Thursday 28 July 2016

Tour St Bonnet v. Tanunda Hill. In A Steakhouse.

So PK says there's this place round the corner called the Foxlow that does really terrific steaks and on Tuesdays you can bring your own bottle and they won't even charge corkage. Since my bottles never have corks, this only interests me so far, but who doesn't like a steak? It'll be cheaper than Pizza Express, he goes on, if we bring our own drink. And the drink will be better.

These assertions too, are contestable. Nevertheless we decide to be a bit free-wheeling for once and try it out. He arms himself with something from the basement shanty he calls his cellar: a bottle of Tour St. Bonnet 2009, apparently a Cru Bourgeois from the Médoc which he bought en primeur and has managed to keep unmolested ever since. I do the usual: that is, limp balefully into my local Waitrose and spend ninety seconds looking at the reds on special offer. Something I've never heard of called Tanunda Hill catches my eye. At £6.99, it's a bit steep, but reduced from £9.99 allegedly, which makes a difference. It's a 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot mish-mash from Australia with a screwtop, and that's all good, too.

On the other hand, it's a bit odd walking into the restaurant with a couple of full bottles under your arm. I find restaurants unsettling at the best of times, what with the certainty of having to spend money and all that business of behaving yourself and making nice with the waiter/waitress, plus I am wearing shorts, which makes me feel very slightly vulnerable (do they have snakes here? No, the air-conditioning's too cold) as well as a bit Santa Monica for West London, but we bang our respective bottles down on the table and try not to look like the sort of people who drink in churchyards and by railway embankments.

We hit PK's first, and, yes, this is a suave, thoughtfully-structured beverage, a bit short on tannins but long on narrative and understated interest. My Barossa Valley red makes a surprisingly coherent counter-argument, tasting neither of old men's vests nor motorway chewing-gum, but is a bit boisterous after the Médoc, as you'd expect. PK reckons his comes in with a headline price (allowing for taxes and whatnot) of £9.80 a bottle, which compares favourably with the pre-discount price on mine. This leads to a good deal of sagacious nodding. Oh, and the steaks, accompanied by these real-world wine appreciations, are delicious: I have marrowbone with mine, which I haven't eaten for years. Talk about voluptuous.

One question: if you don't know what's on the menu, how do you know which wine to bring? I don't want to sound like PK, but it could make a difference if you don't like steak. Only other slight gêne is that we now have too much drink. The table isn't huge and the bottles dominate it like a couple of grain silos. We're too old, really, to get through this much, but I'm not hauling my leftover grog back on public transport, nor am I donating it to PK, who noisily derides my stuff anyway.

So we toil through it to the point where we're so voluble and assertive that we're in danger of gate-crashing a ladies-only birthday party a couple of tables away, and this is emphatically not the point of bringing your own bottle - to fill yourself with twice the amount of booze you would normally consume, simply because you can afford to. Too late. We have become a couple of noisy, bibulous Socratics, one of whom (me) occasionally picks up the oversized notebook in which he intended to record his tasting impressions but forgot to, and now sees this book as a rhetorical prop, or, sometimes, just a prop.

Well. We get through it and lurch into the balmy night. As it turns out, it has cost us - despite the cheapish drink - about the same as bingeing at Pizza Express. But the food is better. And the last time we looked in at Pizza Express there was live music - a boy/girl duo - who were about as deafening as the final approach into Heathrow. We lasted all of twenty seconds before regaining the street. At least in the Foxlow the loudest sound was two old farts arguing about whether or not it's okay to eat marrowbone with your fingers.


Thursday 21 July 2016

No half measures – renaming the half-bottle

I’ve been drawn back to the idea of half-bottles. Of sitting down for supper, on the nights Mrs K is out or isn’t drinking, with my own half-bottle of wine. Modest, disciplined and controlled.

It’s so hard to drink an accurate half from a full bottle. To allow for that narrower bit in the shoulder. To avoid overdoing it on the first night, which leaves you with too little on the next; or underdoing it (underdoing it?) on the first night, which means you have to finish off a little more than you’d like on the second. And yes, I could get a 375ml carafe; it just seems a bit pompous for a Taste the Difference Rioja.

But there are problems with the half-bottle. On the one hand, there is something abstemious about it. It has an air of stinginess, of parsimoniousness. Of the tucked elbows and individual portions of in-flight dining, or the loneliness of the supermarket meal for one.

