Thursday 22 December 2016

Season's Greetings from SEDIMENT

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers!

Thursday 15 December 2016

These I Didn't Do: 2016 In Missed Opportunities

So there were a few things I didn't write about, or couldn't be bothered to, for one reason or another, in 2016. Among them:

Great Wine Moments In Movie History VIII: Sideways (2004) Given that Sideways in précis resembles nothing so much as Sediment (two middle-aged losers drink wine while failing to learn very much about themselves) it would seem the most obvious of all films to take a look at. Too obvious, perhaps. Also, despite the excellence of the leads (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) the movie as a whole left this reviewer just a tiny bit underwhelmed when he saw it a decade ago. The principal reason? Too much wine. And wine, as we all know, is the quintessentially boring consumable, more boring even than fast cars or cheese.

On the other hand, in a moment of great listlessness I did once Google Movies with wine in them, but that threw up some real oddities, so odd I just threw them straight back. Hands up if you've heard of, let alone seen, Bottle Shock (2008), This Earth Is Mine (1959, with Rock Hudson, Jean Simmons and Claude Rains, seriously), Merlove - A Documentary About Merlot Wine (2008, starring an animated bottle of Merlot), Barolo Boys (2014), A Heavenly Vintage (2009, New Zealand), The Secret Of Santa Vittoria (1969). None of which is to be confused with the profoundly yet satisfyingly insane The Duke Of Burgundy (2014) - a lesbian lepidoptery fetish movie starring the magnificent Sidse Babett Knudsen and a tremendous amount of ladies' underwear. But no wine, as I recall, although what I do recall of The Duke Of Burgundy I don't entirely believe.

Style Icons: I didn't get round to attempting puerile imitations of

Kim Jong-un
Alice Munro
The IKEA Catalogue
Sir John Gielgud
Melania Trump
Walt Disney
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Iggy Pop

Best Affordable Wine of 2016 - Waitrose Chilean Cabernet Shiraz, £5.99: Bold, fruit-driven, full of dark cherries and a still-youthful vigour. Surprisingly complex and intensely-structured for such a bargain wine. Will even take some ageing - another four or five years won't do it any harm. And what a price! Truly, a red for the impecunious drinker who doesn't want to let his standards slip. The reason I never mentioned this before? It doesn't exist, is why. And even if it did, Waitrose wouldn't stock it, they just wouldn't.

Dares Not Accepted: PK challenged me to polish off a bottle of wine which someone had given him at a dinner party. More than half its contents remained. 'This is so disgusting,' he said, 'I bet even you can't finish it.' He was quite right. It was so disgusting that I couldn't finish it or even make a dent in it. Sometimes you just don't know until you've been there. PK has also challenged me to go into Berry Bros. & Rudd's famous St. James's Street premises and act as if I might be interested in buying some wine from them. Just to see how long I last before I run screaming from the building. So far I have been in too much of a funk even to go in, let alone talk to one of the (I imagine) crushingly urbane staff. I know how pathetic this is; after all, what do I think they're going to do to me? In all honesty, this: expose my low birth and knavish ignorance within the first thirty seconds of the encounter, before crying Let's teach the little squit some manners and chasing me the length of Pall Mall.

Drinking Songs You'd Rather Forget:

Howlin' Wolf: I Asked Her For Water (But she gave me gasoline)
Louis Jordan: What's The Use Of Getting Sober (When you're gonna get drunk again)?
Bill Boyd & His Cowboy Ramblers: Drink The Barrel Dry
W Lee O'Daniel & Hillbilly Boys: Dirty Hangover Boys
Tampa Red: You Can't Get The Stuff No More
Johnny Tyler: It Ain't Far To The Bar (But it's such a long road back)
Muddy Waters: Sittin' Here Drinkin'
Luke Wills' Rhythm Busters: Shut Up And Drink Your Beer
Slim Gaillard: The Bartender's Just Like A Mother

On the assumption that 2017 can't be worse than 2016, I therefore resolve to: No - it's just not coming. Can I get back to you on that one?


Thursday 8 December 2016

Bish, bash, bosh - it's wine money!

