Thursday 28 January 2016

Should wine be "convenient"?

What is this obsession with “convenience” in wine?

It’s more “convenient” to have a screwcap than a cork. To have wine in a box than in a bottle. To buy your wine at a corner shop or supermarket, alongside your groceries, than to visit a wine merchant.

A wine you can drink now is more “convenient” than one which needs to be cellared. A wine you can pour from the bottle is more “convenient” than one which needs to be decanted.

And wine you can carry with you ready to drink, in a can, a plastic bottle or a sealed plastic goblet, is more “convenient” than wine which requires those obstructively inconvenient items, a glass and a table.

Buying it, opening it, keeping it, carrying it or storing it, convenience seems to be the one thing everybody wants in their wine. Except me.

A little inconvenience can be a wonderful thing. Filling up a fountain pen before you write. Watching Guinness settle in a glass. In this always-on world, there’s something to be said for anticipation, for ritual, for slowness. And to me, inconvenience only enhances the enjoyment of wine.

I want a bottle, an actual bottle, brought back from the wine merchant’s in a twist of tissue paper. Or brought up from the cellar after due deliberation, perhaps with the added allure of a little dust on its shoulders. Not a box, parked in the kitchen, dispensing wine like handwash.

I want the peeling of the capsule, the squeaking as the corkscrew goes in, the deployment of the wrist in using a Waiter’s Friend, and the pop as the cork comes out. Not the crack, twist and toss of the screwcap.

I want my first sight of its colour, and first whiff of its bouquet, from the careful pouring into a decanter or glass. Yes, glass – not a prepoured plastic goblet. I’ll let you know when I want to drink my wine out of the equivalent of a yogurt pot.

Should this idea of “convenience” be interpreted generously, as an attempt to offer the pleasure of fine wine as easily as possible? No, because the wines which are marketed as “convenient” are rarely “fine”. They come from producers who simply believe that the more easily we consume, the faster we will buy more.

And hence the extension of effortlessness into even the wine itself. “Easy-drinking” – what a damning description of a wine! “It just slips down…” – without relish, without savour, without thought.

Well, I do not want to live in a world of “convenience”. Of clip-on ties and Velcro-closed shoes. Of elasticated waistbands, and long-life milk.

There are so many areas of life nowadays in which slower, traditional ways have returned and been acknowledged for their qualities over the easy and convenient. Proper coffee over instant. Slow roasts. Open fires. Pleasures where the rituals of preparation, and the growing anticipation, add to the enjoyment of the result. Pleasures worth waiting for.

So let us expunge from the vocabulary of wine such terms as easy, effortless, quick and handy – and, most of all, convenient. I don’t want wine to become an easy, flip commodity. I want it to remain slow and considered, prefaced by its rituals, enhanced by anticipation and enjoyed at leisure.

There are many good things about wine – and more of them come to those prepared to wait.


Thursday 21 January 2016

High Street Terminal II: Down To Nothing

So here we are in the second half of the first month of 2016, and the last independent wine store in my neighbourhood, the one which was previously a doomed Oddbins, has just closed down. You could see it coming, of course. The poor devils were wasting away before our eyes like a malaria case, with painfully shrinking stock, an increasing feverishness in the disposition of items in a space that was at least twice as big as it needed to be, a long moment of despair during which the deadest part of the retail area was turned into a wine bar which no-one ever went to, then a final convulsion of bottles in the window display, containing beer, mineral water, wines you had never heard of, beseeching chalk notices, messages scrawled from the deathbed. I mean why would anyone ever go into any kind of retailing, especially in our neck of the woods?

Here, the only survivors are either parasites (estate agents, a fresh growth of them in the last twelve months) or necrophages (scores of charity shops, all looking eerily healthy), plus some mainstream supermarkets in different sizes, visitors from a different ecosystem. Nothing much else lives here, except for a hardware store which sold me not one but four sets of Christmas tree lights at the end of last year. But here's the thing: on the face of it my neighbourhood and PK's are remarkably similar, with their mixed suburban housing stock and their relentlessly middle-class homeowners + fatuously large cars + expensive holidays + furious young mothers. However: his supports at least three independent wine stores, on top of a full array of supermarkets and, shortly before this same extended neighbourhood turns into the concrete netherworld at the start of the motorway, a Majestic Wine. And yet it's only a couple of miles from where we live. In fact I could lean out of the window and shout to attract PK's attention if I really wanted to. How can one place be so very good for booze and the other, so close by, not? The demographic appears to be identical, but when it comes to wine, it clearly isn't.