At the same time, there’s an unfortunate feeling of selfishness. Rather like The Rifleman’s Creed.  This is my half-bottle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. My half-bottle is my best friend. And you can all keep your hands off it, because there is just enough here for me and me alone.

And worst of all, there is the name. A half-bottle. The very word suggests you are missing out on something – specifically, the other half.

So, what if the half-bottle became a unit of measure? If it gained a name which, instead of describing it as a half-unit, as half of something else, recognised the 375ml bottle as an item in its own right?

For instance, ordering Guinness in Dublin you do not order a pint or a half-pint. You order either a Guinness, or a glass of Guinness. The measure is understood.

And you do not buy a double-bottle of wine;  you buy a magnum, which immediately makes the consumption of two bottles sound dignified, rather than greedy. What the half-bottle needs is a similar name, which gives it back its dignity and stops it sounding petty-minded.

There are one or two little-used names for smaller bottles already. I’ve seen a half-bottle of Champagne called a “fillette”, but that is clearly not going to work for any bloke already concerned about the impression they’re conveying.

And I suspect someone stepping up to a bar and saying “I wanna Split” might reasonably get the response “Well bugger off, then.”

(Actually the term ‘Split’ refers not to a half-, but to a quarter-bottle, like those ridiculous mini-bar bottles of champagne the size of a carrot. As anyone who has encountered anything smaller than a half-bottle knows, it’s better to call that an Aberration.)

And I think we can only ignore CJ’s suggestion that a half-bottle be dubbed a Miser.

But in wine, we have all those Biblical names for larger-than-single bottles. Great long collisions of underused consonants, like Nebuchadnezzar and Melchizedek. Well, perhaps a half-bottle could have a little Biblical name. An Abel. A Job. Or a Jonah – he was clearly doing things on his own.

Or imagine that a half-bottle was called, say, a Solo. Or, given that most things improve when they’re described in French, like steak haché and l’escargots, how about a Seul. Or an Individuel.

Suddenly, it would be something really cool to ask for. “What have you got in Solos?” “I’ll have a Seul of Bordeaux, please.”

It would be clear that your Individuel was for personal consumption, and not for sharing. That it was something in its own right, and not half of something else. And that whether at home or in a restaurant, it was a dignified manner of drinking alone. Solo. Seul.


Thursday 14 July 2016

Warre's Port = Madness

So, as a rule, PK and I avoid the painful subject of politics. It's just too much like hard work. But a few weeks ago, here in the UK, we had a vote as to whether or not to stay in the European Union. Now, this was the second time I had personally been asked the Stay or Go question: the first time was in 1975, with the first EU referendum - which was also the first time I was old enough to take part in a national vote. Most people, back in those days, voted Remain and that was that.

Now, this is the bit I don't understand. In the early-to-mid-Seventies, the UK's economy was a mess: we were about to head down the world economic rankings (Italians cheerfully recall Il Sorpasso of a decade later) with no obvious way back up; people were leaving the country in droves; the whole place was, to be frank, a bit of a toilet. After fortysomething years of EU membership, on the other hand, we found ourselves in posession of the world's fifth largest economy (and this is with the arrival of China, India, Brazil and so on, the new pace-setters); people were coming here in droves, because Britain was actually quite an interesting place to live and work; and, overall, it was markedly less of a toilet than it was at the start of my adult life. Therefore - with four decades of EU membership behind us - is all this a coincidence? Or a consequence? I took it to be the latter and, like any good Londoner, voted Remain. Seems I was wrong.

After the Leave vote: the perpetrators (with the exception of Boris Johnson, now Foreign Secretary! Who next? Coco the Clown?) have fled the scene of the crime, leaving collective meltdown/political chaos/intergenerational strife/international scorn. With no sign of it ending. If I wasn't having to live through it, it would be quite entertaining. But I am having to live through it and, seriously, it's not fun at all.

And then: an image (see accompanying pic) which, however tangentially, says, this is where we are.

It's a bottle of Warre's 2010 port, stuck upside-down in an optics dispenser. I took the picture in a drinks tent at this year's Henley Royal Regatta - an annual sporting event for oarsmen and their hangers-on which reckons itself to be more socially exclusive than Royal Ascot and is certainly stuffier and more protocol-obsessed, by a margin. It's not without its charm.