Look at my wad! I’ve got Loadsa wine money! Whap it out!.

Not content with simply offering discounts, wine merchants are now distributing faux banknotes, as if to make us feel we have some kind of actual spending power in our hands. They are printing wine “money” faster than you can say quantitative easing.

And to be honest, they look more like genuine banknotes that some genuine banknotes. (I’m thinking of those childish old Dutch guilder notes, which looked as if they had come out of a board game.)  This “wine money” is carefully designed, with shiny, silvery sums, with pseudo-banknote squiggles and lines, to make you feel you’re handling actual currency. No-one’s going to forge these, you’re meant to feel. They must be genuinely valuable notes of exchange.

I’m like a child, building a stash of Monopoly money. I’ve got all this pretend moolah, that I can spend on actual wine. Bish, bash, bosh, lovely job! Look at my wad!!

But think about this for a moment or two. Who on earth pays for a case of wine with cash these days?

Cash occupies the opposite ends of the social spectrum, where people don’t ask, don’t tell about their money. United in a desire to make their transactions untraceable and untaxable, the people who hoick out a wad of cash to pay for purchases are either at the lower end, like scaffolders, drug dealers and ticket touts, or the high end, like Russian plutocrats.

But the people who buy cases of wine are predominantly the middle classes. Honest, clean-living suburban characters, who read the personal finance columns and put their money in ISAs. Even in these times of austerity and low interest rates, they’re still not keeping their money under their Slumberdown mattresses. Happy in the middle of that social spectrum, they don’t carry cash – they pay with credit cards – because they worry about being mugged by the lower end, or mistaken for the other.

Are there merchants where the cash cowboys buy their wine? I have a feeling that drug dealers and scaffolders are not particularly au fait with the world of wine; their involvement with cases is limited to the courts.

At the other end of things, there is somewhere like Hedonism, in Mayfair, the incredibly upmarket wine merchant – sorry, “fine wine and spirits boutique”. But a £60 saving wouldn’t go very far on a case in Hedonism; it might just get you a 10% discount.  On a bottle. And someone showing off by pulling out a stack of fifties to pay cash for a 1989 Haut Brion at £2,300 is hardly like to fish out a £60 discount voucher.

In fact, the wine merchants who distribute these faux banknotes actually do most of their business online, where cash is useless. So, hidden in the ornate calligraphy of their “banknotes” are codes and passwords that will allow you to get these discounts online – making a mockery of the whole business of impersonating cash.

And if a merchant did only accept cash for their wine, wouldn’t we think that a little suspicious? When any shop nowadays says that their till is broken, or their debit card machine has gone down, and would you be able to pay in cash, we assume the worst. They’ve got, as the term has it, cashflow problems – and we wonder whether they’ll still be around next week.

Now I know that CJ mocks my yearnings for a mythical past, when wine drinking was the province of the cultured. But I do not wish to be associated with either the scaffolder or the plutocrat. And how much more refined it must have been, when one sent one’s man down to St James’s to select one’s wine. Presumably a nice hand-written invoice, made out in guineas, arrived along with the cases. One paid with a proper cheque. And no, one did not put one’s card details on the back. One’s signature was sufficient.

But it’s all fiscal nowadays. It’s all about handing over the dough and meeting that pricepoint. Bosh, bosh, shoom, shoom, dollop, dollop. And surely something about the character and tradition of wine, the relationship with your merchant, and the sheer pleasure of the transaction, has been lost, if you pay with a fistful of notes – one of which has been issued by the merchant themselves?


Thursday 1 December 2016

Pump Up The Volume: Xmas Drinking Songs

So let's cut to the chase: I'm talking about songs with the word wine in the title and which contain numerous references to that drink, such that I can play them festively over the Christmas period in order to get me through that particular nightmare. That's all I'm interested in. No, not quite - Days Of Wine And Roses, for instance, the Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer classic, is a great tune in its way, but not what I'm after. Ditto Little Old Wine Drinker Me - sung by Dean Martin, it passes the time and there's never a good reason not to listen to Dean Martin, but all the same: it's too effortless, it lacks urgency. To say nothing of Paul Anka's A Steel Guitar And A Glass Of Wine. Or, for that matter, UB40's take on Neil Diamond's Red Red Wine. No, in these troubled times I need something up, something elemental. And these are my top six up, elemental, wine songs. Or seven.

