Thursday 30 June 2016

CJ is away this week...

...but will be back in a fortnight!

Thursday 23 June 2016

Wine: just add milk and sugar

There I am again, frozen in front of the Wall of Wine. And no, it’s not like a kid in a sweetshop, overwhelmed by the options because all of them are good. This is a grown-up in a supermarket, appalled by the options because most of them are bad.

Perhaps, by comparing wine to another product, I might find the key to conquering this absurd, bewildering choice. So two aisles along, I halt my trolley before the Wall of Cereals.

Breakfast cereals all do basically the same job.
Go to someone else’s house, and if they put any one of them on the table, it might not be the one you’d choose yourself, but you’ll politely swallow it without demur. Like wines. Oat, wheat or corn? It’s like red, white or sparkling.

Up there are the expensive ones, which make you feel you’re moving up a social class; the Duchy Originals muesli (and the Champagne). And down there are the cheap basics; the Essential wine and the generically-branded cornflakes.

There's that name which has been around for generations now, which has years of experience and tradition and quality behind it, so of course it's a bit more expensive.

And oh, look! There’s that colourful character who’s always popping up and going on about how grrrrreat his product is, how different and better-tasting. And how he and his merry band all deliver this product, in a wonderful, almost magical way, which in no way involves conveyor belts or additives or stainless steel tanks. So you feel you just have to buy his cereal. Or is it wine?

You tell your child that cereal A is basically the same as cereal B. Don’t go by the name. You’re just paying for the name. And then you hear yourself telling your wife that wine A is better than wine B. Look at the name. That’s a name worth paying for.

No, you should not make your decision based on the free gift/special offer. But you do.

Yes, you should be comparing sugar content/alcoholic strength. But you don’t.

The only saving grace with the cereals is that the range of prices is nothing like as vast. You might conceivably spent three times as much on one cereal as on another. But imagine if one cereal cost £3, and another £30. If one cost ten times as much as another. Ridiculous, you laugh, as you weigh up a bottle of Basic red in one hand and a Barolo in the other.

Mind you, someone recently opened a cereal café in London, It serves a mind-boggling range of unusual brands from all over the world, all at frightening prices, which you can enjoy on their premises. And mark my words, they’ll be doing it with wines soon. They’ll call it a wine bar, or something.

In the end, it’s of little help. The problem of the Walls remains. But there’s one real benefit to keeping these two particular products in mind, and that’s to measure the state of your life. You see, you should start your day with cereal, and end it with wine. And you’ll know you’re in trouble when those two are the other way around.


Thursday 16 June 2016


So the wife turns to me one day and says, 'Romania! That's where we've got to go! Bucharest! It'll be great! And the wines! Think of the wines!'

I very definitely don't want to go to Romania, but my objections are so furious, diverse and incoherent that the first thing that comes out of my mouth is, 'I hate wines. I hate everything about them. Except the taste.'

She goes and looks up Bucharest ('The Paris of the East') on the Internet. It seems to be a big, not-very-well-off city, almost entirely physically ruined by the Ceauşescu regime and now consisting of huge martial avenues and despotic public architecture. So awful, in fact, that even my wife goes off the idea. I breathe a sigh of relief. Too soon: she's back with bad news.

'You can fly to Romania's second city, Cluj-Napoca, direct from Luton Airport!'
'There's no such place as Cluj-Napoca,' I say.
'It's in better shape than Bucharest! There are still parts of the old city! It would be fun!'

When she gets consumed by one of these manias, I generally stonewall for as long as possible while hoping that another, less destructive, enthusiasm will take its place. Which it quite often does; so often in fact, that I have unwillingly come to accept that the initial mania is only there as a feint, that it exists simply to get me to fall in with the second suggestion more willingly.

Still, I go as far as to look up Romanian wines. They tend to get lumped in with Bulgarian and Hungarian - some ultra-sweet Tokayish products, apparently - but, after a couple of decades of neglect, are starting to make a comeback with wines such as the Prince Stirbey Tamaioasa Romaneasca Sec ('Fluent, spring stream freshness' according to The Guardian) and Crâmpoşie Selecţionată ('A fresh and expressive bouquet of pear and green apple', Winerist). 'Waitrose,' I say, 'says it sells Romanian wines online, but none of them is actually Romanian when you look. What does that tell us?' I still very much don't want to go there.

A couple of days later, my brother-in-law, perversely ingenious, produces a brochure of Romanian package holidays, plus some off-putting fliers. Cluj-Napoca ('Treasure City of Transylvania') is mentioned. In fact it lists a trip you can take from Cluj, via the famous salt mines at Turda and the wooden church at Rogoz, to the traditional Romanian village of Breb, returning via Baia Sprie and an afternoon pottery class. Wine is not mentioned.

