Thursday 26 May 2016

The Sediment guide to wine merchants

With so many different ways of selling wine nowadays, what one needs is a knowledgeable, insider’s guide to the various types of wine merchants and outlets trading today. In the absence of that, you will have to make do with Sediment’s.

Quaff & Floggit
Proudly tracing a heritage back to the eighteenth century, their staff not only sell ’61 Lafite, but remember what it tasted like en primeur. Their ampersand defines them as retailers who aspire to the status of solicitors. Staff are trained to dissuade paupers from entering their store, by voicing withering offers of help in a public school accent. However, given the number who enter simply to gawp at the prices, they are considering reclassifying their store as a Fine Wine Museum, and charging an admission fee.

Nude has a unique business model. Customers become “investors” (or, as the company terms them, “mugs”). They then pay for independent winemakers to buy themselves clothes. Once they feel responsible for clothing the otherwise “nude” winemakers, customers feel obliged to purchase their wines.

Volary’s was once one of the grandest wine merchants in England. However, they now specialise in wines made by the former employees, near neighbours and distant relatives of the great names in which they once traded. Their customers are bombarded with offers of wines whose descriptions attempt to connect them, through either geography or genealogy, to some you might actually have heard of.

A chain of discount supermarkets originating in Germany – or perhaps two indistinguishable chains of discount supermarkets originating in Germany. These outlets became known for their “discount” labels, which no-one had ever heard of. In a moment of retail genius, they realised that no-one had ever heard of 99% of wine labels either. Such strangely-named wine is now sold at rock-bottom prices, alongside inflatable dinghies, power tools and random cold meats, but to avoid customer confusion is shelved away from cleaning products.

Under its charismatic boss, Richard Pickle, Vestal has put its name to record stores, bridal wear, cosmetics, financial services, telecommunications and transport, and so why not wine? They have recently recovered from difficulties when customers responded to their slogan, “Because life’s too short for dull wine”, by deciding that life was also too short to wait in for deliveries. Vestal has become known for the way it responds to customers with its friendly “V sign”.

Once an innovator in bringing unusual and little-known wines to the UK – hence that wacky name!! Their stores now sell spirits, beers and even smokes and nibbles, in a nostalgic throwback to the old-fashioned “offie”. Compared to some of the weird stuff sold in supermarkets nowadays, few of their wines seem particularly strange.

Abusive Wines
“Oi, you! Baldy! That stuff you’re drinking is rubbish! Buy some of our bloody wine instead!” This “refreshingly direct” approach has propelled Abusive Wines to a distant corner of the wine trade. They are suffering online, where they cannot be anywhere near as Abusive as some comments.

Back in the Sixties, Terry Waite (no relation!) drove his battered van around France, bringing back to England the wines he discovered. When the van finally broke down, he decided it would be easier to build a multi-million pound company instead, using his colossal savings on petrol. He founded a business which now sells wine directly to customers under a multitude of names, although the most popular remains “wine”.

Pioneers in selling nice wine in nasty environments. In distant, harshly-lit giant sheds, containing towering piles of boxes and pallets, customers are persuaded that they must be getting a bargain, because so little has been spent on the store. In recent years, minimum purchase quantity has fallen from twelve bottles to six to one. It is rumoured that soon they will give you a bottle if you’re prepared to enter.


Thursday 19 May 2016

The Demon Drink: Orson Welles and Paul Masson

So it's fair to say that a certain part of me has always wanted to be Orson Welles. Not only was he one of the authentic greats of twentieth-century cinema (Citizen Kane, A Touch of Evil), he was also the man who brought us the world's most famous radio drama (The War of the Worlds), a highly-regarded actor in his own right (who does everyone remember from Britain's one truly canonical fim, The Third Man?), a talented magician, a collector of beautiful women (married to Rita Hayworth, Dolores del Rio and Paola Mori; lover of scores more) and an all-round bon viveur. Like Elvis Presley, he was charismatically good-looking, astonishingly talented, changed popular culture for ever. I mean, who wouldn't want to be Orson Welles?

Trouble is, the downside. Again like Elvis, he ended his life as a bloated, self-parodying slob, a landfill version of himself, reduced to imbecilic voice-overs (Bugs Bunny: Superstar springs to mind) and tv ads for 1970s whitebread America. Unlike Elvis, however, he also advertised one of the principal agents of his own decline: drink, in the form of the Paul Masson wine range. We sell no wine before its time was its strapline.

We know this, of course, because YouTube - that world repository of memory and shame - has got a few Paul Massons kicking around. Here's Orson tackling Masson's Emerald Dry; here he is again, with what at the time was known as an American Chablis; and here, with a Californian Burgundy; and again, with Masson's own-brand Champagne. It's pretty much the same turn each time. The settings are what middle America thinks of as high-tone, Beethoven actually playing in one ad. Four-fifths of Orson are invisible below the level of a table. The remaining fifth, big enough to make a medium-sized child out of, does its best to stamp some kind of exclusivity on an industrialised mass-market product, while at the same time not howl with rage and misery at the ruination of its genius. Oh, and not look too shitfaced.

We know how shitfaced Orson was thanks to the out-takes, just as scrupulously YouTubed as the final cuts but watched by about five times as many people. To be honest, it can sometimes be hard to tell the out-takes apart from the broadcast versions, such is the air of visceral collapse that infects all his performances; but in the case of the Champagne nightmare, he has to share the camera with a couple of youngish bit-part actors, whose dumb-faced terror is all the additional commentary you need at this stage of the great man's career. Muaaahhaaahhh! The French Champagne has always been celebrated for its excellence! he cries, as the couple looks on, willing the earth to be struck be a giant asteroid. Poor old, drunk, Orson.