Wine Woogie - a tearaway 1952 r'n'b swinger from Marvin Phillips & His Men From Mars, jam-packed with sax and containing the line I can drink wine, baby, like no-one else can, a commitment we can all, I think, relate to. Likewise the legendary Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson with their magesterial Wine-O-Baby Boogie from 1949. First thing Big Joe says is When you see me sleeping, baby, please don't think I'm drunk. About the last thing is Better stop stealing my money baby, and buying that bad green wine. There you have it: the human condition in the space of two and a half minutes, and when Big Joe puts it down, you better get hip and pick up on it.

Something more recent? I'm going to go wide and choose PassThe Wine (Sophia Loren) an out-take-that-made-it from The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street of 1972. If you can stand Mick's cheesy Americanisms, this boils down to Pass the wine, baby, and let's make some love, all things being equal in an imperfect universe. Is it that close to being one of The Stone's more half-assed numbers? Yes, but I like to think there's enough horn section and sassy female backing singers in the mix to get it across the line into sheer dumb good-time listenability.

No doubts, however, about Drinkin' Wine Spo-dee-o-dee, in all its manifestations. This hymn to excess, with its half-gallons of cheap red wine, its references to constant fistfights and wanton destruction of property, its New Orleans setting, has everything the lifelong wine drinker needs to celebrate his or her favourite beverage. So many great versions to choose from, but I'm going to stick with Winehead Swing by James 'Smokestack' Tisdom (1950). This begins with him yelling Aw, you winehead fool and Gimme a drink so I can play this thing and spreads outwards from there, with the assistance of James's intense guitar work and a harmonica player in the last throes of delerium. The YouTube version's a bit fuzzy, but it gives you a sense. Him, or The Sugar Creek Trio. I have a feeling the trio aren't playing these days, but a couple of years ago they were hardcore Rockabilly madmen of the most uncompromising kind, playing both Las Vegas and the greater Oxford region. Their take on Drinkin' Wine defies you to sit still for longer than five seconds, if at all. Drinkin' that mess with delight is the essence of the encounter and the guitar player is on fire. Stick this on while you're basting the turkey and everything is going to turn out fine. Oh, and I'm going to capriciously throw in The Moonglows' Hey Santa Claus, just because it's so good - and, yes, I know, it doesn't use the word wine once.

To calm down? The conversation-stoppingly lachrymose Tears And Wine from Dusty Brooks & His Tones, recorded in 1953. Tears and wine to help forget, they groan, because laughter and love are uneasy bedfellows at the best of times and if you can't be depressed at Christmas, when can you? Equally, if you're like PK and your Christmas is spent wearing a quilted smoking jacket and an Edward VII beard while inhabiting a world where certain timeless verities apply whatever else is going on outside, then you might decide to celebrate your largely insane otherness with, say, The End Of Me Old Cigar, the Harry Champion music-hall classic. Not wine, no, but a related activity, and I'm going to include it. You can get Harry himself performing the song, but I've got to confess to a partiality for the version by the great Adge Cutler & The Wurzels. This is, in fact, what PK listens to non-stop from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day; and it pretty much captures the essence of the man. Seriously, it does.


Thursday 24 November 2016

Christmas: claret, crackers and candles – Roc de Lussac

Christmas is coming, in case you hadn’t noticed, and the weight of tradition weighs heavily upon the wine selection. We have just one day a year in which we can relive Dickensian England, by eating old-fashioned food, going a-wassailing, and sending the children up the chimney.

Inevitably, the same desire to step back into the past must apply to our choice of wine.  Don’t tell me it’s all about taste, because even if it tastes fabulous, when Mum, Gran and Auntie Janet are all coming to Christmas dinner you’re hardly likely to put out a bottle of Sexy Wine Bomb. Having a wine which looks suitably old and grand is as key to the Christmas table as candles and crackers. Even if you can’t actually afford it.