But there's more. What do you know, but Cluj-Napoca is a major health resort? 'Top class medical facilities, including dental, cosmetic surgery and medical rehabilitation clinics', according to the literature. Better yet, if you stay at the Grand Hotel Napoca on a special promotion you get a free dental check-up, a cosmetic surgery consulation and a 'tour of the facilities of the biggest rehabilitation hospital in Romania'. And wait: here's a whole two pages offering The Moldova Wine Experience. I make the mistake of mentioning it to my wife.

'It says here, you can visit the Milestii Mici Winery,' I say, reading the names out with the effortfulness of a child, 'followed by somewhere called Old Orhei, go on to the Cricova Winery - one of Europe's biggest underground wineries - before checking out the winery at Chateau Vartely - including the Ice Wine Experience - and the monastery at Curchi.'
'That's perfect.'
'I don't know why I told you about it. It's the opposite of what I meant to do. I meant not to tell you.'
She takes the brochure from me.
'It's a truly unique travel adventure,' she reads aloud, with conviction. 'It combines perfectly with other Romania-based experiences.'
'There are plenty of Romanians over here. Couldn't we just live among them for a weekend?'
'There's a problem. It doesn't mention Cluj-Napoca.'
'That's sad,' I say, trying hard to make it sound as if I care.

After a while, she stops mentioning Cluj-Napoca every three minutes. Then she says, 'Copenhagen!'

'Copenhagen is fine,' I reply, 'Copenhagen I can live with.'


Thursday 9 June 2016

Wine, Walford and Weatherfield

It seems that wine has become something of a soap-opera staple. Yet it's a shift which seems to have gone unnoticed by our esteemed wine writers.

Given their daily presence on our TV screens, even the most sophisticated viewers can't help but catch a few scenes of the soaps as they switch on, before they can log in to Curzon Home Cinema. And the presence of wine, in EastEnders and Coronation Street, is quite extraordinary. It appears that the ubiquitous “cup of tea” or “pint of best” has been largely replaced, by an increasingly ubiquitous “glass of wine”.

There was a time when hardly anyone in Britain drank wine, and certainly not the kind of people who drank in pubs. Accurately reflected in soap operas like Coronation Street, in pubs, even the women drank beer:

For the TV audience, wine was used primarily as a way to mock characters’ pretensions. Long before it became fashionable to chill light reds, a guest brought a bottle of wine to Abigail’s Party. “Fantastic,” says Beverly, “It's Beaujolais. Lovely. Won't be a sec. I'll just pop it in the fridge.”

And of course, there was Basil Fawlty famously complaining that “I'm afraid most of the people we get in here don't know a Bordeaux from a claret.”

But see how three Coronation Street women out for a drink has changed…:

Yes, it's now wine all round. Virtually every night, a character will be drinking wine in the Rovers Return or the Queen Vic. And others will be having a bottle at home:

Whether commiserating or celebrating, wine is drunk by characters right across the Street and Square:

It's readily available, from the corner shop. And if you can't afford it…:

And even if it's not actually being drunk, wine has a role to play:

Wine is now a part of the everyday lifestyle reflected in the soap-operas. And their audiences not only accept that, but even understand its codes and its connotations. There’s a fabulous scene from Corrie in which one character mocks another by sending a bottle of wine over to his restaurant table while he’s dining. The scene ends with a growled reassertion of Northern masculinity to the waitress who brought it: “Sorry, love… I don’t drink rosé”

It’s now commonplace for a bottle of white wine to be in any character’s fridge. Its primary role is to lubricate conversations. When two soap-opera women sit down so one can discuss her woes, they just have to have wine on the table between them:

The other use for wine is seduction; and if it was really as successful as it's portrayed, its sales would soar. As a soap-opera character, it’s only a matter of time until you’re side by side with someone, invariably with a bottle of wine and two glasses. Why bother pouring it? You’ll only have a couple of sips, then there’s a meaningful glance and, before you know it, you’re in bed. Bob’s your uncle:

 (In fact, given most soap operas today, you’re possibly in bed with Bob, your uncle.)

With such levels of wine consumption going on, we might assume the characters have learnt something about it by now. You can rarely see what actual wine they’re drinking; I managed to read the label of a Merlot in Coronation Street – but like the Newton & Ridley beer on tap at the Rovers Return, Lassiter de Champ doesn’t seem to exist beyond Weatherfield. Still, the characters’ growing connoisseurship could be used more as a plot device:

“D’you mind taking this in for them next door?”