One's instinct is to look for someone or something to blame. American culture would be a good starting-point, that corporate philistinism which routinely presides over the destruction of the nation's most singular and remarkable talents. Did Picasso have to scrounge a living in his later years by endorsing pastis? Was Herbert von Karajan ever reduced to promotional work for the Avis car hire company? No. It doesn't have to be this way. So why destroy Orson Welles? Another suspect: Orson himself. His success came so quickly and so immoderately, his talents were so prodigious, that he never worked out how to get on the right side of the industry he was transforming. Combine that with similarly extreme personal appetites (he had to be filled with diet pills and tied into a corset before appearing on-screen, even when relatively young) and it's hard to imagine him not throwing it all away.

Or then again, blame Paul Masson. What kind of business would take a permanently-inebriated, three-hundred-pound, washed-up genius and ask him to sell one of his own addictions? Or then again, blame the wine industry - an industry so monomaniacally in love with the idea of its own prestige that the only idea it can possibly entertain, is to hire one of the most prestigious names in the history of cinema in order to say something that would test the patience of William Shatner. But the worst of it? The fact that for millions of people, this, rather than Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, is now his epitaph. As Orson himself put it: Muaaahhaaahhh.


Thursday 12 May 2016

PK Is Away This Week...

...but will be back in a fortnight...

Thursday 5 May 2016

This Week In The Wine Show

So is this the time to talk about The Wine Show? It's been on for a few weeks now, and there are some reviews. The Guardian fessed up and announced that 'To my eternal fury, I was won over'; Will Lyons tweeted 'Brilliant first episode. Bravo'; something called The Verge demanded 'Six seasons! I demand a movie!'; Phillip Schofield called it 'Great fun and really informative'. And after Schofield has spoken, is there anything left to add? The only sour note I can find was voiced by Jamie Goode, who reckoned that 'If you are into wine, it’s not interesting. If you aren’t into wine, it’s not really interesting either' - a note which was picked up on his blog by a handful of drizzle bags who called the show 'Scripted, derivative and cheesy', 'A let down' and 'Pointless'.

And here at Sediment?

First, full disclosure.

- Yes, PK and I have had, in the past, some nervous conversations with TV producers about a telly Sediment. Needless to say, when faced with the actual prospect of putting two red-faced, grey-haired tosspots in front of the camera, those same producers quickly decided that no was the only way forward, although it was a pleasure to meet us and can we find our own way out of the building?

- On the other hand I have presented a TV series in my time and know from experience how many committed, intelligent people it takes to produce a shedload of crap.

- I had never heard of The WIne Show's star presenters - Matthew Goode and Matthew Rhys - before. Apparently Matthew Goode (not related to Jamie, surely?) has, among many other things, been in Downton Abbey; while Matthew Rhys starred in an American TV series, The Americans. Either way, they're both youngish, personable, a tiny bit vapid, called Matthew and possessed of the same pleasing light baritone, which can make it hard to tell who's doing the voice-over. They're also about a thousand times better-looking than me or PK, for which I think we should all be grateful.

But the show? If you haven't seen it, or can't yet get it, it's a thirteen-part series of one-hour episodes, fronted by the two Matthews in a fabulous Tuscan villa, with expert wine advice provided by someone called Joe Fattorini, plus roving eyecandy from Amelia Singer, a wine industry hotshot who gets to walk around in cuttoffs. I've caught episodes one and three so far, and it boils down to this: Matthew, Matthew, Joe and Ameila explore photogenic wineries and wine-related events; the three boys sit in the villa drinking some of the wines that they've explored; about half-way through they give over the show to a high-end restaurateur (different one each week) who talks about his favourite wines at the same time as he gets a monumental free plug for his restaurant. In a nod to high-end drivel such as The Apprentice, Joe Fattorini sets the Matthews little challenges (drink something obscure, take part in a charming Italian ritual involving wooden butts, that kind of thing) which gives them something else to ponder back at the villa. Amelia saunters across the screen in her cutoffs and seems astonished by the production of a sparkling white. It all looks stupendous, no shot unconsidered, beautiful lighting, mellow travelogue TV even if you don't care about wine. So?

The problem - if there is a problem - is nothing to do with The Wine Show, which I guess succeeds on its own terms quite happily. The problem is to do with TV. Factual programmes - anything from Horizon to Can't Pay? We'll Take It Away - are now mostly so content-light that if you watch them with any degree of attentiveness, you simply lose the will to live. YouTube has interesting stuff. Mainstream telly doesn't. It's just the way things are. The upshot, in the case of The Wine Show, is a weekly hour of chic sunsets, stone walls and focus pulls, with this (taken at random) as the spoken material:

- That's a really lovely wine
- That is lovely
- That is such a gorgeous view
- Nice to meet you
- I just love the taste of it
- Doesn't have the same lovely colour
- I like it
- You don't need grey hair to enjoy sherry with food
- It's very stylish and elegant
- Those trousers are a bit snug
- It's a very good wine
- I love this

Okay, you can't expect Playschool to be Newsnight. Nor can you expect any sort of wine TV to avoid the platitudes of musty cellarages + luscious swirlings of fine reds by candlelight, both of which are keenly embraced by The Wine Show. Nor, I suppose, can you expect it not to further the idea that wine is still inherently something of a luxury, a prestige drink, a drink with such a deep and complex hinterland that it can only be discussed with the kind of seriousness normally reserved for Wagner or Communism.

There you go. Lower your expectations, find something additional to do while the programme is on, and soon you'll be of the same mind as one of the Matthews, who says, at the start of every episode, 'I quite like it!'