But that’s where Messrs Sainsbury have come to help, with this magnificent-looking bottle of wine, retailing for the princely sum of just £7. That’s from its formerly ducal price of £9.

I mean, just look at that label. The generations of winemaking encapsulated in that traditional typeface. The touches of gilt. The crest, with its crown and lions regardant. This is clearly one classy product, with no pictures of falling leaves or bare footprints. Surely the kind of thing one could put proudly upon one’s dining table to project an image of history and tradition.

No picture of the chateau, mind you. Fair enough, there are several grands crus which don’t depict their chateau. But there’s no actual mention of a chateau here, either. Or, for that matter, of a grand cru. Still, they do proudly declare on line two of the label, which should be enough for most Sainsbury shoppers to pick it up with confidence, that Roc de Lussac is a marque deposée. Or ‘trademark’.

And it’s a Grand Vin de Bordeaux! A Grand Vin! That’ll impress the Christmas crowd. Well, those who don’t know that it carries no actual classification weight whatsoever, and is a non-specific suggestion of quality, rather like a pint of best, Tesco Finest or Greatest Hits.

Saint-Emilion, though, eh? Everyone’s heard of Saint-Emilion, even CJ. Unfortunately, this is Lussac Saint-Emilion, which is five or six miles from Saint-Emilion itself. Like visiting Abingdon and then saying you’ve been to Oxford.

But at least it’s recommended. And a recommendation of such significance that it’s actually printed on the label. Like printing a good review on a book jacket. Recommandé par Damien Dupont, no less.

Sorry? Who?

You know, Damien Dupont. Chef Sommelier France. What, the chief sommelier of the entire country? Head of all sommeliers in France?

This is hard to verify, as my trusty friend Google seems unable to find Damien Dupont, in his prestigious position as Chef Sommelier France, among the various project managers and trainee psychotherapists who share his name. Perhaps he is a chef sommelier, in a restaurant somewhere in France, a sort of rural wine waiter. In fact the only other wine reference I can find to Damien Dupont is on the label recommending another Bordeaux wine, with the remarkably similar name of Roc de Chevaliers, from the remarkably similarly named producer, Producta Vignobles.

(In fact, Producta Vignobles market eight wines with Roc in their title. “The name ‘roc’” they explain on their corporate website, “gives an impression of solidity, balance and heritage.” Hope you got that impression too.)

I have to say that my own judgment differs from that of Damien Dupont. Considerably. After a brief initial burst, the bouquet of this wine becomes thin and woody, rather like the cardboard from a new shirt. On the palate there’s a marked absence of any of the flavour you might associate with wine, such as fruit, leaving only a nasty bitter taste more like chewing old citrus pith. And finally a belt of acid and alcohol as if the product is better suited to some kind of vehicle maintenance.

Look, you can listen to Damien Dupont, or listen to me. I can recommend this too, along with other festive non-consumables like crackers and candles, as something that would grace any Christmas dinner table. Just as long as you don’t drink it.


Thursday 17 November 2016

Inycon Nero d'Avola, Frappato + Braun Blender = 75% Success, Claims London Man

So everyone's talking about hyper-decanting these days: this guy, for instance; or this snippet in The Independent. And some others. What is hyper-decanting, if you didn't already know? 'Thanks to this genius 30-second hack,' claims The Indie, 'you can now turn your cheap plonk into seriously fine wine. If you’re a vino lover who can’t necessarily afford the good stuff - or you just can’t stand parting with your cash - at some point you’ve probably had to ask yourself whether that vintage bottle is really worth it. But now you don’t have to. Instead, put your bargain bottle in the blender. Seriously.'

Well, I know I'm a vino lover who can't necessarily or even sporadically afford the good stuff, so this is pushing at an open door. And the concept is so easy to grasp: you take your cheap muck and blitz it for five to ten seconds in a kitchen blender; at the end of which you have something which tastes like mid-range muck. Perfection!

