very young Anna Massey) and a chinless tyro police constable.

In the course of the action Inspector Gideon consumes (along with several cigarettes and a couple of pipefuls of ready-rubbed) five cups of tea, two bottles of beer, one pint of draught bitter, and two whiskies. Other members of the cast get through tea, whisky, a pint of half-and-half (light & bitter? mild & bitter?), gin (part of my ongoing gin fixation finding expression in the towering goblet of neat, room-temperature gin drained off in one scene by the slatternly wife of Cyril Cusack, playing a police snitch), plus a glass of some other drink. This is briefly sipped by Mrs. Kirby, the wife of a bent (and actually, dead) copper, before being tossed furiously in Gideon's startled granite face. What is it? It is never made clear - but it could be some kind of wine.

Not an appellation, clearly - this is 1958, and most of England was nowhere near that kind of cosmopolitanism, except at some restaurants and mausoleum-like gentlemen's clubs - but I'm guessing a wine-based beverage, maybe a Vermouth, maybe some kind of horrible Tonic Wine, a Wincarnis, at any rate something consumed in a chi-chi patterned wineglass with a stem and a foot, things that Inspector Gideon would be immediately suspicious of.

Rightly so: drink, soft or alcoholic, not only punctuates the movie, it provides a rubric, a commentary on the moral sense of the drinker. Tea, British tea, is the constant on which everything else depends. The virtuous consume it like water. Even the widow of the bent copper, otherwise a picture of weakness and corruption, has a cup of tea at The Yard while in for questioning, a sign that her sense of right and wrong is still, just, reclaimable. At the other end of the continuum of virtue? Whisky. In the film's only scene of real tenderness, Gideon and his superdependable ADC, Sergeant Golightly, share a nip of whisky from a hipflask kept in a filing cabinet and mutely reaffirm their love.

It is also whisky which is offered by the vampy Mrs. Dellafield - yet another suspect in the incredible catalogue of toerags and grifters who make up Gideon's day. She gives him a choice of drinks: he opts for whisky, of course. She is still on safe ground at this point. But when she attempts to drown the precious fluid in ginger ale, Gideon's suspicions go straight into the red zone, rightly, as it happens. Whisky, morally correct in the proper hands, becomes ambiguous, part of the currency of investigation, in the wrong ones.

But then, we kind of know from the start that Mrs. Dellafield is up to no good, the moment we glimpse her drinks tray on the way in: it looks just like Mrs. Kirby's – in fact it might even be the same props, cynically re-used. What have we already seen in Mrs. Kirby's illicitly-paid-for apartment? A couple of decent post-War big brown bottles with black and white labelling - whisky, perhaps a sherry too - but also some deformed and foreign-looking glassware and even a thing like a champagne bottle. I mean, it can't be, but the message is clear: the merest suspicion of wine, and you've got a likely perpetrator. Same stuff in the Dellafield studio-cum-boho-pad? All it takes is five minutes (after all, the Inspector still hasn't been home for his dinner) and the cuffs are on.

It's a simpler world, and in many ways, a much more appealing one. If your drink of choice is brown - tea, beer, whisky - you're probably in the clear. Any other colour? Alarm bells ring. Police work was like that in 1958. In fact, everything was like that. Mine's a half-and-half, and I'll trouble you for one of those individual pork pies, if I may.


Thursday 5 February 2015

The bargain bucket

PK: “Ooh look, a champagne bucket for only £10! I’m quite tempted…”

Mrs K: “Why?”

“Well, it’s a bargain!”

“That’s what KFC say about their  buckets.”

“No, very good, but… a proper champagne bucket… they usually cost three or four times that. Majestic charge £10 just to hire  one! Okay, champagne buckets are usually a bit heavier, and thicker, and the handles on this one are a bit… but still. A champagne bucket… it’d be really nice.”

“We don’t drink that much champagne. And I don’t think we’re about to start.”

“No, but we could use it for white wine as well.”

“You don’t drink that much white wine. You usually drink red.”

“Mmm, yes, but rosé, in the summer…”

“It’s the middle of winter.”

“…in the garden. Rosé wine, chilled in a bucket full of ice. Lovely.”

“We don’t have room in the freezer for a bucketful of ice. In fact, we don’t have enough ice trays to make  a bucketful of ice. Actually, it would take you several days of filling and freezing and emptying and refilling our one ice tray to make a bucketful of ice, which we then wouldn’t have room for in the freezer.”

“Well, we could buy ice.”

Buy  ice?”

“Yes, ice cubes, in a bag. You can buy them. I’m sure it doesn’t cost much.”

“Go out and buy it, what, on the day? In fact, because we don’t have room in the freezer, on the hour, before it melts?”

“I think they deliver it. Maybe not just one bag. I don’t know. But…a champagne bucket…”

“Why don’t you just put the wine in the fridge? Because this way it will drip water all over the table and everywhere when you lift the bottle out.”

“Ah no, because you have a lovely crisp, heavy, white linen napkin, to wipe the bottle, and you drape it across the bucket to keep it all cold.”

“But you haven’t got a linen napkin. Are you going to buy that as well?”

“Well, the napkin is part of it, really. You’d want a napkin. But I suppose I could use a teatowel or something. And it’s lovely, because if you’re using a bucket then, when the wine’s finished, you can upend the bottle in the ice to show that it’s done.”

“Show who?”

“Well, in a restaurant, to show the waiter, so…”

“But this is at home, and you’ll know it’s finished, because you’ll have poured out the last of it. It’s ridiculous. We don’t live in a restaurant.”

(Thinks: More’s the pity…)

“And it’s a big thing to put on our dining table. The room it would take up. Don’t they put them in stands beside  the table in restaurants? You’re not getting a stand as well, are you?


“And where would we keep it the rest of the time? It’s too big to keep in the kitchen. You can’t keep it in the kitchen.”

“I suppose it can’t be that well made for £10… It’s probably not a proper champagne bucket. I’d want a proper one. Look, they’ve misspelt ‘champagne’. ‘Champange’?”

“Come on.”