Well, as PK somewhat tartly observes, his place also boasts four bookshops, a theatre and a literary festival, to say nothing of several chain restaurants, and, come to think of it, a boutique chocolatier so overprivileged that a small boxed assortment costs the same as a weekend in Wales, so I suppose that answers that. His High Street is much bigger and busier and frankly, poncier, than mine, so what else do I expect? Oh, and his property prices are higher than mine. It is in effect a perfect storm of self-regard and consumerism, but is it (using the number of independent wine shops as the key determinant) at least three times more self-regarding and consumerist than the apparent dead zone I have been living in for the last quarter of a century? Yes, so it would seem - and of course when I stand back and look at my surroundings critically it doesn't take long before their dullness and banality, their lack of ambition, start to become overwhelming and I wonder how I ever kidded myself that I was a bit of a groover to be living here at all. The difference between PK's retail environment and mine turns out to be the difference between St-Germain-des-Pr├ęs and Coney Island.

Which makes me then wonder - if this is the case - how sincerely self-deluding you would have to be, not to spot these actually quite substantial nuances, to believe that you and you alone could bring the art of fine drinking to a place that clearly has no interest in such a thing. Obviously one feels badly for the people who tried to make the project work and failed, but in essence It's got to be more self-defeating than trying to explain the internet to your mother. And yet PK has access to three of the damn things. No, I'm sorry, I still don't understand.


Thursday 14 January 2016

The 8 Most Popular Wine Articles – Spiked

Like e-mail scams and Eastenders storylines, the same wine articles just keep on appearing, over and over again. To save you the trouble of reading them, and to prevent repetitive strain in wine writing, SEDIMENT presents a summary of their contents. We’ve read them, so you don’t have to.

How to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew

Is there some shortage of corkscrews? Why are people even embarking upon the idea of a bottle of wine without the key implement required? Perhaps there are articles on how to jump from a plane without a parachute, or how to cut a sausage without a knife – or perhaps those people just choose to do something else, for which they are properly equipped. Surely the simplest solution if you don’t have a corkscrew is to buy a bottle with a screwcap, no?
    But the web is full of people risking disfigurement by opening bottles with knives, coathangers, corn cob holders, paperclips and hammers. The latest suggested method is to bang the bottle inside a shoe against a tree. I don’t know about you, but it’s easier in my kitchen to find a corkscrew than a tree. Some articles suggest hot tongs to snap off the bottle’s neck, although what are the chances of a pair of hot tongs in a kitchen which doesn’t have a corkscrew? Or, for that matter, of a picnic basket missing a corkscrew, but containing a coathanger? People would be far better off expending their considerable ingenuity on finding a shop which sells corkscrews.

Pairing a certain wine with a certain food
In these articles, a writer brags about discovering an ideal combination of a wine so obscure that you will never find it, with a dish so rarefied that you will never eat it.

Cork vs Screwcap
Some prefer the ‘convenience’ of a screwcap, which means they’re either hamfisted with a corkscrew, or they’ve forgotten their hot tongs. Either that, or ‘convenience’ is a euphemism for the fact that before you’ve even removed the capsule from a traditional bottle they can have a screwcap off and wine down their neck. Others prefer the ritual of pulling a cork, with all its flourishes and accompanying sound effects and corkscrew possession bragging rights. A few articles discuss closures and wine longevity, but longevity’s an issue no-one will decide upon for a long, long time.
     Pointless articles all, because if you want a particular wine, you will simply have to put up with whichever closure its producer has chosen. Would you buy a tablelamp because you liked it, or decide on the basis of whether its bulb had a bayonet or a screw fitting? 

How to order wine in a restaurant
No-one would walk into a car dealership knowing absolutely nothing about cars, and trust that the salesman would sell them the most modest, best-value vehicle. Yet these articles propose that, by asking for advice in the right way, a salesman will actually guide you towards something which is eminently suitable, only modestly marked-up, and well within your intended spend for a car. Sorry, bottle of wine.

What to do with leftover wine
To which wags always respond, “What’s leftover wine? Ha, Ha!”, to the endless amusement of, er, themselves. These articles are occasionally technical discussions about making wine vinegar; or using old white wine for removing red wine stains, with little said about how to remove the resulting pink wine stain. 