What next? I almost literally run out of the house in order to acquire a bottle of one of Waitrose's very worst red wines, their Inycon Nero d'Avola/Frappato mash-up, which I've mistakenly drunk before and know to be horrible. The mere thought of inflicting damage on this stuff is quite bracing enough, but if I can get a drink out of it at the end, then this really will have been a good day. Back the awful bottle comes and I set up my tasting: one glass of untouched Inycon, left to settle for a minute or so; one glass of Inycon, blitzed for five seconds in a Braun blender which I think we last used to make pancake batter, but which I concientiously wipe out with a kitchen spongecloth; one glass of Inycon blitzed with a hand blender in a jug for five seconds, this hand blender normally a thing for making soups but clean enough to the naked, credulous, eye.

The result?

Straight Inycon: some cabbage-water in the nose, followed by a sensation of worn felt under the tongue and a slight irritation in the cheeks. Finally a coda of spent safety matches. About par for the course with this particular wine: no real gratification at all.

Inycon in the blender: no nose to speak of, but a much more integrated effect on the palate, with something like raspberry going on plus a bit of acidity and a whoof of cardboard to finish. Not bad, in other words; also a terrific process to watch, with a welter of inky red juice in the blender jug, subsiding to a heaving scarlet foam. Real splatter-movie visuals and well worth the effort of finding the blender in the first place, buried as it was behind an archipelago of tiny jamjars and a salad spinner.

Inycon done over with the hand blender: a touch of stale shirt in the nose, a bigger delivery of fruit thereafter, cardboard and nuts in the finish, actually a more impactful experience than the Inycon blizted in the standup blender. Which I take to be a good thing, if an oversized fruity blast is what you want. What I don't understand, though, is why the hand blender experience should be a discernible improvement over that of the standup blender - until it occurs to me that the spongecloth I wiped out the blender jug with had previously been steeped in Flash kitchen cleaner (with bleach), enough, maybe, to denature the end product. Although, let's face it, if Inycon Nero d'Avola/Frappato can withstand an assault by both bleach and blender, it's less a wine and more of a DIY product; and I think there could be some useful crossover synergy there.

Would I go through this absurd ritual again? You know, if the blender wasn't stuck in the back of the cupboard I think I might. I can see a routine developing, in which the crack of the screwtop is more often than not followed by the roar of the blender and the steady glug of the foul beverage being funelled back into the bottle. Clearly, at no point is it transformed from bargain to vintage, but that's all right. People who operate at my level of delusional wretchedness can't afford to be picky about these things, and if this is where wine meets slashing, spinning blades and comes out ahead, then perhaps 2016 will not end as the complete disaster it has been so far.


Thursday 10 November 2016

Is the wine for drinking, or throwing?

Some may remember that title as the caption to a cartoon by Marc. It followed perhaps the most famous wine-throwing incident in modern English society, when Marc's wife, the newsreader Anna Ford, threw a glassful of wine over the Tory MP Jonathan Aitken.

Since then, wine-throwing seems to have become a regular occurrence on reality dramas and soap operas, much more so than in real life. Although to be fair, so has murder.

Part of the reason why wine-throwing is such a shocking act is that it is clearly taking place in a civilised situation – because otherwise you wouldn’t be drinking wine. It’s the sort of social scenario in which every word, every handshake, every disposal of an olive stone is governed by convention. And here you are, behaving in extremity, the very thing social etiquette is designed to stifle.

It’s not brutally animalistic, like throwing a punch, but it’s a very public statement that someone has pushed you beyond the rules which govern social behaviour. And it’s at close range, both physically and socially; after all, you must be standing virtually toe to toe. You are, for that moment at least, in the same intimate space.

But is it instinctive? Surely not. Throwing a glass of wine at someone is a calculated act, not a spur of the moment thing at all. Otherwise party guests would simply chuck whatever was at hand, and be tossing canapés at each other. And I find no record of anyone suffering a faceful of cocktail sausage.

There’s a fine screen history of drink-throwing, going all the way from a 1914 silent short called Wages of Sin to an episode of Girls. But it depicts a completely random collection of drinks and cocktails, and in real life, when it comes to the mechanics of throwing a drink, wine is ideal. The base of a wineglass fits snugly below your fist, so there is no danger of throwing the glass itself. A straight glass, whether pint or highball, can easily slip out of your hand, causing injury to more than just someone’s reputation.