“Aye, aye, Barolo, eh? Someone’s come into some money…”

Wine could be used as a point of reference when, as often seems to happen, a character's being led away by the police. “By the time you get out, yer ‘15s will be ready to drink!”

And male characters could bolster their aggressive credentials by drinking heavy, high-alcohol reds. Can’t you hear Danny Dyer snarling, “Don’t give me yer Beaujolais. You muggin’ me off? Gissa proper glass a’ Shiraz.”

Is this the image that wine really wants? Wine portrayed as the everyday drink of psychopaths, villains, troubled couples and two-timers? The extreme violence and absurd shenanigans of today’s soap operas never occurred in the days when their characters were drinking stout or tea; but perhaps these really are the circumstances in which bottles of Blossom Hill and Echo Falls are consumed nowadays?

Still, now the characters have become accustomed to drinking wine, it can surely only be a matter of time before their palates improve, their connoisseurship develops, and the Berry Bros delivery van becomes a constant presence in Walford and Weatherfield.

“Wassat? An ‘09 Pauillac? Oh, you muppet, let it breeve, let it breeve…”


Thursday 2 June 2016

I Just Love This: We're All Wine Critics

So at some point in the last ten years, we started to move towards a new critical dispensation. Once upon a time, we had to put up with the consensus that certain people had the authority to pass judgement on things, while everyone else, didn't. If you'd managed to fashion yourself as an authority of some sort, or at least someone with a platform from which to mouth off, you could hang on to that position, influencing the terms of the discussion, until you did something so catastrophic that you discredited yourself; or died. Newspapers and magazines, the worlds of TV and radio, the publishing industry, were structured around this hierarchical principle, and did their best to sustain it. If you were in The New Statesman, or had a publisher, or were on TV, you had a kind of tenure.

But now. Thanks to the internet and the possibility of endless reciprocal commentaries on just about anything, the old critical hierarchies have started to collapse. Ever since Amazon hosted the first readers' book reviews, followed by a deluge of sock-puppetry and anonymised badmouthing/logrolling, the gates have been wide open. Everyone has a platform, everyone's views share the same space, we are all become our own George Steiners. And we have opinions about, not just big-ticket items like dishwashers and, indeed, George Steiner, but startlingly unengrossing things like Marks & Spencer socks ('This is the second batch of these socks I have bought', anonymous, a month ago, from their website), a mains plug adaptor from Tesco ('Plug used without issues', traveller99), and a set of paintbrushes from B & Q ('Awful brushes', Jimmyb78). All that opinionising, that energy, released like radiant heat, your words, treated with the same formal impartiality as if you knew what you were actually talking about, and if you're keen on Tesco's mains adaptors, traveller99 is now an authority on the matter. This is liberation! This is egalitarian!

Online, of course, it's now increasingly hard to tell the punters' star ratings from the official blurb. And wines are a particular area of ambiguity. Bright, vibrant and fruit-driven, says Waitrose of its Coral Tree Cabernet Merlot; A diamond in the rough, complex yet very drinkable, says racwillett of Swindon, a couple of lines down; both equally pithy and persuasive. Over in the whites, how about the Villa Maria Sauvignon Blanc? An ideal match with salmon apparently; also Perfect with seafood. But who came first? Waitrose's copywriter or BaJa of Norfolk? Are they even the same person?

Clearly, we like demotic reviews: they have that word-of-mouth feel to them - an authenticity that no amount of corporate shillwork can replicate. On the other hand, if regular punters can - seemingly at will - sound like experts, what's the point of quoting them? Won't they simply acquire the commercial sheen of disingenuousness that's been putting us off for the last hundred years? Which, conversely, poses the question, why do we still have expert, or at least professional, reviewers? What have they become? In a world where the most humdrum novel can be called brilliant, the most ordinary screwtop Shiraz impressive, the most Godawful design accessory must-have, pro reviewers denature themselves on a daily basis (maybe they always did), any quiddity or dissent unlikely to make it past the editor's desk. They are imitable because there is so little to imitate.

So, once you've got your head round minerality, fruit, floral, some others, you know what I'm talking about, the standard lexicon, you're a wine writer much like any other wine writer. Everything else wine writers get up to is just the worst kind of showboating, so for the love of sanity don't even think of going there. Which leads us with deadly circularity to the usurpation of the critics' role by the greater public. And the thought that it's not just the terrible rapacious invasiveness of new technology which has enabled idiots to take over those jobs previously earmarked for a highly skilled and privileged sub-group: but that the jobs were always there for the taking, there was no great genius required to do them, it's merely the way the system worked. The whole thing was more wide open, more invadable than it looked - it's only now that we've been able to do it, be the public arbiters we always knew we could be. Then the question becomes: is it worth it?