     But the basic story is: cook with it. Or freeze it in ice cube trays, so that when you want you can… cook with it. There seems to be an assumption that if you drink wine, you must also cook, with little advice on how to use leftover wine with a diet of sandwiches, tinned soup or ready meals.
     Some articles focus on preserving wine, and all the various systems involving vacuums and inert gases which will keep your leftover wine for weeks, during which time for some reason you will not be tempted to finish it. But no-one ever considers why one would even wish to return to a wine which was presumably undrinkable in the first place.

Is wine in a box as good as wine in a bottle?
On the whole no, because they don’t put the best wine in boxes. Job done. The rest is all down to waffle about preservation, and quantity, and convenience (again), and smart-ass Comments from @Sedimentblog asking “Wine in a box? Is that like cigars in a bottle?”

Wine is bad for you
It is linked to cancers, gives you headaches, makes you fat, rots your liver, reduces your potency and makes you depressed, and it must be so because these studies say so.

Wine is good for you
It reduces your risk of heart problems, increases your wellbeing, protects against colds, may prevent herpes and is a factor in Mediterranean longevity, and it must be so because these studies say so.


Thursday 7 January 2016

So What Did We Learn Over The Festive Season, 2015?

1) The great gin project continues to stall. The fabulous Sipsmith is still here, about half-full, but I cannot summon the moxie to finish it off, largely on account of the expense of the original bottle. I am incapable of thinking that big. Next to the Sipsmith is a bottle of generic supermarket gin - nothing wrong with it in a brush-cleaner kind of way - which was meant do duty for everyday, non-Sipsmith gin & tonic consumption, but which languishes also, because I keep forgetting to buy tonic water; or, when I do buy tonic water, I forget to use it and it goes flat. Impasse: only broken this Christmas by no.2 son comandeering the Sipsmith, despite my protests, in order to make a stupendously delicious Dry Martini (Dolin the vermouth involved, and yes, I like to taste the vermouth) which gave me the brief and dazzling sensation of having an I.Q. of 180.

2) But cocktails can be dangerous. No.2 son also made some Whisky Sours in a comedy cocktail shaker we found at the back of a cupboard, and while the outcome was almost as terrific as the Dry Martini, the process was appalling, involving repeated explosions - the result of all that egg white and sugar syrup foaming away under pressure in a device best suited to pre-school children. Two explosions were more or less contained in the kitchen sink. The third covered the walls, floor and table, as well as the top half of no.2 son. It took fifteen minutes to clean everything up. I have since thrown the cocktail shaker away, and with it, our dreams of the High Life.

3) It is a lot harder to re-design a website than it looks.

4) Just because a red is substantial-looking, doesn't mean it'll keep. My brother-in-law's wine cellar is, essentially, his downstairs toilet. This means his drink collection has to share a relatively awkward space with a hoover, a toilet bowl, some light reading and a washbasin. Bottles get put at the back of the rack and are forgotten. Then, every few years, the brother-in-law has a clear-out which reveals all sorts of orphans and foundlings, many of them quite fancy - gifts and bribes from his time as a financial tough nut - but not all of them in good condition. I can remember sampling a Chianti which was still fine after a couple of decades; and a Chablis which was tragically undrinkable. This Christmas he brought along a posh 1990 South African Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon - cork, sauve label, no stupid pairing suggestions on the back, general air of dignity - but wore a frown at the same time. How long, he wanted to know, could we reasonably expect this kind of wine to last? Twenty-five years should be fine for such a muscular creation, shouldn't it? Shouldn't it? His unease spread like 'flu. Things only got worse when the cork disintegrated in the neck of the bottle, at once sending me into a spiral of incompetence involving a jazzy corkscrew I got from a hotel in New York, some anguished profanities, shreds of filthy cork flying everywhere and joining the puddles of Whisky Sour which I hadn't managed to clean up, finally a strain through a handkerchief into a not entirely clean decanter. Colour of the beverage? Rusty. Nose? Mostly spraypaint, some disinfectant. We tried it with the meal, willing it not to be loathsome, but it was. Sons nos. 1 & 2 reckoned it was worth sticking with, but they would. I got shot of it down the sink, which it duly spattered with sediment like small arms fire. Badly kept? Or intrinsically lacking the backbone to see it through a quarter-century? What, in fact, is the moral here?

5) PK has an artificial Christmas Tree. Yes, PK, the stickler for form, the man who uses the term gentleman like it was 1949, the specialist in dinner-party etiquette, the man who doesn't think much of my wine glasses because they're smaller than my actual head, the man who frets about what the neighbours will say, this man, I tell you, this man has a fake Christmas tree perched on a side table in his sitting room. With fairy lights. It's like finding the Duke of Edinburgh in trainers. Yes, it's that shocking.