Wine is also a litter-free drink. You really only want to be throwing liquid, not tossing ice-cubes, paper umbrellas and plastic stirrers into someone’s eye. Please, no olives on toothpicks; if you want to settle an argument with pointy sticks, take up fencing.

And wine is relatively expensive. If you simply wanted to throw liquid over someone, economic considerations would surely suggest water. Not just the cost of the drink itself – and you may well need another one to recover afterwards – but of any cleaning bills you might receive later, from victim, curtain-owning host, or surrounding partygoers suffering collateral damage.

But all this adds to the element of sacrifice. You have this civilised, delicious and expensive liquid in your hand, and yet you are willing to throw it away. You are clearly very, very upset.

Red or white? Well, there’s an increased shock from a chilled white, as opposed to a blood-temperature red. But weigh that against the longevity of the event, the unmistakable blazon of red wine which then has to be removed, the victim’s walk of visible shame to a bathroom to clean up. 

While you turn on your heel, and walk away. Your point has been made. You do not wait for them to chuck something back, which would reduce the whole event to the comic value of a food fight. You simply leave, your point emphatically and publicly made.

In drama, wine-throwing has been reduced to the status of a minor tantrum; but in real life, it remains rare and memorable. Anna Ford was interviewed on Desert Island Discs in 2012, almost thirty years after the event, and host Kirsty Young still asked about the incident in which (no doubt concerned about m’learned colleagues listening in) she euphemistically suggested that wine “came into contact with” the Tory MP. Ms Ford not only remained unrepentant, but said that “quite a lot” of people had congratulated her over the years.

”Because he had taken over TVam, and I was a founding member of that company, and I was fired summarily after coming off air having not been paid by the company for two years… So I saw him at a party several months later, and he came towards me, and I had my wineglass filled up, and I walked over, and threw it at him, because that’s how I was feeling. And I don’t regret it at all.”

So just remember, that glass of wine may be for throwing, rather than drinking. And my advice to cads, bounders and blackguards in this party season? Keep yourself out of arm’s way.


Thursday 3 November 2016

Xmas Reading: Waitrose v. IKEA v. Empire of Booze

So now, just to add to my habitual and highly personal sense of grievance, I have the Waitrose Christmas wine catalogue, which addresses itself to some fantastical speculative human being, a person actually 'Looking forward to sharing great company, great food and drink' over the holiday period. Everything about this beautifully-produced, 122-page graveyard of irony is excruciating: from the first picture of Phillip Schofield in a sweater (two more to come, ladies!) to the news that for at least one writer 'My boyfriend and I start Christmas Day, still in our pyjamas', to the recommendation that you chuck £4.49 at a 300ml bottle of AquaRiva Organic Agave Syrup in order to make yourself an AquaRiva Tequila Ding Dong, to the crazed assertion that 'With a price ceiling of £30, Champagne is well in range.'

Is it worse than the IKEA catalogue, the current heavyweight champion of vacuity? Of course not. The 2017 IKEA catalogue is a masterclass in denatured language, insistently mechanical in its upbeat formulations, everything it describes purged of the realities of human experience. 'Being together is what we care about'; 'Eric really embodies the essence of a digital nomad'; 'Adding a nursery in your bedroom doesn't have to mean giving up your meticulous wardrobes'. I could go on. Waitrose is bad, but IKEA has a genius for meaningless feelgood pap that takes it out of this world and into some other realm entirely. I sometimes read extracts out loud to my wife, just to annoy her.

Actually, it's the combination of supersmiley prose and Waitrose price policy that really sets me off. After all, I have had dealings with some of the wines it promotes: the crummy Canaletto Montepulciano d'Abruzzo ('an area known for its rich, robust reds') at £7.99; Les Dauphins Côtes du Rhône Villages (apparently 'generously perfumed' but also routinely indifferent in actual taste) for £8.99; Vasse Felix Cabernet Merlot, which I was trying only the other day, a hairy little bastard, although Waitrose cries up its 'great depth of colour', at £12.99; Cuvée Royale Crémant de Limoux ('wax and honeysuckle'), which, to be honest, I quite like, is up there, but at £11.99. All these wines are overpriced by approximately two quid a bottle, even though the rubric advises you (assuming you've got people coming round and you're not spending Christmas alone in front of the microwave) to 'go for mid-price wines that offer both quality and value'. This, accompanied by a picture of a Les Dauphins CDR at an almost satirical £11.99 a bottle. 'All the wines are terrific value,' says Schofield, apparently quite unflustered by the idea that nothing in this terrible magazine is worth anything like the price demanded.