But port in a dispenser? I can see that it makes a sort of sense - the drinks tents are mobbed from about eleven a.m. onwards, so you want to get the stuff out fast - but:

a) Who wants port on a hot July afternoon with shade at a premium and litres of other alcoholic drinks (an awful lot of Pimm's) gurgling around inside them?
b) What were the first glassfuls like, assuming there were any takers? Did anyone attempt to deal with the lees? The staff in the Henley tents are all sweet young student types, doing holiday jobs. They know as much about port as I do about Micronesia. Less.
c) How long does it take to pour a small glass of port, assuming anyone's mad enough to want it?
d) Who actually said, let's take one of the most traditional, intractable, institution-bound of British drinks, tip it upside-down like gutbucket rum and serve it to people for money and if there are adverse consequences, it's too late, we've made a decision, let's just move on? Did anybody think this thing through? Is anyone in charge, here?

I could go on, but I'd be depressing myself and boring everyone else. You can see where I'm heading, though: along with millions of others, I now feel as if I'm living in the sociopolitical equivalent of an inverted port bottle with the lees sloshing about and a pub optic stuck where the sun doesn't shine, all because some pillock thought that was a better way to do things. All right, that's it, I'm done.


Thursday 7 July 2016

Harpic? Antifreeze? No – blue wine…

In case you haven’t heard, someone is bringing out blue wine. A white wine, artificially coloured the vivid blue of swimming pools and blue Smarties. The makers say it’s going to be ‘disruptive’. And not in the negative way I last encountered the word ‘disruptive’, in a sentence which also contained the words ‘stop’ and ‘detention’.

The wine is called Gik, clearly not a name aiming at a sophisticated audience, as it sounds worryingly close to a hiccup. ‘Try to forget everything you know about wine,’ says the Gïk team in its marketing. Which probably won’t take its potential customers very long.

But I am not going to jump to any conclusions. Just because it looks like toilet cleaner doesn’t mean it tastes like it. And there are wider issues to consider here.

There’s an argument which says that, if producers want their wine to become a mass-market drink, then there is no reason why it should not be sold to that audience with the same kind of attention-grabbing flavouring, packaging and manipulation as, say, ice cream. There are pure ice creams, with no added flavours, swirls or bits – and then there are the popular ones.

It has been my misfortune to experience some of the less successful experiments with wine. I remember, with particular revulsion, chocolate wine. To say nothing of an Echo Falls white wine spritz in a can, a disgustingly sweet fizzy concoction which was at least honest enough to describe itself not as wine, but as an “aromatised wine product cocktail”

We spent last year reading stories about orange wine which, despite wide publicity, CJ was memorably unable to purchase. But presumably orange wine is not, as Gik is offering, a "creative rebellion", because its colour, although extraordinary, is the result of a natural process. (Just as it’s okay for natural wines to taste of cowpats.) Whereas blue wine…

The very idea upsets the wine purists. Some don’t even believe it merits media coverage. It’s “a vapid, empty story,” moans The Wine Analyst, “that should never find [its] way to serious wine media.” At least that provides leeway for Sediment.

Number one, if someone brought out blue sausages, they would get media coverage. It’s well known that people are instinctively repelled by blue comestibles, because it’s the colour of putrescence. I remember a party at university, where someone confirmed this by putting blue food dye into perfectly edible cream of chicken soup, and we all struggled to swallow it. (And here I am, still considering the consumption of blue products; whereas, just across town, fellow-undergraduate Theresa May was clearly using her time rather more constructively…)

So it’s bound to be interesting if someone tries to sell something people are instinctively programmed to reject. Its major appeal must be as some kind of drinking challenge. Blue wine? As one of my sons used to say, “It looks like a wager to me.”

Number two, be grateful. Because the coverage means that wine has broken into the national consciousness. You should be more concerned if everybody ignored blue wine, just as they’re not particularly interested in, say, blue sugar

However, none of this makes blue wine any more appealing; and needless to say, I will not be serving Gik myself. I would not put any blue drink on my dining table, whether it is After Shock, Curucao or antifreeze. I’m also aware that Gik may not aspire to the dining table, but I’m afraid that is where I drink my wine, and not in a swimming pool

Just for once, it is entirely valid to say that I know, without even tasting it, that this wine is not for me.