To get the world of Waitrose out of my head, I look for something altogether chewier and more involving: and find it in Henry Jeffreys' just-out Empire Of Booze (Unbound Books). This is an ebulliently-written, fact-stuffed account of the relationship between the British and the world of drinks they consume - and have consumed - ranging across the centuries from Roman times to the present day. Brandy, port, claret, champagne, beer, gin, whisky, marsala, rum - all bear the mark of some kind of British intervention. Empire Of Booze unpacks their stories, bringing in such heroes as Sir Kenelm Digby, George Orwell, Arnaud de Pontac, Captain Bill McCoy, Jean-Antoine Chaptal and Samuel Johnson; while reminding us at the same time of the Blucher shoe and John Mytton's bear. There is drunkness and poverty. There is imposture, crookedness and fine wine. There is some killing. There is, as far as I can tell, no mention of Phillip Schofield's idea of what makes a perfect Christmas. On that basis alone, it would be worth a plug.


Thursday 27 October 2016

A pint of wine

Let us consider…quantity. Something wine drinkers rarely do. It’s as if people are embarrassed talking about, let alone measuring, the amount of this stuff they might actually consume. And so wine quantities are effectively disguised in the classy euphemisms of glass and bottle.

But Sam Allardyce, the England football manager, was recently caught in a sting operation by investigative journalists. And soon after the video of his conversation was released, someone pointed out that he appears to be drinking a pint of wine.

Now there may be a snobbish angle to this, the assumption that, whatever the drink it contained, someone from the West Midlands would be more comfortable with a pint glass in his hand. An imagined conversation which would have gone:

“I’ll have ‘pint.”
“Well, we’ve got a lovely bottle of Chassagne Montrachet we’ve just opened…”
“Right. I’ll have ‘pint.”

Some have said that it is clearly a glass of flat lager. Others that the consumption of a pint of wine provides some explanation for any injudicious comments one might make about one’s predecessor or one’s employers. After a pint of wine, people have suggested, anyone might mispronounce a complicated name like Rashford.

But let’s be honest. Which of us has not drunk a pint of wine at a sitting?

Perhaps not from a beerglass, indeed. But a 750ml bottle is a pint and a third. If you add in a glass of white before dinner, can any of us say that we have never drunk that much wine in an evening?

Imagine (raising the tone just a notch from Mr Allardyce) dinner with the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Given his potential to go off on one about the difference between pure and empirical knowledge, you might not have anticipated a fun evening round at the Kants’. And then you discover that at Immanuel’s dinner parties, “Before each guest was placed a pint bottle of red wine and a pint bottle of white”.

Phew. The Wine Society advises, in its Wedding and Party Planning Guide, that “The average guest will consume about one to two drinks per hour”. And Laithwaites, whose planners estimate a two-hour wedding meal, suggests you should “Allow two or three glasses of wine per guest ". 

But as lawyers say, time is of the essence here. Two hours might work for a wedding meal, circumscribed by speeches and the like, but the average dinner party surely sprawls over more than two hours. I’d feel a bit short-changed if I journeyed across town to arrive at seven thirty for eight, and was out of the door before the News at Ten.

And it sprawls because, inspired by wine, people talk.. As Kant himself wrote, “Wine induces merriness, boisterousness, wittiness and open-heartedness. Thus it is good for conversation, sociability, and virtue.” That’s the conviviality of wine, which is neither the communal roistering of beer, nor the solitary melancholy of whisky.

I’m guessing that the average dinner party lasts at least four hours. Which pushes that consumption level back up to nearer a bottle a head. A pint of wine.

So it’s actually in the manner of the measurement – or, indeed, the manners. We address the quantity of our wine discreetly, in glasses, and bottles. We do not pour it all out at once, and patiently and publicly work our way through it.

And we keep measurement in pints for beer and milk. As a consequence, a measure of a pint is now considered irredeemably basic, and ‘basic’ is the antithesis of wine. If Kant had provided a bottle each of red and white, we’d just think he was being very generous; by providing a pint of wine, it becomes crude.

Which can only be what I believe they call a philosophical distinction.


Thursday 20 October 2016

The Revenge Of Cluj-Napoca - Waitrose Romanian Pinot Noir

So Romania and I have recently been enjoying a fairly hands-off relationship, following the Cluj-Napoca failure and, to be honest, it's been preying on my mind. Romania, I tell myself in my Western liberal way, needs a helping hand, now more than ever, but what have I done to put cash into the country's pockets? Except for the fact that the guys who run the car cleaning place at the end of the road might be Romanians and I've certainly paid them, because, after all, they do a good job at a fair price.

Then, the answer to my prayer: Waitrose suddenly has a perfectly sensible-looking bottle on its shelves, containing a Romanian Pinot Noir, bottled under Waitrose's own brand. This is where mild bourgeois guilt conveniently meets equally mild nostalgia - that craving for the cheap Central European wines of my earlier adulthood - with the added bonus of a sub-£5 price tag. Strictly speaking, the stuff I've been looking for since the fall of Communism and the subsequent confusion and neglect among the old Iron Curtain wineries has been Hungarian - or Bulgarian, I can't tell the difference - that's the one with the real echoing resonance of nostalgia, but can I find any? So Romania it is.

And I have the perfect occasion on which to try it out: PK and his wife are over for lunch. Once we've dispatched his fancy 2009 La Tour St Bonnet - we're eating guinea fowl, by the way - it's out with my Transylvanian treat. Off comes the screwtop with a healthy snap, always a good sign, and I pour the Pinot Noir: which is a really startling colour, a kind of glittering fuschia, the colour of a Rodeo Drive convertible - and not good, not for a red wine. It also smells the way the school chemistry lab used to when the windows hadn't been opened for a bit. Mrs. K wisely won't drink it but she does take a confirmatory sniff, presumably for information to furnish the paramedics with when they come round to get us.

Taste-wise, it's not good, either. It's undrinkable, frighteningly so. No-one gets past an insect sip or two. Give it time I say - which is what I always say, knowing that neither time nor any other intercession I might think of will ever help this awful wine. We put it to one side. A day later? Still impossible to swallow. Two days? The same. If this is the best that Romania can do, then Romania is clearly not ready yet for primetime; but I don't think this is the best Romania, or anyone else, can do. Even my father-in-law could do better with his (now mercifully retired) home brew kit.

Anyway. Mrs K said that she wouldn't use it to cook with, but I know better and decide that only way I am going to get my sub-£5's worth is to get rid of it in a stew. Just pouring out the remainder of the bottle makes my eyes water and the stew is not great, although that may be as much to do with my cooking as anything. Certainly, it does not have a rich, dark, bibulous sauce; but on the other hand, no-one who eats it is physically sick. I sigh with relief and shame. Not for the first time, a nightmare wine is dealt with and life moves on.

But it does make you wonder what Waitrose's wine buyers thought they were doing when they ordered it in. Did they even try it first? Did they drink something else, only for the rascally wine producers to switch tankers on them? And this for an own brand, something they corporately identify as their choice. Absolutely baffling. I mean, this is a truly revolting wine, down there with the legendary Côtes du Rhône, but at least that was half the price. Then again, most of Waitrose's bargain wines are foul, only put on display to provide a contrast with the stuff they really want to sell, at around the £9+ mark. I know this, they know this; they also know that sheer inertia will keep morons like me coming back to their well-lit upscale shopping experience and that I will always fall prey to some filth they've acquired and need to get rid of, somewhere. 

And then, with a physical jolt, I remember: I've been here before, same stuff, same horrible experience, same utter senselessness, same futile waste of time and money. Oh, God. Lock me up, someone, before I do any real damage.